The highlight of the event is the music, with more than 100 performers, ranging from zydeco to swing, across seven stages, with five large wooden dancefloors, perfect for swing dancing or just tapping your feet.
Gator by the Bay is a true labor of love. According to the event’s producer, Peter Oliver, there is a core group of 40 people behind the scenes and up to 450 volunteers throughout the weekend, as well as 15,000 attendees on the day. Notably, admission is free for all active military personnel with I.D., while children 17 and under, are free with paid adult.
This year’s show includes musical talent from around the world, including two Grammy winners; zydeco group Chubby Carrier & the Bayou Swamp Band and blues guitarist Lenny “Fuzzy” Rankins as well as award winning pianist Marcia Ball. Oliver notes the festival has expanded its booking since its 2001 inception.
“While I do try to showcase Cajun, zydeco, blues and gospel sounds, I also like to have big diversity in the music. There are so many great local acts that can be featured, and I listen to what people are saying about various performers around town, so we can offer traditional sounds as well as something a little different.”
This year that includes a surf band for the first time, The Tourmaliners. “We’ve created a set list that we feel will best serve this event,” said guitarist Deven Berryhill. “We will be performing 18-20 songs that we think will keep the dance floor hopping as well as represent the best of the California surf sound.”
Not only is Gator Bay by The Bay a major boon for local music fans, it’s considered one of the hottest tickets in town for local musicians. “I have performed at Gator by the Bay every year since 2006,” commented blues guitarist Robin Henkel. “I would say it’s one of San Diego’s premier festivals if not ‘the’ premier festival. The music of Louisiana as well as other forms of American roots music are wonderfully represented. Lots of different people mix and it’s really something special.”
Guitarist Eric Lieberman of Blue Largo is a veteran of the event, he notes his band tailors their set for big outdoor events like this, “but only slightly,” he said good-naturedly. “I probably tend to shy away from playing a very quiet slow ballad type of song, such as ‘The Long Goodbye,’ from our latest record, in the interest of keeping the set more upbeat.”
Drummer Joel Kmak of the Farmers agrees. “We specifically do songs from our repertoire that are more appropriate for Gator, like Chuck Berry's "You Never Can Tell." Lieberman notes a less obvious difference in his bands sets. “I probably talk less too, since we typically have only an hour to play at these shows, as opposed to having three or four hours to play at a regular club gig.”
Blues singer Michele Lundeen concurs with Henkel that Gator by the Bay is special amongst a sea of great annual local events “My favorite thing is the smiles on people's faces,” she said. “Yep! Just in general there is a natural glow and flow about this festival, it feels like a big giant family party, the ones where everyone gets along, laughs, sings along, dances, eats and makes lasting memories.”
Plans are already underway for 2020’s Gator by the Bay. “I already have two bands booked,” Oliver laughed. With such big crowds, is it possible the event will grow in the future? “The truth is, we love our little boutique festival,” Oliver said. “we like that it’s an intimate experience. You can go up and introduce yourself, shake the hand of anyone performing here.” He muses for a moment. “It’s probably just right the way it is. We don’t need jumbotrons.”
For more information, visit gatorbythebay.com