Fire on the Bayou: Burners, Brews and Blues at T-Bois Festival
There are 3 elements that I believe make a music festival successful: Exceptional musicians, a unique location and a strong community. The latter is possibly the most important of them all. Often, a great festival stems from something organic within a tiny community and creates something special that, when experienced by outsiders, spreads like wild fire. That’s exactly what T-Bois Blues Festival , located deep in the Bayou, has managed to do over the years. What originated as a small gathering of friends and family has turned into a local Louisiana favorite for many in the area and is now going into its 6th year. It's also a favorite for many in the NOLA Burner community, which has helped the event evolve through the years and create one if its key features: the burning of Big Al.
Some of the top blues players from the region and around country attend each year, although the event has expanded to include an eclectic mix of musicians from various genres. It’s an old-school festival that has maintained the gritty and laid back vibe that is rare to find in many festivals today. While there, guests can sip on local brews and munch on delicious Cajun fare while the howling sounds of Anders Osborne, Colin Lake, or Alvin Youngblood Hart echo through the swampy bayou.
I spoke with New Orleans promoter and founder of the festival, Mike Falgout – aka “Alligator Mike” – about the community at T-Bois, its participation with the Nola Burners, and how he sees the festival evolving.
How did T-Bois Festival originate and what was the idea behind it?
T-Bois Blues Festival derived from two different sources. One was an old crawfish boil my Dad used to throw even before anyone actually lived at T-Bois, when it was only a cattle and crawfish farm. He use to have these huge Good Friday crawfish boils where all of our friends and family would attend. These started taking place in the late 70s and early 80s. No music, just beer and crawfish. The second was from my older cousins, who, after leaving for college would return home to the T-Bois area with old and new friends to show them what Cajun life was all about. They would make a large bonfire, catch crawfish and usually have some acoustic guitar playing at night. They dubbed it T-Bois Palooza. After I took over we wanted to form our own identity and T-Bois Blues Fest was born.
How has it evolved?
The first 3 years it was still just a party for our extended friends. It was free; all we did was place donation buckets near the food, beer and stage and tried to collect as much money as possible, then I footed the rest of the bill. It got to the point that it had become such a production, we had to become more of legitimate festival to protect ourselves from Mother Nature and other possible catastrophes, so we began selling tickets for entry, but continued to provide food and beer to our festival goers. To date we are still providing these things, but it’s becoming more of challenge.
Tell us about the property that the festival grounds are held on.
T-Bois is an old cattle farm that has been in my Mother’s family for over 60 years. We began farming crawfish on it about 50 years ago. We no longer farm crawfish commercially but we still have several active ponds on it. We also have an alligator farm on the property that has been operational for 30 years.
Photo by Jerry Moran
It's primarily a blues festival – tell us about some of the artists who have performed and about the significance of blues music to you, as well as to the region.
Tab Benoit’s Voice of the Wetlands Festival in Terrebonne Parish was the first fest that I was a working part of. All I did was volunteer on the cooking side of things, but just by getting involved I saw how a first-class festival was run from the ground up. By my third year being involved with VOW, I had recruited 12-15 or so of my closest friends to help with various aspects and then we said “Hey, we can do this ourselves.” It was Tab and Ruben Williams’ festival that drew me closer to the blues. I had always been a Tab Benoit fan, but seeing other nationally renowned blues musicians piqued my interest even more. And seeing the bayou region, which has traditionally been a rock n' roll and Cajun music kind of area, react so positively to the music at VOW, influenced me to try and keep that theme in my neighboring Lafourche Parish.
It was also at a Voice of the Wetlands Festival that I met Anders Osborne. And on the previously mentioned New Orleans Road Show, I helped Anders out a good bit, we became friends and I became an even bigger fan. When it was time to add music to T-Bois there wasn’t much of a question as to who I would seek out. Anders became a cornerstone of T-Bois from Day 1. Another musician who had just found his way to New Orleans was Colin Lake.
Colin and I met at a Chickie Wah Wah show just a few weeks before the first T-Bois and I invited him to come play some of his music. Both Anders and Colin have returned every year, and I’ve actually become the manager of Colin Lake Music. Another familiar name at T-Bois is Alvin Youngblood Hart. Since Year 2 his Friday night sets have become tradition.
