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Strike Up the Bands

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Well, local musicians shouldn’t be whining about being left out of another festival in their own town. The first annual Strummin’ n’ Struttin’ Two-Day Musical Extravaganza unfolds this weekend in Ventura with about 40 bands, more than half of them local players, performing within a five-block radius.

One of the most ambitious musical promotions in the city’s history, the festival will feature performances all day Saturday and Sunday at four downtown venues: the Ventura Theatre, Ash Street Gardens, 66 California and Cafe Voltaire.

Promoter Todd Winokur, who also runs Cafe Voltaire and Ash Street Gardens, hopes this wingding will attract as many people downtown as the Hells Angels did, but with fewer cops.

“I want to make this a tourist event so people can find out how cool Ventura really is. People just drive by here and go to Santa Barbara,” Winokur said. “I’d like to see this thing expand to a downtown music festival that results in the closure of downtown, sort of like Street Scene in San Diego or the Bumbershoot [arts festival] in Seattle.”

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The lineup features plenty of good bands, many playing at overlapping times, which may have concertgoers wondering how they can be in two places at once. Solid local acts include Bob Jones, Jimmy Adams and Friends, majority DOG, Jackie Lomax, Randy Rich & the Ravens, Rincon Ramblers and Bombers.

Hot acts from Los Angeles include Rob Rio, Doug MacLeod, Kris Wiley and Dogwood Moon. Famous touring rock stars include John McEuen and the String Wizards and Asleep at the Wheel. In addition, scattered through the weekend will be workshops for players, singers and songwriters.

At some point, concertgoers will need to check in at the Ventura Theatre for wristbands, programs and other details. This is also where to buy that event T-shirt or CDs.

The main headliner will be western swingers Asleep at the Wheel, concluding festivities with a Sunday night gig at the Ventura Theatre. Not even drowsy, let alone asleep, the band has earned half a dozen Grammys during a 28-year run. They’re not on the radio much, so they tour relentlessly. Players come and go--more than 80 so far--but the band keeps evolving.

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Formed by guitarist Ray Benson and some pals in the early ‘70s, the band played in the West Virginia area before relocating to San Francisco. But it’s been based in Austin since 1974, when at home.

Benson has a vast resume of film and television work, commercials and record production, plus he’s a member of countless boards and associations. It’s a wonder he has time to play, but he did have time to chat on the phone.

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All right, so how did a guy from Pennsylvania end up as a spokesman for the “Don’t Mess With Texas” campaign?

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Well, Texas is a state of immigrants, or a “crossroads of cultures” as I like to say. “Don’t Mess With Texas” was actually an anti-litter campaign that was started in the ‘70s. I think I read somewhere that it was the longest-running ad campaign in history, and it worked, too. There were signs on the highway and bumper stickers. People like Stevie Ray Vaughan did commercials, as did a lot of others.

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As a Texan by way of California and Pennsylvania, whose side are you on during those Civil War reenactments?

I have to straddle the fence on that one.

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How do you find time to play?

Music? That’s the core of everything. The real question is when do I find time to play golf.

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What exactly is western swing?

Well, it’s a combination of big band swing and western music. We’re just a Southwestern hybrid of that whole thing. I fell in love with the stuff when I was a little kid and wanted to re-create it.

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Do the swing dancers dig your music?

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Sure, people dress up in western stuff. Not too long ago in Tennessee we played with those guys, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. We had their horn players come up and jam with us--it was real cool. We call them the Hat Band. We do the swing thing, but from a western perspective. We were inspired by Bob Wills, “The King of Western Swing” who played in the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s, and he lived in California. Of course, you know all good Okies, Arkies and Texans moved to California after the war.

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So is anyone still in Texas or are they all here in California?

Oh no, there’s plenty of people in Texas.

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How has country music evolved since you started all this?

Evolved might not be the right word. I think there’s great country music and lousy country music. In 1961, there was great pop music and lousy pop music--it’s just like anything else.

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How do you account for the band’s longevity?

We just do something people want to hear. We’re out on the road a couple of hundred days a year. We just don’t have any other outlets.

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You mean no help from the radio?

