By adding locally caught crawdads and music headliners such as Grammy nominee Elvin Bishop, organizers of the 2013 Isleton Cajun & Blues Festival have revamped their efforts, putting an emphasis on local food and premium entertainment for this weekend's events.
More than 20,000 pounds of Signal crawdads will come from Crayfish Crawfish in Rocklin, traveling from the Sacramento River to Isleton.
This is a considerably shorter trip for the crustaceans than the last two years, when the festival served crawdads brought from China.
"We were really hit with bad publicity with the Chinese crawdads," said Jean Yokotobi, former Isleton Chamber of Commerce president. "And even though the crawdads are very good and crawdads are crawdads, promotionally it didn't hit the public very well."
John Fenner, managing member of Crayfish Crawfish, said this is the first year his company has provided the tiny lobsterlike creatures for a festival. The harvest this year has been reasonably good despite low river levels, he said, adding that the crawdads come from the Sacramento-to-Rio-Vista areas of the Sacramento River.
Fenner said he attended the festival last year and was disappointed with the quality of the crawfish, leading him to pitch his business as this year's supplier.
"Food covers a broad spectrum of taste, and some people notice and some people don't," Fenner said. "But there is a big difference between fresh crawdads and some that might have been frozen and shipped. The whole purpose of these festivals is to highlight local culture and local resources and the key areas indicative to that community."
Fenner's crawdads will be boiled by chamber member Kenny Silva, who has been deemed "Isleton's Master C-dadster." Silva, 81, said he's been cooking crawdads for 21 years. He puts traditional Cajun seasoning in the water before boiling the crawdads.
"You throw it in there and mix it all up and it gives it a good flavor," he said.
Traditional boils include spices such as celery salt, pepper and paprika as well as extra goodies cooked with the crawdads, such as sausage, potatoes, onions and corn.
While the Cajun & Blues Festival began in 2011, the Isleton Chamber of Commerce previously held the Crawdad Festival for about 20 years.
The chamber sold the Crawdad Festival in 2009 to R-Wild Horse Ranch after the event attracted rowdy behavior and suffered financial problems. That festival continues as the Red Bluff Crawdad Festival.
Yokotobi said the chamber planned the Cajun & Blues Festival as a smaller, "better" event.
This weekend, two blocks in the Delta town will transform into a street fair with two stages, a roving miniature train to carry adults and children, street performers and a kids activity area. A crawdad-eating contest and a costume contest will be held Saturday.
The festival is funded by sponsors, vendors and ticket sales. Organizers have worked with the California Department of Transportation, the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department and a private security group to foster a safe festival.
In addition to Sacramento and the Bay Area, Lynette Brister, president of the Isleton Chamber of Commerce, said ticket sales show people coming to the festival from as far as Utah and Louisiana.
An estimated 20,000 to 30,000 attendees will pack the Historic Downtown District. Though organizers are expecting temperatures around the 80s, cooling stations and medics will be on hand in case of extreme heat.
Visitors may also encounter a more authentic atmosphere than expected. Though it may seem strange to find Cajun heritage in the West, groups of Creole people of south Louisiana – those of African, French and other ancestries – moved to Northern California in search of work around World War II. In addition, Isleton and southern Louisiana share a similar delta landscape.
With this in mind, Mindy Giles, talent producer for Swell Productions, carefully selected culturally appropriate local and national musicians, gathering blues, Cajun and zydeco headliners.
In addition to California-born Bishop, performers include Lost Bayou Ramblers, the Magnolia Sisters, Andre Thierry & Zydeco Magic, Karen Lovely and others.
"I was trying to pull from regional strengths, as well as getting bands from Louisiana," Giles said. "A lot of these bands have a following and deliver tremendous music."
Louis Michot, lead singer and fiddle player for Louisiana's Lost Bayou Ramblers, said he has noticed an appreciation in California for Cajun and zydeco music, whether from Creole descendants who moved west or tourists who brought home a little love for bayou flavor.
Michot said people expect the Ramblers to be a straightforward Cajun band, and though its music draws heavily on local roots, the group mixes in rock 'n' roll, psychedelic and punk elements.
"What we try to do is keep (the music) alive and breathing for our own pleasure," he said. "We keep it fresh for all music lovers out there."
THE 2013 ISLETON CAJUN & BLUES FESTIVAL
WHAT: Annual Cajun music and food festival
WHEN: Saturday (9 a.m.-10 p.m.), Sunday (9 a.m.-6 p.m.)
WHERE: Downtown Isleton
COST: $15 each day for adults; free for children 12 and younger.
Celebrating the music of the Louisiana bayou
Blues legend Elvin Bishop headlines the 2013 Isleton Cajun & Blues Festival. The California native is best known for his 1975 single "Fooled Around and Fell in Love." (Saturday, 8 p.m, Gazebo Stage).
A four-piece band of Cajun-cultured women, each skilled in multiple instruments, the Magnolia Sisters hail from Louisiana, where they've collected Cajun, Creole and dancehall styles of music and storytelling. Led by Ann Savoy, the musicians perform traditional pieces such as "Mag Hop" and a cappella ballads such as "Je Voudrais Bien Me Marier, Mais ..." (Saturday, 2:45 p.m., Gazebo Stage).
Karen Lovely, of Portland, Ore., was chosen to play Isleton after the festival's music booker Mindy Giles heard her perform and was reminded of a young Etta James. Her sophomore release "Still the Rain" was nominated for best song in the 2011 Blues Music Awards. (Saturday, 6:30 p.m., Icehouse Stage).
Andre Thierry & Zydeco Magic draws from French Creole culture to deliver an accordion-based musical experience. Though a native of California, Thierry has said his heritage lies in Louisiana, where his parents and grandparents were born. Growing up surrounded by Southern dance and music, Thierry blends Zydeco, hip-hop, jazz, blues and soul, creating such tracks as "Are You Ready to Learn" and "Swingin' on a Vine." (Sunday, 2:45 p.m.,Gazebo Stage).
Lost Bayou Ramblers have expanded the genre of Cajun music to include psychedelic and punk influence, creating a fusion relevant to contemporary music, yet still reverent to its Louisiana roots. Check out "Font Culottes" and "Valse d'Automne" for a sample of the unique sound. (Sunday, 4:30 p.m., Gazebo Stage).
Call The Bee's Morgan Searles, (916) 321-1102. Follow her in Twitter @morgansearles.