You partnered up with many of the NOLA Burners who are annual attendees of the event and one of the main focuses of the weekend with the burning of Big Al. Tell us about how you got involved with the Burners and the whole concept behind Big Al?
The Burners crew actually approached me about having another event on the T-Bois grounds. They saw we were burning stuff, and they wanted in! But, just like I’ve turned down other ideas of making T-Bois bi-annual, I really wasn’t interested. I knew a group of the Burners pretty well, and I really thought that our T-Bois regulars and the Burners could co-exist together, so I invited them to T-Bois IV. It was a match made in heaven. I gave them their own little village so they could show off their unique art, and, they could party all night ‘til the cows came home, literally. But during the mating process of T-Bois and Burners, they came up with what may be the most brilliant and defining part of our young festival, the building and burning of Big Al. Big Al is our 20-foot structure that has become synonymous with the festival. Similar to "The Man" at Burning Man, it’s constructed in the middle of the festival and then burned to the ground at the climax on Saturday night. We’ve tossed around adding more structures as its becoming harder and harder to get the wood that we’ve used to build our traditional T-Bois bonfires, but I believe the tradition of Big Al is here to stay.
Photo by Jerry Moran
One of the great things about the festival is the "all-inclusive" aspect where your ticket covers not only passes for the weekend, but camping, free food and free booze. How important is that component to you guys and how have you been able to manage it over the years?
I believe it is one of our most important components. It’s been tradition from day one, but it’s getting more and more challenging because of our growth. And trust me, many of the "advisers" have told me I should change things up, but I’m pretty hard headed. The hardest part is finding a ticket price that isn’t astronomical that would allow us to keep it all-inclusive. So tickets may have to go up slightly, but T-Bois has never been about becoming a corporate machine so I hope to keep it as affordable as possible. And always remember, feel free to bring your own favorite beer, bottle of liquor or your own grill to cook whatever you’d like. We provide what we can but allow these things on the grounds also.
We work with only a few vendors because most of the food we serve is acquired from local fisherman and from the T-Bois farm itself. We are really considered a New Orleans Festival because that’s where I live, it’s where our press comes from and our advertisement dollars are spent. So when it comes to cuisine we have a taste of New Orleans favorites like Crescent Pie and Sausage, Patois, Something Else Café and Boucherie.
Another name synonymous with T-Bois through the years has been NOLA Brewery. The team at NOLA has been a huge part of our success as both a sponsor, and an ally in spreading the word about what we do down on the bayou. In return, as part of the ticket purchase we provide an assortment of complimentary NOLA brewing beer throughout the weekend.
Photo by Jerry Moran
How did you get the name "Alligator Mike"?
In 2008 I was invited by close friend Ruben Williams to accompany a New Orleans musicians' road show which traveled to both the Democratic (Denver) and Republican (Minneapolis) conventions, as well as a few other stops along the way, accompanied by about 50 of the best in New Orleans music. The artists on that trip consisted of the original Meters, Voice of the Wetlands All-Stars, Irma Thomas, Marcia Ball, Marva Wright, Trombone Shorty, Big Sam, Donald Harrison Jr., the list goes on. We were out there preaching about coastal wetland loss and the lasting effects of Katrina. On that trip I befriended the great Cyril Neville . We hung out a good bit and he did something I do when meeting lots of new folks: came up with something that would help the name Mike stick. Because we spent a good time talking alligator farming and other Cajun stuff he called me Alligator Mike. By the end of the nearly two-week trip everybody there was referring to me as Alligator Mike.
What can any new attendees, as well as veterans, expect from the festival in the future?
I think the biggest thing people should expect about 2015 is that T-Bois will be similar to 2014, 2013, 2012 and so on. When we started this we had a number in mind about how many people we wanted to attend, and we got there last year because we sold out of tickets. If you’ve been to T-Bois you’ve noticed that there is no hired staffing and very little security (we are surrounded by alligators so that helps), which gives T-Bois a very relaxed atmosphere. If we were to invite in more festival goers then that would have to change in order to control the crowds. This is not what we want – we want to have a good time, too. What we want to do is keep T-Bois exactly what it has been, a place for good food, good friends and good beer.