Call this shindig a jambalaya. The Simi Valley Cajun & Blues Music Festival throws in all the essential ingredients to have a great party: top-notch Cajun and blues entertainment, Southern and Cajun cuisine, clothes, hats, jewelry for sale.
Did we miss anything? Oh, yeah. How about a little blues mixed with rock and roll history? Robby Krieger from The Doors and “Devil With the Blue Dress” Mitch Ryder, just to name-drop a couple of headliners.
It all began in 1988 when the Rotary Club of Simi Sunrise sponsored a clambake as a fundraiser. I did not misstate that. Clambake, New England-style. According to Tim Shannon, one of the lead planners for this year’s Cajun & Blues Festival, it did not go well. As he hinted, it might have had something to do with the frozen crab cakes.
Shannon recalled how one of the club members had a tie-in to a Cajun band. This led the club to switch locales, so to speak, travel from New England to Louisiana, and launch an annual Cajun festival. Thirty years later, it’s blossomed to include blues music. It’s also raised about $1.6 million for local nonprofits.
With 30 years of planning under its belt, the Rotary Club has figured out ways to make the festival better for its customers. This year, for instance, the festival will offer a “Super Ticket” option which guarantees you an actual assigned seat at the festival right in front of the blues stage. It also includes limited backstage access and amenities.
The festival features two stages, one for blues and one for Cajun. Each will run acts simultaneously. Walk west in the park and you’ll catch blues. Walk east and you’ll take in Cajun.
In addition to headliners such as Robbie Krieger, other blues players include Kelly’s Lot, Lazy Lester and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. Cajun headliners include Dwayne Dopsie and the Zydeco Hellraisers, Doug Kershaw, the Bayou Brothers and Crawdaddio.
Then there’s the English band The Yardbirds. In its heyday, The Yardbirds featured rock and roll guitar luminaries such as Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck. Jim McCarty was the drummer.
Asked why blues were so influential on English bands in the 1960s, McCarty responded, “That was just the times. It just seemed to happen at that very time that we suddenly began to hear that sort of music.”
Even though English blues bands were mostly white kids from the suburbs, McCarty and such groups as the Rolling Stones adopted blues because of their emotional pull. “I personally thought it was very exciting music and had a sort of rawness to it,” said McCarty. “Jimmy Reed was one of the first albums I listened to, and it had a real emotion, a real cutting edge to it.”
But the blues also gave McCarty and friends a stage to push boundaries and create new sounds.
“We could develop the guitar into something else futuristic,” he recalled, “particularly with Jeff Beck. Jeff had a lot of different sounds and he was capable of playing different blues styles. That just made the music more exciting to us. It became what was called psychedelic music.”
What to expect from The Yardbirds in 2017? “The songs are the same,” McCarty replied. “What’s new is the energy we put into it and the sound onstage. We’re still very energetic and very honorable to the old style.”
In summing up the festival, Shannon talked about the best part, giving the money to local charities: “I will tell you that the greatest thing, and I think I can speak for every one of our club members, is that every September when we get together and bring in all the nonprofits that we’re donating money to, they tell us what they’re going to do with that donation. I mean, you want to talk about something that makes you feel good.”
All in all, Shannon believes that their Cajun and blues party in a community park in Simi Valley is worth the price of admission. As he says with a laugh, “We like to say that our goal is that everyone who leaves, their cheeks hurt from smiling so much.”
Yup. If a party is what you seek to kick off your Memorial Day weekend, as they used to say in the South, you can’t beat this with a stick.
The Simi Valley Cajun & Blues Music Festival runs May 27-28 at the Rancho Santa Susana Community Park, 5005 Los Angeles Ave., Simi Valley. For more information, call 517-9000 or visit www.simicajun.org.