The folks behind the Simi Valley Cajun & Blues Music Festival decided the best way to celebrate its 25th anniversary this Saturday and Sunday was to aim high.
“We went out for the biggest entertainment we could get,” said “Catfish” Jeff Newby, self-described marketing maniac for the event and a member of the Rotary Club of Simi Sunrise, which puts on the festival as its annual fundraiser. “That's our celebration — we're going to bring you the best you can get. It's $22 for the day, and there's absolutely nowhere else you could ever get this kind of value.”
As it has for the past five years, the festival will have a Cajun/zydeco and a blues stage that'll run live acts from 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. both days at Rancho Santa Susana Community Park.
Saturday's blues program features sets by Canned Heat, Guitar Shorty and John Mayall, while on Sunday, it's Swamp Dogg, Tommy Castro and Robert Randolph, plus many others.
A highlight of Saturday's Cajun/zydeco bill will be the first West Coast father-son show by Little and Big Nathan Williams. Local legends Lisa Haley & the Zydekats, as well as Bayou State superstars Feufollet and C.J. Chenier & the Red Hot Louisiana Band play both weekend days.
It's an impressive evolution from the event's early days, when the Simi Rotary shindig started as a clambake. It tried and failed to become a country & western festival, hit paydirt with the Louisiana-music format and incorporated a blues stage five years ago, according to Newby.
“It's expanded, certainly,” said blues-stage booker Martin Fleischmann, whose company, Rum & Humble, has long helped program roots shows at the Santa Monica Pier, jazz at Hollywood & Highland and rock at the Hollywood Bowl. “It's an honor to connect with the festival at this stage of its development. I think it's poised to become the festival for blues and Louisiana music on the West Coast.”
While noting that geographical desirability was not a factor in the acts he chose, Fleischmann has rounded up some notable San Fernando Valley performers.
Despite being connected in the public's mind with Laurel Canyon, English blues legend Mayall has lived in a quiet Woodland Hills neighborhood for close to two decades. Speaking on the back patio of his tastefully appointed ranch house — overlooking a large swimming pool, tinkling wall fountain and outdoor barbecue kitchen — the 80-year-old Bluesbreakers leader was looking forward to showcasing his current band and songs from its hot new album, “A Special Life.”
“We just finished a 62-show, 68-day European tour,” noted the indefatigable Mayall, whose '60s outfit nurtured the likes of Eric Clapton and The Rolling Stones' Mick Taylor. Bluesbreakers provided personnel to Canned Heat and was an incubator of sorts for Fleetwood Mac, among others. “I've heard of the Simi festival and maybe even played it in the past. I'm not really sure because we perform one gig and then onto the next one.”
All joking aside, though he may look like an elderly hippie, Mayall credits playing the blues with keeping him razor sharp and gleefully energetic. He's eager to reconnect with Chenier, who contributed to the new album, and some of the old Heat boys.
“A superjam is kind of unlikely, since we've all got so much playing to do,” Mayall said. “It always looks good on paper — how it works out in real life, you can never tell.
“But it's really cool, and definitely a great feeling, that there are two bands that I have an association with. It is a first-class festival. There's just not one name act. You've got several, which is always a great thing. And it's always good when you have two stages, too, because it gives the public a chance to drift from one to the other. Especially in the California sunshine — how can you go wrong?”
Jerry Williams Jr. — aka Swamp Dogg — moved to the flats of Northridge after the 1994 earthquake damaged his house in the hills. One room of his comfortable new home is an impressively decked out recording studio, and his office has an entire wall lined with vinyl LPs.
The Virginia native began writing and producing old-school R&B in the 1950s, creating the profane, soulful, sometimes political and often downright dirty Dogg persona in the early '70s. Although he makes most of his living from royalties — “She's All I Got” is a favorite of country acts — the 71-year-old still enjoys performing, usually with his 92-year-old mother, Vera Lee, as his opening act.
Williams pointed out that his pal and sometimes housemate Guitar Shorty will be at Simi, too. “I'm happy to be payin' ... playin'; you see where my mind is at,” laughs Williams, whose no-governors approach made him a seminal influence on the likes of Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. “And I go there to work. I go there to put my best foot forward. I'm not that good, but people seem to like me. I just go out there and do everything. I'm like a stripper in that way, you know what I'm sayin'?”
The Simi festival is family oriented. Children under seven get in free, and there's a big kids area with bounce houses, rock walls, arts and crafts and harmonica workshops. Parents may want to park the little ones there when the Dogg comes out.
“My show is improvised — we're like jazz musicians. We very seldom follow the set list, and I don't keep any secrets from my audience,” he said, then proceeded to describe how he worked a sudden bout of diarrhea into a concert in Italy.
Both Mayall and Williams praised the warm weather, grassy lots and easygoing attitude of the San Fernando Valley, noting a top-notch music festival just over the pass makes it even better.
They're in good company. “The Valley itself has an incredible [music] history,” Fleischmann said. “It makes sense that people came from all over the country to be studio players here. Or even if they were performers and stars, there was no bias against the Valley.
“At the time when most people came, it was very affordable. They could buy fairly large tracts of land, and it was convenient to Hollywood. One could write a book on the players that settled in the Valley.”
For more information and to purchase tickets, go to www.simicajun.org/2014/.
Follow Bob Strauss on Twitter: @bscritic