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Going out

Test for the fests

Music events face a choice: Stick with one familiar genre or branch out to find a wider audience.

May 22, 2003|Steve Hochman | Special to The Times

WHEN fans arrive at the Long Beach Bayou Festival at the Queen Mary Events Park on June 21 and 22, the band that will greet them outside the gate might surprise them a bit. Though the group, the Red Stick Ramblers, comes from Baton Rouge in the heart of the Louisiana bayou and includes young musicians raised in the deep Cajun music tradition, some of the music they'll be playing comes from outside the region.

Like Paris. The group plays some old Cajun tunes with impressive authenticity, but it also burns up le jazz hot a la Django Reinhardt, along with bluegrass and western swing in the mix.

To many festival-goers, it might be a nice change of pace. There's plenty of traditional Cajun and zydeco, its Creole cousin, in the lineup this year, with Bruce Daigrepont's Cajun Band, the Creole Farmers and zydeco star Geno Delafose joining the Ramblers (who will do sets on stage as well as at the gate) on the Saturday and Sunday bills.

The Ramblers don't lack for credentials. The lineup includes Eunice, La.-raised fiddler Joel Savoy, whose parents, Marc and Ann, are among the best-known and most-respected figures in the traditional Cajun music world, and have played the Long Beach blowout several times themselves.

But now in its 16th year, presented by and benefiting the Long Beach nonprofit group Comprehensive Child Development, the festival has a core audience that can be very particular about its music.

"Sometimes people call me before a festival and say, 'Have you lost your mind?' " says Franklin Zawacki, founder of the annual event. "We've gone past the traditional. I've widened the spectrum for the purpose that young people might find something new."

A few years ago, Zawacki booked Marcia Ball, a Louisiana-born but Texas-based singer-pianist whose music is rooted in Southern rhythm and blues, not Cajun or zydeco.

"A man came up to me ahead of time at the show and said, 'I want my money back -- she's not Cajun!' " he recalls. "I said, 'I'd be happy to give your money back, but I'll even make a better offer: Stay and listen to her anyway.' After he heard her, he came running up and said, 'You were right. She was great!' "

Zawacki and the Bayou Festival are not alone.

The Southern California summer calendar is filled with music festivals geared toward specific styles, from reggae to jazz to salsa to blues to folk, most of which get little or no commercial radio exposure nationally.

These festivals consist of specialized dates aimed at people of specific tastes. They don't have to compete with such big summer rock tours as OzzFest or Lollapalooza, or with the massive shows put on by the major radio stations, such as the yearly KROQ-FM (106.7) rock-heavy Weenie Roast or the KKBT-FM (100.3) soul and hip-hop Summer Jam.

But each is faced with an annual challenge: how to evolve and expand and bring in new people without alienating the hard-core fans without whom the event would never take place. Can a klezmer band work at the Playboy Jazz Festival? Can English rock star Joe Cocker appeal to the faithful at the Long Beach Blues Festival?

Bill Hardy knew he had some people scratching their heads when he booked Dave Vanian of the English goth-punk band the Damned to play three years ago at the Hootenanny, his American roots-rock blowout. But his idea from the start was to have broad parameters.

"Our concept is that it's all people influenced by Elvis Presley," says Hardy, who started the Hootenanny in 1995.

That has meant he's been able to have some of Presley's fellow rock 'n' roll originators, including Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and, this year, Little Richard.

But shows also have revolved around such punk-era acts as Social Distortion (which has played four of the events and returns this year) and the Clash's Joe Strummer, who died in December.

"My favorite time was watching Buck Owens walk off the stage and the Cramps walk on stage," Hardy says. "It makes no sense at all, unless you see the whole range of things. When I started it nine years ago, it made no sense. Social Distortion and Jerry Lee Lewis? Huh? But I've got to keep it as fresh as I can."

There are, however, festivals where the notion of mixing it up a bit is anathema.

Elaine Weissman, executive director of the California Traditional Music Society, stiffens at the mere suggestion that she might change or expand the concept of the group's annual Summer Solstice Folk Music, Dance and Storytelling Festival, with the 21st edition planned for June 20-22 on the Soka University of America campus in Calabasas.

"Our mission and purpose [is] to keep traditional folk music alive and well. Our festival focuses on teaching, with 150 participatory activities each day. And we have teachers now who were young students 21 years ago when we started, teaching fiddle, mountain dulcimer, dancing, singing, among many other things. It really isn't much different now than it was when we started."

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