By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Woody Guthrie, despite his aw-shucks Okie persona, was no fool. He knew how the fame game worked — it hasn't changed much, even since his 1940s folksinging heyday — and he seemed to know exactly what would happen to his own musical legacy.
"The hungrier you get up here in New York, the more they run your picture," Guthrie wrote to his younger sister in 1949, inserting a photo of himself from The New York Times. "After you starve clean to the rim of death they call you a professional, and after you die off they call you a great genius."
He continued, foreshadowing the collection of his notebooks, lyrics and artwork that now constitutes the Woody Guthrie Archives: "And when somebody steps in and buys up all of your diaries and scribblings and songs and poems they call you the greatest feller which ever lived, so's your debtors and loaners can get rich off the stink of your dead bones and yaller pages of ideas."
Guthrie himself certainly never got rich off his music, and I don't think anyone else has, either. But as Nora Guthrie, Woody's daughter and the overseer of the Archives, told me earlier this year, "The influence of my father's music lives today, and will live throughout the 21st century."
That would have been clear this year — even without a string of celebrations marking Guthrie's 100th birthday.
In a post-Occupy landscape, Guthrie's topical, rabble-rousing spirit seems infused into everything from the street-marching "guitararmy" in New York City and elsewhere, often led by Chicago-area native Tom Morello, to the latest output from Bruce Springsteen (his new album, his SXSW keynote speech).
The varied Woody100 centennial events this year featured many posthumously hailing Guthrie, indeed, as a "great genius." They included six academic conferences (I spoke at one in March in my and Guthrie's home state), folk concerts big (a Los Angeles hoedown in April featuring Graham Nash, John Doe, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Kris Kristopherson and more) and small (Chicago's own tribute show in May), plus exhibits, plays and more. A few more national concerts are on tap — Sept. 22 in Brooklyn (with Pete Seeger, Judy Collins, Billy Bragg, Steve Earle and more) and Oct. 14 at D.C.'s Kennedy Center (with Arlo Guthrie, John Mellencamp, Jackson Browne, Donovan, Lucinda Williams and more) — before wrapping the centennial and moving the Archives from New York to its new home in Tulsa, Okla.
Chicagoans can catch one last centennial event — a good one — during the next few weeks.
"Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie," a stage musical presenting just that, opens Sept. 21 and runs through Oct. 21 at Northlight Theatre, inside the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd. in Skokie.
Guthrie and Broadway? Have no fear. "Woody Sez" is a low-key, high-spirited celebration of Guthrie's music, featuring 30 folk songs (Guthrie's and other traditional tunes). It's far less jukebox musical than a kind of down-home playlist — a splendid swirl of tunes coming and going, each telling and supporting the story.
The Northlight production — featuring the show's creators, Nick Corley (director) and David M. Lutken (starring as Guthrie) — features a simple stage littered with musical instruments: four guitars, mandolin, upright bass, autoharp, dobro, three fiddles, banjo, dulcimer and a harmonica. In an hour and a half, the four actor-musicians keep snatching them up for a verse here, a chorus there, a full song or a reprise. This is how Guthrie lived — applying bits of songs to aid both speech and memory — and it's not so different a method from our own YouTube samples and iPod shuffles. Guthrie just happened to be a walking folk-music Google.
Lutken is great, warmly telling Guthrie's story and differing from his source material only in ways that aren't exactly complaints (unlike Guthrie, Lutken is a tall drink of water and sings beautifully). The cast also features David Finch, the delightful Helen Jean Russell and Austin musician (and formidable "Jill of all trades") Darcie Deaville. They act, they sing, they juggle, they tell bipartisan political jokes.
(There might even be an unintentional gay-marriage laugh in the show. "I married a girl," Lutken narrates as Guthrie, then continues after a slight but significant beat, "Most of us did in those days" — likely an innocent Guthrieism that the Sept. 14 audience reacted to with a slow wave of winking chuckles. Ever-adaptable, that Woody.)
Knitted together by verses from Guthrie's "The Ballad of Tom Joad," "Woody Sez" hopscotches through the folksinger's biography (in fact, taking giant leaps through his later years), ably chronicling what happens when a man with a singular voice not only finds it but figures out what to do with it. "I began to see the difference," Lutken says as Guthrie, "between wanting something to stop — and wanting to stop it."
Guthrie's legacy remains a bottomless well of inspiration for like-minded souls, and these centennial celebrations hopefully seeded more to come.
Deep down, though, Guthrie knew something else about celebrity, and — despite his pure and sainted status — he was happy for the attention. Perhaps channeling Oscar Wilde, he closed a 1948 manuscript with these lines: "I don't care / What you say about me / Just so you say it."
'WOODY SEZ; THE LIFE AND MUSIC OF WOODY GUTHRIE'
• Sept. 21-Oct. 21
• Northlight Theatre, inside the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd. in Skokie.
• Tickets: $25-$72; (847) 673-6300; northlight.org
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Early in October 1997, Billy Bragg and his manager, Peter Jenner, finished a couple of concerts in Pennsylvania and jumped into a car. Bragg and the band Wilco had not yet begun recording their groundbreaking reinventions of Woody Guthrie songs, and Bragg had to see something before they started.
In a couple days, they were knocking around Okemah, Okla., Guthrie's birthplace — walking Main Street to see Woody's name carved in the cement back in the '20s, picking over the overgrown ruins of his childhood home.
People in Okemah are used to this. Guys with guitars make the pilgrimage year-round. The house is in ruins largely because so many wanna-be folkies have carried off its stones as souvenirs. Bragg, a noted British folk-rocker for more than three decades now, only turned heads when he flashed his accent.
"It seemed to me that if we were going to get in close to Woody then we needed to come and at least see Okemah," Bragg told me that day. He also came up to Tulsa, where I was writing then, and a great tip lead to a long interview. "You can read so much both of what Woody wrote about Oklahoma and what subsequent biographers have written, but we wanted to actually come down here and see what it looks like now — take that contemporary feel away with us — and to go out to Okemah and walk the streets that Woody walked and talk to the people about how they feel about him ... We're just trying to get a feel for it."
Bragg channeled that feel into the first volume of "Mermaid Avenue," recorded the following January and released in June 1998. This was the first major, full-length record using lyrics from the then-freshly opened Woody Guthrie Archives, songs for which Guthrie ("This Land Is Your Land") wrote down the words but not the tunes.
To add to the proper Americana feel of the newly crafted music, Bragg recruited Chicago's Wilco. With only two albums out, Wilco then was still saddled as "rootsy." After "Mermaid Avenue," the band began moving in fresher musical directions on the high-waterline albums "Summerteeth" and "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot."
For "Mermaid Avenue," Bragg and Wilco recorded dozens of tracks. Fifteen were released initially, and another 15 on "Mermaid Avenue, Vol. 2" (2000). Two months ago, a box set was released featuring both volumes, plus a third (17 more songs) and a DVD of the album's making-of documentary, "Man in the Sand."
Their collaboration paved the way for scores of others — a wide range of musicians who have since spelunked through the Archives and revived hundreds of Guthrie's thousands of lost songs. Lou Reed, Rob Wasserman, Jonatha Brooke, Nellie McCay, Michael Franti, the Klezmatics, the Dropkick Murphys, Corey Harris, Natalie Merchant, My Morning Jacket's Jim James, David Amram, even Jeff Tweedy's former partner in Uncle Tupelo, Jay Farrar — all have posthumously collaborated with Guthrie in the years since "Mermaid Avenue."
It was a difficult beginning, though. "Man in the Sand," an odd film, documents the difficult "Mermaid" recording sessions. Tensions ran a bit high between Bragg and Wilco's Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett; by the end of the film they're not speaking, and there's no real explanation.
"When Nora approached me, the deal I made was that I chose the musicians," Bragg told me later, in July 1998. "She was very concerned that this not sound like a tribute record. Tributes are nice ideas, but they're often focused on the personalities of the people who record them. We wanted to focus on the artist."
So why Wilco?
"They sound like the ultimate Midwest Americana red-dirt band," Bragg said. "Jeff Tweedy is a marvelous songwriter, too. He really understood what we were doing."
This year is the centennial of Guthrie's birth, with months of celebrations are scheduled across the country, including last month's Guthrie tribute at Metro with Tom Morello as well as next weekend's 100th Birthday Celebration back at the Old Town School featuring Nora Guthrie, Bucky Halker and more (7:30 p.m. June 30, $21-$25). So Bragg is back on the road in America playing some of the "Mermaid Avenue" songs. His concerts feature one set of his own songs, another of Guthrie's.
If you have high hopes of Wilco members joining Bragg during either of his two shows this weekend in Chicago, it's not to be. The band has its own two-night stand this weekend at the Red Rocks Amphitheater in Denver. Wilco still plays "Mermaid Avenue" songs on rare occasions.
Bragg also will be leading a songwriting workshop titled "Why Write a Song? The Art of Communication in the Digital Age" at 11 a.m. June 23 in Szold Hall at the Old Town School. Registration is $35 at (773) 728-6000 and oldtownschool.org.
• 8 p.m. June 22-23
• Old Town School of Folk Music, Maurer Concert Hall, 4544 N. Lincoln Ave.
• Tickets: $36-$40; (773) 728-6000; oldtownschool.org
This post contains my complete running coverage of this annual conference and festival ...
© Chicago Sun-Times
This SXSW post is not brought to you by an Austin homeless person
By Thomas Conner on March 13, 2012 6:09 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Perhaps you've heard that the zeitgeist at the annual South by Southwest culturefest is now located in the Interactive segment, rather than the conference's original Music portion. Must be true — the first real controversy of SXSW 2012 occurred before many music critics had landed in the Texas capital.
SXSW is now a 10-day event encompassing rollouts of films, digital ventures and new music. The movies and online jibber-jabber started March 9; the music blares on through March 18.
But it's a crowded event, with celebrities, journalists and industry types jamming the Austin Convention Center and venues throughout downtown. Last year, nearly 20,000 registrants attended the Interactive portion — which wraps up today, just as the Music showcases begin tonight. As you might imagine, mobile bandwidth comes at a premium.
So BBH Labs, the techie division of the marketing agency BBH, tried a little experiment.
They gathered 13 people from a local homeless shelter, gave them mobile 4G Wi-Fi devices and sent them into the throng. Each volunteer wore a T-shirt saying, "I'm [Homeless Person's Name], a 4G Hotspot."
Many have found the campaign insensitive. Wired.com wrote that it "sounds like something out of a darkly satirical science-fiction dystopia." Technology blog ReadWriteWeb called it a "blunt display of unselfconscious gall." In an online op-ed, The Washington Post wondered "Have we lost our humanity?"
The company paid the homeless workers $20 up front and a minimum of $50 a day for about six hours work, said Emma Cookson, chairwoman of BBH New York. They also were able to keep whatever customers donated in exchange for the wireless service.
When you log on to one of the Homeless Hot Spots sites, customers are introduced to the person providing the connection and are invited to make a donation. A statement on the page reads: "Homeless Hotspots is a charitable innovation initiative by BBH New York. It attempts to modernize the Street Newspaper model employed to support homeless populations."
Saneel Radia, the BBH Labs director who oversaw the project, told the New York Times the company was not taking advantage of the homeless volunteers.
Other might want to get in on the action, though. My cab driver from the airport said, "Hell, they can load up my cab and I'll drive around with a hundred hotspots, long as I can keep the meter running."
SXSW dials down the digital, cranks up the music
By Thomas Conner on March 14, 2012 9:00 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — Let the music begin. For days here in the Texas capital, tastemakers from digital ventures and the film industry have been unveiling their wares at the South by Southwest culture conference. Tuesday night, however, the programming shifted back to what built SXSW a quarter century ago: music.
More than 2,000 bands will roll their gear into Austin during the next few days, performing on more than 90 official stages. Last year, more than 16,000 registrants attended the music portion of the festival, including artists, publicists, industry scouts and a lot of media.
Music is a hot topic among digital pioneers, of course, so concert stages were under way earlier in the week. Hip-hop titan Jay-Z performed Monday night for an invitation crowd.
Tuesday night, as the Interactive sessions died down, the music showcases revved up. Last year was the first time music showcases started backing into the Tuesday of SXSW week, and there were more this year.
Chief among them was the return of Philly singer-rapper Santigold, acclaimed upon her 2008 debut and not heard from much since. Now she's out hyping her upcoming sophomore set, "Master of My Make-Believe," due May 1.
This being Austin, there was also a crowded fete for the loveable and quirky Daniel Johnston, a beloved area singer-songwriter.
The music programming starts in earnest today and continues through the weekend, with Bruce Springsteen giving the keynote address midday Thursday and performing later that night with the E Street Band, which launches its next tour this weekend.
Got a SiriusXM radio or a friend who does? The SiriusXMU channel is airing SXSW broadcasts all week, including the Friday night outdoor concert by the Shins.
SXSW: Alabama Shakes deserves the hype
By Thomas Conner on March 14, 2012 5:06 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Buzz bands at the annual South by Southwest music conference have a lot in common with those who win best new artist at the Grammys. You tend to not hear much from them afterward. (Last year, conference attendees and wristband fans clawed over each other to get into showcases by London fuzz-rock band Yuck. Who? Exactly.)
Possibly the buzziest of the buzz bands at this year's SXSW (so far) is Alabama Shakes — but this is a band you're going to hear much more from.
Fresh out of the piney woods just an hour downriver from the legendary soul studios at Muscle Shoals — and with only a couple of EPs to their credit thus far — Alabama Shakes is a fiery quintet of youngsters playing country-soul that both Skynyrd and Otis could love.
The anticipation generated one of the largest crowds ever for a daytime showcase at the Austin Convention Center, with several hundred filling a ballroom for the group's Wednesday afternoon performance. The band just played a sold-out gig last weekend at Chicago's Lincoln Hall.
For the most part, the hype is deserved. Lead singer Brittany Howard is a cool storm, one of those young singers exuding confidence beyond her years and presence possibly beyond this earthly realm. She pulls her accent back, often singing through rounded cheeks that add an extra dimension to her growls and wails. Her voice isn't a wide-ranging beast (her high notes are thin), but it's a beast nonetheless, purring like Macy Gray or exploding in very occasional fits of Janis Joplin.
The band supports her with remarkably restrained backing, controlling the dynamics of every song — slowing down when it wants to get fast, and vice versa — like making great love. Each player keeps things tuneful but spare — leaving huge spaces for Howard to snake through, then unleashing rare bursts of carefully timed fury. In that respect, they could use a songwriting mentor; at least half the set features rocking soul numbers that develop the same way, always ending with the band grinding hard while Howard wails something appropriately animalistic and urgent over and over ("Feels good!" or "Yes, he did!!" or "Well, all right!!!"). The band's ninth and final song, the dramatic groove of "You Ain't Alone," followed that template and resulted in their second standing ovation of the set.
SXSW: Little Steven on TV, Broadway, Springsteen tour
By Thomas Conner on March 14, 2012 8:00 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Little Steven Van Zandt had a good chuckle about an alleged rumor reported this week during South by Southwest.
A writer at Magnet music magazine claimed he'd heard that, for their anticipated Thursday night performance during the annual music festival, Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band would be performing a version of the Broadway musical "The Music Man." (The writer later confessed, not surprisingly, "I made it up.")
"You never know, though," Van Zandt said during a chat Wednesday with the Sun-Times, laughing heartily at the idea. "[Springsteen] might have some Broadway up his sleeve."
Van Zandt is in Austin this week for a couple of reasons. In addition to the Thursday night show, he's also promoting something SXSW hardly deals with it all: a TV show.
Following his turn as a gangster in the HBO series "The Sopranos," Van Zandt is again playing a mobster -- this time in a series produced for Norwegian television, "Lilyhammer." The show was recently picked up by Netflix as the streaming service's first original programming.
"I was in Norway producing one of my bands there, the Cocktail Slippers [an all-girl rock band from Oslo]," Van Zandt said, "and these writers came and pitched this to me. I wasn't planning on playing a mobster again, but it's such a great idea. ... The Norwegians have gone crazy for it because they love America and rock and roll. They love the spirit of individualism, which is a bit of a contradiction for them and their community-based government. My character is someone who doesn't follow the rules, and they're very used to following the rules. Someone like me being a little naughty is exotic to them."
After the SXSW show, the E Street Band kicks off its tour this weekend. The band performed last Friday at New York's Apollo Theater, debuting the five-man horn section that replaces late saxophone legend Clarence Clemons on tour.
"We'll be featuring our soul music roots more on this tour," Van Zandt said. "And, you know, this year is a celebration of Woody Guthrie [the centennial of his birth]. Quite a bit of Bruce's music is a tribute to Woody Guthrie. ... It just never ceases to amaze me how Bruce continues to write in a way that is vital and very much of the moment. It always keeps us from even thinking about becoming a nostalgia band, because every tour is a whole new everything."
Springsteen is delivering the SXSW keynote address Thursday at noon. His latest solo album, "Wrecking Ball," was just released, and it debuted at No. 1 this week.
SXSW: John Fullbright comes of age
By Thomas Conner on March 14, 2012 11:48 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Let me tell you my quick John Fullbright story before I go on about how mesmerizing and moving his Wednesday evening South by Southwest showcase was.
When I was writing about music in Oklahoma, I covered the annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival each July in Guthrie's hometown of Okemah. Okemah has one motel, which is taken over by the artists and production crews during the festival. Folk singers, in my experience, don't sleep much, and every night after the shows wrapped up in town most of them would drag chairs into the motel parking lot and swap songs till dawn.
Every now and then, wide-eyed young buskers would stroll up and try to measure up. Few did — until, several years ago, a teenaged Johnny Fullbright strode into to the circle with a banjo over his shoulder. Tipping his cap, the Okemah native offered to play a couple of his own songs. Soon, Arlo Guthrie's eyebrows raised and he sat forward in his lawn chair, and we all knew we were hearing something special.
Since then, Fullbright has shared stages with Joe Ely and fellow Okie songwriter Jimmy Webb, among others, and he recorded a live album. "From the Ground Up," though, will be his studio debut, due May 8 (Blue Dirt/Thirty Tigers).
Fullbright's SXSW showcase — the first of eight gigs he has here this week — was as perfect as if it were a Jonathan Demme concert film. Taking the stage at St. David's Episcopal Church in downtown Austin, the unassuming young singer stepped to the mike with his guitar and harmonica rack. He appears meek and milquetoast in his flesh-colored collared shirt and flat, parted hair, but — sorta like Kelly Joe Phelps — the square look is deceiving. He started plucking and blowing and wailing a first-person account of God setting up humans for their inevitable fall, and suddenly another crowd knew it was going to hear something special.
Fullbright synthesizes the best songcraft from his home state — Webb, Leon Russell and, by default, Merle Haggard. Just in his 20s, he mournfully considers how "all my life I've tested truth / but truth's not always sound." I'll give him credit for the double entendre in that last line, because the caliber of the rest of his songwriting is so good. He's got a tune called "Forgotten Flower," a thoughtful country lament, that Tom Waits and Randy Newman could fight over.
Possibly unintentionally, Fullbright filled his set on that church chancel with familiar subjects. He opened with "God Above," a searing blues. He sang, "Glory, glory, hallelujah," then played "Satan and St. Paul" and "Jericho."
The last three songs were plunked out on an upright piano, swinging from his own slow ballad "Nowhere to Be Found" to the dancing blues of "Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do." The versatility was natural, authentic, untrained. Webb's oft-repeated endorsement predicts "that in a very short time John Fullbright will be a household name in American music." It may not be hyperbole.
SXSW: Ezra Furman, Sharon Van Etten, Mr. Muthaf---in' eXquire, the great R. Stevie Moore
By Thomas Conner on March 15, 2012 9:33 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — "Is that a dude in his underwear, just playing?" asked a guy who wandered into The Jr bar just off Sixth Street on Wednesday night. Why, yes, yes it is.
Ezra Furman, the mad Evanstonian who recently relocated to the Bay Area, stepped onto the bare stage for his SXSW 2012 showcase nearly bare-assed, wearing only socks and boxer briefs. The rest of him was just the same — wild eyes, spasmodic poses, a spitting earnestness so unnerving you pray he doesn't make eye contact.
Hurling a mixture of songs from his new solo album, "The Year of No Returning," and gems from "Mysterious Power" and his Chicago tenure with the Harpoons, the skinny folk-punk wunderkind bared his soul, as well, in songs alternating between naked desperation ("Bloodsucking Whore") and mournful reverie (a cover of Tom Waits' "Bottom of the World"). In a new song, "Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde," he summed up his SXSW moment, singing, "I was hideous and handsome."
"I was supposed to be a wide-eyed sort of singer-songwriter, but I don't feel like that anymore," he said from the stage. "Too bad, marketing team."
• • •
Acclaimed singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten played a demure set Wednesday night at Stubb's. Getting off to a late start, Van Etten plodded through several songs from her attention-getting 2010 debut, "Epic," and her new follow-up, "Tramp." I still don't quite get the slobbering reverence for her work. No doubt, it's encouraging to hear someone with a voice this lovely treading the well-worn road of dissonant strumming and oblique, soul-bearing poetry blazed by fellow New Jersey-raised Patti Smith. Most of the songs merely wear that path down deeper, though, warbling over organ and cymbal-shy drums until they reach big crescendos that stumble to clumsy halts. They're awfully passionate dirges for someone who seems so chipper and cheery during her brief stage banter.
• • •
Mr. Muthaf---in' eXquire and his red-hot New York rap crew continued their SXSW gigs Wednesday night at MI Annex on Sixth Street, and the crowd didn't want them to leave. "eXquire! eXquire!" they chanted, begging for one more freestyle, to no avail. MMeX is a weird, Wu-Tang-like mob of half a dozen rappers, and the group's namesake is a hulking, slurring nutjob with percolating flow. Wednesday night, he was spewing syllables so fast and without stopping that he began to slouch and collapse. At the climactic moment, he shot up as his mates punctuated the verse, shouting, "Breathe!" Huzzah!
• • •
Since the early 1970s, "singer"-songwriter R. Stevie Moore has been producing song after song after song — countless hours of tape — documenting the weird and wonderful corners of his mind. As the Trouser Press record guides have stated for years, "'Unsung hero' only touches on the injustice of obscurity for this wry, heartfelt artist whose limber genius." But he meandered into the SXSW spotlight this week for a few showcases, including a typically bewildering set of songs Wednesday afternoon in the middle of the SXSW trade show.
"Why would anyone come to South by Southwest to see Lionel Richie?" Moore sang in a seemingly off-the-cuff ditty about the preponderance of big-name bookings at this year's festival, which was born in the late '80s as a haven for spotlighting up-and-coming talent. "If I had to choose between Lionel Richie and Sufjan Stevens, it would be a dead heat."
A large fella, in shades and with a wild Santa Claus-white beard and hair fluttering every which way, Moore plunked out his crafty lyrics and bent tunes on acoustic guitar. From his bottomless repository of material, he plucked a remarkable cache of quirky love songs, such as "Traded My Heart for Your Parts" and, uh, "I Wanna Hit You" (which he punctuated with, "Pow! To the moon, Alice!"). Looking at him, a deranged Wilford Brimley gargling his notes and strumming herky-jerky chords, the song "Goodbye Piano" took on new resonance: "You're so out of tune / I assume you're dead."
SXSW keynote: Bruce Springsteen gives musical history lesson, celebrates Woody Guthrie centennial
By Thomas Conner on March 15, 2012 3:22 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Marveling at the breadth of contemporary pop music, Bruce Springsteen name-checked his own lengthy list of milestone influences during a funny and enlightening keynote address Thursday at the South by Southwest music conference.
The king of this particular musical Mardi Gras, Springsteen hit town Wednesday night and showed up to jam with Joe Ely and Alejandro Escovedo at the Austin Music Awards. In addition to his keynote speech, the Springsteen blitz continues tonight in concert with the E Street Band, a preview of the tour kicking off this weekend. His latest album, "Wrecking Ball," was released last week and debuted at No. 1 in 14 countries.
"No one hardly agrees on anything in pop anymore," Springsteen said in his opening remarks. He expressed awe at the number of bands booked at SXSW.
"There are so many subgenres and factions," he continued — and then amused the standing-room crowd by listing as many as he could name, dozens of hyphenated musical classifications and creations, from melodic death metal and sadcore to rap-rock and Nintendocore. He ended the list with a slight slump, saying, "And folk music."
"This is all going on in this town right now," he said.
