Gator by the Bay, which celebrates its 15th anniversary this week at Spanish Landing Park, is the kind of homegrown success story that should warm the hearts of area music fans and slow-growth advocates alike.
Between Thursday and Sunday, this year’s edition of “San Diego’s Zydeco, Blues & Crawfish Festival” will feature more than 90 performances on seven stages. The musical menu also features a generous array of funk, soul, jazz, gospel, salsa, rockabilly, swing, folk, country, boogie-woogie and more.
The lineup ranges from charismatic zydeco accordion favorite C.J. Chenier and former John Lee Hooker slide guitar wiz Roy Rogers to such homegrown favorites as the Euphoria Brass Band, Sue Palmer, Billy Thompson, Rebecca Jade, Todo Mundo and Gregory Page. There are outdoor dance floors, a French Quarter food court, free Louisiana cooking demonstrations and dance lessons, Mardi Gras-style parades, face-painting for children and Louisiana culture workshops.
At least 15,000 attendees are expected, about the same as in recent years, for the all-ages outdoor fete. It has become a celebratory tradition that - for one weekend a year - transforms a bayside San Diego park into a Louisiana-style romp, minus the oppressive heat and humidity.
Gator by the Bay festival
When: 6-10 p.m. Thursday; 3:30-10:30 p.m. Friday; 10:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Saturday; 10:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: Spanish Landing Park, 3900 N. Harbor Drive (near the San Diego International Airport)
Tickets: Kids 17 and under are admitted free with a paying adult; $35 Friday; $40 each Saturday and Sunday; $105 three-day pass, (Friday-Sunday); $135 four-day pass (Thursday-Sunday); patron passes $120 for Saturday or Sunday, and $200 for both days; tickets for the Thursday night kickoff concert are $25-$95; tickets for the Saturday night at the adjacent Sheraton Harbor Island ballroom are $20.
Phone: (619) 234-8612
When Gator made its debut in 2001 at Chula Vista’s Bayside Marina Park, there were 21 performances and only three styles of music: Cajun, zydeco and gospel. The audience numbered just over 1,000 each day. It was a decent turnout for a grass-roots, nonprofit event making its debut, but offered little indication of how Gator would gradually flourish.
In 2003, the festival moved to Spanish Landing Park, nestled between Shelter Island and the San Diego International Airport. It went on hiatus the following year, then resumed in 2005.
By 2006, the festival drew about 3,000 people for each of its two days to hear 25 performers on two stages. In 2010, Gator expanded to five stages and three days. Since then, there’s been little looking back for the event, which was co-founded as a labor of love by three San Diegans devoted to zydeco and Cajun music: Maryann Blinkhorn, Catherine Miller and Peter Oliver.
But there’s another way to measure Gator’s growth that is unique to the event itself. Namely, crawfish consumption.
“This is our 11th year at Gator by the Bay, and we started out with just a little over 2,000 pounds, and had some left over. The last few years we’ve brought 10,000 pounds and ran out,” said Mitch Olivier, the owner of Crawfish Corner in the southern Louisiana town of Opelousas, 50 miles west of Baton Rouge.
Olivier and two of his employees transport the crawfish from Louisiana in a 24-foot refrigerator truck. He also brings his schoolteacher and their three children.
“The promoters of Gator are very dedicated,” Oliver said. “They really wanted to build the festival, and they have.”
Indeed, they have.
This is the third consecutive year the festival has opened with a Thursday night concert, which this year is headlined by Grammy Award-nominated accordionist-singer C.J. Chenier & The Red Hot Louisiana Band. Then there’s the free Youth Education Day, now in its ninth year, for students from several area schools.
“It’s a big deal for us to promote Louisiana’s culture for young people,” said Gator co-founder Oliver.
“The kids learn about how the Cajuns and Creoles came to be in Louisiana and their connection with the African, Caribbean, French and Spanish cultures that mixed in New Orleans. And they learn how to dance and get to eat red beans and jambalaya. They love it! So do we.”