By Melissa Fossum
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By Amanda Savage
By Jason P. Woodbury
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Well, Cajun House in Scottsdale isn't quite as grandiose as Xanadu. And many of its visitors would argue that they've had plenty of great times at the club/theme restaurant. But the similarities aren't difficult to spot.
Cajun House opened in March to an avalanche of hype and anticipation, widely heralded as the grandest and most expensive nightspot ever built in the Valley. Yet, from the very beginning, Cajun House has been dogged with problems. Its proposed name--Cajun House of Blues--required a swift modification when reps of the House of Blues chain objected to the overt similarities. Then, before the $8 million nightspot opened its doors, one of the key players in the project, Jim Carlin, sued for damages after being fired by L.A.-based owner Victor Perrillo.
Once the business got going, it only took a few weeks before guests at the nearby Rodeway Inn started complaining about the extreme noise levels emanating from the open-air venue. In mid-April, facing pressure from the City of Scottsdale, Cajun House ceased booking live music until structural improvements could be made to reduce sound leakage.
Now, Cajun House is back on its feet as a live venue, and raking in considerable money. But nagging complaints in the community continue to spoil its party. For one thing, Carlin has pressed on with his lawsuit, seeking $2 million. Three weeks ago, he deposed Perrillo, who was forced to explain where the club's concept originated. During the same week, co-directors of operations Charles Todd and George Monzures resigned from their positions at Cajun House. Carlin says they were forced out by Perrillo, while entertainment director Glen Parrish insists they left amicably (Perrillo himself declined to respond to New Times' interview requests). Nonetheless, their joint departure struck an odd note considering the cheery tune Monzures sang in a March 16 Arizona Republic story, where he was quoted as saying, "It's like a dream come true for everybody."
Carlin says he created the concept of a New Orleans-style nightclub, and was dropped by Perrillo--whom he calls "the principal maniac"--only when all the logistical hurdles had been cleared. He says the two men had a handshake agreement that Carlin would be a 30 percent owner in the club, a point that Perrillo denies. Supporting Carlin's cause, however, is a liquor-license application which lists Carlin as a 30 percent owner. Carlin says the club is headed for more turmoil because it's run by unqualified people.
"I was the only one there who had any knowledge of the operation of a club or a restaurant," he says. "They've basically taken that concept and destroyed it. The other thing is, all these guys came from somewhere else, like California. I've been in this Valley for nine years, I know everyone in town, I know what these people like, what the market's gonna bear. These guys were completely clueless."
One undeniable fact is that the swampy blues theme originally meant to define the club has become so much window-dressing. Where live music is concerned, the shotgun approach has become the rule.
"I'm all over the board, I'm diversified," says Parrish, a former manager for Fleetwood Mac and Stevie Nicks. "I wanted to keep some blues in here on a regular basis, 'cause that's how they formatted the club when it originally opened. We're more in the vein of the House of Blues with a twist to it. 'Cause the House of Blues does very diversified acts. I won't do any rap, because of the location in Scottsdale, and I won't do any hard-core punk."
While competition among clubs inevitably leads to some strained feelings, Cajun House seems to have aroused more than its share of antipathy from rivals, who see a lot of money being waved around with what looks like little true understanding of the roots music supposedly being celebrated. For the upcoming New Year's Eve show, for instance, the club is paying $4,000 to Louisiana favorite Terrance Simien, as an opening act, no less. While the generous fee--about twice what he would normally command--is well-deserved by the hardworking Simien, it's so out of line with the market, it inevitably leads to some head-scratching.
Can this venue continue to pay such exorbitant sums indefinitely? What will happen to roots artists if the bottom falls out? As with all such theme restaurants, one has to wonder if the short-term benefits outweigh the possible damage done to venues more committed to roots music. Parrish understandably sees his challenge as the need to make Cajun House stand out, regardless of the cost.
"When I first got here, I went and checked out all the blues places in town," he says. "I thought, 'These guys are all great, the local people are all really talented musicians, but they're all doing covers of other people's stuff, basically, and they're playing seven nights a week and just rotating from one place to another.' So the philosophy that I had when we first opened was to bring out-of-town talent in town."