Citing rock critic Lester Bangs' assertion that Elvis Presley was the last thing Americans would agree on, Springsteen said each of the thousands of bands booked during SXSW "has the belief to turn Bangs' prophecy around.
"The one thing that's been consistent over the years is the genesis and the power of creativity. It's all about how you're putting what you do together. The elements you're using don't matter. It's not confined to guitars, tubes, turntables or microchips. There's no right way, no pure way of doing it — there's just doing it."
Springsteen then took the rapt audience on a tour through his own musical upbringing, noting each notable inspiration that molded him — from Presley's appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in 1956 through poetic descriptions of the power he felt coming from doo-wop, Roy Obison, Phil Spector, British Invasion bands, the Beatles, country, soul, Stax, Motown and Dylan.
He spent extra time on the Animals. "For me, the Animals were a revelation," he said. "That was the first full-blown class-consciousness I'd ever heard."
He sang and strummed most of "We Gotta Get Out of This Place," a song the Animals made famous, and declared, "That's every song I've ever written! That's all of them, I'm not kidding. That's 'Born to Run,' 'Born in the U.S.A.,' even the new ones." He played the riff from "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," then the riff from his own "Badlands": "Same f---ing riff, man."
Acknowledging that this is the centennial year of Woody Guthrie's birth, Springsteen concluded with how he's been inspired by the American folk legend to keep his own lyrical focus on the issues of working people. He was also honest about their differences.
"I knew I was never going to be Woody Guthrie. I liked the pink Cadillac too much. I liked the luxuries and comforts of being a star. I'd already gone a long way down a pretty different road," Springsteen said.
In the end, Springsteen tried to bring it back to music's colorful mass, the overwhelming amount of it, the dizzying scope of its styles as evidenced in SXSW itself. The thread fans and artists must needle out of the experience, he said, has always been the same no matter how many subgenres there are.
"Here we are in this town celebrating a sense of freedom that was Woody's legacy," Springsteen said. "We live in a post-authentic world. Authenticity today is just a house of mirrors. It's all about what you're bringing when the lights go down. At the end of the day, it's power and purpose that matters."
• • •
The Woody Guthrie connection bookended Springsteen's keynote.
Immediately before the speech on the same stage, American singer-songwriters Jimmy LaFave and Eliza Gilkyson strummed Guthrie songs, such as "Oklahoma Hills," "I Ain't Got No Home in This World" and "Deportee." Colombia's Juanes played a couple of his own songs, spirited tunes in Spanish he said were inspired by Guthrie. All three lead the sleepy SXSW crowd in a singalong of "This Land Is Your Land."
A panel session followed the keynote, titled "Woody at 100." Moderated by Bob Santelli, executive director at the Grammy Museum and a Guthrie scholar himself, the panel featured journalist Dave Marsh, scholar Doug Brinkley, songwriters LaFave and Joel Rafael, and two of Guthrie's children: singer-songwriter Arlo Guthrie and head of the Woody Guthrie Foundation & Archives, Nora Guthrie.
Nora discussed the pending move of her father's archives — thousands of original lyrics, poems, notebooks, journals, artwork and more — from its current New York home to a new facility in Tulsa, Okla. She also highlighted a theme from Springsteen's keynote about music's many styles, noting that Woody wrote all kinds of music, including love songs and Jewish music.
Arlo made some important distinctions about his dad's legacy amid all the discussion of it in this centennial year.
"There are a lot of different Woodys," he said. "Even having known him along with my sister, I don't know that anybody has the capacity to have fully understand anyone. ... He really had the ability to distill all of us and put it into a way so that we recognize our own voice coming back to us. He said, 'Let me be known as a man who told you something you already knew.' ... Everybody in this room has a little voice they count on that they recognize as being them. My father recognized that voice in him and reflected it back on you so you recognize something that rings true to you. I don't think we're actually celebrating Woody — we're celebrating us. That's the genius of the man."
For a complete list of the numerous Guthrie centennial events around the country, see woody100.com.
Power pop @ SXSW: Big Star tribute, dB's reunion
By Thomas Conner on March 16, 2012 10:32 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — At the 2010 South by Southwest music conference, critics and fans were eager for a scheduled celebration of the '70s band Big Star. The influential pop-rock band was at the height of a popular resurgence, fueled in part by a stellar box set ("Keep an Eye on the Sky") released the previous year. A panel session was planned, a hotly anticipated concert, too. But on the first day of the festival, bandleader and power-pop icon Alex Chilton died.
The pieces of those plans were reassembled in earnest Thursday night at SXSW 2012. In a star-studded concert — featuring a pantheon of alt-rock greats including R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, Wilco's Pat Sansone, Tommy Stinson, Peter Case, Chris Stamey, Ken Stringfellow, Jon Auer, M. Ward and many more, plus Big Star's lone survivor, drummer Jody Stephens — musicians inspired by the band, complete with a 12-piece orchestra, performed the whole of Big Star's "Third," their emotionally tangled and rightly acclaimed album recorded in 1974 and released by 1978.
Stamey — also appearing several times at SXSW this week with the reunited dB's (see below) — has made these "Third" gigs into something of a pet project, performing them a few times ahead of the festival. But Thursday's gig, back in something of an emotional center for the band and its fans, resonated with obvious love from the musicians, especially a smiling Stamey, who never sang but acted as bandleader.
Mixing up the album's various sequences, the show opened with M. Ward on piano meandering through Eden Ahbez's "Nature Boy," an outtake from "Third." Players and singers then started cycling behind the microphone. British pub band the Dunwells delivered "Take Care" with Irish balladry and an accordion. The Mayflies' Matt McMichaels lead a steady "Jesus Christ." Auer, who had joined a revived lineup of Big Star, drove slowly through "Black Car," fueled by the string quartet.
Standouts included Stinson, formerly of the Replacements, redeeming himself with a solid version of "Nightime." Watching him in his skinny plaid suit and hipster hat, one could almost forget he now slums in the reconstituted Guns N' Roses. Peter Case, once a svelte New Wave rocker in the Plimsouls, appeared shaggy and bearded and did his best Van Morrison impression through "Stroke It Noel" (Stamey's smile was a thousand watts through that one). Sansone's "You Can't Have Me" was powerful even without the wailing saxophone and the two drum solos from Stephens.
Stephens himself stepped out from behind the kit to sang a couple of songs, including a string-laden "Blue Moon" beautifully arranged with a Pachelbel's Canon sway.
R.E.M.'s Mike Mills originally was scheduled to be on stage for the show, but he canceled due to illness. The former band's guitarist, Buck, appeared instead. He merely lurked in the background for two songs, the cover of the Velvet Underground's "Femme Fatale" and "You Can't Have Me."
The show closed with "Thank You Friends," featuring most of the cast back on stage, like a traditional "This Land Is Your Land" folk finale.
The Big Star concert followed a screening of a documentary, still in progress, called "Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me" from director Drew DeNicola.
• • •
Stamey's a busy boy at SXSW 2012. In addition to corralling that large cast of players for the Big Star tribute, he's got his own showcase on Saturday, plus he and the reunited dB's are scheduled six times here this week.
Wednesday afternoon was their first showcase, on the Dogwood patio on West Sixth Street. Featuring originals Stamey, singer-guitarist Peter Holsapple and drummer Will Rigby, plus acclaimed Southern producer and artist Mitch Easter on bass, this latest revival of the beloved '80s power-pop group is hawking a new album, "Falling Off the Sky," due in June.
They utilized their showcase to show off many of the new tracks — as jangly and tuneful as ever. Holsapple insists the new album is "a great summertime record," and as he sang the new "World to Cry," a wind-blown tree in the courtyard approved by showering the tightly packed audience with new buds.
It's not all sunshine and tanlines. Another new song jangled over a martial rhythm and lyrics of lament and paralysis. Stamey remarked, "On my tombstone, I want, 'He wrote one great riff.'" Then he added, "Plus a lot of depressing songs." He then ripped a scary, dissonant solo from the heart of "Happenstance," which the band balanced with the gentle waves of melody in "Love Is for Lovers."
Their official showcase is tonight.
• • •
Fast forward to the 21st century: Power-pop rocker Brendan Benson was back on stage as a solo act Thursday night. Jack White's partner in the Raconteurs, Benson funnels most of his melodic talents into his solo albums. He has yet to make a bad one, and his next, "What Kind of World," is due in April on his new independent label Readymade.
His Thursday showcase wasn't as flawless as his records. Stringy-haired and a little adrift, Benson charged gamely through some new songs, though one had to be abandoned after the first verse; he tried to restart it, but flubbed something again and moved on into a duo of the Raconteurs' "Hands" and his own "Cold Hands (Warm Heart)" (in which he laments, "Why does it always happen...?").
SXSW: Fiona Apple's splendid case of nerves
By Thomas Conner on March 16, 2012 12:05 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Alabama Shakes might be one of the buzziest new bands at this year's South by Southwest music conference, but Fiona Apple is the one of the hottest returning-act tickets. After not having been seen outside of Los Angeles in years, and with her last record of emotionally taut pop-cabaret released in 2005, two lines for her second showcase Thursday night snaked around the block in different directions.
Performing in a Presbyterian church, Apple strode purposefully onto a candlelit stage with a four-piece band and launched into "Fast as You Can." Still a frenetic ball of anxiety, when Apple stands at a microphone without a piano to occupy her hands her nervous energy nearly flings her limbs apart. Thursday night she wore a white shawl over her shoulders, which she immediately took to flipping and waving about like a manic Stevie Nicks. Banging fists against her body, flailing her arms, pounding the piano — one senses that without the music to focus her energy she'd go utterly mad. Then again, she can rein herself and become the perfect picture of Marlene Dietrich smolder, as she did during "Paper Bag."
Apple's voice is not a smooth or delicate instrument. It's guttural and trembling and sounds ravaged by a prior hour of sobbing; midway through her Thursday concert, she made a brief show of spraying some salve into the back of her throat. The songs fit the sound — lyric after lyric of man after man who doesn't understand her (the dolt who won't even kiss her in the right place in the new "Anything We Want") and heaps of self-doubt ("I'm gonna f--- it up" from "Mistake"). "Not that I go to church or anything," Apple said, gazing up at the shadowy altar, "but I'd like to apologize to the building itself for my cursing."
The band supports the crackling tension with herky-jerky soul-jazz phrases, as if Elvis Costello's "Spike" is drowning his sorrows at L.A.'s Largo club (home of the acclaimed residencies curated by Apple producer and compatriot Jon Brion). Prone to lengthy vamps and calliope-like refrains, the music's drunken gentility was often pierced by tinny, edgy solos from her guitarist. Every song was a suspense thriller, and as Woody Allen said, "I hope it lasts."
Briefly, anyway — her SXSW showcases kick off a tiny tour, just a few dates including two sold-out shows Sunday and Monday at Chicago's Lincoln Hall.
Apple's new album returns to her penchant for lengthy titles — (inhale) it's "The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do" — is scheduled for a June release.
SXSW hip-hop fusion: K. Flay, Idle Warship, Robert Glasper
By Thomas Conner on March 16, 2012 5:51 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Kristine Flaherty grew up in Wilmette. She went to Stanford. She's also a helluva rapper.
With frenetic flow and live-wire, chicken-dance moves, K. Flay barreled through a Friday showcase at Austin's Red Eyed Fly, crumpling labels and defying genres. Backed by an excellent live drummer, Nicholas Suhr, she crafted loops and samples with real finesse, utilizing grinding guitar sounds and squawky electronic noises for melody and music more than mere beats and punctuation. "We're going to go to a fun place in our minds," she said by way of introducing one song. It was less invitation than advisory — she picked up drumsticks and attacked her own percussion pad, and she and Suhr lost themselves momentarily in a rhythmic freakout of ecstatic proportions.
K. Flay's sharpest weapon, though, is her fast-talking tongue. Her words-per-minute reached the red line almost every time. One song began with a slow, easygoing beat (no drummer), as she started rapping along. The beat kept modulating, faster and faster, and for three or four minutes she kept slinging syllables without a single flub or nonsense gibberish. Who knows what she wound up saying? But given the rest of her wisecracking, hard-hearted material -- all that's out thus far is an EP, "Eyes Shut," available free on her web site -- it's worth hearing at any speed.
• • •
Idle Warship — a new collaboration between acclaimed rapper Talib Kweli and Philly soul singer Res — released an album last fall that was mostly great, a fizzy mix of hip-hop, R&B and rock with just the right balance between all three. The group's SXSW showcases were highly anticipated — but, alas, their Friday afternoon show was ho-hum.
Backed by a live quartet, Kweli and Res ping-ponged their vocal duties and spent an inordinate amount of time asking the crowd for cheers instead of earning them. Kweli turned the word "soul" in one song into a falsetto, drawn-out "Soul Train" nod, but the music, which is buoyant and bouncy on record, lurched and lagged live. Even the synth underpinning of Corey Hart's "Sunglasses at Night" in the song "Steady," which eventually morphed into the whole band singing the Eurhythmics' "Sweet Dreams," failed to brighten the desperate energy on stage. The term "rap-rock" has certain negative connotations; this isn't really rap-rock, but it's close. A 21st-century Digable Planets, unfortunately, they ain't.
• • •
In one sense, I'd like to thank the sound engineers who had difficulty getting things in gear for the Robert Glasper Experiment showcase late Thursday night at the Elephant Room. Without their delay, some room in the tiny, dank club might not have opened up and I'd have missed the whole show standing on queue. The sound was substandard even when the show got under way, but those who made it in heard enough to justify the hype that brought us there.
Glasper is a hip-hop wunderkind. Glasper is a jazz juggernaut. A pianist, a Texas native, he seems to be knitting a new kind of fusion. A set that opens with Coltrane (sax player Casey Benjamin is pretty wicked, see video below) and nearly winds up with Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" might only turn the head of zeitgeist interpreters like Brad Mehldau, but Glasper's quartet followed their open-minded explorations through the jazz tones, hip-hop beats and raucous rock with more ferocity than irony. His latest album, "Black Radio" (Blue Note), does the same thing and features guests like Mos Def and Chicago's Lupe Fiasco.
Occupy SXSW: Tom Morello carries Woody Guthrie torch through protest showcase, street party
By Thomas Conner on March 17, 2012 10:20 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — During his keynote speech at this year's South by Southwest music conference, Bruce Springsteen referred to folksinger Woody Guthrie as "a ghost in the machine." In the centennial year of his birth, Guthrie has certainly haunted SXSW 2012. Springsteen and many others have sung his songs. "Woody at 100," a panel session featuring his children, Nora and Arlo Guthrie, considered his legacy.
Then Friday night, Chicago-area native Tom Morello capped off his showcase in the middle of the street, leading a throng of Occupy Austin demonstrators in a sing-along of "This Land Is Your Land."
"I am the Nightwatchman and this is a one man revolution!" said Morello (who performs solo under the moniker The Nightwatchman) at the beginning of his SXSW showcase, scheduled inside the Swan Dive bar near Sixth Street and Red River in downtown Austin.
But days earlier, Morello began reorganizing what the festival had programmed for him. His showcase, he declared, would become Occupy SXSW — all 99 percenters welcome. "SXSW has a lot of specialty shows — record companies, vodka companies, promoters and things like that," he told Rolling Stone on Tuesday. "I thought it was important that at a music gathering of that size, to have a place where the rebels, revolutionaries, rockers, rappers and the 99 percent could gather and have a mighty SXSW throw down."
Via social media and online networks, Occupy Austin spread the word and gathered Friday at the state capitol three hours before Morello's midnight showcase. The group of nearly 100 began marching toward the downtown streets already crowded with SXSW registrants and hopeful music fans.
How do you get a mob to move through a mob? By dancing. The benevolent Occupiers rolled a sound system with them, blaring mostly disco and dance tunes but also raising a ruckus with "Killing in the Name" by Rage Against the Machine, Morello's former hard rock band. About every block, they'd stop and dance, as well as wave some signs and hand out fliers. At Sixth and Brazos, the assembly inadvertently blocked traffic, which laid on the horns. The honking, however, simply raised more cheers and whoops.
Slowly, the demonstrators made their way down Sixth Street toward Morello's venue. One large banner reading "F--- the Police" was its own crowd control issue, because gawking passers-by insisted the bearers stop -- so they could take their picture with it. Irony of ironies: Midway down the street the group had to detour slightly after being blocked by a drum circle.
Morello started his official showcase about half an hour late, playing a few songs by himself before bringing on his latest band, the Freedom Fighter Orchestra — and, later, special guest Wayne Kramer from Detroit punk legend the MC5 — to tear through typically fiery Nightwatchman songs, including "Save the Hammer for the Man" and "Union Town," as well as Rage's "Bulls on Parade." The previous night, Morello had joined Springsteen on stage during his SXSW concert; Friday, Morello played Springsteen's "The Ghost of Tom Joad," dedicating it to "the only Boss worth listening to."
As his official timeslot ended, Morello told the crowd — primarily SXSW badge-holders inside — to follow him outside. There, the largely uncredentialed Occupy crowd had been watching the showcase on a video projected on the wall. Morello proceeded to start a second showcase in the middle of the street, which he called "the people's venue" — carrying his acoustic guitar, which has "Whatever It Takes" scrawled on it (Guthrie's guitar famously sported the slogan "This Machine Kills Fascists") — and leading the crowd in a rollicking sing-along of "This Land."
Lack of a PA didn't stop him — not when you have the "human microphone."
"Mic check!" Morello called, and the crowd began repeating him. In a very Obama-like delivery, he went on: "They can turn off the PA, but they can't shut this party down!"
He told a tale about guitar factory workers in South Korea who were fired because they formed a union. Using the human mic, he taught the crowd the chorus to his "World Wide Rebel Songs" and lead another sing-along.
He then ended the event with yet another Guthrie quip: "Take it easy," he shouted, "but take it!"
Catch Morello when he leads a Woody Guthrie tribute concert May 19 at Chicago's Metro, featuring Holly Near, the Klezmatics, Jon Langford, Bucky Halker and more.
SXSW: Hospitality, Ava Luna, Joe Pug
By Thomas Conner on March 17, 2012 11:55 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — There's buzz, and there's buzz. When people insist you see a band at South by Southwest, it's usually dicey. When people recommend a band like this — "Aw, Hospitality. They're really good. I'd like to see them again" — that you take a little more seriously.
The buzzy Brooklyn band's Friday night showcase at Frank was definitely worth the recommendations, and then some. Unassuming and sometimes unobtrusive, Hospitality segued from sound check to set without any fanfare or introduction; the snugly packed crowd in the small bar simply enjoyed the revelation that, hey, that beautiful music is the room's centerpiece now.
Hospitality, like its namesake, creeps up like that, anyway.
Creating a sound way bigger than the sum of its basic quartet lineup, this is indie-pop with bright colors, effervescent arrangements and, most importantly, real swing. Underneath the big, fat, chiming guitar chords and singer-guitarist Amber Papini's conversational patter is usually a firm beat, certainly a supple groove thanks to left-handed bassist Brian Betancourt. They could probably go toe-to-toe with most dance-rockers from the first wave (Franz Ferdinand, etc.), but they'd also have a calming effect on them. "The Right Profession," from this year's self-titled debut, certainly moves, and "Friends of Friends" enjoys a groovy dance break, but other songs sometimes noodle, sometimes vamp, sometimes slip into a positively Pink Floyd reverie.
• • •
If Steely Dan worked to sound like the actual future, rather than Donald Fagen's nostalgic 1950s Worlds Fair perspective on it, they might sound something like Brooklyn's Ava Luna. A thrilling, lurching, bewildering, surprising frenzy of genre-splicing, this sextet's Friday night return to SXSW at the Iron Bear club rocked and grooved and glitched.
Driven by rhythms that stutter and fray, Ava Luna's 21st-century rock 'n' soul is humanized by no-nonsense vocals. Becca Kauffman and Felicia Douglass bring seriousness and sass, when called for, but it's singer-guitarist Carlos Hernandez that embodies the band's schizophrenic joy. Playing with an ADD tic justifying lyrics like, "If I could focus," Hernandez sings like a less-somnambulant James Blake — all heady methol and melancholy. It's headbanging dubstep, it's postmodern soul, full of sound and fury, and when some feedback began ebbing and flowing between songs — hey, some of us thought it was just part of the band's space-age sound.
• • •
Chicago's Joe Pug sounds like a native down here in Texas. Biting his lip, chewing his accent, flashing his winsome smile or sometimes wincing with emotion, Pug is the picture of down-home earnestness.
Squeezing in just five songs for the Folk Alliance showcase on Saturday at Threadgill's, Pug played a handful of thoughtful country-folk tunes from his second album, "The Great Despiser," due next month. That's after he broke a guitar string — on the first strum of the first chord in the first song -- which was surprising given how tender and delicate most of the material is, augmented here with only an occasional electric guitarist and a stand-up bassist. But the new album features guests such as the Hold Steady's Craig Finn, so it's gonna roll. To close, Pug was joined by Austin music legend Harvey Thomas Young for his song, previously covered by Pug, "Start Again."
SXSW: Don Cornelius, 'Soul Train' celebrated
By Thomas Conner on March 17, 2012 4:54 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — "Soul Train" creator and host Don Cornelius was left out of the Grammys' "in memorium" slide show last month, barely two weeks after the Chicago television pioneer was found dead of an apparent suicide, but he was celebrated Saturday at the annual South by Southwest music conference in the Texas capital.
At an event called "'Soul Train' Tribute to Don Cornelius," NPR's Dan Charnas conducted an amiable onstage chat with Don's son Tony Cornelius about the TV music show's history and legacy.
"If he'd come back here and see the love from those who miss him so much, I wonder, would he decide to stay?" Tony Cornelius asked during the session. "He had so much love to live for. It hurts me that he's not here."
"Soul Train" was one of TV's longest-running syndicated shows, airing for 36 years. Launched at Chicago's WCIU in 1970, the music performance and dance program went national the following year and was crucial in showcasing black soul and R&B artists to a wider audience, including Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Gladys Knight, Aretha Franklin and Michael Jackson.
"Dad talked about that quite often," Cornelius said. "He found a need, and he served it. There was a need to allow not only the music of black Americans but kids an opportunity to express themselves."
Charnas showed numerous video clips -- "Soul Train" performances, dancers, pivotal moments, Afro Sheen commercials (the sponsorship of Chicago-based Johnson Products was important to the show's early survival) -- and Cornelius commented.
"When I watch these clips, what comes to mind that people don't understand is these performances were about relationships. It wasn't, 'I want to do "Soul Train,"' it was friendships that developed over time," Cornelius said.
Many of those relationships began early in Chicago, where Don Cornelius negotiated complete ownership of "Soul Train" at WCIU because "no one believed" in the show, Tony Cornelius said.
Tony Cornelius was around age 12 when "Soul Train" premiered. He worked as a runner, cable mover, lighting operator and more throughout the years, eventually becoming an executive producer. From the start, he recalled, "Soul Train" was a family affair.
"My most vivid memory is my mother writing out cards of all the kids who wanted to dance on the show from high schools around the area," he said.
"The groundswell in Chicago was so exciting that [Don] decided Los Angeles would be the place to take it. That's where the stars were, where the acts were."
He took one thing with him, though: the Scramble Board.
Members of the audience were often selected for the Scramble Board, where they would reorder a jumbled set of letters to spell the name of a prominent black American. Don Cornelius later admitted that the gimmick was always fixed.
"It's funny, but it's true," Tony Cornelius said. "It's something he felt extremely strong about. We were speaking to the world, not just the dancers, and informing anyone who didn't know Stevie Wonder's name or Thurgood Marshall's name how to spell it and who they were."
Cornelius said years later he suggested to his father that they update the Scramble Board to something digital or more contemporary. Don refused, saying he wanted to maintain that set piece — the one piece of the Chicago set that traveled to L.A.
In honor of his father, Cornelius said the family has created the Don Cornelius Foundation to raise awareness, prevention and support for those contemplating suicide and aid for its survivors.
SXSW global: K-pop, Juanes, Bensh, Noa Margalit
By Thomas Conner on March 18, 2012 12:14 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — This year's South by Southwest features music acts from every continent except Antarctica (those penguins aren't as musical as you've been lead to believe). Here's some of the international flavor I sampled this week:
• • •
The panel session at SXSW 2012 was titled with a question — "Do Music Moguls Know a Secret About K-Pop?" — but the non-insider query is simpler: Do you know what K-pop is?
