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MUSIC: Ventura County

Country Sounds in Simi

Annual fund-raising festival will draw on local talent as well as up-and-comers from Nashville.

August 28, 1997|ROBYN LOEWENTHAL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ventura County fans of country music won't need to venture far from home this Labor Day weekend to hear some of Southern California's most popular country bands and some up-and-coming country groups from Nashville.

Just head over to Simi Valley's Second Annual Country Music Festival. This event unofficially kicks off Simi Valley Days, the Western-themed festival that runs Sept. 6-21. The two-day music festival is a fund-raising event--all profits go to charity--and features family-oriented entertainment as well as crafts and food booths.

But the highlight is the live country music. "We've got a much bigger talent lineup this year," said Mark Hill, program and music director of KHAY-FM (100.7), a festival sponsor.

Making their Ventura County debut Sunday is the San Fernando Valley-based group Bill Tulsa and the Psycho Crawdads. The lineup certainly has bigger-name acts, but it's a sure bet that this year-old quartet will be the most surprising talent to take the stage this weekend.

Other featured bands include Ventura County favorites Caught Red Handed and three groups frequently seen at the Cowboy Palace in Chatsworth--the Chad Watson Band, Love Sick Prairie Dogs and Larry Dean and the Shooters. In addition, look for Mercury recording artists John and Audrey Wiggins, a sibling act that gained national attention a couple of years ago with their Appalacian-style vocal harmonies and hit, "Has Anyone Seen Amy?"

Burnin' Daylight will perform its current singles "Say Yes" and "Love Worth Fighting For" and other cuts from the self-titled debut album on the Curb label. Before forming this trio, Burnin' Daylight members were successful solo artists. Bassist-vocalist Sonny LeMaire, formerly with the pop-country group Exile, co-wrote the Restless Heart hit "When She Cries" with lead singer Marc Beeson. And keyboardist Kurt Howell was a member of the '80s West Coast country band Southern Pacific.

The Doo-Wah Riders, a favorite on the fair and theme-park circuit, will contribute their original brand of country on Sunday. The all-male group has appeared in concert with dozens of "A-list" country artists, from Garth Brooks to George Strait. They've also served as backup band for headliners including Bryan White, Kathy Mattea and Pam Tillis.

Since their formation last year, Billy Tulsa and the Psycho Crawdads have been gaining visibility on the Southern California country music scene. They will appear at the Country Star at Universal Studios on Sept. 13 and are featured in the current issue of Music Connection magazine.

But don't let the name fool you. This is no Cajun-zydeco group. In fact, there is no one named Billy Tulsa, and there are no deranged crustaceans--just four talented guys with more sleeveless suede vests, tattoos and testosterone than a new parolee.

Take the Bakersfield sound popularized by Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and Dwight Yoakam, combine it with the traditional sound of Ray Price, the outlaw image of Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings. Then add some bad-boy Southern rock, Elvis rock-a-billy and the Mavericks.

What you end up with is a quartet of thirtysomething former rockers who have written enough original danceable songs to fill a four-hour club gig.

Like their mentor, Larry Dean, Billy Tulsa and the Psycho Crawdads are songwriters who are also great entertainers. And the Crawdads share the credit for every song.

"As we all tell each other, 'If you quit the band, I'll kill you,' " said John Michael Knowles, lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist. "It's a group effort. With us it's a unit, and you can't replace anybody."

"Their music is a mix of country and a little bit of rock," said Dean, producer of four cuts on their upcoming independent record. "But it's a unique sound. We call it 'Hot Rod Honky Tonk.' "

The band's high-energy live show featuring Knowles, Nelson Blanton (lead guitar, vocals), Levell Price (bass, vocals) and Tony Radford (drums) will give you happy feet.

"But we don't call the dances," said Radford. "We pretty much let the dancers find their own beat and figure it out."

"And we only know about six cover tunes," added Knowles.

Not a problem.

At a recent performance, fans were mouthing the band's original lyrics--a good test for memorable words. And with Price switching from upright to six-string electric bass, the group has a solid bottom rhythm section for dancing.

Three standouts are a rock-a-billy number called "Honey," the tight harmony, in-the-groove shuffle "Million Miles," and a sultry temperature-boosting cha-cha, "Hard to Hold."

Said Knowles: "We're much more traditional than anything you'll hear on so-called 'new country' radio today--which is more like '80s pop music."

"Yeah," added Price. "What we play is 'ya'll-ternative' country music."

BE THERE

Simi Valley's Second Annual Country Music Festival, Tapo Canyon Road and Los Angeles Avenue, Simi Valley. Saturday, noon-10 p.m.; Sunday, noon-7 p.m. Saturday: Love Sick Praire Dogs, 2 p.m.; Chad Watson Band, 3:30 p.m.; Caught Red Handed, 5:30 p.m.; John and Audrey Wiggins, 7 p.m.; Burnin' Daylight, 9 p.m. Sunday: Billy Tulsa and the Psycho Crawdads, 1:30 p.m.; Larry Dean and the Shooters, 3:30 p.m.; Doo-Wah Riders, 5:30 p.m. Tickets are $8 in advance, $10 at the gate, children 12 and under free with a paying adult. (805) 520-4894.

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