This post contains complete reviews of this annual festival ...
Community, kin embrace annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
OKEMAH — Arlo Guthrie drove into town by himself in a
pickup truck. Before he appeared on stage Wednesday night
here at the Crystal Theater, Woody Guthrie's younger
sister, Mary Jo Edgmon, insisted the audience sing "Happy
Birthday" to him, his 54th birthday having been Tuesday.
Like a good relative, he grinned and bore it, waving to the
A young woman behind me sighed and chuckled, "It's a
family affair tonight."
And every night this weekend.
That comment nailed the overriding spirit of this year's
Woody Guthrie Folk Festival, the fourth annual folk music
celebration in the late balladeer's hometown organized by
the intra-state Woody Guthrie Coalition. It's all about
family -- immediate, extended and created.
The first two rows at Wednesday night's tribute concert
were full of Guthrie relatives. Don Conoscenti and Ellis
Paul shared the stage that night, and Conoscenti ribbed
Paul about his new haircut; they've spent the week tagging
around town together as if they were actually brothers. As
fans arrive in the campground and at the various Okemah
venues, there are numerous jubilant reunions of old
friends, many of whom see each other once a year -- at this
Larry Long, who is scheduled to perform on the main
stage Saturday night, said in a conversation earlier this
week that this family feeling is exactly why this festival
has remained successful in these early years. Long, an Iowa
native, struggled with a Woody Guthrie tribute concert in
1989 here in Okemah, when the town was still somewhat
divided over honoring its hometown hero (a dispute that
arose because of the communist company Guthrie sometimes
kept in the 40s).
"This festival has a great capacity to do good work and
honor the place that Okemah is," Long said. "When we were
trying it, that's what we wanted to achieve: to make this a
celebration of the traditions that nurtured Woody, his
sense of love of community and place and the family
traditions that make places like Okemah so delightful."
A sense of community and a laid-back spirit made Wednesday
night's tribute concert all the more enjoyable. For the
first time in the festival's four years, though, the
Wednesday night show had a handful of empty seats, largely
because previous kick-off shows have featured big-name
talent. This year the Wednesday fund-raiser was the annual
tribute concert modeled after the bi-coastal tributes
following Guthrie's death in 1967. Nearly two dozen
performers cycled through the show, performing Guthrie
songs between readings of Guthrie's prose.
But the lack of mega-commercial giants on the historic
Crystal stage hardly dampened the energy or worth of the
ticket. Instead, performers and audience were able to let
their hair down and experience the occasional magic that
occurs when everyone laughs and thinks, "Well, we're all
Of course, when a reviewer begins carping about the
laid-back spirit of a performance, that usually means the
sound system was bad and the performers forgot some words
and there were some production mistakes. Some and maybe all
of these things were true Wednesday night. The crucial
difference is that nothing seriously derailed the show -- or
the moments of magic -- and if there's somebody out there
complaining I'd be real surprised.
The first magic moment came early, on the fourth song.
Conoscenti and Paul together sang Guthrie's eerie portrait
of a Vigilante Man, accompanied only by Conoscenti's
Kokopeli-painted banjo. He played the song with a ghostly
tension and foreboding, and Paul's piercing harmony gave it
an unearthly feel. The song marched like a posse through
the darkness, evoking Stephen Stills live performances of
"Black Queen." They kept their eyes locked on each other from
start to finish -- who knows if they'd ever performed this
together before? -- and the audience barely breathed.
The second breath-taker was nicely balanced, the fourth
song from the end. Mary Reynolds, a native of Oklahoma
City, played and sang "Hobo's Lullaby." It's not as important
to say that she played the song as it is to say she sang
it. Reynold's voice is a clarion call, a beautiful and
controlled birdsong, and with the help of two friends
backing her with harmonies, the performance was as if three
angels were hovering over a lonely hobo in a dank boxcar,
their voices alone filling him with hope.
