LONG BEACH — Pig races have their place, a chili cook-off is fine, and who could fail to love an ugly-dog contest? But what was it that brought a crowd of 50,000 to BeachFest in Long Beach last year?
"It's the music. It's the draw," said Beach Charities director Sharrie Dyer without equivocation.
Now in its 14th year, BeachFest '95, to be held at Shoreline Park on Saturday and Sunday, raises money for more than 70 local organizations along with Beach Charities' own programs. Those include education and retraining for the homeless and the Santa Paws program, which provides pets and care for children and low-income seniors.
Music always has been a part of the festival--which this year also includes beauty contests, a car show, an "Adventure Island," rides, arts and crafts--but previously it was a hodgepodge with little quality control, said Dyer.
"I'm almost 50 years old and I know a lot about ugly dogs and chili," she said, "but with rock 'n' roll, I can't tell a good band from a bad one."
Enter Steve Zepeda, best known as the respected, chance-taking talent buyer of Bogart's, the Long Beach venue that closed in late 1993. Hard as the loss of that club was on the local music scene, it did finally allow Zepeda to say yes to fest officials, who had been asking him for two years to organize their talent roster.
Those particular two years would have been discouraging in any event--in '92 BeachFest was preempted by the L.A. riots, while in '93 it was rained out.
Spurred last year by an enlivened music lineup put together by Zepeda, BeachFest '94 drew a sell-out crowd of 50,000 on its main day, paid off a $120,000 accumulated debt from the two canceled fests, funded Beach Charities programs and left $64,000 to be distributed to other organizations.
According to Dyer, "Everyone has commented on how much better the presentation and the caliber of the music was."
The surprising thing about this success story is that most of the music Zepeda is presenting is hardly mainstream stuff. Rather, most of the acts have been slogging it out in the O.C.-Long Beach alternative-music scene for years. Though several of the acts have made a career of music for a decade or more, only one, Sublime, has received recent radio play.
"Whether the bands have a CD out, radio play or any of that didn't have anything to do with choosing them," Zepeda said. "What mattered is that they have something to get across, they're accomplished and they fit the different formats of the stages." Two stages are devoted to contemporary rock, and two to roots-rock forms, which include blues, country, rockabilly and surf music. Sunday only, a fifth stage will be set up for rock oldies acts.
The performers range from country stalwarts Rosie Flores and Chris Gaffney & the Cold Hard Facts to Water and Jack Grisham's new band, the Joykiller, two varied alternative-rock acts with highly regarded new albums.
Unlike many talent buyers, Zepeda actually has seen most of the acts he books.
"When I'm seeing something good, I'm not Steve the booker--I'm Steve the fan. That's where the enthusiasm I have for doing shows comes from, the excitement of the music," he said.
Because so many local groups have played on his stages, he was well-situated to select bands. This year, he said he had so many artists interested in helping that he had to turn a lot of them down.
The Long Beach native has been booking shows for the last 15 of his 40 years, beginning when he was a communications student at Cal State Long Beach, where he brought the likes of the Blasters, X and the Plimsouls to the campus pub, the Nugget.
Since Bogart's closed, he's been an independent promoter, booking shows into Long Beach's Foothill, Blue Saloon and Que Sera clubs. It's an uncertain living, and he finds himself scraping by from month to month like many of the musicians he books.
And, like all the musicians involved in BeachFest '95, Zepeda is donating his services.
Getting involved wasn't a hard decision for him.
"I'm not that busy, and it's a positive thing they're doing here," he said. "When people are doing something good and they want you involved, you do it if you can."
Some of the acts playing BeachFest said they wouldn't be if Zepeda weren't involved.
Blasters' vocalist Phil Alvin will appear Sunday with Top Jimmy, Lester Butler, James Intveld, Rick Vito and other area roots musicians in the free-for-all group the Blues Meisters. ("I'll be there as sort of master of ceremonies," Alvin said, "probably just because I've got the best right hook for keeping guys off the stage.")
Alvin said he's generally had his fill of doing benefit performances.