Native Charlestonians have more than a few things in common with Cajuns and native New Orleanians: dynamic histories that date back to the Colonial era, linguistic diversity, swampy/marshy setting, uniquely rustic cuisine and Creole culture inspired by a variety of influences.
If you go
What: Lowcountry Cajun Festival
When: Noon-6 p.m. Sunday
Where: James Island County Park, 871 Riverland Drive
Price: $10 for adults, free for children 12 and under and Gold Pass holders
For more info: www.charlestoncountyparks.com/cajun
There's a natural sense of mutual appreciation and fascination between those in the Lowcountry and their brethren in southern Louisiana. Perhaps that's why the annual Lowcountry Cajun Festival draws thousands to James Island County Park every spring.
"Everything about Louisiana is a cultural gumbo, which is where you take everything that's left over, throw it in the pot and cook it down," says Charleston-based musician and Lowcountry Cajun Festival booking man Gary "Shrimp City Slim" Erwin of the Lowcountry Blues Society. "That's especially the case in southern Louisiana."
On Sunday, the festival will feature a zesty variety of Cajun and Creole foods, children's events and live zydeco, Cajun-style blues and more from Shelly Waters and company, Curley Taylor and Zydeco Trouble, and Felix y Los Gatos.
"For the better part of the last 23 years, the Lowcountry Cajun Festival has been all about Louisiana music: from Cajun and zydeco to swamp-pop and New Orleans R&B and Dixieland," says Erwin. "When they started doing this festival, they booked the late singer/accordion player Roy Carrier and his band for the first few years. I thought they could take it to the next level, so I introduced the concept of doing two stages with alternating performers. It was like a mini New Orleans Jazz Fest thing, and we had all sorts of acts handling traditional and modern styles."
Finding the right blend
An acclaimed blues pianist, vocalist and songwriter, Erwin has been playing professionally in Charleston for more than 25 years. He regularly travels, records and collaborates with an array of blues and Americana singers and groups.
Erwin was a popular public radio personality in Charleston in the 1980s, '90s and early 2000s, hosting weekly programs that featured blues, Latin, Louisiana and world music artists. He also hosted a weekly blues show on 105.5 The Bridge in recent years.
Many in the local music scene recognize Erwin and the Lowcountry Blues Society for their efforts organizing the long-running Lowcountry Blues Bash in February. The multiple-venue series featured dozens of visiting and local acts throughout a two-to-three week span.
"Frankly, I can't remember how many years I've been associated with the (Lowcountry Cajun Festival), but it's been quite a while."
Erwin's vast knowledge of and appreciation for the diversity in Louisiana's music world guides him to book and arrange a healthy mix of styles for the festival each year. Connoisseurs of traditional zydeco and Cajun folk and blues can enjoy the afternoon concerts alongside casual attendees who may only be vaguely familiar with the genres.
"The musical emphasis tends to be more on the zydeco side of things," Erwin says. "The food is all over the map, from New Orleans fare to Cajun dishes and the Acadiana regions of southwest Louisiana and into southeast Texas. There's a whole sprawl down there, and it's all a big blend. Musically, we've always tried to achieve a blend like that."
Focus on food
As always, the grassy park setting at the Cajun Festival will accommodate chefs and vendors handling an array of traditional Cajun and Creole foods, from jambalaya and etouffee rice dishes to deep-fried alligator bites, Andouille sausage and boiled crawfish.
Contestants can enter the popular, and messy, crawfish-eating contest on the main stage in the afternoon to compete for cash prizes.
The festival layout will feature a string of vendors around the stages with craft wares and original pieces of art, in addition to Louisiana food, Lowcountry faves and even a few carnival-style snacks and treats. Popular lagers and craft beer vendors will be on-hand, as well.
One of the most popular food vendors of the fest is Smilin' Jack's Cajun Catering, a company with a Louisiana-style menu run by Jack Sheffield.
