This hard workin’ guy has to take a little time off sometime…I did just that Memorial Day weekend when on Saturday and Sunday I attended the Simi Valley Cajun & Blues Music Festival in (where else?) Simi Valley, California.
My main impetus for going was the fact that Tracy Nelson was going to appear at the festival on Saturday backed by The Mannish Boys. I thought I’d never get a chance to see Tracy perform live in my lifetime, as she seldom leaves her home of Nashville, Tennessee.
Tracy appears on about 26 CDs — and I got ’em all. Her first CD was a solo blues CD, Deep Are the Roots (1965), recorded when she was just 21 (she looked like she was eleven).
The first time I ever heard Tracy’s music was in 1968. I had met this knockout Manhattan Beach blonde, Millie Biela, at a Shrine Exposition Hall concert. Millie and I dated (in my clumsy way) for awhile. She invited me to a party in Laurel Canyon — the first time I had ever been to this holy habitat of rock, folk and blues musicians. As I recall, I was the only guy there. I was surrounded by Millie and her friends, who were all beautiful hippie chicks. They began rolling joints from a big bag of pot. It was the first time I had ever smoked grass.
A couple of the girls began raving about Tracy Nelson, the lead singer for a band named Mother Earth. They felt it was their duty to turn the world on to this magnificent chanteuse. One of them grabbed a guitar and began performing what would become Tracy’s signature song, “Down So Low”. We were all moved by her heartfelt and passionate performance. Then she popped the vinyl on to the turntable and played me Tracy’s own version with Mother Earth from their LP Living With the Animals.
I was astounded. What came out of the speakers was one of the saddest songs I have ever heard. Tracy’s big voice vocals were mature far beyond her years. Tracy purportedly wrote “Down So Low” after her breakup with Steve Miller (both were University of Wisconsin at Madison students in the 60s). I still consider it one of the finest recordings ever put down on vinyl. Her version of Memphis Slim‘s “Mother Earth” still raises the hairs on the back of my neck. I like Janis Joplin but I love Tracy Nelson.
I had recently visited Tracy’s website to purchase her latest CD, Victim of the Blues (get it!). I looked at her site’s tour calendar and got depressed; there were no gigs even remotely close to southern California.
But the next day I idly visited her site again and clicked on “Tour Dates”. Up popped her upcoming Simi Valley Appearance. It felt like I’d been given a second life. I began to look forward to this festival like nothing else in my life (do you think maybe I’m a fan?).
I was impressed by the festival’s line-up. There were several other performers I was eager to see. The festival had two stages: a Blues stage and a Cajun/Zydeco stage. There was Cajun food (including crawfish and gator), BBQ, soul food and all kinds of other tempting sweet and savory goodies for sale. The longest line was for the funnel cakes.
On Saturday I arrived in time to catch the second act, Los Fabulocos. They were fantastic. They sounded very similar to Los Lobos, with whom I was told they toured. Their guitar player, Kid Ramos, is now one of my favorite axemen. They were followed by Mikey Jr. & Stone Cold Blues. Their guitar player, Matt Daniels, knew every crowd pleasing performance tactic in the book but made each of them look natural, spontaneous and effortless; a very fine set.
The excellent Kirk Fletcher Band came on at 2:25 PM. Kirk reminded me of a cross between Freddie and Albert King.
I had wanted to see Serbian blues beauty Ana Popovic from the first time I heard about her. An unbelievably skilled guitarist and decent singer, I felt that initially she took a little while to reach that true inner place of heart and soul (her first few songs were crisply played but I felt she was just sort of going through the motions, albeit at a very high skill and performance level).
In anticipation of seeing The Mannish Boys I had purchased all of their CDs. This band is a collection of some of the finest Old School veteran blues players in L. A.
Rob Rio opened their set with a thundering solo performance on electric piano that aurally described and encapsulated the history of boogie woogie piano music. That historic keyboard lesson flowed right into one of my favorite songs, “Down the Road Apiece”, a song made famous by Amos Milburn (my favorite version is by Manfred Mann). Rob’s keyboard virtuosity was breathtaking.
The Mannish Boys celebrate a truly communal musical experience. Ordinarily, I’d appreciate seeing and hearing all of the guest stars they brought up on stage to play with them, but I felt that each one was cutting into Tracy’s stage time (which they were). To my astonishment I saw Tracy casually wandering through the loose crowd in front of the stage. She gave me a knowing smile, probably assessing (correctly) from my appearance that I was from her generation.
Tracy was left with just enough time for three songs — but at least I got to see and hear her sing in person.
I talked to Tracy afterwards in the signing area (how nice that so many musicians don’t charge for autographs — my policy, too!). We had a friend in common, Jack Lee. Jack was the lead guitarist in the latter days of Mother Earth. I used to see Jack on practically a daily basis when I was living two blocks from Jack off of Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. Tracy was as nice as could be, seeming very down to earth and honestly approachable.
I caught a little of John Nemeth‘s set and took off for home.
On Sunday I brought my wife (having assessed the various comfort levels of the Festival experience first). We arrived mid-day. The first act we caught was Big Pete‘s tribute to Lester Butler (lead singer and blues harp player for The Red Devils; if you want to watch and listen to a KILLER Lester Butler/Red Devils track go to this YouTube link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fBx0GxmAPPc). Big Pete is a big Dutch blues singer who became a blues harmonica player after seeing Lester Butler. The Red Devils were the band that backed Mick Jagger on his never-legitimately-released solo blues CD. Lester died from a drug overdose at age 38. Big Pete turned in a fine set.
Then my wife and I dashed over to the Cajun stage to catch Buckwheat Zydeco. There were some frustrating technical problems at the beginning of Buckwheat’s show but once the band was finally able to get going, they killed. Talk about tight! Whoo! Plus, Buckwheat’s a helluva old school entertainer. That was one crisp, entertaining set.
We hustled back to the Blues stage where Elvin Bishop’s “Hell Raisin’ Revue” was already mid-song. Elvin began his career as the second lead guitarist (Michael Bloomfield was Numero Uno) in the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. I first saw Elvin after he had left Butterfield to form his own band. He opened for Led Zeppelin the first time I saw Led Zep (Julie Driscoll & the Brian Auger Trinity were also on that bill).
With his Aw, Shucks down home sense of humor, Elvin has to be one of the funniest blues performers you’ll ever see. You can’t help but love the guy. His unexpected (this was a blues show, after all) performance of his big hit “I Fooled Around and Fell in Love” brought tears to my eyes. What a beautiful song! It’s one of my favorites.
I chatted with Elvin at the signing tent. I told him I saw him open for Led Zeppelin. He responded, “I was just tryin’ to make a living.”
The show closer was Maria Muldaur. Although mainly known for her monster hit “Midnight at the Oasis”, she has been recording some killer blues CDs in recent times. If you’d like to sample some of her newer stuff, I’d recommend the CD Richland Woman Blues; you won’t be disappointed.
A good time was had by all. I’m already looking forward to next year’s show!
PS: I lied about not working. Besides just having fun, I was doing research for my forthcoming series of blues books. Who says you can’t work and enjoy it, too?