Gator by the Bay festival takes over Spanish Landing Park
By Bart Mendoza | Downtown News
Although New Orleans may be 1,800 miles from San Diego, the weekend of May 11 to 13, locals will not have to go further than Spanish Landing Park and the 11th annual Gator by the Bay festival to experience a taste of Louisiana.
Over 14,000 people are expected throughout the weekend, with the event featuring three days of dancing, Cajun culinary delights and fun for all ages.
Food is always an important component of any open-air music festival, but that’s especially true with Gator by the Bay. Among the highlights for food lovers will be a cooking demonstrations tent, featuring Marine Room Executive Chef Bernard Guillas on Saturday at 1:30 p.m.
Also perennially popular is the crawfish, with more than 10,000 pounds of the New Orleans staple on hand and lessons provided on how to eat them properly. New this year will be a Louisiana-style oyster bar in the Cajun and Creole food court.
The event has expanded into Friday evening, as “Gator by Night,” features a Blues Supper Club atmosphere around the Bourbon Street stage, with Louisiana cuisine for dinner followed by dancing. Non-dancers need not worry; the festival has an official “no fault” dance policy, with the point being to just have fun on the dance floor. However, free lessons are also provided should the need arise.
More than 85 performers, including national acts such as blues rocker Commander Cody of “Hot Rod Lincoln” fame, Grammy-winning zydeco hero Chubby Carrier and Flying Burrito Brothers founder Ian Dunlop, will perform at the festival. Notably, Gator by the Bay will also shine a spotlight on local artists, such as seven-time San Diego Music Award winner, Eve Selis, as well as acoustic bluesman Robin Henkel and hot jazz combo the Zzymzzy Quartet.
This is the second year performing at the event for Selis. “I’d never done a festival like that, with blues and the incredible food,” she said. “It’s so much fun because the people that attend this are in a great mood, as you can tell, because everybody’s dancing.” She also said she does adjust her set slightly for events like this. “We don’t play as many ballads or slower tunes as we might otherwise,” she said. “This is a crowd that likes to get out there and move. It’s about having a good time.”
Henkel agreed with Selis’s sentiment. “People that attend this are just so happy and open to hearing things, it’s great that organizers do such an outstanding job bringing together so many different musical styles,” he said. “Of the shows that I do, this is a really good one, with a respectful, fun loving audience. I wouldn’t miss it.”
Gator by the Bay co-founder Peter Oliver said he considers the local performers as important as the internationally known Grammy winners. “Although this is a national festival, first and foremost it’s a San Diego festival, so we always try to include as many area artists as we possibly can,” he said.
Oliver also said variety has increased within the musical lineup. “We started off as a Cajun and zydeco festival in the early days, but we decided that it would be better for us if we opened it up to a variety of music, starting with blues a few year ago. We’ve also since added country and a good smattering of folk music,” he said.
“We go through quite a process selecting the music and schedule. In fact the schedule is as important as the music, we try not to overlap performers too much so that if someone really, really wants to see a bit of every performer, it’s possible,” Oliver said.
While the event has grown over the years, Oliver said it cannot get much bigger due to logistics. “A lot of people come in from out of town for this,” he said. “However, we’re limited to what we can do just because the Spanish Landing footprint is only so big, but beyond that we never want our customers to feel like they are being crowded.”
While it is a massive undertaking to produce Gator by the Bay, taking about seven months to produce with upwards of 200 volunteers involved, Oliver considers the end result well worth the effort. After eleven years, he still loves the sights, sounds and smells of the event, but his favorite thing is watching the crowd’s reactions. “I want everybody to feel good about their experience,” he said. “I want them to be able to wander around in complete bliss because the music is so good. Hearing someone say they had a great time makes it all worthwhile.”
Gator by the Bay will be May 11 through May 13 at Spanish Landing Park at Harbor Island. Tickets for Friday are $25; Saturday and Sunday tickets are $30. Attendees 17 and under are free with paid adult admission. For more information, visit gatorbythebay.com.