Pat Simmons hits the Blues Fest. In a GT interview, The Doobie Brothers’ guitarist/vocalist waxes nostalgic about Santa Cruz, opens up about the band’s origins and ponders the road ahead.
Who knew that the Santa Cruz Blues Festival, which began in 1993 as a one-day Chicago and Texas blues celebration in Aptos Village Park, would be alive and kicking 20 years later? And who could have predicted that the festival would boast a list of past performers that includes B.B. King, Ray Charles, John Lee Hooker, Joe Cocker, Etta James, Bonnie Raitt, Buddy Guy, Bobby “Blues” Bland and Albert Collins?
This year’s festival, which begins Saturday, May 26, is one for the books: Attendees will hear music by The Doobie Brothers, Los Lobos, Tommy Castro & the Painkillers, Los Lonely Boys, Joan Osborne, Coco Montoya with Jimmy Thackery, Jonny Lang, Elvin Bishop with James Cotton, Big Sam’s Funky Nation and The Holmes Brothers. In celebration of the festival’s 20th anniversary, the event will feature a Best of the Blues Yesterday and Today showcase on Sunday. Adding to the fun are a children’s entertainment area and various booths where fans can meet the band members and purchase food, beer, wine, music and memorabilia, including merchandise from past festivals.
Given Santa Cruz’s Doobie-friendly nature, GT decided the Blues Festival was a great excuse to have a friendly phone chat with Pat Simmons, guitarist and vocalist for The Doobie Brothers. Simmons, whose credits include writing the Doobies’ first No. 1 hit, “Black Water,” grew up in San Jose and lived in the Santa Cruz Mountains in the ’60s, during which time he maintained an antique bike shop called Classic Motorcycles of Santa Cruz with then-GT writer William Craddock. To hear his sense of nostalgia for life in the Cruz, you need only listen to his songs “Neal’s Fandango” (from the Doobies’ 1975 album, Stampede: “Goin’ back, I’m too tired to roam/ Loma Prieta, my mountain home/ On the hills above Santa Cruz/ To the place where I spent my youth”) and “Chateau” (from the band’s 2010 album, World Gone Crazy), in which he paid tribute to the Chateau Liberté, a now-defunct Santa Cruz Mountains biker haunt where The Doobie Brothers got their start.
Will local ex-Doobies Tiran Porter and Dale Ockerman be making guest appearances with the band at the Blues Festival? Time will tell …
Good Times: What memories stand out from your Santa Cruz days?
Pat Simmons: I used to play The Catalyst pretty regularly. In ’68, I stopped in to check it out. That was when it was on Front Street. The front of the building was so cool: It was all bricks, but it was all brightly painted in all these multi-colors. It looked like a big Christmas decoration sittin’ in the middle of the street! So I walked in, and the place was half to three-quarters full in the middle of the day. Tom Scribner was playing. He had been a fiddler, and his fingers got cut off while he was working on a logging team. He couldn’t be a fiddler anymore, so he started playin’ the saw. Being a logger, it worked for him. Anyway, here was Tom up onstage in a derby hat ae doobie1playin’ his saw, and another weird-lookin’ old dude with a beard was jamming with him on the bassoon. Can you visualize that? They were playing these old-time songs, you know? ‘Home on the Range’ and stuff. [Laughs] I’m goin’, ‘Wow, what dimension am I in?’ I said, ‘What’s going on?’ and one of the people there said, ‘Oh, it’s open mic. Anybody can play.’ And so I got up and played half a dozen songs or so. I get done, and Randall Kane walks up and says, ‘Hey, you want to play here? I need somebody next weekend. Friday and Saturday. I’ll pay you 50 bucks a night.’ Fifty bucks a night, back then, was like $400, $500 a night! So I ended up playin’ there pretty regularly on and off for a few months.
GT: When you perform a song that you wrote while feeling a strong emotion, does it bring that emotion back up?
PS: Always. It always does, especially if it’s something … I don’t want to say sad, but something that could be bittersweet. You can’t do this 100 percent of the time, because you always have things on your mind, but that advice from most of the modern philosophers and probably a lot of ancient philosophers about living in the moment really helps you to be on top of the game, I think, at any given time. So, if you live in the moment and try to be the song when you’re performing it, then every time, the emotions surrounding the writing of it will come back in the performance. I think that’s a good thing, because that’s what an audience wants—they want to relive the moment.
GT: But is it painful when you’re doing a bittersweet song?
PS: Oh, I think so. Yeah, for sure. But we don’t write many songs that are like, [singing] ‘He died, and we buried him.’ [Laughs] Luckily for us, or we’d probably never get through the set. A lot of the stuff we write is like, ‘Whoa, rockin’ down the highway,’ ‘I want to hear some funky Dixieland’—those kinds of things. ‘Whoa, whoa, China Grove.’ And there are some sad songs. [Lead singer] Tom Johnston wrote a song called ‘Another Park, Another Sunday’—I hear it in his voice when he sings it; I know it comes from an experience that he had. I wrote a song called ‘Far from Home’ for this [most recent] album; it’s about my kids leaving home. When I used to perform it, pretty much every night I would get a little choked up.
GT: The Doobie Brothers have been around for 40 years. did you think the band would stick with it for this long?
PS: No. [Laughs] Absolutely not. Not because I wouldn’t want to, and obviously I do, because I’m still doing it, but just because of the history of music. I have friends that were in bands through the years, and the bands are long gone. It’s one of those things where people go, ‘Don’t you get bored?’ And the answer to that is, ‘Never.’ You always have to be on your toes, and you have to be, in my opinion, as good as you ever were. People won’t accept trashy old rock bands nowadays. At some point, when you’re really old, people go, ‘Yeah, they can’t hit the notes anymore, but man, it’s cool to see ’em still doin’ it.’ Hopefully someday that’ll be the case, and I won’t have to work so hard! But we take pride in being as sharp as we ever were. Probably better, really. In the old days we were so f***ed up on something that we weren’t really bringin’ it. But we bring it every night.
The Santa Cruz Blues Festival takes place Saturday, May 26 and Sunday, May 27 at Aptos Village Park, 100 Aptos Creek Road, Aptos. For tickets and more information, visit santacruzbluesfestival.com.