It's a genre of hyper-produced, often sugary sweet pop music mostly out of South Korea. It's got its own Billboard chart, and in December launched its own festival (K-Pop World, Dec. 7 in Seoul). According to the moderator of this industry panel, it's "a huge thing across Asia and other parts of the world," and it's about to invade the states.
Earlier in the year, I suggested 2012 might have a more worldly sound, including more K-pop. Already in the United States, South Korean idol Kim Hyun-a has attracted media attention, and when K-pop acts tour this country it's not just their music that turns American heads.
"People often are stopping because of how many people show up" to these concerts, said Flowsion Shekar, founder of Koreaboo, a Korean news blog.
David Zedeck, a booking agent at Creative Artists Agency, said he's selling out 1,700 to 2,500-capacity venues with K-pop, even in interior cities like Atlanta, Kansas City and Denver. The group Girls Generation announced via Twitter that they would premiering a new video at a New York Best Buy. "We had 1,500 kids show up on a school day — from a tweet," he marveled. "This is bigger than anyone thinks it is."
Other prominent K-pop acts include Bigbang, JYP, the Wonder Girls and SMTown.
"Even though it comes from Korea, it's not of or for Korea anymore," said Jeff Yang, the Tao Jones columnist for the Wall Street Journal ("It wasn't my idea," he said sheepishly of his column's name). "It's become a world music. There are more people who don't understand Korean listening to K-pop than in Korea."
Yang predicted K-pop could develop in America one of two ways: It could become like Latin music, a cultural identifier for Asian-American communities, or it could establish itself as a platform like hip-hop, inviting collaboration and eventual evolution into something larger.
Some of the latter already is happening. Kanye West previously worked with the trio JYJ (rapping on the single "Ayyy Girl") and has said he plans to do more with the group. Snoop Dogg recently appeared on a track by Girls Generation, and DJ Swizz Beatz says he's hoping to help bring K-pop acts like Bigbang (currently atop the K-pop charts, No. 1 and 2) to America.
• • •
In addition to performing his own and Woody Guthrie's song immediately before Bruce Springsteen's keynote address at SXSW 2012 — one of his first English-language performances — Colombian singer Juanes has been making multiple appearances at the festival all week. He discussed his upcoming May album, "Juanes MTV Unplugged," during a Friday panel session, then performed during the Latin rock showcase later that night.
In an AP interview, he celebrated the cultural smorgasbord that is SXSW: "It's such a great opportunity to interact together and exchange culture. I just feel the world now and the world is absolutely sick, you know, so I just see music and culture and art in general as a great idea to change at least our own environment and just connect people to the music. You can just go and walk around the street and you can see bands from I don't know, wherever, and they can sing in Chinese if you want. You just have the opportunity to connect with somebody else you didn't know, and that's good."
• • •
The sheer volume of music at SXSW makes random discoveries possible, probable and the payoff is often good. Thursday night I stopped for stir-fry at one of Austin's better food trucks downtown near Fifth and Brazos. On the corner a trio of Austrian vagabonds was playing to anyone who'd stop and listen. They're called Bensh, and they don't sound like a sidewalk band. Good-spirited pop with flourishes of electronics and gypsy bounce, Bensh's fluid, well-crafted pop caused me to scribble a seemingly bizarre list of comparisons in my notebook: Luka Bloom, Deathray, Syd Barrett, Animal Collective, the Monochrome Set. Much spunkier live than on record, Bensh still made a great impulse download that was perfectly dreamy in the earbuds during a pedicab ride home.
• • •
A showcase of musicians from Israel, sponsored by the Israeli Consul, ran all day Friday in a downtown park. I caught an acoustic set by Noa Margalit, from the rock band the Car Sitters. Listening to her stoic personal songs, you'd never guess how energetic the Car Sitters usually are. Tel Aviv's Margalit — breathy, barefoot, bar-chording the heck out of her guitar — played things close to the vest, at least sonically. Lyrically, she was raging about politics and quality of life, lamenting (or marveling?) that "it doesn't take much to survive."
Later, J. Viewz, aka Grammy-nominated and Brooklyn-based producer Jonathan Dagan, let loose some throbbing beats with a soulful vocalist and great live drums.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Music Review Loudon Wainwri.jpgLoudon Wainwright has written biting songs about love ("It's Love and I Hate It"), the end of love ("Your Mother and I," "Whatever Happened to Us?"), family ("Your Father's Car," "White Winos") and kids ("Be Careful There's a Baby in the House," "Father/Daughter Dialogue"). His biggest hit was a 1972 novelty about road kill ("Dead Skunk").
In recent years, though, Wainwright, 64, has begun considering mortality — and looking back. He offered up a renewed greatest-hits set in 2008's "Recovery," re-recordings of some of his favorite old songs. The following year, Wainwright resuscitated the catalog of a lost Carolina country legend in "High, Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project." Now he's back with his own legendary-status project, "40 Odd Years," a box set of Wainwright's 40-year career featuring four discs of his bittersweet, intensely personal folk songs (three from the albums, one of outtakes and rarities), plus a DVD of filmed performances. It's out May 3 from Shout! Factory.
"Well, you want to get the box out before you're in the box yourself," Wainwright said during a recent chat. "I've had interest in a box set on a couple of occasions, but my friend and patron Judd Apatow" — Wainwright has worked on several of Apatow's projects, including scoring the film "Knocked Up" and acting in the TV series "Undeclared" — "he's got a good relationship with the guys at Shout! Factory, and he kept nudging them, 'C'mon, guys, Loudon needs a box.' Without his help, it might not have happened.
His 40 years of making music has worked in conjunction with nearly 20 different record labels, so assembling a Wainwright box took some doing. He chatted with me from his Long Island home about boiling down his life's work, dredging up some rare tracks and looking ahead.
Q. Did the process of evaluating your catalog for this box set begin when you reconsidered old songs for the "Recovery" album?
A. If you've been doing this and as you get older, you look back. Can't help it. In my songwriting, I seem to be doing a lot of that lately. It has to do with coming to the end of something, I guess. "Recovery" was a way of revisiting songs, some 40 years later, in the context of the band I work with out in L.A. This box set starts all the way back to the first track of the first record.
Q. Did you select the tracks?
A. Yes, I had to pick the tracks, which was very painful. A lot of things didn't make it. You only have 80 minutes on a CD. Hopefully it has some sweep for the listener, some interest for old fans and new fans alike.
Q. How did you make your choices?
A. Some people let others decide for them. I could have gone that route. I have friends who are familiar with my canon and whose judgment I trust. I checked in with those people and asked their opinion on what was essential. I requested the same of some fans that I've met at gigs over the years — they always seem to be guys. At the end fo the day, it was difficult. In the liner notes I say it was like drowning kittens. I left off some of my favorites.
Q. Like what?
A. Two songs: "Missing You" and "Man's World." Those are favorites of mine, but there was just no room for them.
Q. Yet you included a lot of extras on the bonus disc. Tell me what transpired to make you feel that "Laid," a song you say you always felt was too mean to put on a record, is OK to lay out there now?
A. It's a little rough, but I like it. The idea of bonus tracks is to put out stuff people wouldn't normally have heard, and "Laid" fit right into that pocket. "Laid" is a pretty bleak look at getting laid. It's not something I do anymore. It's just an interesting snapshot of where I was at the time.
Q. Were there discoveries for yourself when digging up some of the rarities?
A. Well, in terms of the bonus tracks, yeah. There's a song on the box called "McSorley's," which is a song I only performed about three times, in 1970. The oldest saloon in New York's East Village was this Irish bar called McSorley's, and until 1970 only men were allowed. Coinciding with the rise of the women's movement, there was a lot of pressure put on the place and that tradition was broken. They forced it to go co-ed. At the time, I was a twentysomething sexist pig and wrote this song as a kind of protest. This was a great tradition, women are turning into men, that sort of thing. It was very sarcastic. I think politically I've moved away from that stance [laughs], but I put it on the box as an interesting look at where I was in 1970 — wistful about the idea that there are bars where only men can go.
Q. You talk about these songs as if they're photos in an album.
A. That word "snapshot" is very good here. These songs are three-minute pictures of something. There's a lot of stuff behind them — the good songs, anyway.
Q. Do you enjoy going back and listening to the old stuff?
A. [A pause] I'm not a guy who sits around and listens to his own records. That's not my idea of a good time. When you make a record, you listen to it hundreds of times; you kind of wallow in it. Once it's out and you can't change anything, I don't want to hear it again. I'm not going to be listening to this box set.
Q. The Irish version of "The Hardy Boys at the Y" on the box was nice to hear. It makes much more sense in that arrangement. I never understood why the ends of the verses repeat until now.
A. I love that kind of music. The Boys of the Lough, the Bothy Band, Christy Moore — we knew each other playing folk festivals. I can't recall why we didn't put that song out this way instead of the live version [on 1975's "Unrequited"].
Q. Tell me about writing "No Sure Way."
A. I once lived in Brooklyn Heights, a beautiful part of New York, and there's this thing called the Promenade Walk out there where you can see all of lower Manhattan. When 9/11 happened, I was out here in this Long Island house, and I went back a day or two later to the Promenade and looked at that ... smoking mound, I guess is what it was, of rubble and humanity. When you face something that huge, you think, "I'm not even going to think of writing a song about this. It's too ridiculous and too maudlin." I'm sure there are hundreds of songs written about 9/11 now. But later that week I found myself taking a subway ride that went directly underneath the mound, and I wrote and recorded this song three days later. Like the words I used in the song, it felt "obscene."
Q. In the liner notes, David Wild describes you as "fearless." Do you feel fearless?
A. In my part of the liner notes, I address that point that David and others have made. Take the song "Hitting You." It's about hauling off and hitting [daughter] Martha. That's an example, I suppose, of a fearless song. If you're at a performance in a dark room with lights on you and a microphone and people are sitting there listening, it sounds and looks fearless — but it's a natural habitat for me. I feel pretty safe. I'm aware of the fact that I'm getting into areas that maybe people have strong feelings about, but for me it feels quite natural, not any act of courage. It's what I do. It's my shtick. I write about my personal life and the people in it. I haven't masked it too much. It's just what I do.
Q. That's what folk music is supposed to be all about.
A. It's about what's happening to you, and what's happened to me is in manyways what's happened to everybody. My life is not particularly unusual. There's identification. That's what art is about. People say, "I know what he's talking about."
Q. I read that [Wainwright's son] Rufus is assembling his own box set, true?
A. Yes, Rufus and I are recording a song next week to be on his bonus disc.
Q. What song?
A. "Down Where the Drunkards Roll" by Richard Thompson.
Q. And congratulations on becoming a granddad again. [Rufus Wainwright announced earlier this year he and his partner became parents to a child, Viva Katherine Wainwright Cohen, via Lorca Cohen, daughter of Canadian singer Leonard Cohen.]
A. Thanks. I was in L.A. when Viva arrived. I love being a grandparent. It's so much easier.
Q. What's next?
A. Writing new songs, and I suspect I'll think about making another record.
Q. Any acting gigs?
A. I have an audition tomorrow! Thank heaven I have folk music to fall back on.
with Kim Richey
• 7 and 10 p.m. April 15
• Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln
• Tickets: $24-$28, (773) 728-6000, oldtownschool.org
This post contains my complete running coverage of this annual conference and festival ...
Rolling into town for SXSW, so is Jack White's Rolling Record Store
By Thomas Conner on March 16, 2011 4:58 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — When I first attended South by Southwest, the annual pop music conference and festival in Austin, Texas (the music industry's spring break), it was 1996, just shy of the event's 10th anniversary — and everyone was already complaining about how big it had gotten. Too many bands, too much press, too much traffic. The film fest had barely started.
This year is the 25th anniversary of SXSW's music showcases, which are now preceded by SXSW Interactive and the SXSW film festival. The whole things stretches on for 10 days, with a lot of entertainment, a lot of media and a ton of traffic — and now most of the complaints about size and impact have shifted to Interactive. But we're all down here because SXSW still has a rep of previewing the films, music and online experiences that we'll be geeking out about for the rest of the year.
It starts the moment you get off the plane, where a brave singer-songwriter strummed her guitar on a makeshift stage at the airport bar next to the baggage claim escalators. For the next four nights, the Texas capital will echo with more than a thousand musicians hoping to turn the heads of writers, talent agents, music supervisors, film directors, label execs and more.
Jack White was first into the fray this afternoon ...
White's in town to unveil his latest venture after his recent confirmation that the White Stripes are no more. White is on a mission to salvage the experience of record buying for a generation of iTunes downloaders. He's put together the Third Man Rolling Record Store — basically a food truck that peddles vinyl LPs, T-shirts and such, plus a sound system. Wednesday afternoon, White worked that system, playing a set in front of the Rolling Record Store, which had set up outside Frank's Diner. He played a handful of songs solo, including a Buddy Holly cover, plus the White Stripes' "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground."
The mobile shop rolled here from Nashville for SXSW. White says he plans to travel the country with it, hitting the summer festivals.
SXSW Wednesday: Colourmusic, Wolf Gang, the Kickback, Admiral Fallow, Pete Wentz's Black Cards
By Thomas Conner on March 17, 2011 2:56 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — SXSW is basically a musical March madness. Here's one man's brackets at the end of Wednesday night's series of showcases:
BRONCHO: When in doubt, follow Martin Atkins. The famed drummer for Public Image Ltd. and Pigface led a spirited panel Wednesday afternoon advising newbies to the music business, then started his evening at the Oklahoma showcase, seeing BRONCHO. Funny about that name: it's in all caps, for some reason, and it's pronounced so it rhymes with honcho. Tulsa's BRONCHO is the latest project from Ryan Lindsey, who manages to meld his experience in the alt-country band Cheyenne and early indie-rock hopefuls the Starlight Mints into a sweaty mix of loping cowpunk and Stiff Records guitar aggression. Atkins was bobbing his head, anyway.
Colourmusic: Another Okie quartet, Colourmusic, hoisted the freak flags over Austin's Sixth Avenue early, unleashing a squall of early Flaming Lips feedback, general high-pitched shrieking and, surprisingly, some meaty funk grooves. This is some serious evolution for a band that started as a more folk-driven, Britpop act (see their more accessible debut, the cumbersomely titled "F, Monday, Orange, February, Venus, Lunatic, 1 or 13") — and then they met the Lips' Wayne Coyne. Underneath the Brainiac-like furor, though, are some solid, funky rhythms. One fan was moved enough to tear off his shirt, jump on stage and dance ecstatically for all to see.
The Kickback: Guitarist-singer Billy Yost quipped between songs, "If you work in the entertainment industry and would like a hot record to put out, boy would we like to talk to you!" Here's hoping they had their chat. Chicago's the Kickback is a fierce power trio within a quintet — Yost, his brother Danny Yost on drums and bassist Zach Verdoorn. Tighter than a flea's undies, these three plow through every dynamic, from sweetly tuneful to apoplectic fury, buttressed by Billy Yost's apparent natural edginess (his stage banter was taut, nervous, like he was spoiling for a dust-up) and a vein in his neck that bulged whenever things got really good and really loud. It was almost like seeing David Garza at SXSW all those years ago.
Admiral Fallow: Here's the next Scottish band to watch. In the tradition of Belle & Sebastian, but with a more rock edge and a significantly grandiose songwriting perspective, Admiral Fallow is fertile with song styles and instrumentation. Opening their set late with a quiet tune, a lyric buoyed by rhythm guitars just for atmospherics, not melody, this six-piece played pastoral pop for those who've also been turned on to Mumford & Sons or their own countrymen, Frightened Rabbit. I heard the urgency and persistent rhythm of Dogs Die in Hot Cars (a fabulous but, with that silly name, defunct Scottish band), as well as a lyrical landscape of losers and big spaces that reminded me of American Music Club. With their flutes, clarinets and big drums in addition to the guitars, they could be Scotland Music Club, and they should start opening for the National immediately.
Black Cards: A small crowd waited for Pete Wentz to shag it from the mtvU Woodie Awards across downtown and finally debut his new band. He jumped on stage early Thursday morning with a crazy fur hat on and cranked up a fairly dime-a-dozen set of dance-rock. Black Cards is led by Bebe Rexha, a personable newcomer who comes off vixenish without being too affected. She's got a great voice, but Black Cards are still waiting for a full house. The groove-based music is deftly led by Wentz's bass, much the way John Taylor's bass was at the forefront of Duran Duran early on, but in the end it was sub-Garbage, especially when the songs took on a reggae flavor, which suited neither Wentz's nor Rexha's strengths. Clutching his Miller Lite, Wentz mubled some stage patter about how "weird it is when you do something different and people are like, 'That's lame.'" In that sense, yeah, this was weird.
Wandering Sixth Street: In addition to the smorgasbord of music down here, Chicagoans, it's also in the 70s. Strolling the main music row thus makes for easy shopping, with a band neatly framed in the open windows of most clubs. Practically next door to the Colourmusic show was another band with British spelling: Chicago's own Secret Colours, which turned in a set diametrically opposite of Colourmusic's brave frenzy; Secret Colours plays a tender swirl of '60s autumnal folk and '90s shoegaze. Down the way, Ha Ha Tonka smartly showed its Ozark roots in some ripping country-rock, featuring a mandolin player with a harmony voice as high as his instrument and a rhythm section with a driving backbeat. These Missouri boys had the crowd clapping along — and this was the SXChi showcase, sponsored by Chicago's JBTV and Threadless. Around the corner at Latitude, the unofficial British embassy for the duration of SXSW, Lonndon's Wolf Gang drew a crowd. Here's a band that looks like an anachronism — Spandau Ballet's wardrobe, Adam Ant's earring — but sounds timeless, luring a dancing mob on the street with rich melodies and crisp playing. A fellow next to me was lured away from another showcase by the sound. "American music is so muddled," he said. "This is so British — so clean and clear and, I don't know, some kind of tune to take away with you."
SXSW keynote: Bob Geldof pleads for rock's continuing social conscience — 'Say something to me!'
By Thomas Conner on March 17, 2011 2:25 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — A fine new biography of Queen by Mark Blake, Is This the Real Life?, was recently published. The first chapter details the band's performance at Live Aid in 1985, as fine a piece of stadium showmanship as you'll ever see. It inspired me to drop the cash on a used set of Live Aid DVDs, the four-disc set that was finally compiled a few years ago. Watching the whole spectacle over a long weekend while the spouse was away, I finally came to terms with the fact that, sure, Dylan was there, but so were Spandau Ballet and the Style Council (themselves the picture-perfect illustration of style trumping substance in the mid-'80s). It happened when Elvis Costello came onto the stage. He had one song. He didn't pick one of his own, he didn't push the hit, he instead sang "All You Need Is Love." Live Aid is peppered with such moments, when the music itself reminds us of why we're here — much moreso and certainly more effectively than the marathon concert's occasional news reels about the African famine — and what we should be talking about.
This is exactly the kind of thing Live Aid organizer Bob Geldof says is lacking in current music — or, if it's there, at least the democratization of the Internet has prevented him from finding it.
Surprising and inspiring, more optimist than doomsayer, Geldof began Thursday's keynote address at SXSW 2011 with a pleasant ramble but focused his remarks on pop music's history of affecting social change, however indirectly, and the future of that crucial power.
"I don't think the American revolution is over," said the activist-musician. He didn't mean 1776. "The music of the American revolution was not fife and drum. It was rock 'n' roll. It is entirely understandable to anyone in the world. That's why Live Aid worked."
Geldof recalled his youth in "cold, damp, gray" Ireland and the personal (which, once he took action by joining a band, inevitably later became social) revolution that occurred when he first heard rock music. His realization, he says, was, "I can use this thing." He saw the music as a tool to change his own circumstances, and then to have a voice in the world.
But it's the nature of that voice that Geldof focused on. What kind of voice, and through what medium will it come? The Internet isn't enough, he said. "We can talk these things through, which is the limitation of the web," he said, salting his impassioned speech in several places with his distaste for blogs and for the ability of anyone to shout their views unmanaged into cyberspace. An increase in the quantity of voices has drowned out those with quality — "Everybody's got the means to say anything they want, but nobody has anything to say," Geldof said.
No, blog screeds and even Woody Guthrie-esque didacticism are not going to keep the American cultural revolution alive and growing. For music to have any impact, he said, "it must suggest, not state ... It has to be about society. The revisiting of context is crucial. When rock becomes about the height of the platform boots and the size of one's country manor, it's meaningless." He called rock music a "vivid, livid argument with the constituency," adding, "This thing we call content now is about the conversation society has with itself."
The power of shaping ideas still lies in the music, he said, though finding it and experiencing it has grown more difficult without clear arbiters and filters online. "Where are the Ramones of today, the Sex Pistols?" he asked. "They're out there, but will they be found? That's the point."
To the musicians at SXSW, Geldof pleaded: "Say something to me!" He also encouraged them not to be taken in by the illusion of community offered by the Internet and to realize that "a fan club is more powerful than 6,000 [Facebook] friends." Then he started to get angry, exactly in the way he wanted musicians to be. "I don't hear it! I don't hear that rage! I don't hear the disgust in music" -- and this after a laundry list of injustices, including the Wall Street scandals and the new McCarthyism of Rep. Peter King (whose hypocritical former ties to the IRA brought real color to Geldof's cheeks) -- "and I need to! It doesn't have to be literal. Ideas are shaped in music. That's why music is dangerous, and always has been. Rock 'n' roll is the siren cry of individualism acting together."
Individualism acting together. Nice. Sounds like America to me. And the voice of that collective individualism is still desperately needed throughout the world, Geldof said without even citing the examples of current uprisings through Africa and the Middle East. "We still need you. Still the voice of the American revolution must pound on."
Amusing postscript: In the Q&A that followed, one questioner brought up contemporary outspoken punk bands and focused on Chicago's Rise Against, who Geldof seemed familiar with. But their name is too literal, he complained. "I really don't think pop should be that literal," he said. "I suggest that they ... move to transliterating what they're feeling."
That said, it should be interesting to compare the directness of lyrics on Rise Against's new album, "Endgame" when we finally hear Geldof's new album, "How to Compose Popular Songs That Will Sell," this spring.
SXSW Thursday: The Strokes fill an amphitheater on autopilot, plus Abigail Washburn, Yelawolf and more
By Thomas Conner on March 18, 2011 12:43 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — Ringing in the second full night of music at SXSW, as they rang in the 21st century, New York City's venerated Strokes plodded into a set cherry-picked from their retro-hipster catalog. In the early stages of a tour that appears to be dreadfully duty-bound, supporting the band's first new record in five years, "Angles," these once refreshing rock revivalists played a free concert for a capacity crowd at Austin's Auditorium Shores outdoor amphitheater. (Capacity of the outdoor venue is listed at 20,000; by mid-show, the entrances were closed to incoming fans, some of whom then knocked down the fences to get in.)
While the evening was temperate and breezy, the music wasn't quite the same. Opening the show with a wink-wink choice for this "comeback," singer Julian Casablancas slumped onto his microphone and wheezed, "I want to be forgotten / and I don't want to be reminded / You say, 'Please don't make this harder' / No, I won't yet." But it's not easy listening to a band that sounds so talented and proficient — and so bored. The Strokes' Thursday night set clearly thrilled the mob of fans, but it sounded like "Angels" does — labored, merely capable, not completely forced but close. Bob Geldof in his keynote Thursday morning said, "America, you look exhausted." Case in point: Julian & Co., not exactly a festival band (see last summer's Lollapalooza) playing-by-numbers and trying to determine what cultural contrast existed that made them sound genuinely fresh and exciting a decade ago. In the new single, "Under Cover of Darkness," Casablancas sings, "Everybody's singing the same song for 10 years."
I bolted and hit the west side of downtown to explore some unknowns — the founding purpose of SXSW — before closing the night with some other known quantities ...
Curiosity led me into the ACL Live at the Moody Theater, a new venue attached to the W Hotel and reflective of its clean lines and modern personality. It's a great, three-decked theater, and the band on stage was, I'll say it, smokin'. The New Mastersounds is a quartet with a formidable keyboardist, Joe Tatton, dancing up and down the ivories of a Hammond organ and a Fender Rhodes. The rhythm section is pure New Orleans backline, and singer Eddie Roberts calmly played an intense guitar solo at the end of the set — smiling to himself when he was done because he knew he'd nailed it. Hot funk, and you'd never believe where they're from while you're standing there doing the chicken dance like you're at Mardi Gras. They're from freaking Leeds.
