Bayou, Valley, My Ears Couldn’t Tell the Difference

Bayou, Valley, My Ears Couldn’t Tell the Difference

by JasonBryan / Jun 17, 2016 / 0 comments
Saturday, 28 May 2016 to Sunday, 29 May 2016

The Simi Valley Cajun and Blues Festival rocked the surrounding mountains Memorial Day weekend. Over the last 27 years this charity festival organized by The Rotary Club of Simi Sunrise has grown into the largest festival of its kind west of the Mississippi River. Having grown up in a small town in Maryland I played several seasons on a Rotary Club youth soccer team, and this has got to be one of the biggest and best organized events by a community organization in the country. Hats off to the volunteers who worked to make that festival as fantastic as it was. But you’re not reading my article to hear about the Rotary Club, you’re reading it for the music.

What types of bands are you thinking of when you think local music festival? You’re probably just thinking local bands from the neighboring counties. On one hand that’s true, on the other some of these acts came in from New Orleans, and with LA being the closest city and the music capital of the world, this event gets some top talent. The event had two big stages, lots of shade, and was over before the sunset. It was kind of a throwback to the early sixties when even the biggest acts rocked stadiums in the daylight.

I know. I know. The music. I’ll have to admit I spent most of my time on the blues stage. But I saw some great acts on the Cajun stage too. I don’t think I’ve ever been to any concert or festival that had attendance this high before the first bands started playing. The first bands went on at 12:20 and if you were just walking in like I was, you were late.

Getting Saturday started, The Bayou Brothers along with Sista Judy on the washboard already had the early birds on the dance floor. Yes the outdoor stages had a dance floor, and people came to them with whatever their dancing style was. I’m not sure if they danced because they were feeling the music, some people just need a good excuse to cut the rug. And every act at this festival was there to give them that excuse.

I quickly ventured over to the Blues stage to check out Guy Martin, I could hear the classic blues guitar blaring over the park as I approached, and between seeing how nicely set up this event was and hearing the genre that is the base of all my favorite tunes, I had a big grin on my face. Guy got the crowd involved with the standard “Boom Boom”, which part of me expected to hear every band play over the weekend, but this was actually the only time I heard it.

The next act on the stage was Barbara Morrison. She was a real treat. Her stage presence was very similar to BB King. After opening with a cover of Tracy Chapman’s “Give Me One Reason” she took a seat and set up each of her tunes with a funny story. Here’s a paraphrase of my favorite.
“My first husband died from eating poison mushrooms.
My second husband died from eating poison mushrooms.
My third husband died from a broken skull.”
The bassist chimed in, “How did he break his skull?”
“He wouldn’t eat the mushrooms.”

She then went into a blues tune that reflected the dark underbelly of the joke. She was my favorite hidden gem of the weekend.

Dwayne Dopsie was across the park on the Zydeco stage and when I got over there, he and his washboard player were in the ground playing on their backs surrounded by frenzied concert goers. Dopsie was one of the most energetic accordion playing front men I’ve ever seen, I can see why he played 3 sets over the two days. I personally loved his rendition of “Beast of Burden”.

The New Orleans musical institution the Rebirth Brass Band took the Blues stage next and filled the park with many a tuba solo. The Rebirth Brass Band hails from the Treme area of New Orleans and have even been featured on the HBO show, as well as consulted on it. Today they were playing a nice combination of original hits and New Orleans and blues staples, such as Ray Charles “I Gotta Woman”, Loggins and Messina’s “Your Momma Don’t Dance” and the Bobby Womack song made famous by the Rolling Stones “It’s All Over Now”.

Cajun legend Doug Kershaw took the Zydeco stage. The 80 years young front man was backed by Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, a cajun band deserving top billing on many a stage in their own right. Kershaw may have looked like a grandpa but he had plenty of youthful vigor and charisma to keep the crowd going. “You can shout requests, but we’re not going to listen to them,” he replied to fans eager to hear his biggest hits. I was surprised that several of his songs were in Creole, and I had to look up that he’s from so deep in the swamps that he didn’t learn English until after he was in grade school. He was the only act I heard cover Hank William’s “Jambalaya” all weekend, which I wouldn’t have considered it a true Cajun festival without.