Those were the jaw-droppers. Other great moments
included Slaid Cleaves' chilling reading of "1913 Massacre,"
a festival repeat that never gets old; a fiery (but not
brimstony) run through "Jesus Christ" by the versatile and
spunky trio Still on the Hill; and the playful -- and only
barely cheesey -- dialogue between the Farm Couple on
After the all-star finales -- with every performer from
the night crammed on the stage for "Hard Travelin'"
(jumpstarted by Paul, who belts it out with gusto),
"Oklahoma Hills" and "This Land Is Your Land" -- half the
audience hung around chatting and meeting the musicians.
The theater sweepers eventually had to shove people out the
door. There was no boundary between star and fan, no
rushing off to an ivory tour bus. This is folk music, after
all, and the folks gathered here this weekend are one big
Audience heats up on opening evening
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
OKEMAH — Pity the band with that first set.
It's Thursday evening at the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival
-- on an outdoor stage, in July, in Oklahoma, for Pete's sake
-- the sun's still high enough in the sky to make misery, and
nobody is fool enough to be out in the heat.
Well, some folks were. A dedicated stage crew and about
30 fans when the first band started.
"What in tarnation are we doing out here?" asked a fan to
no one in particular.
By the time Xavier finished its opening set, though, the
crowd was coming on, hauling lawn chairs and fans into the
field where the Pastures of Plenty main stage looms. By the
time the Red Dirt Rangers brought down the rafters, the
audience was several hundred strong.
Xavier is the band featuring Abe Guthrie -- son of Arlo
Guthrie and thus grandson of the festival's honored
namesake. They've come a long way, baby. What was once a
clunky and often ill-advised heavy metal band has matured
over the last decade into a tight and buoyant
Southern-sounding rock band.
The quartet opened the main stage festival by singing an
a cappella version of the Beatles' "Nowhere Man," no doubt a
ringer in their repertoire but an ironic opening to the
festival; the song describes an anonymous slacker who
couldn't be more the reverse of Woody Guthrie's do-or-die
gumption. The rest of the band's set chugged ahead
unfettered, maintaining the same sharp harmonies through
rootsy rock that see-sawed between Alabama's rockin' side
and Little Feat's country side.
But the heat was getting to them, too.
"We're from Massachusetts, so this hundred degrees is a
bit different for us," guitarist Randy Cormier said from the
stage. "We just shoveled out our last bit of snow up there."
As the sun dipped behind the Okemah hill, the Thursday
night main stage bill continued to shine. Grammy-winner
Pierce Pettis slipped by, and Lucy Kaplansky (who's
performed with everyone, from Shawn Colvin and Dar Williams
to John Gorka and Bill Morrissey) played a beautiful,
subdued set, which included a surprising cover of Roxy
Music's "More Than This."
Slaid Cleaves moseyed his way through a batch of songs
that further proves he is one of the most talented singers
out of Austin, Texas (if not the reincarnation of Cisco
Houston himself). He led off with his current hit, "Broke
Down," before singing a character sketch of a very colorful
character. The song included a couple of yodels, which both
generated their own applause. When fellow Austin musician
Darcie Deaville joined him onstage, she ribbed him about
the yodeling. "I got that from Don Walser," Cleaves said, and
the two of them then played a Walser tune. Cleaves later
added his own, festival-centric verses to Guthrie's "I Aint
Got No Home" and then closed with a haunting, pre-"Mermaid
Avenue" collaboration with Guthrie: Cleaves' tune to a 1940
Guthrie lyric, "This Morning I Was Born Again."