Abigail Washburn, a k a Mrs. Bela Fleck, struggled against the room at Antone's, kicking off a strong night sponsored by the Americana Music Association also featuring Emmylou Harris and the Old 97s. Washburn, an Evanston native, is a crafty clawhammer banjo player, and she leads a very adult and understated Americana quintet that includes upright bass and pedal steel. Washburn's voice is cool and salty, and her songs are supple and slow-building, like little Appalachian operettas — not the best fit for a big beer hall. But she easily steered several songs into brief breakdowns that caused couples to dance and Washburn to try out her clogging while crying, "Eeee-yeah!"
The Austin Music Hall was smoky with a fiery hip-hop bill. Trae the Truth, a Houston collective built around Trae (born Frazier Thompson III), had manic mouths and big beats, rapping about "the South Side" and getting a lot of crowd participation with exchanges like this:
Trae: "You ain't sh-- if you ain't ever been..."
Crowd: "...screwed up!"
Brooklyn's Yelawolf hit the stage with several times that energy, jumping from side to side in his grungy plaid shirt and ridiculous pom-pommed stocking cap. He juiced the crowd while spewing redneck raps that change gears suddenly between regular time, double time and triple time. Born Michael Wayne Atha in Alabama, Yelawolf is signed to Eminem's Shady Records; he sounds like a Southern Shady, but with much less to say. Yelawolf just wants to par-tay. After Trae joined him on stage for some more call-and-response with the crowd — the youngest and across-the-board most diverse I've seen here yet — Yelawolf got introspective for the briefest moment, stalking the stage and talking about a girl who left him "for some Abercrombie motherf---er." Then he started singing, soft and fluttery, "Love is not enough" — before shrieking, "F--- that bitch! I just wanna party!"
More SXSW Thursday: S.O.S. for B.o.B., Wiz Khalifa and Janelle Monae
By Thomas Conner on March 18, 2011 12:43 PM
The first SXSW S.O.S. went out Thursday morning, after Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco — a buzzed favorite on the schedule especially since his controversial "Lasers" album just went No. 1 — canceled his show, as did Cee Lo Green after him, both for undisclosed reasons. They were scheduled headliners at the Atlantic Records showcase at La Zona Rosa, but Atlantic has plenty of hot commodities to choose from right now. The new lineup became: B.o.B., Wiz Khalifa and Janelle Monae.
B.o.B. impressed me playing the very first set at Lollpalooza last summer in the brutal morning sun, mostly because this 22-year-old from North Carolina is a triple threat: a rapper with flow, a capable singer and a pretty hot guitarist. All three talents we on stage Thursday night, but showing some wear. Two of his biggest singles from last year's "The Adventures of Bobby Ray" are collaborations, and since Rivers Cuomo and Bruno Mars can't follow B.o.B. on tour to sing their melodious parts of "Magic" and "Nothin' on You," respectively, B.o.B. simply plays their tracks and dances while their voices dominate the chorus. He's got a half dozen guys on stage with him; one of them can't fill in for the live concert? When he straps on that guitar, thou, he's hot, as he did to rip through "Don't Let Me Fall" and "Electric."
Wiz Khalifa, whose "Rolling Papers" CD, due March 29, is one of the year's most anticipated, moseyed on stage and filled the interim with a hazy set. Hardly polished, this sub-Snoop Dogg rambled about the stage, looking like a deer in the headlights but raising the temperature of the place with his carefree party raps, mostly along these lines: "If you don't smoke, I don't know why." Surrounded by members of the Taylor Gang, Khalifa ping-pongee back and forth, laughing to himself and transmitting a generally slap-happy vibe, which the crowd picked up on and rolled with. Before closing with his hit "Black and Yellow" (go, Steelers!), he freestyles a tribute to the late Nate Dogg.
Janelle Monae has announced a spring tour with Bruno Mars (May 27 at the Aragon), and just this week announced some dates opening for Katy Perry. But if the public finally latches onto her in a bigger way, she's already prepared to handle her own headline. A tiny thing (the pompadour adds at least half a foot), she proved Thursday night she can command the stage. Backed by a tight eight-piece band, Monae hit the stage in a flowing cape while three dancers in monk robes knelt around her. She quickly went into her thesis, "Dance or Die," moving the crowd with the tight-tight-tight funk (sometimes that rhythm section was even a little overpowering) and prodding their minds with the sci-fi concepts from her fascinating debut album, "The ArchAndroid." Midway through, she cooled things down with a rendition of Judy Garland's "Smile," then brought the show to a close with the hit, "Tightrope," expanded into a Vegas-jazz marathon with about seven endings. Didn't bother those of us who didn't want it to end.
Let's put on a show! Hanson throws together online telethon for Japan earthquake relief at SXSW
By Thomas Conner on March 18, 2011 5:01 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Hanson returned this year to the festival that made them famous — and then they got all Bob Geldof on us.
The three Oklahoma brothers first came to SXSW 17 years ago, strolling the streets as under-age hopefuls, singing for anyone who would listen (and getting kicked out of the Four Seasons lobby for doing so). One guy did, and the rest is "MMMBop" history. Now grown up, married, each with kids, they look around Austin and Zac, 25, sighs and says, "South-by definitely put a mark on us."
This year, the Hanson guys returned to SXSW to play a showcase — only their second time to do so — in support of last year's spot-on pop-soul record, "Shout It Out," their eighth. But then something else happened. Maybe it was the presence of Geldof, but Hanson decided to whip together, in the span of about two days, a telethon to raise money for the recovery efforts in Japan following the massive earthquake there and subsequent nuclear power threats.
"When we got to South by Southwest, we expected to see more of a unified effort," Zac said Friday afternoon from a makeshift base camp in an office building on North Congress Ave. "It was like, all we've got going is four tables at the convention center? That's not great. ... All these important people are here, from IFC to CNN, arts and culture people who should be talking about this, and no one really was. So yesterday we decided to throw this thing together, and started calling everyone we know to participate."
"And everyone we don't know," added Isaac Hanson.
The result, they hope, is a 12-hour live stream from noon to midnight Saturday, viewed at sxsw4japan.com (a different address from sxsw4japan.org, but related), featuring live and pre-recorded performances and messages from a variety of musicians. It was still early when I spoke with them, but on board a day ahead were Widespread Panic, the Boxer Rebellion, Ben Folds and the Courtyard Hounds.
"Even if we raise $12, we just felt something had to be done -- by someone, and if we could step up and be those people, OK," Zac said. "We don't want to be so jaded and say, 'Well, we helped out with Haiti, and that was pretty recent ...' I've heard people say, 'Well, it's Japan, they've got money.' It didn't seem right."
Money raised through this awareness project will be via text messaging and go directly to the Red Cross.
Hanson will oversee the stream and appear several times. When it's over at midnight, they head to Antone's for an all-ages showcase at 12:30 a.m.
"Live Aid was put together in two weeks," Isaac said. "We can do this in two days." He looked at Zac. A beat. "Right?"
SXSW Friday: Cool Kids, Mac Miller, Yuck, Wild Flag, A Lull
By Thomas Conner on March 19, 2011 11:45 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — Chicago's Cool Kids, Chuck Inglish and Mikey Rocks, show the folks gathered for SXSW just how much the music business has changed. Since popping up in 2007, the talented rap duo has yet to record a proper album. Instead, they've built a sturdy career on blog-loved singles, EPs, mixtapes and remarkably solid performances like their stand Friday night at Austin's La Zona Rosa. They're doing well enough that Mikey Rocks can strut the stage in a red Neiman Marcus tank top and rhyme about his "new pair of shoes," his "ATM credits," how he swaggers around "with a little bit of gold and a pager" and, finally, snorts derisively: "You shop at the mall!" Still there's talk of an album being recorded, but who cares? The crowd was singing and shouting and dancing wildly. Chuck and Mikey brim with confidence, pacing the stage while calmly but firmly delivering their lines — not too wacked-out, but none of that rapid-fire stuff — over rocking beats and minimal electronic sounds. But it's not all about the coin. "They say if you ain't got no money take yo broke ass home," Chuck said in "Basement Party," the closer. "I say if you got you two dollars, then come through to my party."
Next up was a rapper to watch: Mac Miller. Backed by a DJ scratching actual vinyl, this 19-year-old white rapper from Pittsburgh stumbled into his SXSW debut in a grubby sweatshirt and backwards cap looking and acting every bit the stoner guy from "Clueless." "Anyone drunk or f---ed up?" Miller asked the crowd, which roared the affirmative. "Man, there's so much sh-- backstage," he chuckled, smacking his cheek in amazement. Whatever his state of mind, Miller warmed into an engaging and occasionally goofy set of quick rhymes (he tends to rap on the same note for long stretches). He's got flow, but his set doesn't. He stopped after every song to stumble around some more and yammer on about partying and generally being a good-natured doofus. ("I love to party," he said, then added his thesis: "You gotta goof around a little bit." Someone in the audience said no, you don't. He responded, "Well, I do.") Expect to see him on college campuses all year long — or, with his feisty "Nikes on My Feet" ("Lace 'em up, lace 'em up, lace 'em up, lace 'em / Blue suede shoes stay crispy like bacon"), on a shoe commercial soon.
Earlier in the week, I saw Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot, hosts of public radio's "Sound Opinions" show. The subject of Yuck came up — possibly the buzziest of buzz bands at this year's SXSW — and the two instantly broke into their Siskel & Ebert dynamic, with DeRo claiming Yuck was just retreaded shoegaze rock and Kot disagreeing, saying he hears a lot of Pavement. They're each right, depending on the song. Sometimes, as on "Holing Out," the guitars from Yuck's Daniel Blumberg and Max Bloom are wonderfully lush and streamlined (kinda shoegazey). Sometimes, as on "Get Away," the melodies take sharp turns and the bass line gets up and runs around the room (kinda Pavementy). In all, it's a pleasant sound that washes over you without leaving behind much sediment. Yuck, a quartet from London, has played here, there and everywhere this week; Friday's showcase at the Kiss & Fly lounge had a line a block long waiting to get in. It's not really worth all that, but it should make for a harmless summer '90s revival.
Those fans should have been in line for Wild Flag. Amazingly, there was no line for the most exciting revival of the night — from Carrie Brownstein, formerly of Sleater-Kinney and currently a co-writer and actor on the buzz-worthy IFC sketch comedy show "Portlandia." Her new supergroup — featuring singer-guitarist Mary Timony (ex-Helium), keyboardist Rebecca Cole (ex-Minders) and Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss — played a rollicking set Friday night, with Brownstein ping-ponging around the stage in a red dress. This is not Sleater-Kinney — it's much more fun. Pop hooks rule, with spirited vocals from the whole band (including a lot of girl-group ooh's and ahh's in the back), and only occasionally (but thankfully) does a darker S-K undertone show up, particularly in Brownstein's guitar breaks, which thrash about in the pop pool making welcome waves. Cole is the band's secret weapon, though, laying down determined organ lines that give Brownstein and Timony a steady something to cling to. A debut disc is due later this year on Merge.
I capped the night next door with Chicago's A Lull, which crammed onto the closet-sized stage at the Bat Bar with four members playing drums. Digging into the most primal corners of rock, A Lull (Nigel Evan Dennis, Todd Miller, Ashwin Deepankar, Aaron Vinceland and Mike Brown) has released recordings that utilize any available sound they think hits hardest, including hitting drums with microphones and beating things against a wall. Friday's showcase was less destructive physically, but pretty pummeling otherwise. With two drummers, a bassist also occasionally hitting drums and a bongo, a guitarist with drums and a xylophone, and a singer lurching over repeating keyboard whims, A Lull was hardly a pause in anything. But the pounding compositions possess shape and texture and bode well for their full-length album, "Confetti," due April 12.
'American Idol's Crystal Bowersox plays lively SXSW showcase with John Popper
By Thomas Conner on March 19, 2011 1:07 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — The way "American Idol" runner-up Crystal Bowersox and Blues Traveler frontman John Popper were getting along on stage at SXSW, you'd think they'd been BFFs for a long time. But they met just 30 minutes before the show.
Bowersox explained that she had contacted Popper online via a mutual friend (see below for geeked-out backstory) and asked the harmonica virtuoso to play during one song at her showcase Friday night in the Victorian Ballroom of Austin's Driskill Hotel. Popper wound up playing the whole set with Bowersox and her country-rock band.
The two played off each other nicely — Bowersox's acoustic strumming and strong, soulful voice balanced by Popper's high-pitched harp solos. Sometimes Popper (in town with his own band, John Popper & the Duskray Troubadours) went a bit too far, egged on by the applause, and threatened to overshadow Bowersox's first SXSW spotlight. As great a player as he is, he's never one for playing few notes or leaving the slightest space between them. But he added to a rich performance, seeming to enliven mandolin player Charlie King, bassist Frankie May and, for "Mason," Bowersox's husband Brian Walker.
Bowersox, who lives in Chicago, sang and played like a veteran, clearly in command of the band. Each player watched her for cues and chords, as she fearlessly played a set that included carefully constructed folk-pop like "Mine All Mine" and revved-up soul-rockers like "On the Run" and "Kiss Ya." All original, too, thank heavens. Her "Idol" experience is well on the way to becoming a footnote in her bio. "You might know me from a certain television show," she said early in the set. "... 'Extreme Makeover.'"
The show turned into as much a comedy set as a musical one, with Bowersox and Popper veering into a bizarre, slap-happy run of poop jokes. It began when Walker joined her on stage for "Mason," their wedding song, wearing a white shirt and jeans. Bowersox wore the same combo, and she quipped, "Even our poop is starting to smell the same." The scatological humor kept on throughout the set. Backstage afterward, Popper said, "I've never met another singer with such soul and fecal humor."
When will Bowersox finally play a full gig in Chicago again? She didn't know. She and Walker live on the North Side. Walker, however, plays April 7 at the Bottom Lounge, and she'll be backing him up.
** How Crystal met John: If you watch "American Idol" closely, you might have heard Bowersox say something odd during a post-performance interview during the finals in May 2010. She said, "Meow is the time." It was a bet, she said, between her and a friend, Steve Lemme, an actor who was in the 2001 comedy "Super Troopers." In that movie, Lemme's character, State Trooper MacIntyre Womack, is wagered by his buddy to say the word "meow" 10 times during a traffic stop. "Meow is the time" counted as one. Lemme also knows Popper. Bowersox made the original connection online via Lemme. When she hit Austin on Friday, she texted Popper and he came right to the venue. It's a small festival, after all.
Kanye West, Jay-Z, John Legend and more party late into the night for SXSW diversion
By Thomas Conner on March 20, 2011 12:28 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — A rare, full "super moon" shone over the Texas capital Saturday night, but only one music star was big enough to eclipse not only that but nearly all of the annual South by Southwest music conference and festival: Kanye West.
Announced via a cryptic online video weeks before SXSW (with the audience enticed via a Twitter/texting RSVP, which the sponsoring company admitted failed terribly, with hundreds turned away) West hogged the spotlight on the festival's final night and set up shop in an unusual venue, a decommissioned downtown power plant. By early Saturday morning, fans were already lined up for the midnight show; at showtime, a mob of ticketless fans mashed the barricades outside, hoping to get in. The venue's capacity is just over 2,000; the event guest list received more than 10,000 requests in its first hour.
From 1 to 4 a.m., West trotted much of the roster of his G.O.O.D. record label across the stage, including Mos Def (who was surprisingly basic and dull), Pusha T (his "Fear of God" mixtape is due Monday) and Kid Cudi (a crowd favorite and a snappy dancer). Most blended in, one after the next, except the arresting Cyhi Da Prince (whose crazy-fast rhymes were paired with the masked Mad Violinist for "Sideways") and the aberrant Mr. Hudson (a bleach-blond white singer who sounds like Midge Ure and covered Alphaville's "Forever Young"). The concert was filmed for an online broadcast scheduled for April 22 — Good Friday.
West himself slipped on stage without pomp and launched a set that swung between brilliant and boring.
Fiery as he is — and certainly was in hot flashes during "Gorgeous" and "Hell of a Life" — the concert benefited most when he added extra theater, such as the cymbal-flipping marching band that joined him (a la "Tusk") during "All of the Lights," John Legend leavening the mood with elegant piano playing (first during "Christian Dior Denim Flow" and "Blame Game," then for his own "Ordinary People") and the big-guns set of the night — Jay-Z showing up for six of the set's 19 songs. When Jay-Z is on stage, Kanye actually looks humbled, standing there with not much to do while Hova roared through "Big Pimpin'." Alas, no announcement of a release date for or even the status of the pair's teased collaboration album, "Watch the Throne."
Ultimately, though, this concert merely crashed the party. Assembled and promoted by an online video service, not the festival itself, West's parade of salesmanship only managed to draw a crowd away from aspiring bands that came to SXSW, one of the few opportunities they have to possibly be heard without the ruckus of Kanye-sized competition.
Kanye & Co.'s set list Sunday morning: "Dark Fantasy," "Gorgeous," "Hell of a Life," "Can't Tell Me Nothing," "Christian Dior Denim Flow" (with John Legend), "Blame Game" (with John Legend), "Ordinary People" (John Legend), "Power," "Say You Will," "Runaway," "All of the Lights" (with marching band), "H.A.M." (with Jay-Z), "Monster" (with Jay-Z), "Swagga Like Us"(with Jay-Z, but cut short when Kanye laughed and confessed, "I forgot that thing"), "PSA" (Jay-Z), "So Appalled"(with Jay-Z), "Big Pimpin'" (Jay-Z), "Lost in the World" (with Bon Iver's Justin Vernon), "Good Life" (with the G.O.O.D. crew).
Violence and crowd control problems cause SXSW to consider limiting events
By Thomas Conner on March 21, 2011 1:01 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Injuries and incidents of violence pockmarked this year's SXSW music festival in the Texas capital, causing organizers to consider scaling some things back for 2012.
At a 1 a.m. Saturday show by '80s pop band OMD, a camera boom broke and fell into the crowd. Four people were taken to the hospital with moderate injuries.
SXSW director Roland Swenson called the accident "disheartening" and added, "This is our 25th year, and we've never had anyone permanently injured."
On Friday night, Chicago pop-punk band Screeching Weasel's show in east Austin was cut short when singer Ben Weasel (Ben Foster), after lengthy diatribes between songs and some taunting of the audience, ended up in a brawl after someone threw an ice cube that hit him in the eye.
Crowd control was a problem at several concerts.
Late Saturday night, a throng of fans unable to get inside pressed against an alley fence at the venue where reunited Canadian noise-rock band Death From Above 1979 was playing. Eventually, the fence was pushed down, "inciting a mini riot" according to the venue.
"Some kid came over the top [of the fence], as soon as he came over the top the fence kind of went and everybody started coming in," the bar owner said.
Police on horseback intervened and cleared the alley, allowing the show to continue.
Thursday evening, the Strokes filled the downtown Auditorium Shores amphitheater to its 20,000-person capacity. When the gates were closed to any new concertgoers, several climbed the fence and jumped off the tops of portable toilets to get in. Minor injuries were reported.
Late Saturday night, crowds mobbed an unusual downtown venue, a decommissioned power plant, where Kanye West had scheduled a midnight show.
This concert was not an official SXSW event, and it was free — to anyone who saw a tweeted promotion and RSVP'd via text message to the concert's organizer, the online video service Vevo. The company reports receiving 15,000 texts within the first two minutes after announcing the show. Capacity at the venue was 2,500.
Things soured when several thousand people who had received text messages saying they would be admitted to the show then received a second message apologizing and adding that they did not have a ticket, after all. Vevo issued a public apology, admitting "we missed this up" and saying they were "asked by the Austin Police Department" to limit the size of the crowd. (Kanye himself was uninvited to a fashion show earlier in the week.)
Despite that — and the fact that entry would be granted only to those with a confirmed RSVP or other VIP access — fans began lining up outside the venue early Saturday morning. Crowd control, I can tell you, was poorly planned and managed, with hundreds of hopeful and some angry fans pressing against a barricade demanding entry and shouting at police and security personnel.
MTV reports a spokesperson for SXSW says the festival will reexamine its approach to free events, "which appear to have reached critical mass," plus Austin city officials plan to limit permits next year for free shows.
In the video below from Austin's KXAN, Swenson attributed the restive attitude at some events this year on too many free events, which "attract an element of people who are troublemakers."
This post contains my complete running coverage of this annual festival ...
© Chicago Sun-Times
Pitchfork Music Festival opens ... sounding pretty folkie
By Thomas Conner on July 16, 2010 4:40 PM
Bright sun, water bottles, brooding singer-songwriters — this must be the sixth Pitchfork Music Festival. The annual hootenanny is now under way in Chicago's Union Park ... and it sounds like a hootenanny. The fest opened Friday afternoon with two fine strummers that made the venue sound more like a folk festival than the go-to shopping mall of indie rock.
Sharon Van Etten had the daunting job of not just kicking off the afternoon's music but doing so by squinting and singing directly into the July sun. Van Etten warbled her shy solo tunes. The crowd gathered. A warm-up indeed.
But it was the Tallest Man on Earth, aka Kristian Matsson, who brought the first real musical heat. Skinny, scruffy, charging boldly around the stage with his small-body acoustic guitar, Matsson played some fine folk songs. Opening with the title track to his new CD "The Wild Hunt" and strumming hard through to "King of Spain," Matsson growled and howled through a set of easy chords and pastoral lyrics in the tradition of America's best traditional music. Which is all the more impressive since he's here from Sweden. Small wonder he was so enthusiastically received at the Sasquatch Music Festival earlier.
This weekend each year I'm often instead at the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival. Both Van Etten and Matsson could swing hard on the folk fest circuit. The fact that they are welcomed so warmly in the heart of indie rock — Matsson numerous times thanked the crowd "for being so lovely" — hopefully is a pleasing portent for the "genre."
Pitchfork Music Festival: Believing in the Liars
By Thomas Conner on July 16, 2010 6:06 PM
Ain't no folkie fest no more.
Angus Andrews, singer for the Liars, is prowling the Pitchfork main stage, shrieking over the band's fractured, stop-start rhythms. The cacophony he's raising is terrible and terrifying. His vocals — a series of owl cries and electronically distorted yowls — rise and fall over guitar lines played carefully just a half tone off where they should be, and the bass lurks and dodges in the lengthening shadows. This doesn't sound like a 10-year-old band. The Liars are still throwing in everything and the kitchen sink, like an underpracticed, angry Supergrass, though they've definitely ramped up the intensity of their caterwaul since the release of this year's "Sisterworld." "The devil's in Chicago at motherf—-in' Pitchfork!" Andrews shouts. Then, in his lovely British accent, he politely and demurely says, "Thanks so much for having us" and preaches for a second about not throwing water bottles. I knew it was all an act.
Pitchfork Music Festival: Stay cool with cheaper water
By Thomas Conner on July 16, 2010 9:28 PM
Friday's late-afternoon start to the Pitchfork Music Festival was certainly hot in Chicago's Union Park. But it's been hotter, and staff reported no unusual increase in heat-related medical care. Just to be on the safe side, however, the festival decided Friday to cut the cost of water in half. Bottled water is now available for $1, and will remain so throughout the weekend.
"Out of concern for the heat, we're trying to be proactive," said Pitchfork staffer Anders Smith Lindall. This came shortly after an announcement from the main stage that water would be handed to concertgoers pressed against the front barricades, where some fans had already been pulled and treated for heat exhaustion.
Music starts earlier in the day Saturday and Sunday, meaning more time for fans to be under the sun. A high of 90 is forecast each day.
Pitchfork Music Festival: Rockin' Robyn!
By Thomas Conner on July 16, 2010 10:46 PM
Who knew the best performer of the day would be a blonde bombshell spinning Euro-disco? Robyn — another Swede on Friday's bill and a former child star who's fought hard to regain her own artistic control — came out fighting, throwing punches in the air when she wasn't doing that elbows-high, shoulder-leaning dance all '80s female singers used to do.
Feisty, sexy, spunky Robyn opened with the virtues of being a "Fembot," assured us that love hurts "With Every Heartbeat" and sang flawlessly through new single "Dancing on My Own" in front of a band dressed in all white, twiddling knobs and pounding synth-pad drums. The latter really exploded at the end of "Cobrastyle," with Robyn showing some kick-box dancing. Her Pink-ish feistiness reached its zenith in "Don't F—-ing Tell Me What to Do," during which she led some kind of aerobics class (sporting a totally Pat Benatar green beret, too).