But it was time to get back to the Blues stage for in my opinion the weekends biggest draw, one of my all time favorites, Eric Burdon. When I was 16, The Animals Greatest Hits was my favorite cassette. I wore it out twice and then when I bought it the third time I made a copy of it so I would only wear out the cheaper record cassette, which I did several more times before I fully went CD. So if this artist gets a few more words than the rest in this review, you’ll understand. Eric Burdon and his newest rendition of The Animals took the stage. I liked that he had a horn section. I don’t think I’d seen him have horns since his 60th birthday concert at the El Rey in 2000. He brought out “See See Rider”, “When I Was Young”, and “Spill the Wine” towards the top of the set and did a nice blend of modern standards, many originally recorded by The Animals in the sixties such as “Mama Told Me Not to Come”. I was glad to hear him play “Monterey”, a song about the Monterey Pop Festival that almost puts you there, a fitting theme for a music festival. There is just something about Eric Burdon’s sense of rhythm that is captivating. No two performances are ever identical because he’s just feeling the music and working the song to where it has to go. I’ve noticed for some of the bigger hits like “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” he’s makes sure the chorus is closer to the classic recording the fans are used to singing along too. Which is fun because these are songs you want to sing along too. One of the most interesting things he did was a mash up of Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and his own “Sky Pilot” replacing the chorus of the former with the chorus of the latter. He closed out with “House of the Rising Sun”, “We Gotta Get Out of This Place”, and “It’s My Life”.

An interesting and intelligent scheduling device used by this festival is have the biggest acts playing second to last, giving the those attendance plenty of time to continue to enjoy the day instead of everyone making a mass exodus at once. And with that I went home to rest up for day two.

Heading to the event for Day 2, I knew exactly where to park, didn’t have to hit will call and streamlined my arrival, yet it was still packed before the bands started. Simi Valley sure loves its live music. I must admit for the second day I sort of set up shop at the Blues stage. The music was just too good to walk away from.

Kelly’s Lot got the day started strong. Fronted by Kelly Z this Southern California band’s twenty years of playing together was evident in how well they jelled together on stage. Kelly Z has one of those voices that is solid strong and unique. Somewhere between Janis Joplin and Natalie Maines.

Alvon Johnson took the stage next, he’s a pure blues guitarist. The way he emoted his guitar riffs starting from his toes, running up his legs and arching his back, circling up to his head, practically pumping steam out his ears, but then flushed down to his fingers to his guitar and then blasted out as sweet, sweet blues was a sight and sound to truly enjoy. At one point he ventured off the stage and shook hands with everyone in the front row. He shook with his right hand, and played lead guitar by tapping the strings on the neck with his left, never missing a beat.

Booker T former front man of the MG’s was next. I was super pumped, “Green Onions” has always been one of my favorite instrumental songs. Tonight Leon Russell joined Booker T on stage, and revealed the secret lyrics to the song “I got a sandwich, I’m going to put some green onions on it.” Leon Russell sang it- it must be true. It was a real treat to see both Booker T and Leon Russell sharing the keys on Booker’s organ. And it was cool to see how booker motioned Russell to take over as he went over and picked up his guitar to add a little extra to the song. He closed his set with “Time is Tight” and I couldn’t help but expect to see Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi’s ghost jump on stage with him.

By the time Leon Russell took the stage the attendance at the festival seemed to have doubled. It was full at noon, and it was way more packed on Sunday then it was the same time on Saturday. It just shows the impact of Leon Russell’s career on the music loving audience. Russell has professionally crossed paths, collaborated with, or contributed to practically every classic rock artist that has had a hit. It led to him having some great stories about artists that tied in with the song he was about to play. He fed some rock and roll myths by stating how he loved the next song which is, was, and always will be a Graham Parson’s song before going into “Wild Horses”. He gave a heavy dose of Stones tunes mixing in some “Jumping Jack Flash” and “Paint it Black” in a medley with “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” sandwiched in between, and then with a little “Kansas City Women” thrown in. He had a great story about an injured Bob Dylan at George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh before going into “A Hard Rains A-Gonna Fall”. If you’re a fan of rock and roll history, Leon Russell has been present for so many great rock moments and knows how to play the songs to prove it.

Overall the Simi Valley Cajun and Blues Festival was a fantastic little festival with great acts, a fun atmosphere, and no shortage of Cajun style cuisine to keep your belly as full as your ears.

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Rating out of 11: