16th Annual Gator By The Bay Zydeco, Blues, and Crawfish Festival
May 12 – May 14, 2017
San Diego, CA
Fake news, bad news, scary news, the world is a pretty contentious place these days, but never fear. Three days of peace, love, and understanding is a five-minute walk from my room on the 12th floor of the Sheraton Hotel and Marina in San Diego. They're not kidding when they bill this as "Music, Dance, Food, Fun."
After an hour inside the festival grounds, my entire body is downshifting. Gator By The Bay Zydeco, Blues, and Crawfish Festival is purging the drumbeat of discordant chatter on the airwaves. The only drumbeat that matters for now is coming from the stages around this sliver of land called Spanish Landing Park. I’m in an alternate universe. I shall marinate blissfully here for three days.
It feels like a giant crane has eased a protective bubble over the Park, capturing all the good stuff going on inside it and warding off the dispiriting news flashing across TV screens outside it. We aren’t missing a damn thing. It will still be there when we disperse on Sunday evening.
The crowd of thousands is a mix master of age, race, and social background. They are feeding their souls with music that resonates with them so deeply that it erases for the moment all the angst-provoking headlines of a world in turmoil.
The age range is from college kids to men and women who've been eligible for an AARP card for a couple of president's administrations. Parents with toddlers and pre-teens sprawl on blankets on the grassy knolls throughout the park. Pre-teens are getting an eyeful of what it looks like watching adults having a whale of a time on the dance floor.
Plain and simple, live music makes you feel good. With four stages and over fifty bands playing from late morning till dusk, I’m feelin’ it.
There’s no stereotype for a dance junkie. The Fred and Gingers look a lot like librarians, or a teachers, dentists, surgeons, flight attendants, secretaries, commercial loan officer, small business owners, retirees, maybe your local electrician.
No dance snobbery here. When the music speaks to you, you get up and dance. For every styling couple on the small portable dance floor, there are a few people boogying all by themselves. Everyone is smiling. This sliver of land on the shore of San Diego Bay is an oasis of let the good times roll, a small grain of sand in an ocean of turbulent times.
I have yet to witness an altercation of any kind, I’ve had conversations with loads of people either waiting in a food line or sitting on hay bales on the perimeter of stages, many centering on the ”Where are you from” opening and offering hosannas to the salutary effect of music on the psyche.
Thousands who pack the park every day have checked their political affiliations at the gate. You want to talk about what you’re loving about the music on the stages, tell someone where you’ve just tasted sweet African jerk chicken with collard greens and rice, or the Mariposa ice cream, or those two guys selling scrumptious home made apricot or pecan or apple cobbler, or that you’ve just had a to die for dance with a woman you’ve never met before, this is the place.
The sun is shining, the temps are in the high 60s, a cooling breeze keeps the banners gently waving. San Diego is showing off.
The only places I’ve ever been to where people smile, mind their manners, and chat each other up with no agenda other than to connect for a few minutes are dance festivals like this.
Food from Louisiana, Africa, China, and local eateries do land office business. It’s the norm to see long lines snaking to the counters of the food tents along the narrow food concourse set smack between the two largest stages. In the outside world outside, this could lead to grumpy, impatient customers. Here, amiable chats and an occasional philosophic rhapsody about the magic of music.
It's billed as a Zydeco, Blues, and Crawfish Festival. The big name Cajun and zydeco bands like Steve Riley and The Mamou Playboys and Chubby Carrier and The Bayou Swamp Band are probably the reason many people have come here. But I'm tellin' ya, some of the most fun shows are the diamonds in the rough playing at the smaller Fountain Stage and Bourbon Stage…think country, rockabilly, honky tonk, blues, gypsy, gospel, Latin, and Irish rock!
This is my fourth straight year at the Gator Festival. Next May won’t be soon enough for my next fix.
View of San Diego from 12th floor of Sheraton Hotel and Marina. Note Coronado Bridge on R that leads to Coronado Island. If you look real close, that's the aircraft carrier USS Midway docked on shore to L of bridge.
Photos by Paul A. Tamburello, Jr.