And she was the crowd favorite.
Go figure. I had grown to assume this was a fairly rockist crowd, and I was originally surprised by the booking of this talented but very dance-pop artist on the venerable Pitchfork bill. But she embodies the spirit of whatever "indie" started out to mean. She debuted at 16 as an R&B starlet, and she's faced consistent and constant stumbling blocks in her business dealings which have kept her from the States. Even back in 2003, she was collaborating with experimental synth-pop outfit the Knife while her label was releasing a sugary best-of over here. She bought herself out of her record contract and started making the kind of music she wanted, and suddenly she won Grammys (in Sweden). Now she's doing her thing, releasing three "Body Talk" EPs — the second one's due Sept. 7 and might include a collaboration with Snoop Dogg! — and finally making an impact in the United States. Just last night she was singing at the Arvika Festival in Sweden, and after Pitchfork comes a North American tour, co-headlining with Kelis.
Judging by the diversity of the people dancing determinedly to her songs tonight, it should be a great tour.
Pitchfork Music Festival: Broken Social Scene, Modest Mouse
By Thomas Conner on July 16, 2010 11:18 PM
Sundown slowed down with Broken Social Scene, a sprawling Toronto collective with a few Chicago roots. This band makes a lovely sound, even if the songs don't always gel behind the chiming guitars and palpitating drums.
Thirty-one musicians appear on the band's latest CD, "Forgiveness Rock Record," recorded in Chicago under the guidance of John McEntire from Tortoise and the Sea & Cake. McEntire himself played a second drum set on stage Friday night, adding needed extra heft to gauzy arrangements that tend to sag if not tended carefully.
This loosey-goosey ensemble, which tends to trade instruments among each other, was most engaging when they got the pulse going, rollicking through "Texico Bitches" and the rumbling furnace of "Cause = Time," which featured five guitars. The set ended in a see-sawing riff with strings that evoked the most intense Poi Dog Pondering drones.
Alas, the evening wrapped with Modest Mouse, a rodent of a band whose major-label indie rock (work that phrase out for a while) deserves the restraint implied by its name.
Now that the trinket of ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr is being worn by another indie-rock sweetheart (the Cribs) — though new guitarist Jim Fairchild did a helluva job filling those shoes, particularly during "Satellite Skin" — Modest Mouse is just a tuneless junkyard of discarded song parts. Frontman and the band's sole constant Isaac Brock is one of the most difficult singers to enjoy in rock and roll, and when he picks up that banjo for "The Devil's Workday" and sings about hanging himself for treason, well, hey, we got some rope. The God-awful funk beats of "Education," the stand-up bass — they're just a dissonant Dave Matthews Band, and the neo-hippies in the crowd were twirling in their calico prints to prove it.
Pitchfork Music Festival: In a Delorean, plus Dam-Funk
By Thomas Conner on July 17, 2010 6:40 PM
Delorean in the summer heat is a weird and wonderful experience. Hitting the stage switched on, they build layer upon layer, loop upon loop — dreamy synth sounds that build and build and then ease off, one tune blending into another. That has the effect of inducing a dreamy state, which coupled with the blaring sun on your neck could induce a crazy euphoria. Or, like the guy behind me, you could just complain, "They've been playing this same song for half an hour." But listen closely, behind bassist Ekhi Lopetegi's thin vocals, and there are intricate patterns in the sampled piano and the vox humana. Despite the scraggly page-boys and beards, this band is not grounded in rock but draws more from the Balearic house music of their native Barcelona, Spain. Lopetegi's bass, though, and Guillermo Astrain's guitar bring enough vibration to a rock crowd to keep it on its feet. Primal Scream, we hardly knew ye.
California's Dâm-Funk (DJ Damon Riddick) got a late start on the shady balance stage, but in no time he laid down some fat beats and was advising us, "You gotta keep your hood pass intact, y'all." Dâm-Funk (it's pronounced "dame") mostly just turned on sounds and rhythms, then stalked the stage singing like a lost DeBarge. Then he pulled out the keytar and started into his trademark, slow, mostly instrumental jams. Joined by a live drummer and an extra synth player, Dâm-Funk updated '70s and '80s urban soul, and he stayed classy even when the shouts from Wu-Tang's Raekwon intruded from across the park. Since he was late starting, he even cut his set short. "We gotta respect the other bands, y'all," he said, removing the keytar. "We got four more songs, but f—- it. Peace!" Such consideration! Only at Pitchfork.
Pitchfork Music Festival: Titus Andronicus is no tragedy
By Thomas Conner on July 17, 2010 6:47 PM
Best band of Saturday afternoon: Titus Andronicus, a blazing band from Glen Rock, N.J., a location that has allowed them to absorb the best of bombast from Springsteen, the fire of post-punk from New York and possibly even a little Philly soul. "I'm sweating like a pregnant nun talking to the pope," said frontman Patrick Stickles after lurching out of another of the band's nihilistic songs, "No Future, Part 3." But their outlook isn't completely bleak. The song hammers a refrain, "You'll always be a loser!" over and over before concluding: "But that's OK." The quintet was augmented by a few support players, piano and strings and horns; the extra players weren't necessary, but Titus Andronicus songs are multi-level, architectural creations with a capacity for a lot of extra decor. This is band that can write as well as it rocks, and God does it rock. At one moment Stickles is picking a spidery melody on his guitar, next the kinetic Amy Klein is crunching into the tune, and — as in the sprawling "Fear and Loathing in Mahwah, NJ" — it all builds to a triumphant bashing. Near the end the guitars screeched in harmony and hit a northern highlands rhythm like they were Big Country. Then they turn around with the panache and the chops to introduce the band via a jump-bluesy tune, "And Ever." Brutal and friendly, vicious and tender, Titus Andronicus has it all.
Pitchfork Music Festival: The rain doesn't really help
By Thomas Conner on July 18, 2010 2:00 PM
Day 3 of the sixth annual Pitchfork Music Festival, which began in 2005 as Intonation, is under way in the sultry summer heat. A noontime thunder shower moved through quickly, cooling things off for a matter of moments before the sun returned and added the evaporated rain to the day's humidity totals.
Water remains at half price, a dollar a bottle. Still, the line for the free water is longer than that for the bottled variety. Pitchfork staffer (and occasional Sun-Times contributor) Anders Smith Lindall says festival workers are handing out water bottles to distressed concertgoers when the line gets excruciatingly long.
Those who don't mind earning their reward — and helping to keep the park clear of debris — can earn one beverage ticket (worth a buck, for one bottle of water) for every 10 discarded plastic cups collected and returned to the recycling booth.
Pitchfork Music Festival: Best Coast is the best
By Thomas Conner on July 18, 2010 3:30 PM
Sunday's music at the Pitchfork Music Festival began with dessert. Between the dull, thudding chords of Cass McCombs and the first laconic and then tortured feedback of the Girls, a fresh, sunny new pop band called Best Coast held down the Balance stage — the "small" stage, under the trees — with a workmanlike attitude and a handful of cheery love ditties. Ultimately unpretentious, Best Coast (Bethany Cosentino and two pals) ran through songs from the debut "Crazy for You" CD, filled with bright major chords and lyrics like "I'll try to make you mine" and "that's just not your deal." The crowd got a big chuckle when she sang, "I lost my job / I miss my mom / I wish my cat could talk." She closed with the trendy single "When I'm With You," the repeated refrain of which is, "When I'm with you, I have fun." So true.
Pitchfork Music Festival: Local Natives are fleet and foxy
By Thomas Conner on July 18, 2010 5:19 PM
Seattle's Fleet Foxes brought beautiful harmonies back to modern music, rescuing three-part tenor singing from the vaults of Crosby, Stills & Nash. But as beautiful as "White Winter Hymnal" can be, the band hasn't yet jumped up and shown any oomph.
Orange County's Local Natives have seized that opportunity, and Sunday afternoon at the Pitchfork Music Festival they delivered a set of exciting, rhythmic music laced with the energy of post-punk as well as those sweet, core harmonies. Much of their music is built around what their voices can achieve, and the fact that they achieved it the brutal July Chicago heat is impressive. But these harmonies have teeth. Kelcey Ayer took charge of most of the proceedings, hitting beautiful high notes while bashing the bejesus out of his small stand-up drum kit. The beats he added to the regular drummer's rhythm — sometimes Ayer would play keyboard with his left hand and drum with his right — made songs like "Airplanes" blast like a jet engine. "Camera Talk," the evolving "Shape Shifter," the cover of the Talking Heads' "Warning Signs" — it was all fleet and (dig guitarist-singer Taylor Rice's stache!) very foxy.
Earlier, clouds provided sweet relief from the heat just as Beach House began its Sunday afternoon set. Mother Nature knows how to set the mood. Despite the summery name, Beach House makes cool — no, chill — music. With piercing vocals and a hushed, daydreamy tone to the hypnotic sounds, Beach House is made for a little less light.
Pitchfork Music Festival: Major Lazer, Big Boi
By Thomas Conner on July 18, 2010 10:41 PM
Saturday evening began with the digital dub attack of Major Lazer, a computerized dancehall project of Diplo — marking a return to Pitchfork — and Switch. For an hour they assaulted the adoring crowd with very little music, mostly just bleats and blasts that sound like various industrial park alarms. The noises dodged and moved — a frenetic mess for the ADHD set — and Diplo spent most of his stage time shouting the name Major Lazer (at least four dozen times) and begging the crowd for hands in the air.
Big Boi doesn't have to beg.
Strutting on stage with one of his Atlanta MCs, the other half of hip-hop's acclaimed Outkast starting flinging syllables, eventually firing fastfastfast through "Ghetto Musick" over a machine-gun beat. A relentless hourlong set featured several Outkast hits (a snappy run through "Ms. Jackson") and a few guests, ranging from guest singer Neil Garrard for the tuneful "Follow Us" to a trash-talking youngster. The set dragged on and the beats became monotonous, but when he launched into "ATLiens" and hollered, "Put your hands in the air!" it was superfluous. They'd been up for a while.
Pitchfork Music Festival: Pavement resurfaces
By Thomas Conner on July 18, 2010 11:45 PM
Pavement has worn all three tags hung on this music. Here's a band that was serviced to college radio, came to define a certain smoky corner of alt-rock and now is lionized as indie heroes with a worldwide reunion tour and headlining slot at the Pitchfork fest. The band's much-anticipated set couldn't have begun more appropriately — first with a long, meandering introductory rant by Drag City's Ryan Murphy about the contrasts between this festival and Lollapalooza, among other topics, and then a false start to the opener, "Cut Your Hair." The band that worked hard but looked like slackers is still in perfect non-form.
Band leader Stephen Malkmus played facing stage left, and other band members frequently played with their backs to the crowd. Malkmus kept throwing sidelong glances at his old mates as if he wasn't sure what came next. As he maintained a carefree composure — all casual smirks, air drumming and lazy twirls — multi-instrumentalist Bob Nastanovich jumped around most of the time like a devilish imp, hollering through "Debris Slide" and rapping, if you call it that, through "Unfair," which built to such caterwauling mayhem that guitarist Scott Kannberg even tried a scissor kick.
One minute it was amazing the whole thing was still on the rails, like they should be following the Smith Westerns on the B stage, the next — such synchronized beauty and cacophony. The end result being, hey, Pavement has a serious legacy, after all. The echoes we've been hearing at this festival, this weekend and years past, they all came together in one joyfully sloppy master class of indie rock.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Loudon Wainwright III doesn't often get political in his folk songs, but that doesn't mean he's purely objective on the subject.
"Yes, my wife and I were watching the election results here in L.A., and enjoying the results. Congratulations there in Chicago," he tells us. "Whew. Four years ago I was in Vancouver mixing a record and watching returns at a Canadian house and, God, I was ready to pick up the paper and start looking for apartments."
Indeed, he returned home to America — but now he's in recovery. That is, his new album is called "Recovery," and it's a set of 13 old songs — songs mostly from the earliest outings of Wainwright's career (he was the first "new Bob Dylan," the singing surgeon on "MASH," a Grammy winning singer-songwriter, even star of and soundtrack creator for several Judd Apatow projects — and, yes, he's the father of Rufus and Martha). At the behest of artist-producer Joe Henry, Wainwright dredged up this baker's dozen of old tunes — "School Days," "The Drinking Song," "The Man Who Couldn't Cry," "Be Careful There's a Baby in the House" and more — and re-recorded them with his band. He talked to the Sun-Times about why he decided to look backward and what it's like singing a young man's songs at an older age.
Q. Each time we talk, I have to stop myself from calling you "Loudo" or assuming a friendship with you, which I think is the result of listening to so many of your deeply personal songs for so many decades. Is that common, people assuming a familiarity with you because there's so much biography in your music?
A. That's OK. It's not a bad thing. It hasn't gotten too creepy yet. People know a version of me, certain biographical facts because I've written about them. But they don't really know me, and I certainly don't know them. They show up in the CD line when I'm signing copies, and they say, you know, "This song meant a lot to me," and I like that.
Q. And here you are 40 years later, still touring.
A. Yeah, my swingin' life, still beating the bushes, still seeing if I can kindle some interest. I've been kindling now for 40 years — exactly, actually. I got paid to play music for the first time probably in 1968.
Q. How convenient for a milestone anniversary to offer this disc of retooled old songs?
A. Well, it wasn't that kind of thing, really. It all started in discussions with Joe Henry, when we were working on "Strange Weirdos" [an album of songs used in and inspired by the film "Knocked Up"]. I really love this group of musicians I'm recording with now in L.A., and we thought, "Why not go back and look at some of the old songs?"
Q. How did you decide which ones to "re-cover"?
A. It was very democratic. Joe mentioned some songs, I had some suggestions. I know that in these days of the Internet and downloading a song and reshuffling a playlist, the listener has a lot of choice in terms of the way they experience music. The last few albums I've made, I've tried to put the songs together in a way that creates a tone or a mood — dare I say, takes you on a journey. But once you make it, God knows, people can do whatever they want with it. Still, I gathered these 13 songs to try and make a journey.
Q. Having traveled quite a journey in 40 years, what kind of journey is this record?
A. Well, it's all about this band, really. That's what makes this different. That and the fact that it's all now from the perspective of a singer who's aged almost 40 years. The things I write about haven't changed much, actually. I was obsessed with getting old even when I was young.
Q. What was it like to rediscover songs you'd forgotten?
A. Well, I was sometimes amazed. Like "Old Friend" — I hate to praise myself, but I was amazed at what a good song it is. I was good, man! [Laughs.]
Q. Was there a desire to do anything different with the songs?
A. I came out of a tradition of singer-songwriters, and I liked guys who made voice-and-guitar records. So I resisted it. Now the calendar pages are flipping, the autumn leaves are blowing and here I am back doing these songs with a band. But it's a band I'm extremely comfortable with and really respect.
Q. I hear the next album might also be a looking back.
A. The next record might be different. I'm working with Dick Connette on a collection — there was a guy in the '20s, Charlie Poole, with a band called the North Carolina Ramblers. Dick and I are both fans of his, and we're working on something like that, singing some of those songs, writing new ones, adapting some.
LOUDON WAINWRIGHT III
Opening for Leo Kottke
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: McAninch Arts Center at College of DuPage, Fawell and Park, Glen Ellyn
Phone: (630) 942-4000
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Loudon Wainwright III
Rarely do the planets align in the production of movie music quite the way they did to produce this soundtrack to Judd Apatow's latest comedy, "Knocked Up." Because when you're looking for someone to write songs for a film about a star-crossed relationship born out of foolishness and resulting in a child that neither partner is quite prepared to deal with, well, Loudon Wainwright's your man. This is the guy who's been chronicling all of the above in his own life for nearly four decades now, including songs that could be featured in the sequel, songs such as "Be Careful There's a Baby in the House" and "Rufus Is a Tit Man."
Of course, Loudon's kids are another story. He's particularly had a difficult go of it with daughter Martha (a frequent backup to brother Rufus, now with her own solo album out), who joined him to sing the difficult "Father/Daughter Dialogue" and later wrote about him in, uh, "Bloody Mother F—-ing Ass——."
Suffice to say, Loudo's the family and relationship issues songwriter, and on this batch of typically wry songs — fleshed out from the mostly instrumental versions used as a score for the film — he's working with a crack band (including old pal Richard Thompson) and great collaborators (Greg Leisz, Van Dyke Parks and producer Joe Henry). The music is loose but professional, loping but determined, suitable to the alternating humor ("Grey in L.A.," a concert staple for a while, is a great antidote to that city's imposing sunniness) and sober examination ("Doin' the Math" is a new perspective on growing old).
The requisite touching moment, too, occurs in "Daughter," in which Loudon muses from the viewpoint of a father watching his daughter at play. "I lost every time I fought her," he sings. Is he talking about his own family? Has he ever not?
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Perhaps it's not easy to imagine Woody Guthrie, dusty poet of Okies and union workers everywhere, scarfing down a bagel in a boxcar. Or saying prayers during Rosh Hashana (which begins at sundown Friday). Or managing to secure a flimsy yarmulke to the untamed, wiry shrub that was his hair.
But in the latest project to emerge from the Woody Guthrie Foundation and Archives, now in its 10th year of maintaining and redeploying the late folk singer's immense body of work, we are reminded that the man we think of as the quintessential Okie actually spent the bulk of his life based and living in New York City — specifically out on Coney Island with his wife, Marjorie, and their three children, Nora, Arlo and Joady. It was there the insatiably curious songwriter hung out with the community's immigrant Jews and spent Fridays eating Sabbath dinners at the home of his mother-in-law, renowned Yiddish poet Aliza Greenblatt.
As a result, among the piles and boxes of scrawled and typed lyrics in the Guthrie archives are numerous ruminations on Jewish life, namely a carefree bunch of Hanukkah songs — "Honeyky Hanuka," "(Do the) Latke Flip-Flip," "Spin Dreydl Spin," among others — and other observations. The song "Mermaid's Avenue," a possessive spin on the Coney Island street where the Guthries lived, describes the spot as "where the lox and bagels meet / where the halvah meets the pickle / where the sour meets the sweet."
And just as the "Mermaid Avenue" albums in the late '90s by British folk-rocker Billy Bragg and the now Chicago-based band Wilco reinvigorated two batches of lost, tuneless Guthrie lyrics, these Jewish-inspired songs now find new tunes and new life on another two records by a single band: "Wonder Wheel" and "Happy Joyous Hanukkah" by the Klezmatics, America's premier klezmer group, both released this month.
What is the common reaction to news that the latest Woody Guthrie record is a set of klezmer music? Nora Guthrie, who runs the Archives, says she gets a lot of, "Oy vey! Vat are you, meshuganah?!"
Keep in mind, Woody — raised in Protestant Oklahoma, self-taught the works of Kalil Gibran and the sayings of Buddah, then plopped down in a fiercely Jewish neighborhood in New York — was a catholic (lowercase, not uppercase) believer. In the '30s and '40s, paperwork at hospitals and in the armed services still had blanks where one filled in one's particular religion; Woody, ever the populist, inevitably wrote down, "All or none."
"So, in this sense," Nora wrote, in an e-mail exchange last week from Germany, where she's touring with Arlo, "this is just another soundtrack to 'growing up Guthrie.' We also lived down the block from the Gotti family in Howard Beach, as well, where Sammy the Bull and Louie the Beard were regulars on the block. Victoria, too! So we probably could have included a little 'Return to Sorrento,' as well, ha ha. OK, for my next album: ' "The Sopranos" Sing Woody Guthrie.' "
She jokes, but this has been Nora's serious mission with the archives. She seeks not to obliterate the primary cultural image of her father, but simply to broaden it, deepen it, color it.
Klezmatics singer Lorin Sklamberg, himself a sound archivist at New York's Yivo Institute for Jewish Research, said in a phone interview last week, "Most people think he's the Dust Bowl balladeer, and his songs have this color associated with them — everything in sepia. It makes me think of how Jews have been represented in films. From 'Yentl' to 'A Stranger Among Us' and 'The Chosen,' Jews are always lit with this eerie, brownish, golden glow. A friend of mine talked about how every time she opens a book [in 'Yentl'] 10,000 watts of light comes out. ... These songs of Woody's are more technicolor."
On a full stomach
Life in the '40s among the immigrants on Coney Island was naturally colorful. As Vivien Goldman writes in the liner notes to "Wonder Wheel," Woody would take Nora on "morning walks down the boardwalk to have breakfast at Nathan's with her father, who usually wore his favorite white T-shirt. The affable fruit peddler tossed her a plum as she passed, and greetings were exchanged with the owner of the corner store, whose phone was used by the whole neighborhood. It was all enchanting to Woody — the old men playing chess and arguing in Yiddish, the Jewish meydeles splashing in the chilly waves."
The song "Mermaid's Avenue," the lead track on "Wonder Wheel," celebrates the joyous, carnival-like atmosphere of Coney Island, describing people eating German, Jewish and American food all along the historic boardwalk.
The culinary focus is key for Nora's memories of the Jewish side of her upbringing.
"Jewish [to us] meant eating!" Nora wrote. "Friday night, Sabbath, home-cooked dinners at Bubbie's [their nickname for grandma Greenblatt], with blintzes, latkes, sweet and sour meatballs, herring, matzah ... So we knew about the food, the holidays. We celebrated Hanukkah with the 'Hanukkah fairy,' which my parents made up. She went around with Santa delivering the presents. We would leave a large plate of cookies and milk for Santa, and a teeny-tiny little plate with a cookie for the Hanukkah fairy ... and we had a Hanukkah Tree, a k a, a Christmas tree."
The seed for this surprising collaboration germinated after Nora met the Klezmatics at the Tanglewood music festival in Boston.
"The way I remember it," Sklamberg said, "we were playing at Tanglewood with Itzhak Perlman about seven years ago. Afterwards, I recognized Nora in the crowd and introduced myself. I said, 'We play one of your grandmother's songs,' and she didn't know that. I asked her if she'd like to meet Itzhak, and she came onto the stage and I introduced them. I said, 'She's the granddaughter of Aliza Greenblatt' — which she found funny because all her life she's been Arlo's sister or Woody's daughter."
Nora mentioned that, while organizing Woody's papers for what was then the new archives, she'd discovered several Jewish songs. Later, she sent some to the Klezmatics to review.
"She sent us not just Hanukkah songs but songs about the cultural life in Coney Island, anti-fascism things, other stuff she thought would be good match for us," Sklamberg said. "One song I was interested in was called 'Headdy Down,' a lullaby for Arlo and [the other brother] Joady. It has these Yiddishisms in the song that are really cool. You don't expect to see Yiddishized words in a Woody Guthrie song, but there they were."
He means taking the name Joady and making it "Jodulah," as Woody did in these lyrics. "Joady, lay your head down," the song goes, "Keppy down, Kepula." "All these Yiddish diminutives — the only way he would have known them is from Marjorie's mother," he said.
"He turned one version of the Christmas song 'Children Go Where I Send Thee' into 'Happy Joyous Hanuka,' taking all these characters from the Bible — some having to do with Hanukkah, others having absolutely nothing to do with it — and he puts them all into this song. 'One for Moses on the Mount,' he wrote, which has nothing to do with Hanukkah. ... It's this funny, endearing kind of outsider's attempt at making a Jewish song."
With La Mar Enfortuna
When: 7:30 tonight
Where: Park West, 322 W. Armitage
Call: (312) 559-1212
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
The Guthrie Family, John Flynn, Cyril Neville, Kevn Kinney, Ramsay Midwood and the Burns Sisters
At the Vic Theatre
A pundit on a Sunday TV news program recently quoted a woman in a northeastern state who asked, "Why should I pay to rebuild New Orleans?" This was cited as an example of the disconnect felt by Americans outside the Deep South as to the relative importance of aiding in the reconstruction of a sacked American city. The program's panel offered several studious answers to her question — jazz heritage, oil flow, even the Louisiana Purchase was invoked — but no one got beyond business and politics. No one ever answered, "Because, ma'am, if you'd lost your home, I'd help you."
Most of the bandwagon benefit CDs, songs and concerts during the past three months have avoided that golden measure, as well. It's all for Mardi Gras, y'all! But leave it to the Guthrie family to gather together and remind us — by example — that family is a concept transcending bloodlines and borders.
If you think that's dreamy-eyed hippie idealism, fine. But truth be told, the heart of folk music beats underneath an old bumper sticker slogan: think globally, act locally. Don't try to save the whole world. Just do what you can where you are, or where you can go.