The Red Dirt Rangers closed the show with their usual
backbeat, once again being the first festival act to get
audience members on their feet dancing. They opened with
"Rangers Command," a groove-greased Guthrie original and the
title track from their latest album. Later, they played a
tune by the late Benny Craig, a former Ranger and a
much-missed and talented multi-instrumentalist. The tune,
called "Leave This World a Better Place," was unusually funky
for Craig -- or was that the Rangers? -- but its lyrical
sentiments were perfect for a festival honoring a scrappy
songwriter who tried his utmost to leave the world just
Off-stage activities sometimes outshine headliners
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
OKEMAH — The Woody Guthrie Folk Festival has grown
substantially in its four years, so much so that the
experience involves much more than the evening headliners
in the pasture. Music and other activities continue
throughout the day, especially on the weekend. Here's a
round-up of some of the magic moments from around Woody
Guthries hometown this weekend:
It's not in the brochure
This festival offers an awful lot of music for the
hungry folk fan, but there's even more available than fans
find printed in the official schedule. Sometimes the best
shows of the week occur at about 4 in the morning in the
parking lot of the OK Motor Lodge. That's the only motel in
town, and during the festival it's full of musicians and
concert organizers. Musicians often live by the slogan,
"I'll sleep when I'm dead," so when they get home after the
night's gigs, many of them pull lawn chairs into a corner
of the parking lot and swap songs until dawn.
Friday night (er, Saturday morning), for instance, found
Jimmy LaFave, Bill Erickson, Bob Childers, Terry Ware,
Emily Kaitz, members of Xavier and scattered Red Dirt
Rangers camped out with several fans and budding musicians
softly strumming tunes in the cool July night. Kaitz had
her stand-up bass on the blacktop and lightened the mood
early on with a song about bass players taking over the
world and righting its fret-ful wrongs.
Erickson tried unsuccessfully to lead a sing-along ("I
guess they're too tired," he later muttered; of course, he
actually said tarred), and LaFave coursed the group through
"You Ain't Going Nowhere." Dawn usually found a handful of
these desperados still fumbling through "Sweet Home
Coffee, black as night
Those all-night parking-lot sessions take their toll,
though, when you're scheduled to perform the next morning.
Of course, 12:40 p.m. isn't morning to most of us, but it's
the crack of dawn to most guitar-slingers. Bob Childers
needed a lot of coffee Friday morning.
His early afternoon set at the Brick Street Cafi may
have been slow going at first, but Green Country native
Childers is armed with a wily charm that squeezed through
his own squinting eyes. Thanks to a Brick Street waitress
who kept his coffee mug topped off on stage ("I'm loving you
right now," Childers said as she poured him coffee at the
microphone, "I'm gonna write a song about you"), the
early-bird crowd learned or was reminded of Childer's tall
talents as a songwriter. He muddled his way through
original classics such as "Sweet Okie Girl," "Restless Spirit"
and his appropriate finale, the eloquent "Woody's Road." Just
when he thought he was off to bed, the crowd hooted for an
encore, a rarity on the afternoon indoor stages.
Can I see some I.D.?
At this or any other music festival, the surest way to
find great performers is to follow the performers. See the
shows the musicians see, and your eyes and ears will rarely
be sore. Case in point: the crowd for Dustin Pittsley was
practically half the festival roster.
Pittsley is another hot blues phenom, a teenager fresh
out of Chandler High School. He recently placed third in
the "Jam With Kenny Wayne Shepherd" contest, and his looks
and licks are dead ringers for that blues guitar upper
classman. He wailed on an acoustic guitar Saturday
afternoon inside the Brick Street Cafi while pal Smiley
Dryden huffed on harmonica and main-stage star Kevin Bowe
sat in on a few of Pittsley's groove-jammed originals. A
name to know.
A harp with no strings
"We got accused once of being a bluegrass band," said
DoublNotSpyz singer John Williams midway through the band's
Friday set at the Brick Street Cafi. "We had all the
instruments. It was an easy mistake."
He then launches into a song with a Jew's harp solo.
Easy mistake, indeed.
The DoublNotSpyz (ask a "Beverly Hillbillies" fan to
explain the name) are more than mere bluegrass, though, and
Williams is often the proof. He was tapped as a favorite
harmonica player throughout the festival, especially during
Wednesday night's tribute concert and that's the instrument
through which he rocks the hardest.