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I may be cutting off my nose to spite my face, and I do want them to play our records, but radio is just a mess. Country radio plays the same 30 to 40 songs over and over and over. The terrible thing is that it costs between half a million and a million dollars to launch a first single; and with that price, no one is willing to take a chance on a new band.

Radio wants to make money way too bad and they want young, young, young. I think the only guy over 40 getting any airplay is George Strait. Hey, we’ve got guys in Asleep at the Wheel who are 20 years old, but now all you see anymore is Shania Twain.

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Sure, but Shania Twain is a lot cuter than you guys.

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She’s a lot cuter than me.

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So what happened to radio?

Country music has a great history and radio refuses to incorporate that into its format. Radio used to play Hank Williams Sr. and Merle Haggard, but not anymore. They’ve lost perspective of the tradition, and country music is a tradition-bound music built on the previous generations. You never hear hillbilly music or western swing or Cajun music on the radio anymore. Now everything sounds like the Eagles did in 1978.

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Tell me about a memorable Asleep at the Wheel gig.

That would probably be the next gig we’re gonna do. Well, one time, many years ago, we had a gig in Gonzales, La., and we ended up playing a gig in the Ku Klux Klan hall. We didn’t find out until we got there. At that time, we had a guy in the band that was half black--he kept his hat pulled down over his eyes for the whole show--plus two Jews and two Catholics. We were sweating just to get out of that place. They loved us.

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Why is there so much good music in Texas?

Because there’s a lot of jobs there. Texans, for the last 25 years or so, have had a tradition to go out to see a band, drink beer and dance. And we play dance music, and they need something to dance to. We seem to grab a lot of kids who think our stuff is pretty cool. We provide a place for people with like minds to hang out and have a cultural experience.

BE THERE

BE THERE: Strummin’ n’ Struttin’ Festival, Saturday and Sunday in downtown Ventura. $40 both days or $25 for one day. (805) 641-1743.

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Saturday: Cafe Voltaire, 34 N. Palm St., 641-1743. Carlos Reynosa and Rain (12:30 p.m.), Bob Jones (2:30 p.m.), Sonny Mone (4:30 p.m.), Jim Calire Trio (6:30 p.m.), Rock Stew (8:30 p.m.), Jimmy Adams & Friends (midnight).

Ash Street Gardens, 12 N. Ash St., 648-3284. Vocal workshop with Jodi Farrell (11:30 a.m.), Little Jonny Lawton (1:30 p.m.); songwriter workshop with John McEuen, Tom Kwake and J. Peter Boles (3:15 p.m.); Left of Memphis (5:15 p.m.)

66 California, 66 California St., Ventura, 648-2266. The Swingtones (1 p.m.), Jackie Lomax (5:30 p.m.), Bluer Pastures (8 p.m.), Randy Rich & the Ravens (midnight).

Ventura Theatre, 26 Chestnut St., 653-0721. majority DOG (2 p.m.), the Fender Benders with Jimmy Adams (7 p.m.), MacKinnon’s Scottish Highland Dancers, Bagpipers and Drummers (8:15 p.m.), John McEuen & the String Wizards (9 p.m.), Mark Insley with Albert Lee (10:15 p.m.)

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Sunday: Cafe Voltaire. Total Strangers (10 a.m.), blues guitar workshop with Doug MacLeod (12:30 p.m.), Kris Wiley (3 p.m.), Stevie & the Stealers (5:30 p.m.)

Ash Street Gardens. Suzanne Paris & David Holster (11 a.m.), Jonathan McEuen and Jesse Siebenberg (1 p.m.), Doug MacLeod (3 p.m.)

66 California. Dogwood Moon (11:30 a.m.), Chrissy Lomax (2 p.m.), Kim Gile and Pops D’Grind Orchestra (5 p.m.).

Ventura Theatre. Nicole Falzone (2:30 p.m.); Nashville Style Song Pull with Daniel Moore, Teresa James, Terry Wilson, Danny Timms, Jodi Siegal and Stephen Geyer (6:30 p.m.); Pumping Metal Tappers (8:15 p.m.), Bombers (8:30 p.m.), Asleep at the Wheel (10:15 p.m.)

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