Arlo's latest such effort is the Ridin' on the City of New Orleans tour, which kicked off with Monday night's concert. For the next two weeks, Arlo and his "family" — actual offspring, such as son Abe and daughter Sarah Lee, plus numerous friends — will travel south from Chicago to New Orleans on the fabled train heralded in Chicagoan Steve Goodman's song (and Arlo's biggest hit) "The City of New Orleans." They'll be playing concerts along the way, raising money for musicians and music venues in the Crescent City.
Arlo threw together this tour, and Monday night's premiere — the costs of which, Arlo announced, were underwritten by comedian and Illinois native Richard Pryor — certainly appeared thrown together. The spirit was willing (and thrilling), but attendance was weak. It's starting just like a train, slow and clunky, but it shows every sign it'll roar into Memphis and New Orleans as a polished, shiny package.
Arlo's extended family on this night included John Flynn, singing shrill but amusing topical songs; Kevn Kinney of the Atlanta band Drivin' n' Cryin', turning in some intriguing, wide-open blues smoked by his hoarse, Jimmy LaFave wheeze; woozy, enigmatic Texas troubadour Ramsay Midwood, and the Burns Sisters, who awkwardly added harmonies to other acts' choruses throughout the night before delivering two a cappella numbers that elicited cheers and whoops from the pensive crowd.
Abe Guthrie's band Xavier performed its usual set of mediocre jam-band noodling (oy, the guitar solos). And though Sarah Lee Guthrie's set, with husband Johnny Irion, wasn't her best, her belting alt-country twang still shone as the most interesting new talent in Woody Guthrie's family.
Arlo emceed more than he performed, lending the headline spotlight to Cyril Neville, youngest of the Neville Brothers. After seven folk and blues acts, Neville strutted onstage in his black hat with red sequins and feather and presented a lively, albeit slightly rote, set of the rhythm and blues nurtured in the New Orleans venues Arlo's trying to save.
"There's no logic to it," Arlo had said earlier of the eclectic bill, and Neville's deep grooves clearly bewildered the timid folk support players — but people finally started dancing and clapping and getting their blood flowing. Neville climbed behind the drum kit for two songs, including an extended final jam, a tribute to New Orleans. "The storm ain't over, y'all," Neville reminded us.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Woody Guthrie & Lead Belly
"Folkways: The Original Vision — Songs of Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly"
In several years of studying the life and legacy of American folk troubadour Woody Guthrie, I've learned one nearly constant truth: Hardly anyone first hears Woody from Woody. They hear his songs performed by Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, The Clash, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Bragg, Wilco, etc. — and then they go hunting the Guthrie greatest-hits for a taste of the headwaters.
Same with Lead Belly, a Guthrie peer who also suffers from lack of name recognition despite the number of artists who have reinterpreted his music. That's why this expanded reissue of this 17-year old collection of both folk songwriters' "hits" is refreshing at this juncture. Not only has Guthrie's cachet increased in the last decade (the founding of the Woody Guthrie Archives, the annual hootenanny of the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival, etc.) but the six extra songs added to this edition remind us of the solidity of Lead Belly's influence of blues and rock, as well. New to this set is his "Gallis Pole," made famous by Led Zeppelin, and "In the Pines," covered by Nirvana.
The punk, the blues, some of the rock and a lot of the country out there today — much of it started with these two brave friends. The history is always worth hearing. And wouldn't it be cool to have some scratchy old 78s on your iPod?
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion
Is Lucinda Williams a tad too Texas for you? Do you quickly weary of Gillian Welch's dour, morphine-soaked songbook? Has Natalie Merchant gone a bit too far "out there" for your taste? Bring it on home with Sarah Lee Guthrie and her husband, Johnny Irion. On their latest and best collaboration, the duo sews up pop, protest, folk and fun into neat little packages that are AAA — Americana, alt-country, aw-shucks — without suffering authenticity or intellect.
With this couple's pedigree, there's no need for posing: Sarah Lee is the granddaughter of Woody Guthrie (by way of daddy Arlo); Irion counts John Steinbeck among his ancestors. You couldn't arrange a more dynastic pairing than that, and you could almost forgive someone with those bloodlines for resting on laurels. Both of these singer-songwriters, however, have shown dogged determination to craft their own identifiable personalities. Together they are an arresting harmony — sometimes delicate, sometimes raucous, always purposeful and focused.
On "Exploration" (deftly produced by Jayhawk Gary Louris), Sarah Lee effortlessly saunters through songs of love, personal convictions and reverence for nature. She harmonizes with a knowing lilt through Irion's golly-gee love ballad "In Lieu of Flowers" and warbles defiantly through her own well-armed "Cease Fire." Her voice is strong and piercing without being harsh, as if she were Victoria Williams reined-in and trained. She has the urge to ramble and take it easy ("Mornin's Over," "Holdin' Back"); Irion has the urge to cut loose and rock ("Gervais"). When they come together on a cover of Pete Seeger's "Dr. King," they make a serious subject even more profound by making it a knee-slapper.
It's a wonderful mixture of social awareness and rollicking fun — tailor-made for a "Sesame Street" appearance (Woody would be so proud) and indicative of their combustible chemistry together. Proof that the occasional alt-country combo can "keep it real," too.
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
Ah, George Winston. Just his name is relaxing now.
His "folk piano" records were the first New Age music to find real commercial success, securing a place for the innovative Windham Hill label in the early '80s.
His delicate playing evokes the patient seasons, pastoral landscapes and rollicking psychedelic binges glimpsed through previously unopened doors of perception.
Wait a minute. What was that last one?
Winston has recorded many tributes in his storied career as an instrumental pianist. He's paid homage to the great New Orleans ivory-ticklers that inspired him, namely Professor Longhair and James Booker, and a few years ago he recorded an entire album of Vince Guaraldi's compositions.
But his latest project seems, at first, a bit out of step with what we've come to expect from this soothing player.
The new album is "Night Divides the Day: The Music of the Doors," 13 classic songs by the Doors translated through Winston's nine-foot Steinway.
The project has been so well-received thus far that Winston performed a concert with Doors organist Ray Manzarek on Sept. 26 in New York City.
The album proved to be a challenge for Winston, and in our recent interview he discussed the unique opportunities in listening to the Doors for the music instead of just grooving to Jim Morrison's poetry.
How did you develop the idea for an entire album of Doors songs?
I had been working on a series of solo piano dances, kind of being a piano one-man band. I was checking out everything I wanted to play, R&B and soul and rock, Sam Cooke and Gershwin and the Beatles. I was trying out everything possible, and that was going to be my next record — Volume One of these solo dances.
But I noticed that I had worked up 24 Doors songs, a lot of which were not danceable. I began working more with them, and that became the project. The Doors record got bumped ahead to be the new record.
So it was purely happenstance?
Well, sort of. I have listened to and been inspired by the Doors for 35 years . . . I was a senior in high school in 1967 when I got the Doors' first album, just because someone told me they had an organist.
I'd never heard of them. I put it on, and right away "Break on Through to the Other Side" obliterated everything I had ever heard. I was like, "Whoa! What is that?" I decided I had to get an organ and play in a band one day.
Had you ever thought of recording these songs before?
No. I wasn't even thinking of doing it when this all came about. They're very difficult composers to interpret, and my main temperament is as an interpreter. I mean, with the Doors, the version is the version, you know?
Jose Feliciano did a great version of "Light My Fire," so that was encouraging. It was very difficult to make them my own, though. I definitely put the time in on this one. Out of the 24 I had, these 13 worked together best to make the statement I wanted to make.
And what statement is that?
I like albums to be like one song all the way through. I want the songs to work together in the right order, and these 13 seemed to me to flow together very well the way I had done them. It's great when it all just kind of speaks to you like that.
Was it worth the hard work?
Oh yes, but I'll never do a record this hard again. Most of these songs were organ songs, not piano, originally. Plus, it was all so personal to me. It was like I was writing a novel about them: I wanted to do them justice because I love them. The more time you've lived with something, the more significant it is. And, you know, what else can you do with "Light My Fire"?
Well, it seems that you took the song to New Orleans. That track and "People Are Strange" really heave with a bluesy — almost ragtime — rhythm. Is that because of your New Orleans influences or because they sprang from this dance music project?
Some of the songs translated well into my folk piano, melodic mode, and some of them, like those two, are in an R&B style — my James Booker, New Orleans piano mode. That came out of the dances.
I was working those songs up to be dances, indirect listening. Those two songs are done completely the way James Booker would have played them. His piano language has kind of ingrained itself into me involuntarily.
Professor Longhair was instrumental in your career, so to speak. What was your relationship to him?
I never met him. I'd quit playing in the late '70s, and I heard his 1949 recordings 30 years later, in '79. I thought it was so perfect that I started playing again. He inspired James Booker, too, and that became my way of thinking about the piano.
You grew up in Montana, and I assume those wide-open spaces and changing seasons fueled your seasonal records ("Autumn," "Winter Into Spring," "December") and that open, circular style you call "folk piano." How did that develop?
The folk piano is a style I made up in 1971 as a reaction to stride piano. I wanted to do something simple and melodic, which was opposite of the stride style.
I love to have the piano ring out and to keep it simple. I'm interested more in tone quality than in having a lot of notes. But if it wasn't for the stride, I wouldn't have had anything to react against.
How much Montana is in your music?
The folk piano records are extremely Montana-based. Everything I do, really, has some Montana in it — even the Doors album. The cover photo of the Doors record was taken in Montana, by the way.
The way the four seasons are so distinct and different there influences everything I do, even the R&B. "People Are Strange," for instance, is an autumn song. Everything to me is seen through the seasons — that's the bottom line.
Some people refer to sound or "om" or the creator, but seasons are the driving force to me. The Vince Guaraldi stuff is all about that.
All that Charlie Brown stuff is undeniably linked to certain times of year, not just because the television specials aired around holidays but because the songs were about seasons.
This post contains complete reviews of this annual festival ...
Singer-songwriter Steve Young performance opens Woody Guthrie Folk Fest
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
"It is raining right now all over the farmlands around, and I have never seen prettier nor heartier land" . . .
— Woody Guthrie in a letter to Moe Asch, July 8, 1945
OKEMAH — It came as no surprise Wednesday night when Steve Young darkened the skies over this small town and brought rain upon the land.
It happened just as he began playing one of his signature tunes, "Montgomery in the Rain." The song is restive and mournful, laced with memories of Young's youthful binges and nights toasting the great Hank Williams atop his Montgomery grave.
The lyrics resonated in the hearts of the crowd gathered to hear Young kick off this week's Woody Guthrie Folk Festival, the fifth annual celebration of the late Okemah native's folk legacy.
"I don't want to stay here, and I'm just rolling through your town," Young sang, his voice like pure cream shot through a fire hose -- powerful, direct and smooth. "I just came back here to remember the joy and the pain . . . go out to Hank's tombstone and cry me a thunderstorm chain."
That's when the beige stage curtain behind Young began to breathe, then flutter, than flap audibly. A backstage door had been left open, and the cold front plowing across the Okfuskee County fields was pressing its gusts into the historic Crystal Theater, the very place where Guthrie often came as a boy, where as the evening's emcee, scholar Guy Logsdon, pointed out Guthrie first heard the song "Midnight Special" in 1925.
There were flashes of lightning on the backstage brick walls, and a faint rumble of thunder underscored Young's performance.
Guthrie's Okemah tombstone is merely ceremonial. He was cremated and scattered at sea in 1967, but the thunderstorm chain cried just the same. Young looked back only once to acknowledge the commotion before someone got the door closed. He seemed pretty nonplussed. He's likely prone to these kinds of mystical accidents. He's definitely got his mojo working.
In my story about Young last week, I described his music as "darkly Southern." It's not dark as much as it is shadowy, and it's more worldly than Southern.
He played Tex-Mex tunes and Irish jigs, but the phrase worked to hint at Young's Gothic nature. His songs seem haunted, like a crumbling Georgian mansion draped in moss and memories. Songs such as the heaving, churning "Jig" seem conjured from a graveyard, ghostly reminders to live life to its fullest and that "if you want to rock the jig, you gotta play it real."
Most of Young's performances heave and churn. That voice -- better suited to evangelical preaching -- no doubt careens out of his throat with incredible strength and control, frequently pinching off a phrase like a wincing Dylan, and his guitar picking is lightning-fast. His right hand moves all over the strings of his acoustic guitar, ringing every one and filling the hall like an orchestra.
Alternately driving and delicate, I scribbled in my notebook that it reminded me of Windham Hill Records founder Will Ackerman, whose last album, oddly enough, was "Sound of Wind Driven Rain."
Largely unknown as a performer, which, after seeing him, is unfathomable, Young presented an impressive catalog of songs, songs about being "a dreamer and . . . a drifter," songs about Oklahoma ("What a good place to be born"), songs about his southern Appalacian youth.
He delivered a jaw-dropping tribute to Selena, the late Tejano singer, that swelled and hollered like a classic Slim Whitman lament ("She rode out of Corpus Christi into the old Tejano land . . . so they might understand that they had a hidden beauty"), even mentioning Judge Roy Bean, like some mythic tale off of Dylan's "John Wesley Harding."
He also presented two Guthrie songs, neither of which smacked of last-minute preparation in order to justify this particular booking. The precursor to his Selena song was a carefully considered reading of "Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportee)," which he restructured almost like an Elizabethan ballad.
Near the end of his set, he added "Pastures of Plenty," played high on the neck of his guitar in minor keys, singing fully and richly, like Ralph Stanley singing "O Death."
The convictions of that song have never sounded so personal, so real. Even as he worked through a considerable number of songs by other songwriters -- Tom T. Hall, Lloyd Price, John D. Loudermilk -- Young was the master, controlling and often reshaping the songs instead of merely replaying them.
And, after a day of intense, choking heat, we all appreciated the cooling rain that greeted the audiences as we emerged, charged from the performance.
However inadvertent it may have been, it was yet another annual blessing that took the edge off a festival under the sun during a typically scorching July week.
Luke Reed opened the Wednesday night benefit concert (before the intermission, during which, oddly enough, the sound man played Jenny Labow's "everything but you" album).
A native Oklahoman who's been in Tennessee a long time, Reed played original songs weighted with homesickness and pining for these "Oklahoma Hills," with which he closed his set in a jazzy, swinging rendition.
I've been away a long time, and it comes out in my songs," he said between tunes about being a "descendant of the wind" and "missing you and wide open spaces."
Reed is a songwriter, first and foremost. He writes good, solid tunes, but his voice and delivery are unsteady, wavering in a manner that no doubt matters more in Nashville than at a folk festival. He sounds like what Patrick Williams of the Farm Couple probably sounded like decades ago as a novice: not yet smooth, but smart. Funny, too, as he ended his set with a humorous song, reminding us that in spite of all the songs written about horses, spurs, saddles and guns "there wouldn't be no cowboys if it wasn't for the cows."
Guthrie Folk Festival 'matures'
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
OKEMAH — At most available opportunities, the organizers of this weekend's Woody Guthrie Folk Festival made announcements from the various stages to recognize the presence of members of the Guthrie family, from relatives of Guthrie's son Roy to the omnipresent firecracker that is Guthrie's sister, Mary Jo Edgmon.
Guthrie's family, however, is not limited to these blood relatives. If the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival has shown the world anything at all, it's that Guthrie's family those who embrace the music he created and the ideals for which he struggled is a vast, diverse crowd of folks. The festival has become an annual family reunion for "Woody's children," the folk singers and fans who relish the old songs and their renewing spirit. This year, the festival's fifth, they came from all corners of the globe six countries and countless musical genres to pay homage and have a major hootenanny.
How do I know it's a family gathering? Because this year everyone seemed to bring their girlfriends. Performers Ellis Paul, Don Conoscenti and Slaid Cleaves brought along wives and significant others for the first time. A few of the crewmen had girls in tow. Some organizers joked that if the spouses were consenting to Okemah in July, that spoke well for the careers of the performers, the stamina of the festival, or both.
But the most significant indications of the festival's family atmosphere are in watching the "children" grow up and in the consistent helping hands and support the artists give one another.
First, this year's festival featured few new acts — at least, none of the headliners were new names to the festival roster. Most have been here throughout the festival's history, and eight of this year's performers were honored with plaques for having participated at all five festivals (Conoscenti, Paul, Bob Childers, Tom Skinner, Joel Rafael, the Red Dirt Rangers, Peter Keane and Jimmy LaFave).
But the lack of new blood did not slow festival attendance as some, including myself, expected it might. In fact, the most interesting new act, Steve Young, drew a paltry crowd for the Wednesday night benefit concert in the Crystal Theater.
No, the clans still came to the festival grounds Thursday night's being the biggest draw yet and, more intriguingly, we got something more from the routine performances. The kids have grown up. The performers we've watched at this festival for up to five years have matured, gained confidence, come into their own.
For instance, Boston's Ellis Paul took the main festival stage Thursday night with, I dare say, a swagger. A kind, gentle, sweet-voiced poet, Paul has been a fairy of the festival for years, fluttering in with tunes spun of tulle and tales of intricate and tortuous(CQ) romance.. This year, with his lengthening hair, he donned a gnarly cowboy hat ("I want to be a Red Dirt Ranger, you see") and strutted onstage with never-before-seen power and assurance. He plowed right into a hard blues wailer, "Rattle My Cage," full of the strength we'd seen in him before but now apparently confident in it, flaunting it a bit, proud. He has come a ways, too. Five years ago, at the first festival, he was a wide-eyed dreamy songwriter still getting his road legs. Today, his songs score Gwenyth Paltrow movies, and Nora Guthrie, Woody's daughter, seeks him out to add new music to old Guthrie lyrics.
He played that song Thursday night, too his Guthrie collaboration, "God's Promise," an intricate musing on the double-edged facts of life that Guthrie wrote from his hospital bed in 1955. "It's the coolest thing I've ever done as a human being," Paul said of the posthumous collaboration. "Anyone who knows me knows that this was like me writing a song with Jesus."
Another branch of the family that's grown by leaps and bounds is the Oklahoma- bred Red Dirt Rangers, who rocked and rolled Friday night on the main stage harder than I've ever seen them. Of course, it may have just looked that way the festival crew used the Rangers' set as the opportunity to test drive a new fog machine, so much of their set looked like a Spinal Tap concert but the extended jam with a fret-wanking guitar solo in the title track to the band's new album, "Starin' Down the Sun," was no hallucination.
The bulk of their set concentrated the bulk of their set on Guthrie material, from their song "Steel Rail Blues" ("What would Woody Guthrie say if he were in my shoes?") and the Guthrie-esque "Leave This World a Better Place" to covers of " Cadillac Eight" (a moody number that really broke in the fog machine), the kickin' "Rangers Command" and "California Stars." When they closed with Jimmy LaFave's "Red Dirt Roads at Night," guitarist Ben Han was practically doing Pete Townshend windmills. R-a-w-k, rock.
LaFave joined the Rangers for that song, and therein lies the real other thrill of this festival's familial spirit: the family is pretty incestuous. Most of the artists respect, admire and maybe even adore each other. As a result, they take advantage of these rare opportunities to play together, to jam, to back each other up.
To wit: Don White joined Tom Skinner during his set. Later, Irene Kelly, an old acquaintance of White's from Nashville, asked him to join her during her Thursday night set. ("I guess I'd better go listen to her CD," he chuckled that afternoon.) Darcie Deaville brought the incomparable Mary Reynolds up to help her through Guthrie's "Union Maid," then added Conoscenti (who had just stepped out of his car arriving in Okemah) and Terry "Buffalo" Ware for a swingin' rendition of Guthrie's "New York Town." Conoscenti joined Paul, his old friend, during his set, as did Joel Rafael Band percussionist Jeff Berkley. Berkley and Ware, in fact, played with just about everyone.
Fayetteville bassist Melissa Kirper backed the Farm Couple, knocking out the Brick Street Cafe´ crowd by singing an "O Brother" staple, "I'll Fly Away" and sounding exactly like Gillian Welch. Bob Childers was backed by Skinner, Brandon Jenkins, and two DoubleNotSpyz members, John Williams and David Cooper. Amanda Cunningham joined him for harmony. The Rangers included fiddler Randy Crouch in their lineup and allowed Childers to come up and sing, once more, his classic song about Guthrie, "Woody's Road." The Rangers then joined Kevin Welch for an unrehearsed barreling through the bad-to-the-bone "Kickin' Back in Amsterdam." David R joined George and Linda Barton during their cafe´ set.
Fierce fiddler Wes Gassaway played the whole Wednesday night set with native Okie Luke Reed. Plus, in order to fill the main-stage slot left vacant by Abe Guthrie's band Xavier (an ill guitarist kept them from attending), festival organizer Mike Nave encouraged and helped to assemble the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival All-Star Band, a sprawling and unrehearsed-but-still-tight conglomerate that included Ware, Gassaway, Skinner, Reynolds, Deaville, Conoscenti, Don Morris, Greg Jacobs, Phil Lancaster (from the defunct Still on the Hill), T.Z. Wright. The band cycled through songs by Skinner, Reynolds and Jacobs, including Skinner leading the crowd through Arlo Guthrie's "Last Train to Glory," a rousing ballad about the railway to heaven that perfects Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready." The group had no rehearsal ("We wouldn't dream of it," Ware later joked) and still thrilled the crowd. That's a folk festival for you, and this one is indeed for all of us.
Around, about the festivities
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
OKEMAH — Some sights and sounds from a week of concerts, panel discussions and camaraderie at the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival:
Interesting acts: Roger Tillison, an old cohort of J.J. Cale (he wrote "One Step Ahead of the Blues" for him) and Leon Russell, showed up Thursday at the Brick Street Cafe´ for a temperate run through some good old songs. Effron White, from Fayetteville, sounds exactly like the singer for the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, and he wrapped his Brick Street set with the festival's most rousing reading of Guthrie's "Hard Travelin'" rousing because that gravelly voice sounded like it had actually done a lot of hard travelling. The best songwriter at the festival, though, surely must be Slaid Cleaves, whose economy with words creates gut-kicking images and butt-kicking songs. In "Broke Down," his latest Americana hit, he tells of a ruined suitor who tries to pawn the ring he bought for a girl; the next line skips a lot of narrative but lets us know exactly how the deal and his emotions turned out: "Somewhere at the bottom of Lake Ponchatrain there's a love note carved inside a wedding ring." Genius, even without his excellent yodeling.
The mother of all festivals: Mary Jo Edgmon, Guthrie's sister, is always in high demand at the festival. Appearing at panel sessions, pancake breakfasts and book signings throughout the week in Okemah, she brightens the event with her boundless energy and infectious cheer. At a local eatery one night, she stopped at my table to say hello. She was due at her tent near the festival stage 10 minutes earlier. But then a fan stopped her to relay her admiration, and a friend called her over to meet another couple. She made the rounds of the restaurant, leaving half an hour later after another family member, exasperated, cried, "She ain't left yet?"
Like an angel: I've printed it before, I'll print it again Mary Reynolds has the most beautiful voice in the world. A fixture on many stages, her pipes ring like the bells of heaven, from a jaunty run through "Union Maid" with Darcie Deaville to stopping the main-stage show Thursday night as part of the all-star band singing "I Can't Help Falling in Love With You" as a lullaby. Jimmy LaFave even got her onstage to sing "Hobo's Lullaby," her performance of which might as well be the festival's anthem. Sandpaper-throated Bob Childers joked backstage: "She reminds of me of myself before I started smoking."
Doctor's orders: Boston-based Vance Gilbert once again proved to be the funniest and most empowering act at the festival, in no small part because of the a cappella gospel prayer with which he closes his show.
Gilbert steps into the audience and shouts out this old-time holler without a microphone. He wasn't supposed to do that this year, though, under orders from physicians trying to heal his stressed vocal chords. "I'm not going to do it anywhere else, but if they think I'm not going to give my best show at this festival, well, uh-uh, no sir," he said later.
He gets around: One festivalgoer came all the way from Scotland for the event and wore his traditional garb, including kilt, the whole time. But if you really want an idea for the transcendent nature of Guthie's songs, ask performer Bill Chambers from Australia. "I've heard aborigines singing 'This Land Is Your Land' in the heart of the bush," he said.
The late show: Scheduled after-hours shows this year lacked a lot to be desired including attendance. Chicago's Cedarcase proved competent, at best, and Beaver Nelson from Austin, Texas, barely justified the buzz that's followed the band. The best Brick Street set, though, came from Tulsa's own marshallcity, which rocked the basement despite operating under a stern "no Led Zeppelin covers" order. One of their alt-country songs, though, still slipped in a few barks of "It's been a long time since I rock 'n' rolled."