He's more interesting to listen to than big-shots like
Blues Traveler's John Popper because Williams wailing isn't
just self-aggrandizing improvisation; Williams sticks by
the melody being steered by singer and co-songwriter Larry
Spears and keeps his audience in the song, not the
spotlight. His harp-heaving alone received a standing
Coming into his own
Austin-based singer-songwriter Michael Fracasso started
his set Saturday afternoon in the Crystal Theater with his
poignant, droning reflection on the 1950s, and he ended
with a song called "1962." The timespan framed him well: his
naked, honest songs are deeply rooted in that era of folk
music's second great revival, the same era that inspired a
In white T-shirt and cuffed blue jeans, Fracasso's
rugged Rust Belt looks belied his sensitive nature. It's
that sensitivity that produces such beautifully crafted
original songs ("Wise Blood," inspired by the novel "The Last
Temptation of Christ," was enormously uplifting) and is able
to tap into vast new realms of emotion buried deep within
His reading of Guthrie's "1913 Massacre," for instance, is
a masterpiece of vocal and acoustic dynamics. I've heard
that song and even his rendition of it dozens of times, but
I must confess: Saturday's performance of it flooded my
eyelids more than a bit. That's how folk songs stay alive
in the hearts of the people.
Everything's new, again
This happens every year, and Friday afternoon was no
different. A young guy or his girlfriend stumble wide-eyed
down Okemah's bustling Main Street. They're brand new to
the festival, no doubt, and they stop a stranger to ask
about the goings-on. Then one of them asks, from a well of
perfect innocence, "So when does Woody Guthrie perform?"
Woody, we hardly knew ye.
Woody Guthrie Festival draws together friends and family
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
OKEMAH — Near the end of his Saturday night set
headlining the Pastures of Plenty main stage, Arlo Guthrie,
son of the namesake of this weeks Woody Guthrie Folk
Festival, started a sweet old tune by one of his dad's
"There've been enough people playing songs by my dad. I'd
like to play a song by one of his friends. That's kind of
what this festival is about a festival of friends," Guthrie
Indeed, the four-day festival this year glowed with the
jubilation of reunited friends and renewed family ties, in
the audience and backstage. Some company used to offer a
long-distance calling plan called "Friends and Family," and
this fourth Woody Guthrie Folk Festival could have flown
that same banner.
The unseasonably cool and clear weather, which came
through late Thursday night -- just before the festival
schedule reached its full intensity outdoors -- aided both
attitude and attendance. Friday and Saturday shows at the
outdoor stage were crowded, despite organizers nervousness
about not having a big name on the festival bill this
All that big-name talk is more than a little insulting
to Arlo, though, who is hardly a slouch. For a festival
honoring his late folksinging father, he's plenty big
enough and clearly draws and holds a large crowd.
Austin songwriter Jimmy LaFave mentioned during his
Friday night set that he wishes the festival were called
the Woody and Arlo Guthrie Folk Festival. Arlo has
performed at each Guthrie festival thus far and has
remained dedicated to the gathering, which brings together
a good chunk of his relatives, too. After his performance
at Wednesday night's tribute concert, he hardly had time to
talk to fans and media; there were too many relatives to
greet. For Arlo, this is a family affair, in every
In fact, backing him up Saturday night was Xavier, the
band featuring Arlos son, Abe. (Sara Lee, Arlos daughter
who thrilled audiences at last years festival, could not
attend this year because she's finishing an album.) Xavier
had opened the outdoor stage on Thursday night with a
powerful blend of homey harmonies and taut rock, which
beefed up Arlos songs considerably.
We've heard Arlo strumming and wheezing through his
songs so many years now that we forget how tightly they
usually are written and how easily they can rock if given
to the right band. The Xavier boys gave Arlo some muscle
and breadth through "Coming to Los Angeles," "Chilling of the
Evening" (which opened the show as a tribute to the weather,
perhaps?), and a springy version of the blues classic "St.
Preceding Arlo was the Joel Rafael Band, another family
affair. Playing violin for her dad was Jamaica Rafael, who
also sang a creeping and eventually moving version of
Woody's "Pastures of Plenty."
