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The 11th annual Blackpot Festival in Lafayette celebrates regional cooking and ’old-timey’ musical traditions with modern flair and camping
Nothing can teach one to be a Cajun, except the experience of growing up in Acadiana. For an immersive Cajun and Creole lesson however, the Blackpot Festival in Lafayette, should at least be worth a few Cajun college credits.
The Blackpot Festival is put together by Lafayette’s multi-faceted Cajun, zydeco, swamp pop Americana band, The Revelers (formerly Red Stick Ramblers). Along with performing at the festival, each member of the Revelers is deeply involved organizing the event. Drummer Glen Fields and upright bass player Eric Frey each curate one of the festival’s two music stages, while accordionist Blake Miller runs the cook off, featuring anything that can be made it a traditional black-iron pot.
“Buncha guys come early and cook gumbo all day long,” says Revelers fiddle player Daniel Coolik. “And then more people come, and they eat it. It’s a real community vibe.”
Last year’s first place gumbo prize was taken by Jay Breaux and Ruebin Sandberg. Their gumbo featured smoked turkey neck, chicken gizzards, plus tasso and andouille sausage.
Chas Justus, guitarist and singer for the Revelers these last five years, runs the festival’s weeklong campground.
“Louisiana has so many cook offs, but no real camping festivals,” says Justus, “Before Blackpot there weren’t really any. When our band was traveling a lot, we were at a lot of bluegrass festivals, folk festivals and other old-timey festivals where people would camp and hang out over an entire weekend. It always felt pretty different than any of the famous Louisiana festivals.”
Justus also runs Blackpot Camp at Lakeview in Eunice in the week leading up to Friday and Saturday’s big concerts. Blurring the line between audience and performer, chef and diner, the Blackpot Festival starts off with a week of kid-friendly but decidedly adult music workshops, plus cooking and dancing lessons.
“Those staying on the campground that week will get some sort of an instruction every day,” promises Justus. “We host dances every night of Blackpot camp — with instructors — so you can dance and cook and play instruments and sing songs in French. It’s a culture camp, designed to promote our culture.”
Justus, who has performed and recorded with Linda Ronstadt and Ann Savoy among other luminaries, will teach a music workshop focusing on blues, country jazz and southwest Louisiana guitar styles. The roster of Blackpot camp teachers Justus has booked draws from the pool of musicians both local and international, in Lafayette to perform on the festival’s stage.
“These guys all come to play and we sort of put them to work a little bit,” laughs Justus. “But I know a good teacher though. I know that a good musician isn’t necessarily always a good teacher. A lot of these guys have real teaching experience.”
For instance, Blackpot instructor Corey Poche, who teaches Cajun and Creole dance, derives his reportedly open and intuitive teaching style from his day job as a couple’s counselor. Other teachers include fiddler Kevin Wimmer (Dewey Balfa, Red Stick Ramblers), Appalachian fiddle and banjo duet the Stuart Brothers, upright bassist June Drucker, and multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Aurora Nealand from New Orleans. There are even rubboard lessons from elusive barbecue master, Big Bird, plus 13-year-old nature expert and resident life coach Jesse Stewart, teaching campers how to possibly break his camp catfish record.
Along with quenching willing pupils thirst for Acadiana’s music and food culture, the Blackpot Festival also aims to expose the locals in and around Lafayette to cultural traditions from elsewhere.
“We tour and meet so many people. So we book the Blackpot Festival full of musicians and people we’ve met along the way and built relationships with over the years,” says Coolik. “We try to get people from outside the area to come in. Not just all Cajun and Creole — old-time Appalachian, Swing Jazz, Irish Scottish — music you won’t find around Acadiana much. It’s great to have them come down, people like Appalachian duo Ginny Hawker and Tracy Schwarz, and West Virginia’s New Lost City Ramblers, who come down once a year for Blackpot.”
The Blackpot Festival features acts like High Plains Jamboree, Sarah Quintana, April Mae and the June Bugs, Feufollet, Mark Rubin, Cat Head Biscuit Brothers, Lil Buck Senigal and Pine Leaf Boys, on two distinctly different stages: one rowdy, one contemplative.
“There is the main stage, which is the dance stage, at Vermillionville,” says Coolik. “Then there’s a chapel that we use for smaller more acoustic acts where people sit down and listen instead of partying, and there’s some informal jamming.”
Last year was the first in the festival’s 11 year history to take place at Vermillionville Living History and Folklife Park.
“We had to change locations from Acadiana Village after we kind of outgrew it,” says Coolik. “Over the years the festival has drawn a lot of people from out of state, people who come down wanting to learn about Louisiana music, and food. It’s grown every year. We’ve had 4,000 people.”
Last year at its new venue, Blackpot faced a major thunderstorm.
“Vermillionville worked out really well, our first year over there,” Coolik says, “Aside from the deluge, the vibe was still there. Even with the rain, by the time Revelers came on, the last band of Saturday night, I was looking out to a packed, packed dance floor, tons of people all dressed up. The rain didn’t keep them away.”
For anyone concerned about the fate of this year’s festival given August’s historic flooding, the show will go on.
“There was some flood damage to the grounds,” Coolik says. “But in a week or two they can get it up and running. People get really excited about this festival, thankfully.”
(Editor’s Note: Be sure to read David Cheramie’s En Français, S’il Vous Plaît column on page 88 to learn more about the history and cultural significance of the black pot and his take on the festival in “La Confrérie de la Chaudière Noire.”)