A little ingenuity: Ohio-native, Texas-based singer-songwriter Michael Fracasso is a lone gunman. He holds the stage by himself with just his guitar and .,. where's that bass drum coming from? Ah, it's only Fracasso's foot. He taps a bass drum microphone with his boot for rhythmic support. Similarly, the Farm Couple added a trumpet solo to their closing number, "Ain't Misbehavin'." There's no trumpeter in the duo, but singer-guitarist Patrick Williams huffs out a mean impression of one through his moustache.
Someone didn't get the memo: Arlo Guthrie could not make this year's festival; he's touring with Judy Collins. However, the marquee outside the Okemah Mazzio's still read, "Welcome to Okemah, Arlo."
Documentary in works: An OETA crew was at the festival this year filming interviews to add to an upcoming extended feature on Woody Guthrie on the network's quarterly "Gallery" program. The piece is scheduled for the September episode.
Living history: Joel Rafael's new CD of Guthrie covers, "Woodeye" (officially released this week but available for the first time at the festival), includes the haunting ballad "Don't Kill My Baby and My Son." Guthrie wrote the song about a mob lynching of a black family near Okemah in 1911. Again this year, he and his wife drove some of the backroads in Okfuskee County looking for the site of that horrific vigilante crime. My companion and I did the same, discovering photos of the lynching on display at a small "Old West" museum just west of Okemah off the interstate. The museum also has newspaper clippings about "Pretty Boy" Floyd, the subject of Guthrie's famous eponymous song (one of the clippings attributes two bank robberies on the same afternoon one in Texarkana, one in Kansas City to the famed outlaw, expanding Guthrie's claim that "every crime in Oklahoma was added to his name"), as well as a copy of the McIntosh County Democrat from 1964 reporting on the progress of the Eufaula Dam. Festival regular Greg Jacobs sings a phenomenal song about that dam and the creation of Eufaula Lake, which submerged his family's farm.
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
If you don't recognize the name Steve Young, he's got an impressive list of references.
"Steve Young is the second-greatest country music singer behind George Jones. He has no idea how great he is," said Waylon Jennings.
"Steve is in a league with Dylan and Hank Williams, and he sings like an angel." That's from Lucinda Williams.
"For that voice, that guitar and those songs to come together in one person is a wonder," mused the late Townes Van Zandt.
Gram Parsons played on his first album, "Rock, Salt and Nails" on A&M in 1969. Van Dyke Parks plays on his latest, "Primal Young" on Appleseed in 1999.
Young's song "Lonesome, Orn'ry and Mean" became Waylon's signature tune. Hank Williams Jr. covered Young's "Montgomery in the Rain." And, boy, everybody's covered "Seven Bridges Road" -- from Dolly Parton to the Eagles.
But Young -- take a minute to sweep up all those dropped names -- is one of those musician's musicians, a songwriter's songwriter. They know him well even though you might not.
Darkly Southern and musically restive, Young is a visceral poet of the backwaters -- or, as he likes to consider himself, a wandering troubadour in the old tradition. He lives part of the year in the Barrio in Los Angeles, the other part in glitzy Nashville, and he spends every possible moment on the road. His travels fortify his songs with lyrical and musical colloquialisms that makes listeners cock an ear and say, "Hey, that's my turf in that song."
That's what makes him one of the last great folk singers.
We caught up with him this week in Nashville to chat about wanderlust, Greenwich Village and the odd opportunity to play the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival.
You're too good a country singer to be in Nashville. What are you doing there?
It's not my favorite city, but I got rooted here years ago. My son's here. But yeah, I'm too diverse to be in Nashville. That's the problem. I don't consider myself a country singer, either. I'm more in the ancient tradition of the troubadour. I do folk, country and blues with a touch of rock. That pretty much makes it modern-day folk music. I'm fascinated by folk music. For instance, it's fascinating to me that the song "Streets of Laredo" originated in Ireland.
An Irish balladeer pining for the lone pray-ree?
It's originally about a sailor dying of venereal disease. But the same melody and sentiment evolved into a song about a cowboy dying in Laredo. That's folk music -- when it moves like that.
You must be a folk singer then, because you seem to be constantly on the move. Is a restless soul a necessity to be a folk singer?
It's the blessing and the curse, yes. Years ago, I tried to write in Nashville, tried to co-write and see if I could do it. One of these guys asked me one day -- and this just astounded me -- he said, "What's it like to be on the road and travel?" I assumed musicians and writers knew all about that. This guy just stayed in Nashville and wrote. He wasn't a troubadour, he was one of those Nashville craftsmen.
I can't stay put like that. What would I write about? The folk music process involves travel. It involves seeing different things, exchanging ideas, exchanging stories. I have fantasies of settling down and all that, but at this age I realize that's not gonna happen.
How old are you?
I'll be 60 on July 12.
Is your mix of styles endemic to that wandering, or does that spring from growing up in the South?
It's largely a product of growing up in the South. I grew up in the foothills of the Appalachians. The music of the mountains and its Celtic influence fascinated me. I was lucky to hear street singers in Gadsden (Ala.). There was music in church, too, from guitars to some pretty wild gospel. I heard all of that, plus the pop of the day, the standards. I even encountered flamenco guitarist Carlos Montoya when I was a teen, and I was blown away by that. I was open to music period, and I stayed open.
On "Primal Young," you seem to be quite open to folk music from Scotland. What inspired that exploration?
Well, there's that Scottish influence underneath all that music in Appalachia, but in high school, in a literature class, I completely fell in love with the writing of Robert Burns. He collected folk songs, you know. In fact, that's a lot of what he did. I studied that stuff for hours, reading the footnotes, trying the dialect, trying to understand completely what he was saying.
So what brings you to the Woody Guthrie festival?
I've always admired Woody Guthrie. When I was a teenager and starting to play guitar and absorbing music around me, I encountered Sing Out! magazine. I learned all about the New England hierarchy of folk singers, Pete Seeger and all that, and through them I encountered Woody Guthrie. I identified with him and what he had to say. I had grown up with similar people who were very poor and rural, down-to-earth people. My father was part Cherokee, and he was a sharecropper when he was 13 years old. The fact that Woody was willing to speak out against the wealthy powers that be and tell the truth about these kinds of people was very inspiring.
It was unusual. The country people I liked were great musicians, but they didn't have the same attitude. Indirectly they represented these poor as whatever, the common man, but they weren't saying it like Woody was saying it. They didn't want to get too deep into the dark truth of things.
Do you find it as easy as Woody to probe those deep, dark truths?
I live there. It's difficult to get me out of the deep, dark truth. It's healing to me, but I guess the masses see it as depressing.
Did you run into Seeger or any of those Sing Out! folkies when you hit Greenwich Village in the early '60s?
I ran into Phil Ochs, saw Dylan from a distance. I'd never been outside of the South when I moved to New York. New York completely blew my mind. I'd never heard people talk to each other that way unless they wanted to kill each other. It took some time to adjust. I did some auditions, and they said, "Yeah, we'll give you a job, but we're booked for three months." I couldn't wait three months for a job. I was using an apartment loaned to me by Dick Weissman of the Journeymen, so I was there long enough to absorb some things. Then I went back home to digest it all, but the South was harder to live with after New York. The South was never tasteful to me again.
But you mined it for so many great songs. The "Seven Bridges Road" is a real road, right?
It's an old road in the countryside outside of Montgomery. It turns into a dirt road and crosses seven bridges. It became this enchanted place, with moss hanging from ancient oak trees -- a beautiful setting, like something out of Disney. I thought my friends had made up the name, but it's actually the folk name for this road; it's not official. People have just been calling it Seven Bridges Road for over a hundred years.
There's a longing that that song comes out of. A myth has sprung up around it, that it's about going to Hank Williams' grave. That's not entirely true. Sometimes we'd go out Seven Bridges Road, then go back to Hank's grave and sing songs and drink at 3 a.m., which used to you could do. It's just part of the nostalgia for those times and that road. It's such an innocent little song, really. I thought nobody would ever understand it. Shows you how wrong I am.
What: Woody Guthrie Folk Festival benefit concert featuring Steve Young with Luke Reed
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Crystal Theater, on Main Street in Okemah
Admission: $20 plus service charge at the door or through www.okctickets.com
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
Sarah Lee Guthrie
"Sarah Lee Guthrie"
(Rising Son Records)
(Rising Son Records)
Pedigrees can be impediments. With so much riding on a
famous family legacy, many genetically enhanced artists
collapse under the weight of the expectations and hype.
Sarah Lee Guthrie, daughter of Arlo and granddaughter of
Woody, and her husband Johnny Irion, grandson of "Oklahoma!"
star Fred Knight and grand-nephew of John Steinbeck,
certainly have sturdy laurels upon which they could
recline. Guthrie's surname alone would be a marquee draw,
even if she stunk.
But she doesn't stink. In fact, she's the most
intriguing new female voice in Americana music since the
discovery of Gillian Welch.
Guthrie's self-titled debut — arriving after years of
performing with her father, including two appearances at
the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in Okemah — moseys with an
welcoming gait. Not another Emmylou Harris wanna-be is she,
although this album smiles and moves with the same measured
No, Guthrie is an original talent, coloring outside the
lines of the basic Americana patterns (dig the drunken Kurt
Weill surf music of the instrumental "Tarantula," or the
chuggin' blues of "World Turns in G") and sings strongly
through the jangle and jazzy bluegrass. Her rounded notes
sound like Linda Ronstadt in the '70s, her sustained verses
like Nanci Griffith in the '80s. The Guthrie genes are
gifted ones, no doubt.
Irion's debut is somewhere between Neil Young's "Comes a
Time" and "Old Ways" albums. The song "Think Tank," especially --
it's loping rhythm and mopey whining about "the city of
angels" rings of all that southern California country-rock
from similarly exiled and flighty Southerners, from the
Byrds to the Eagles.
Irion is a better player (esp. the dobro) than a singer --
which, of course, never slowed down Young — but the
skinny-boy swagger of "Unity Lodge" will be satisfying to the
men who can't get into Guthrie's music. Irion's easier to
drink beer to, that's for certain, but Guthrie's the one
destined to be the star, even without the family tree to
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
The first words displayed at the trailhead of "This Land
Is Your Land: The Life and Legacy of Woody Guthrie," the
Smithsonian Institution's traveling exhibit on the
Oklahoman songwriter's life and work, are, "I don't know how
far I'm going to have to go to see my own self or to hear
my own voice."
In Guthrie's life, which ended in 1967 from
complication's of Huntington's disease, that route was a
long one. Guthrie was a virtual vagabond, criss-crossing
the country in search of that voice — an echo of his own, a
metaphor of the American commoner — and transcribing that
voice into thousands of songs, some of which made him
famous. In the exhibit, fortunately, the curious have a
shorter road to travel, simply the length of one small
showroom in which is neatly encapsulated the life of one of
America's greatest artists.
I will call him an artist, too, instead of the more
specific word by which he is usually referred — songwriter.
"This Land Is Your Land" is the physical history of an
artist, a novelist, a painter, a tunesmith and a
philosopher (which has a substantial footing in art,
surely). If this exhibit does nothing else, it broadens our
understanding of Guthrie, not only of his biographical
details and overall social significance but of his creative
mind and the multitudes of outlets he found for his ideas --
In addition to the requisite manuscripts, the exhibit
hall is a riot of scrawls, photos, sketches, artifacts,
drawings and paintings. What's astonishing — and empowering --
is the unity of expression throughout every medium. It's
all the same voice, speaking different languages.
The unifying text in the display is Guthrie's landmark
poem, "Voice," from which those initial lines come from. It's
a poem in which Guthrie explores America's cultural
diversity and lays claim to the unspoken threads tying
together our expression. At the end of the poem, it boils
down to a more nebulous sensory assurance — the "voice" has
become a "feeling." The Smithsonian show, designed by Jim
Simms, re-creates that sense of commonality in all the
blurts of Guthrie's artistic voice.
Even on opening day, visitors voiced their surprise at
the volume of imagery in the show. They had come to see the
works of an old-timey wordsmith — and there are many
examples of his writing — and were confronted with the less
frequently discussed and surprisingly colorful visual
aspect of Guthrie's expression. Watching his visual art
develop as one winds through the snaking canyons of the
display is interesting, too. We start with the simple,
comic cartoon "Boom Town," a pen-and-ink depiction of
rollicking Okemah, the central Oklahoma oil boom town where
Guthrie grew up. Next, we move with Guthrie to Pampa,
Texas, where his first solitary wages were earned as a sign
painter. On display in the exhibit is Guthrie's 1937 oil
portrait of Abraham Lincoln, a simple copy of a picture but
one that already illustrates a distinct style — bold curves
and an overtly geometric understanding of form.
Jump to 1942 — another line drawing, cartoonish, of an
Okie grabbing the rails of a passing truck, entitled "Move."
That same year, though, Guthrie drew "Rounded Up in Tracy,
California," a depiction of Okies fleeing bullish cops in
the misadvertised "garden of Eden." The clear, simple lines
of the police car in the background give way to a more
fluid foreground — a nebulous crowd dominated by one man
silhouetted in the police headlights, the only details
being the buttons and collar of his work shirt and his
white, angelic hands.
From this point on, the crisp lines of Guthrie's
drawings bleed into wider, bolder strokes of ink and paint,
and the forms of his subjects relax into more nebulous,
ghostly figures. "Starvation Disease," undated, features a
face — barely — in muted watercolors and only three lines of
facial features to communicate an oceanic depth of
melancholy. Along one wall is a series of half a dozen
prints from April 1946, each panel a depiction of a woman
from behind in different modes of physical labor. She is
faceless each time, allowing the viewer to more easily
enter the scene and feel her weary but unyielding
"Hootenanny," from the same month, is a virtual stick
figure, a curly-headed guitar player assembled completely
from lines and circles. It looks like the kind of image
that accompanied ancient Oriental calligraphy — few strokes,
but big, sweeping ones — or the work of a more carefree (or
harried) Leroy Neiman. "Figures in Embrace" is a swirl of
only 17 strokes, but they're in there, that couple --
hugging, maybe even dancing.
It's no coincidence that Guthrie's visual art became
more pliable — and more prolific — as he grew older. The
immovable convictions of his younger days and older songs
softened in a broader understanding of the world. More
significantly, the onset of Huntington's disease began
making detail work more difficult. With shaky hands, he
could more easily sweep a fat brush across a large sketch
pad than trace the intricate lines of a wooden Okemah
sidewalk with a fine-pointed pen.
It's also no coincidence that the panel in this
exhibition depicting Guthrie's deteriorated state prior to
entering the hospital in the early '50s returns again to
the words of "Voice." Over an enlarged photo of a bedraggled,
bearded, hollow-eyed Guthrie playing guitar in New York's
Washington Square Park, we read, "And I thought as I saw a
drunken streetwalking man mutter and spit and curse into
the wind out of the cafe's plate glass, that maybe, if I
looked close enough, I might hear some more of my voice." At
this stage, Guthrie was that drunken streetwalking man,
finishing his interminable expedition for that common
sound, that absolute feeling, that universal voice.
It's too bad that a couple of things inhibit our
reception of Guthrie's voice throughout the exhibit. A show
that's designed to be displayed in 3,400 square feet has
been crammed into about 1,300. In several places, the
lighting has all the candlepower of a dashboard, which
makes reading Guthrie's all-important words especially
trying. Noisy humidifiers rage throughout the tour, too,
drowning out many of the speakers broadcasting various
snippets of Guthrie's singing and speaking voice. It's
annoying, but Guthrie's signal still gets through.
The show also features numerous interesting tidbits
beyond the visual aspect focused here: these include his
copy of Omar Khayyam's "Rubaiyat," several of Guthrie's
notebooks and datebooks open to interesting pages, his
shipboard fiddle (which also had carved upon it the slogan
"This Machine Kills Fascists"), a few watermark original song
lyrics, one of his business cards from KFVD in Los Angeles,
his address book (open to Pete Seeger's address and phone
number in Greenwich Village) and the "yes" and "no" cards with
which he communicated in the hospital once his voice was
At the end of the show, we are left with the ultimate
Guthrie send-off. From his bed in the Brooklyn State
Hospital, Guthrie scrawled with a brush the chorus of his
signature tune, "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You." Each
panel advances the line a few words, with a little doodle
in that broad-brush style to accompany it. It's the
convergence of his languages, visual and written
expressions coming together in a more refined voice, a
voice still echoing from the redwood forests to the
The exhibit continues at the Oklahoma Museum of History,
2100 N. Lincoln Boulevard in Oklahoma City, near the state
Capitol. For information, call (405) 522-5248.
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
There's been a lot of ink poured around the Tulsa World,
trying to define and describe Red Dirt music, the elusive
mix of country, rock, blues and folk native to Oklahoma and
centered around Stillwater. It's like nailing smoke to a
wall. You can see it, you can smell it, but how do you grab
hold of it?
In all the interviews with musicians classified as Red
Dirt players, a lot of names come up as influences. A lot
of folks hearken back to the Tulsa Sound days of Leon
Russell and J.J. Cale. Some trace their sound back to Merle
Haggard, others tell stories about Garth Brooks' days in
the Stillwater bars. Songwriter Bob Childers is pretty
universally hailed as the genre's godfather.
But one name comes up more than all the others. In a
recent search of the Tulsa World's electronic archives
(stories back to 1989), 176 stories mentioned Red Dirt
music, and 143 of those mentioned Woody Guthrie.
If Red Dirt is the great consolidation of American
music, especially south of the Mason-Dixon, then surely its
crucible can be found in the tangled woods around Guthrie's
old Okemah home site. Guthrie was famous for a certain
slice of his music — frank, topical folk songs — but he wrote
and performed every conceivable genre of music in the
decades he wandered this land with his guitar slung over
his shoulder on a rope.
The comprehensive four-CD, boxed set from Smithsonian
Folkways Records, "The Asch Recordings," covers most of this --
his cowboy music, his Tex-Mex, his kids songs, his blues.
Guthrie respected differences in people and in music.
"The unifying theme in Woody's music is that he wrote
about the land he loved," says Tulsa scholar Guy Logsdon. "He
played the melodies and music that came from the land he
loved, from Oklahoma, one of the most culturally diverse
places in America. Let's also say he modified it. He used
the music he heard as a foundation and built upon it.
"That's what these Red Dirt guys are doing. The Garth
Brookses and Jimmy LaFaves and Tom Skinners and there's a
guy in Bristow named Brett Graham — they use their heritage
as a foundation and build their own sound on top of it. It
just happens to be a very broad foundation," Logsdon said.
LaFave, who grew up in Stillwater but relocated to
Austin to make his career, is considered one of the
principal standard-bearers of the Red Dirt ideal. He cites
Guthrie's influence consistently and has become a pillar of
the annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in Okemah.
Another expatriate Stillwater son, Bruce Henderson now
in New York City, cites Guthrie among the lathes that
shaped his easy-going, country-rock songwriting. Regional
singer-songwriter Brandon Jenkins said in a '98 interview,
"I've been real involved with Woody Guthrie music lately,
and it got me back to writing music for my own reasons, not
to have a hit."
"It's about finding your identity," Logsdon said. "Often we
search for ourselves and discover we're part of something
greater." "Where is Woody Guthrie in Red Dirt music? In
the truth," said John Cooper of the Red Dirt Rangers this
week. The Rangers are probably the ultimate example of Red
Dirt's nebulous but potent mixture of styles.
"It's in the lyrics, in trying to tell the absolute truth
as you see it. Woody said you can only write what you know
about, and it's true," Cooper said.
The Rangers themselves have struggled throughout their
11-year existence to explain to folks what they do, what
their music is. Someone once called them "Woody Guthrie gone
In '95, Cooper told the Tulsa World, "A lot of people
think we're a country band, which is true, but we do a lot
more than that. It shows in the kinds of gigs we do. We've
done kids shows, bluegrass festivals, rock 'n' roll events,
city festivals, prison shows and private parties."
The broad base of their sound and influences allows them
to be that versatile. But it's that element of truth that
separates them from most style classifications based purely
on musical form. It's almost like Christian music, a
musical category containing every possible style of music
but segregated purely because of its message. Red Dirt
places a higher importance on truth in the lyrics than most
other genres, certainly pure country.
"Like a song on our upcoming record, ‘Leave This World a
Better Place.' I'm serious about that," Cooper said this
week. "I didn't write that just to be catchy. I want people
to hear that and believe as much as I do that that's what
we should do."
That does not imply that Red Dirt music is protest
"It's not necessarily political like Woody got sometimes
and like he's so well-known for being. You can't take the
politics away from Woody, and really from us either, but
we're more about the politics of love, if that's not too
"Our connection to Woody is through that desire to tell
the truth and to lift people up no matter what kind of
stories you're telling them," Cooper said.
"Woody was the voice of all people who struggle," added
Ranger singer Brad Piccolo, "but people struggle in many
different ways, not just political stuff. There has to be
honesty in every area of playing music, because people come
to music for a lot of different reasons."
Even Guthrie himself didn't know what to call his music.
In 1940, a reviewer included a discussion of Guthrie's "Dust
Bowl Ballads" under the heading "Americana." In his scrapbook,
Guthrie scribbled his response: "Americana is a new one on
me, but when these fellers hire out to write a column every
day they ain't no telling what kinds of words they'll fall
back on to make a living."
Guilty as charged.
By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
The Woody Guthrie Archives isn't anything fancy, which
is in keeping with the lifestyle of the archives' namesake.
The collection is not under heavy guard, under glass or
even — thanks to Nora Guthrie's efforts — under wraps. The
archives is really just a bunch of filing cabinets in a
cramped, stuffy two-room office in midtown Manhattan, open
for public perusal as long as you make an appointment.
Nora Guthrie, Woody's daughter, runs the place, and
she's not too fancy, either. She's about as open and honest
and casual a professional as you can find. Of course, there
again the terminology doesn't do the situation justice.
Nora doesn't run anything at all — she inspires, enthralls,
educates, grounds and delights all visitors and staff
members. A remarkably engaging, uplifting woman, she
oversees the use of Guthrie's backlog of songs, poetry and
prose. Those cabinets are stuffed to overflowing with
pages of Woody's work — some of it intended for public
consumption, a lot of it scribbled down just to get it out
of his ever-bubbling brain. Nora already has guided British
folk-rocker Billy Bragg and American roots band Wilco
through the stacks; the results were the two "Mermaid Avenue"
albums, featuring tuneless, old Woody lyrics with new
music. Many more such projects are in the pipeline.
The exhibition that soon will be showing at the Oklahoma
Historical Society in Oklahoma City, "This Land Is Your
Land: The Life and Legacy of Woody Guthrie," was culled from
this resource. The show has been touring museums across the
country for more than two years; its Oklahoma stop — in
Guthrie's home state — is likely its last.
Bringing the show here was a challenge, though. I talked
with Nora last week about the exhibit, its challenges, and
why Oklahoma has been so resistant for so long to welcoming
home its most talented native son:
Let me start with my basic question right now: was Woody
With an accent like that — are you kidding?
What's always fascinated me about Woody is that he left
the state as a teenager, yet everything he wrote, said and
sang for the rest of his life was clearly influenced by his
That's always interested me, too. To be honest, I've
always felt like we were his step-family, in a way — that we
were kind of holding onto him until Oklahoma finally takes
Everything he did and fought for had to do with the
basic values he learned in Oklahoma. When I lecture in
Oklahoma, I tell people, "You think he's talking about other
people's rights and other people's problems, but he was
talking about your grandfather" — and I point at them — "and
your aunt and your cousin." These were his people.
"Everything he wrote, especially the early songs, was about
your family." He wasn't that expanded back then. What did he
know from America? All he knew was that someone's
grandmother lost the farm or someone's cousin was done
wrong. Everything he cared about came from his love for
Oklahoma and then became explained and justified by the
rest of his life.
When he finally traveled to other places, he found that
they were having the same problems, so he could become this
spokesperson for America — the people, not the land or the
Why did he return home so rarely?
Well, there were family and political problems that were
a big part of that, but the biggest part was the
Huntington's disease. There was this cosmic understanding
that took place between him and my mother (Marjorie
Guthrie) that she was his caretaker because he couldn't go
He was in exile.