Joel sang a few Guthrie songs with his inimitable
patience and grace, as well as his talking tune about his
first visit to Okemah and this festival a few years ago.
The song describes his surprise upon being unable to find a
parking space outside of Lou's Rocky Road Tavern in Okemah
that first night. As a result of the song and the familial
friendship kindled between Joel and Lou, there's a sign up
outside the bar reserving a space especially for him in
Friday nights main-stage lineup was almost one big
Vance Gilbert, Don Conoscenti and Ellis Paul have been
close friends for several years now, and they played the
Woody Guthrie Folk Festival this year one after another, in
"We hardly ever get to play together, or even see each
other for long stretches of time, being out on the road as
much as we are," Paul said Saturday afternoon.
From the stage Friday night, after inviting Conoscenti
to join him for a couple of songs (including "3,000 Miles"),
Paul said, "I haven't played with Don in about six months.
It's a lot like not having sex for six months."
Go ahead, snicker, but these guys really think that much
of each other. Gilbert even performed a song he had written
years ago for Paul, a semi-bitter broken-hearted lament
about Paul's plans to move from their Boston base to
Nashville. Its an amazing song, "Taking It All to Nashville,"
expressing deep love between two (heterosexual) men, and it
was the jewel of Gilbert's set.
"I'm not mad at him anymore," Gilbert said from the stage
after finishing the song. "He moved back to Boston."
Gilbert's performance was amazingly powerful. He dished
the sass between songs, joking that "LaFave sounded blacker
than I do, like a cross between Bob Dylan and Al Green," but
his songs couldn't be sweeter or more delicately
constructed. His voice is like butter, and when he was
called back for an encore -- not a given occurrence at this
festival, by any means -- he showcased it by stepping into
the audience, sans microphone, and singing a moving myth
called "The King of Rome." He is definitely a new member of
the festival family.
Oddly enough, though, for all the spirit of camaraderie
and family, I never heard anyone on stage Saturday night,
the festival's climax, wish Woody a happy 89th birthday.
That is, after all, the reason this festival occurs in the
hottest possible part of the summer; Woody Guthrie was born
on July 14, 1912.
If the festival maintains the strength it enjoyed this
year (on what organizers thought might be a slow year), he
may be reborn again every July in a pasture west of his old
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
Kevin Bowe and his band, the Okemah Prophets, performed
in Okemah for the first time at last year's Woody Guthrie
Folk Festival. They lucked out with an indoor cafe show
during the heat of an afternoon, and their Ramblin' Jack
Elliott-meets-the Replacements songs bowled over a crowd of
Guthrie fans, including Guthrie cohort (and last year's
headliner) Pete Seeger. After the Prophets' fiery set,
Seeger even remarked, "That's different, but of course I
Kevin Bowe and his band will be back at the Woody
Guthrie Festival this week -- with a high-profile slot on the
outdoor main stage Saturday night -- and Bowe says he's eager
to return. His road to Okemah from his native Minneapolis
has been a long and winding one (appropriately for an
acolyte of the festival's namesake) and owes its coming
full circle to the magic of the Internet. Last year, one of
the festival organizers entered "Okemah" into an online
search engine just to see what returns would come up;
suddenly he was reading about this Minneapolis-based band
called the Okemah Prophets and led by a widely acclaimed
songwriter (who's written for the likes of Jonny Lang, Leo
Kottke, Peter Case, Chuck Prophet, Delbert McClinton and
more). Two phone calls later, they were booked.
In an interview from his Minnesota home this week, Bowe
retraced his circuitous route from young punk to
Guthrie-influenced songwriter and band leader.
TC: How and when did you discover Woody?
KB: Well, I'm 40 years old. My musical coming of age was
in the '70s. Music had gotten so awful by the late '70s
with the corporatization of rock. I mean, I first listened
to radio as a young teen, when FM was freeform and had no
playlists. You'd hear Led Zeppelin segue into John Prine.