"Jack Sheffield is one of the key guys who's been there about as long as I've been there," Erwin says. "He and I have done some other Cajun-related events around the state. He's from Baton Rouge, and he kind of introduced the whole crawfish boil element to the festival. He goes back to Louisiana and brings the crawfish back for the event."
The three featured acts at Sunday's festival will cover a lot of musical ground, from twangy country and rock 'n' roll to swampier, more exotic renditions of modern and traditional zydeco, funk, Tex-Mex and Cajun styles.
Erwin will join the festival's opening act, singer-guitarist Shelly Waters and her band, on stage between 1-2 p.m. Waters, aka the "Swamp Pop Princess," is a native of Rayne, La. She regularly gigs around the Carolinas every year.
Waters got her start in music as a youngster with a folk group called the Mule Skinners and played with them in Nova Scotia before starting her own country band in Louisiana at age 13. She recently relocated to the Charleston area and collaborated with Erwin on her debut solo album, aptly titled "Swamp Pop Princess."
"Things are going really well with Shelly's debut album, and we're getting some good airplay on a few key stations, here in the States and over in Europe," Erwin says. "We're working on booking some shows along the Gulf Coast to get back to her home base."
Waters' smooth singing works nicely over her melodic, easy-going original compositions.
" 'Swamp pop' is an easy way to say Gulf Coast rock 'n' roll, old-time country, Fats Domino-style R&B, and Cajun music all blended together," Erwin says. "It's dance music, slow and fast. It's got a huge audience down there, from Mobile to Houston or so.
"Shelly has a conversational element to the performance, like a lot of swamp music and Cajun music," he adds. "It relates to the audience like, 'Here's who I am, here's where the music comes from, and here's how the music is about my life and where my people are from - and I hope you enjoy it.' It's very friendly, positive, personal way to express oneself through music. I think that's why it has withstood the test of time."
Hailing from Lafayette, La., the accordion-led band Curley Taylor and Zydeco Trouble is slated to perform two sets at the festival Sunday, at 2:15 p.m. and 4:45 p.m.
Frontman Taylor was born and raised in a musical family in Louisiana. He started out playing drums in his father's blues/zydeco band, Jude Taylor & His Burning Flames.
While touring with zydeco great C.J. Chenier, Taylor developed an interest in playing the accordion. That's when he formed Zydeco Trouble and began experimenting with zydeco, rock, soul and R&B.
The latest lineup for Zydeco Trouble features Taylor, keyboardist Keith Clements and drummer Erick Minix.
"There was a revolution in zydeco around the late 1980s when a group called Beau Jocque & the Zydeco Hi-Rollers came out with a zydeco hybrid of funk, rock and hip-hop," Erwin says. "People responded well to the heavy beats and rhythms. Curley Taylor and Zydeco Trouble will have that stuff well covered this week.
A newcomer to this year's festival, Felix y Los Gatos approaches traditional Cajun and swamp rock from a Western point of view.
Based in Albuquerque, N.M., the accordion-driven combo specializes in overlapping blues, rock and folk styles from the South and Southwest. It's a festive blend of Latin, Cajun and Southern.
"This year, the most traditional sounds will come with Curley Taylor and Zydeco Trouble," Erwin says. "We also have something a bit new and different with Felix y Los Gatos, who mix Tex-Mex, zydeco, blues, conjunto tejano (small combo) and other styles. Their sound comes from where Tex-Mex accordion meets zydeco accordion."
Spicy food, cold beer, hot rhythms and a traditional sense of cultural celebration? That's enough to ease any Charlestonian into a Cajun mood.
Folks dig in at the famous crawfish-eating contest at last year’s Lowcountry Cajun Festival.×
Children can enjoy rides while parents dance to the zydeco music playing nearby.×
Shelly Waters will return to the Lowcountry Cajun Festival at James Island County Park to perform again this year.×
Curley Taylor and his band, Zydeco Trouble, will perform at this year’s Lowcountry Cajun Festival at James Island County Park.×
The Lowcountry Cajun Festival at James Island County Park.×
Crawfish are star players at the Lowcountry Cajun Festival at James Island County Park.×