The first record I bought was by Taj Mahal because I'd
heard it on the radio and liked it. By the late '70s it was
all Foreigner and Heart, and I felt very disenfranchised by
the shift. So I started listening to older music. I
discovered country through this weird genealogy: "Exile on
Main Street" (by the Rolling Stones) has pedal steel on it,
and investigating that I found Gram Parson, and through
that discovered the Byrds' "Sweetheart of the Rodeo," and
then you get to Hank Williams Sr. and it's all over. I
probably discovered Woody through Bob Dylan. I mean, I'm a
Jewish guy from Minnesota -- who else am I going to be
listening to, right?
TC: What grabbed you about Woody's music, though?
KB: By the time I discovered Woody Guthrie, I was more
of a songwriter than a band guy. I was focused on writing
more than performing. That's what grabbed me about him. In
the introduction to (Guthrie's novel) "Bound for Glory," Pete
Seeger says that any damn fool can write complicated, but
it takes a genius to write simple. Also, the humor in
Woody's stuff -- that grim humor.
TC: The sense of humor is crucial to understanding
Woody. Someone mentioned to me the other day that the
reason they don't like the film of "Bound for Glory" is that
David Carradine (who played Guthrie) has no sense of
KB: Sure. I mean, it seems to me like Woody Guthrie was
having a great time. He was pissed about certain things,
and rightfully so, but he was all about having a good time
while bringing down the man, you know? ... I was reminded
of Woody a little bit recently when I was watching a
bio-pic of Abbie Hoffman called "Steal This Movie." I rented
it because I have a song in it, which I just found out
about. Anyway, I'd always regarded Hoffman as a bit of a
clown, but this movie's position was that he was into using
humor to bring down the corrupt forces in government. That
reminded me of Woody.
TC: Tell me why you wound up primarily a songwriter
instead of a front man.
KB: When you pick up a guitar at 13, you don't think, "My
goal is to make a living writing songs for people younger
and more talented than me." I've been in moderately
successful bands, but when you hit 30 and the people you
went to high school with are becoming really successful,
you start to evaluate your strengths. I was sitting there
going nowhere, playing in a bar one night, and there was a
producer in the audience named David Z (Prince, Jonny
Lang). He talked to me afterward and said, "Your band is OK,
but your songs are really something. Maybe I could use some
sometime." Our first project together was placing my song
"Riverside" on Jonny Lang's first album. We've worked on a
lot of projects since, and my career now is flying around
to work with different artists, writing songs.
TC: I read somewhere that Paul Westerberg was
instrumental in your turn from performance to writing.
KB: For me, it's all about Bob Dylan and Paul
Westerberg. I don't know if this goes over well at a folk
festival, but punk rock was a huge thing for me.
TC: Of course, it goes over well. The first year of the
festival Billy Bragg was on stage explaining how Woody was
the original punk.
KB: Well, yeah. You're either
someone who gets punk or doesn't, and that's part of my
enjoyment of Woody Guthrie. He was more punk than most
punks. The Replacements -- well, there's never been a better
band, but I don't think Westerberg thinks of himself as a
punk. He happened to be an unnaturally gifted songwriter in
a punkish band.
TC: Your bio makes a point of mentioning your childhood
in Minnesota, how you were half Irish and half Serbian in
the land of Scandinavian settlers. How did that affect your
songwriting, and do you think it was anything like being an
Okie in California?
KB: Oh yeah. Actually, I feel the same way up here that
Woody must have felt in Okemah -- a stranger in a strange
land. We've never fit into the scene up here. When we play
here, we can't get arrested. But when we play in Nashville
or Austin or Okemah, it's a big deal. We refer to Okemah as
TC: And why did you call your Minneapolis band the
KB: In Bound for Glory, Woody describes the town lunatic
and calls him the Okemah prophet. He's this guy in the town
square who babbles and dances. I've spent a lifetime on
stage doing just that. The prophet doesn't think he's
babbling, of course, but the people walking by are going,
"Yeah, right, there's the prophet." It's the story of my
life, playing in bars. That's why it's nice to get to
Okemah where the prophets are now at least listened to.
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.