I don't think he ever used that word, but there was
definitely an emotional exile that he felt — and was
bewildered by, to be quite honest. He was always from
Oklahoma and always wrote about it and put it in context.
When he wrote about New York, it was in the context of "look
at me, I'm a big hick, and I'm getting on this crazy
underground train." He always contextualized himself. But he
couldn't go home.
Until now. The annual folk festival in Okemah has
welcomed his spirit home, and perhaps the exhibition will,
It almost didn't happen, though. It was my wish that
this touring show open in Oklahoma two years ago. When I
first put it together, that was the only thought I ever
I was innocent and naive, I'm confessing, but I thought,
"Great, we'll have this show, and it'll open in Oklahoma." I
mean, where else would you open it? This is the place.
If Walt Whitman or any other major American figure had a
major exhibit, wouldn't you think it would be welcomed in
their hometown? Isn't that why Salinas (Calif.) has that
huge thing for Steinbeck? Everyone wants to cheer their
homeboy. But not in Oklahoma, not for a long time, anyway.
So what went wrong?
We had it booked in the Cowboy Hall of Fame (in Oklahoma
City). We were planning things — a big concert, some other
events. It was going to have this kind of reborn feeling,
like he's back and let's finally give birth to Woody in
Oklahoma and say, "Yes, he's from here."
A couple of months before it was supposed to open, we
got a call from the museum backing out. They gave some
vague reasons about scheduling conflicts and then about
funding, but I didn't even listen to it because I knew it
was politics. I just thought, gosh, I'm fiftysomething now,
hasn't anything changed out there in all this time? Isn't
there a new generation there who can stand up and recognize
that this guy was from Oklahoma and he doesn't have to be
the star of the state, but you could at least say, "I might
not like his politics, but what a great writer"?
Where did the exhibition open?
In California, at the Steinbeck museum. And it turned
out to be really special there, after all. Lefty Lou
(Crisman, Woody's former radio show partner) came, and she
said to me, "How did you know to open it in L.A.?" I didn't
understand her, and she told me this story. She said, "When
we had the radio show at KFVD, every afternoon for lunch
Woody and I would come out to that rock over there" — we were
standing outside the Steinbeck center — "and eat. We would
hike up there every single day for lunch, walk around the
hills, then go back and do the afternoon show." So the
exhibition opened on that site where they spent so many
afternoons, and she thought I'd done that on purpose. It
wound up having its own significance.
Still, I always hoped it would make it to Oklahoma. Like
most of Woody's stuff, this exhibition has been a sleeper.
We had trouble getting it started, and we had to put up the
money ourselves to get it into New York. It turned out to
be such a huge success there that the director of the
museum came up to me one evening and said, "Nora, I was so
skeptical. I didn't think this show was going to be that
good. That's why we didn't push to raise the funds for it.
But the public response has been so amazing, we've had more
attendance for this than anything else this year. If I
could do it again, I'd double-book it. I just didn't get
You know, these people study charts and financial
reports, and they don't get the people. They're not
connected, and this was maybe a good lesson in that
What turned the tide to allow the show to come here?
Once it caught on elsewhere, we found some friends in
the Oklahoma Historical Society and the state arts council
there. It just took a couple of years. It was about that
amount of time that the festival in Okemah really took off,
too, so I guess it just takes time.
It' so typical of Woody's personality, you know. He was
always a sleeper. He'd slip into a room and say something,
and two people would pay attention, then a few more, then a
few more, until he had the whole place in the palm of his
Woody Guthrie exhibit to open Friday
The Smithsonian Institution's acclaimed exhibition, "This
Land Is Your Land: The Life and Legacy of Woody Guthrie,"
opens Friday at the Oklahoma Museum of History in Oklahoma
The exhibit explores the life of the native Oklahoman
songwriter, author of such well-known tunes as "Union Maid,"
"So Long, It's Been Good to Know You" and "This Land Is Your
Land." The show offers material from the Woody Guthrie
Archives and the Smithsonian Institution, including
original manuscripts, drawings, sound recordings and some
The show — organized by Nora Guthrie, his daughter and
executive director of the archives, and the Smithsonian
Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) — has been
ramblin' round the country for two years. This stop in
Guthrie's home state will be its last. Guthrie was born
in the town of Okemah in 1912. He traveled the country
writing songs much of his life, many of those journeys with
dispossessed Okies in the 1930s. He lived in New York City
in the last years of his life, many of which were in
hospitals before he died in 1967 of complications from
Huntington's disease. He wrote thousands of songs before he
died, most of which remain collected in the Woody Guthrie
The exhibit will remain on view through May 4. The
museum is located in the Wiley Post Building, just SE of
the state capitol at 2100 N. Lincoln Boulevard in Oklahoma
For more information, contact the museum at (405)
522-5248 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
"This Land Is Your Land: The Life and Legacy of Woody
What: The Smithsonian Institution's traveling exhibit.
When: Opens Friday, runs through May 4 Where: The Oklahoma
Museum of History, Wiley Post Building, southeast of the
state Capitol at 2100 N. Lincoln Blvd., Oklahoma City.
Woody Guthrie wrote a lot of songs about rambling
He literally could not sit still. He had a natural
restlessness and a fierce wanderlust, and he died of a
nervous disease that made him shake. He was on the move all
the time — hopping freights across the Midwest, riding
sagging jalopies with Okies through the Southwest, touring
with his singing group in the Northeast, writing songs
about the Grand Coulee Dam in the Northwest, hiding out in
a swamp in the Southeast.
He touched every point of the compass — N, E, W, S — and
then he wrote songs that reported the news of the places
and people he'd seen. His songs were, for the most part,
journalism — with a large literary license. He happened to
be conducting his field reporting during this country's
hardest times, starting in the 1930s, so he met a lot of
homeless people, drifters, the dispossessed. The Okies.
Guthrie's own home back in Oklahoma had disintegrated,
partly because of the hard times and partly because of
family turmoil. Guthrie, a teenager, was left behind in the
decaying boom town of Okemah. His ties broken, he finished
his junior year of high school and stuck his thumb in the
wind. He left Oklahoma at age 17 and, except for a few
brief visits, he never came back.
Strange then that this rascally, clever songwriter --
famed for spirited songs as widely sung as "This Land Is
Your Land" — should be considered a native son of our state.
Strange then the fuss over Okemah's long-overdue embracing
of its late hometown boy and the fanfare of its annual
summer folk festival in his name. Strange the effort of
officials at the Smithsonian Institution and the Woody
Guthrie Archives to make sure the museum's current
traveling exhibition of Guthrie's life and work actually
opens in Oklahoma this week.
Or maybe not so strange. When you hear Guthrie's songs,
when you read his prose, when you study his life, it's
clear that Woody left Oklahoma but Oklahoma never left
The value of land
Oklahoma is restless land. Its
history is a pile of pulled-up stakes. Countless Indians of
every stripe were dumped here
— because the land wasn't valued. Only after the rest of the
continent had begun filling up did the government open
these lands to white settlers — because the land wasn't
valued. Oil companies jumped in, sucked the marrow out of
the earth and left as fast as they'd come — because the land
was no longer valuable. Thousands upon thousands of those
same white settlers were evicted from those same land
claims years later when severe drought turned them to dust --
and the land wasn't valuable. Migration, resettlement,
migration again. On and on.
But the land had value to those who planted it, hunted
on it, were born on it and buried their parents in it.
Those hard-working Okies probably had more sentimental
value for land than any category of Americans, and one wiry
little fellow watched all those land lovers come and go,
seizing and releasing the fields around his hometown. As a
boy growing up in Okemah, Guthrie met Indians, farmers,
ranchers and oil men. As he began traveling the plains
roads, he met countless farmers and ranchers who'd been
thrown off their land.
As he roamed to California and back with the
dispossessed, Guthrie learned about the value of home.
Thomas Wolfe had just informed the world that none of us
can truly go home again, but Guthrie discovered that, no
matter where someone hangs his or her head, home can be
rebuilt in an instant simply by strumming a few chords and
singing the old songs.
Joe Klein, in his 1980 biography, Woody Guthrie: A Life,
wrote of Guthrie's discovery on the road with the Okies:
"They always wanted to hear the old tunes — there weren't
many requests for fox trots in the boxcars — and Woody was
amazed by the impact the songs had. . . . The whiny old
ballads his mother had taught him were a bond that all
country people shared; and now, for the migrants, the songs
were all that was left of the land . . . It wasn't just
entertainment; he was performing their past. They listened
closely, almost reverently, to the words. In turn, he
listened to their life stories, and felt their pain and
anger. An odd thing began to percolate. He was one of
So Guthrie learned those songs — "The Boll Weevil," "The
Farmer Is the Man," "The Buffalo Skinners," "A Picture From
Life's Other Side." The ones that made him famous, though,
were the ones he wrote about the land and people's tenuous
relation to it in the 1930s.
In the songbook of folk favorites Guthrie and Pete
Seeger compiled in 1940 (which wasn't published until
1967), Hard Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People, there's a
chapter called "The Okie Section." Each of the baker's dozen
of songs is by Guthrie — "I'm Goin' Down That Road Feeling
Bad," "Dust Can't Kill Me," "Dust Bowl Refugee," "You Okies and
Arkies," "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You," "If You Ain't
Got the Do Re Mi," "Tom Joad," and more. They're all songs
about Okies — about people who'd been cut loose from their
homes and homesteads.
It wasn't just Okies out there on the road, heading to
California. In his introduction to "The Okie Section,"
Guthrie explains that by 1940 he'd come to a realization --
that the plight of the Okies is mirrored in the
workingman's struggle in every state.
"It looks like this Okie section ought to be my pet
section — but it ain't," he wrote. "When I first commenced a
working on this book, I thought myself it would be. And
then I took a looking tour through about 20 of the other
states — and everything was just about as hungry, and in
some spots hungrier. Virginia, Tennessee, Pennsylvania,
Kentucky, Ohio, New York and back to Oklahoma and Texas
again. One is about as naked as the other."
He was learning that the common man's struggle he
witnessed in Oklahoma was hardly different from the same
struggle in any other state or any other country. He was
becoming a citizen of the world.
Taking Oklahoma's message tothe world: But he was still
a gosh-dern Okie. Not long after arriving in New York City
in '40 — after years on the radio in L.A. as "Oklahoma Woody" --
Guthrie wrote a song called "Down in Oklayhoma," in which he
was still reflecting on the gulf between the state's
abundant natural riches and the workingman's poverty:
Just dig a little hole, you'll find soft coal
Some lead or zinc, just dig a little hole;
Everybody I know goes in the hole
Down in Oklayhoma
Other songs followed — "Hooversville," about a squalid
homeless camp in Oklahoma City; "The Dalton Boys" about the
famous gangsters and their Green Country hideout; "Verdigris
Headrise" about a young Will Rogers; "Okleye Homeye Home," in
which he begs the listener to "take me back to my
He dressed like an Okie. He often smelled like one, too.
More importantly, he spoke like an Okie, which means he
wrote and sang in the same way. "I'm Goin' Down the Road
Feeling Bad" is built around a chorus that declares, "I ain't
gonna be treated this-a way," and his songs were heavily
spiced with this down-home dialect. Guthrie's
autobiographical novel, "Bound for Glory," was described by
the New York World-Telegram as being written "largely in
Even as Oklahomans forgot Guthrie, Guthrie never forgot
his home state. Even when his politics got mixed up and out
of context over time — he supported unions and even
communists, because, as he wrote, "Nobody cared — except the
Union Boys. They was the onliest ones that was on our side
through thick and thin" — Oklahomans eventually shunned him,
but he never brushed the red dirt off his soles in protest.
He took the message of Oklahoma to the world, and it's just
now beginning to echo back.
Oklahoma Folklife Center plans to protect folkways for the future
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
In 1941, Woody Guthrie was involved in a theatrical
production in New York, a revue of sorts led by Earl
Robinson. The show involved a skit in which a group of
stalwart, American singers, featuring Guthrie, were set
upon by an unscrupulous music publisher hoping to buy them
off and water down their music. The script called for
Guthrie to stomp and cry out in outrage, but when he
performed the lines his laid-back, Okie drawl sounded
Robinson, according to Guthrie biographer Joe Klein,
said, "Woody, for Chrissake, don't you ever get angry at
people in Oklahoma?"
Guthrie leaned back and, slower than ever, replied, "Yup.
We get angry. But when we get angry, we just give 'em a
long, hard stare."
That trait, believe it or not — that laid-back approach
or the refusal to show immediate, hot anger — is a folkway,
a characteristic element of a particular group of people
that is learned or handed down from generation to
generation. It's ephemeral, it seems, but it's these little
distinctions that separate an Oklahoman from a New Yorker
or a Tennessean or a Californian.
And it's these folkways — from music to crafts to these
elusive social traits — that the Oklahoma Folklife Center
plans to preserve and to provide opportunities to examine
The Tulsa-based Oklahoma Folklife Center is a new
creation, a satellite of the Smithsonian Institution's
American Folklife Center, and organized under the umbrella
of the Oklahoma Historical Society and funded thus far
through a $20,000 grant from the National Endowment for the
Arts. So far, the center has one employee, director Guy
It doesn't even have a home yet. The center eventually
will be housed in Tulsa's historic Travis Mansion, 2435 S.
Peoria Ave., undergoing renovation and additions by its new
owner, the Tulsa Historical Society. Until those
improvements are complete, the Oklahoma Folklife Center
will operate out of Logsdon's midtown Tulsa home.
That's fitting, of course, because Logsdon's home is its
own folklife center. For decades, the former University of
Tulsa librarian has compiled his own massive and impressive
collection of Americana and folk music-related research,
and his back room is its own museum — a storehouse of
documents, research and artifacts relating to cowboy
poetry, American folk music and other subjects far and wide
— including recipes, folk art, even the peculiar way some
Bob Blackburn, executive director of the Oklahoma
Historical Society, has even bigger dreams for the folklife
"I foresee this growing to the point where we need a
physical location for the center itself," Blackburn said
last week, "especially because of the performing arts aspect
of folk arts. It would encourage the performance of music
and the exhibition of more folklife materials, the
demonstration of folkways and apprenticeships."
Blackburn expects the folklife center to catch on
quickly in Oklahoma, largely because of its Tulsa base.
"The Tulsa community has always supported the arts so
well," he said. "I remember attending the Chautauqua event up
there five or six years ago, when Danny Goble portrayed
Huey Long, and it was standing room only. I thought, ‘Boy,
these Tulsans really get into this sort of expression of
our cultural heritage.'
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.
This post contains my complete reviews of this annual festival ...
Singer-songwriter's sincere performance a fitting opening to festival
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
OKEMAH — Most music fans my age missed the boat on
Jackson Browne. We were just coming around when "Lawyers in
Love" was being foisted on Top 40 radio (a silly song that
was not surprisingly missing from Browne's 1997 greatest
hits collection) and the tepid but memorable "Somebody's
Baby" was the coda to the quintessential teen-sex film "Fast
Times at Ridgemont High."
These were not Browne's greatest artistic achievements.
They were Jackson bollocks.
What we young'uns missed were the crucial years of
lyrical songwriting eloquence long before that early-'80s
wash-out and the equally important years of political
proselytizing that followed. As rock critic Dave Marsh has
said, Browne's career is like Bob Dylan's in reverse:
Browne was first an intensely personal songwriter and then
became interested in the politics and social causes of his
This gave Browne the advantage of employing artful and
romantic lyricism to his political songs; the loving detail
of these individual pieces helps link his artistic vision
to his political idealism. At a gritty event that simply
vibrates with Dylan's brave, wheezy influence, Browne's
tenderness, humility and grace spearheaded the third annual
Woody Guthrie Free Folk Festival with a refreshing and
apropos concert Wednesday night in Okemah's historic
"Folk music is what made me want to start playing music,"
Browne told the sold-out crowd during his show. "Woody, Pete
Seeger, Leadbelly -- these are the people who lit a fire
Of course, what else would you say on stage at a Woody
Guthrie festival? But he proved his sincerity with a
three-hour solo show (he even donated his time for this) of
his "more folkish stuff," switching between acoustic guitars
and piano to perform nearly 30 of his own carefully drawn
classic songs from the last 30 years. He sang an old
Rev. Gary Davis cocaine blues tune ("I learned this from a
Dave Van Ronk album," he said), Dylan's "Song to Woody" ("Ah, I
love that song," he said as he finished) and then Guthrie's
own classic "Deportee."
Between these, he invoked the nervousness and purpose of
every folk singer ever born: "Boy, singing these songs on
the edge of your bed is one thing. Singing them in front of
other people is, well . . . But, you know, I started
singing them not because I was a good singer but because I
The songs Browne did write, he sang beautifully. After
the show, he was mildly distraught, convinced that his
voice had been terrible that night. It was not. Thick with
its own natural peat and the mid-summer Oklahoma humidity,
his voice resonated through the hall with as much
reassuring purpose as it always has.
It's not a dynamic voice, and Browne's one weakness is
that he writes songs within his limited vocal range; he
uses the same keys and modulations so that, after a while,
the songs tend to sound the same. (The occasional
finger-picking and slide guitar Wednesday night threw a
nice country-blues change-up, though.) However, Browne's
music stands tall over the rest of his ilk -- the laid-back
southern California sensitive singer-songwriter stuff of
the '70s -- because he somehow managed to avoid the cynicism
that corrupted his peers.
While Linda Ronstadt tried to prove she was everywoman
by singing in Spanish, and the Eagles reunited to sing
acidic songs of contempt and charge $300 a ticket, Browne
quietly continued through the late '80s and '90s writing
songs with quizzical questions and wry social observations.
He's no optimist, but -- in the spirit of Guthrie -- he
operates from a live-and-let-live perspective that brings
an audience to an awareness of personal or political
foibles without humiliating the ones at fault. It's a more
graceful, humanitarian approach to empowerment through
As he illustrated Wednesday night, this approach works
on both sides of his music. The confessional songs show it
just as readily as the socially conscious ones. "Fountain of
Sorrow," he pointed out, is about an old girlfriend, and "it
turns out the song is better than she deserved." Still, he
sang its words at the piano with none of the bitterness we
might expect from the situation: "You could be laughing at
me, you've got the right / But you go on smiling so clear
A politically fierce song, "Lives in the Balance," rails
against the United States' "secret, covert wars" around the
world not by calling the president names but by
illuminating the toll exacted by these unwise policies:
"There are people under fire / There are children at the
cannons." It's the same process of focusing on the "right"
details that Woody employed. "Deportee" is a song about the
victims, not the perpetrators. Empathy is a stronger
motivator than anger.
Even though, as mentioned, early songs such as "For
Everyman" and "Late for the Sky" were unflinchingly personal,
the seeds of Browne's social conscience were evident from
his first solo hit, "Doctor, My Eyes." Despite its catchy,
pleasant Brill Building groove, the song is an early
expression of a social observer's initial squint into
life's harsh light (lyrics above).
Again, here's Browne swiveling the camera around to the
person struggling -- in this case, himself -- instead of
setting sights on those causing the struggle. It's a cry
for help, but not in the sense of whining or welfare;
Browne instead seeks validation of his own feelings of
sadness and frustration about the world's situation. In
this song, he hasn't learned yet how universal that feeling
is -- a lesson Guthrie himself learned at about the same
point in his own songwriting career.
His performance of "Doctor, My Eyes" was part of a medley
that began with that song and ended with another early
standard, "These Days." As he see-sawed the groove on the
piano, Browne began to brighten noticeably. Throughout the
bulk of his show, he had been fairly sober, concentrating
on songs he hasn't played regularly in concert and closing
his eyes in serious songwriter mode. Perhaps it was the
song's upbeat momentum or the relief of a relatively
stage-shy performer realizing that the concert was nearing
its end, but Browne started smiling. His eyes stared at a
distant point, then he would suddenly focus on the crowd
before him and smile.
By the time he launched into "The Pretender," his most
iconic hit song and the most frequently shouted request of
the evening, Browne was revived -- and leading a revival. He
liked the feel of the line "I'll get up and do it again /
Amen" so much that he did it twice with gospel fervor, the
same with "Get it up again" later in the song. He seemed so
into the flow of the tune that he didn't want to finish the
song, telescoping the ending with extended riffing and much
satisfied nodding to himself.
How many times has he played this song? Thousands? Tens
of thousands? And he's still this into it?
So when he came out for an encore and played "Take It
Easy," the Eagles' breakthrough hit he co-wrote with Glenn
Fry, it was clear exactly how much taller Browne stood than
his contemporaries. He so easily switches gears between
singing about "the blood in the ink of the headlines" and
standing on that mythical corner in Winslow, Ariz. But when
you hear him in concert, you realize that even "Take It Easy"
encourages us to "find a place to make your stand."
This undercurrent underscored how much Browne belonged
at the opening ceremony of this festival, honoring a
songwriter who could also switch gears swiftly -- one minute
decrying the fascist menace, the next minute bouncing up
and down making kiddie car noises. It was a strong
beginning to a worthwhile festival gathering more strength
and purpose every year.
Seeger sparks Guthrie Festival
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
OKEMAH — Folk music, you know, is not about showmanship.
This is its saving grace and sometimes its most
frustrating trait. It is folk music, after all -- by and for
folks -- and each of its practitioners labors to keep their
own songs and themselves as close to The People as
possible. No fancy clothes. No fancy shows. Sometimes, it
seems, not even a simple rehearsal.
This is fun and even noble when performing in a coffee
house or hootenanny. When entertaining a throng of
thousands from a 50-foot stage rig in a spacious pasture
east of Okemah, however, folk music's struggle against
separation from the masses becomes a tougher fight.
Saturday's final concert at the Woody Guthrie Free Folk
Festival here was such a brave battle -- full of glorious
triumphs and tragic defeats.
Leading the charge was folk's figurehead, Pete Seeger.
Indispensable as a living archive of American folk, Seeger
commanded the Pastures of Plenty main stage with a
childlike charm, telling the tales behind the songs and
leading the audience in sing-alongs with every one.
Seeger is the epitome of folk music's anti-showmanship.
He'd been in town for days without being mobbed by fans. He
has no entourage. He strolls confidently but slowly wearing
faded jeans and an untucked knit shirt. He walked by fans
and musicians alike in downtown Okemah, most of whom had no
idea who the old man was until someone whispered, "Hey,
that's Pete Seeger."
This is how he took the stage Saturday night -- jeans,
untucked, cap askew -- picking at a tall banjo and leading us
right away into a sing-along of "Midnight Special." Scruffy
looking, scratchy-throated and rarely keeping the beat, the
thousands clustered in the steamy Okemah Industrial Park
pasture swooned, sang and lit up the late night with an
electric storm of flashbulbs.
Over the next hour and a half, Pete got the crowd
singing not only because he prompted us with each line
before he sang it but because the utter joy radiating from
his ruddy-cheeked smile was impossible to disallow. He led
us through "Turn! Turn! Turn!" with such exuberance you'd
think he had composed the tune in a Biblical revelation
backstage that evening, not nearly 50 years ago. He sang
several of Guthrie's children's songs, such as "Why Oh Why,"
and led the crowd of all ages through the cheery tune of
wonderment. We sang along because he wasn't talking down to
us as if we were children; rather, he crackled with the
obvious thrill of sharing the song and the joy its has
brought him with one more huge crowd of people.
All of this was off the cuff, and while Seeger's undying
passion for American folk song charged him for the
situation, his compatriots on stage didn't fight the good
fight with the same conviction. On stage with Seeger and
his grandson, Tao Rodriguez, were the Guthrie clan: Arlo,
his daughter Sara Lee, his son Abe and Sara Lee's husband
Johnny Irion. As the pendulum swung back and forth between
Seeger and the Guthries, it was clear the latter suffered
most from the spontaneous nature of an unrehearsed mass
The Guthries rumbled through a rousing rendition of
Woody's "Sinking of the Reuben James," supported by Seeger.
But when the Guthries' turn came around again, there were
often lengthy deserts of no music. Arlo had a tough time
keeping his guitar in tune, and he told mildly amusing
stories while cranking his strings -- the same stories he
told at the first and second Guthrie festival here.
Sometimes he would sit helplessly and wonder aloud what
songs they could play that everyone knew. These were always
the moments when a family or two would decide to pack up
the chairs and blankets and call it a night.
Rodriguez saved the show a time or two by belting out
some Cuban songs, including an enlivening duet with his
grandfather on "Guantanamera," a hit for the Sandpipers in
1966. The show wrapped up with an all-star jangle through
"Will the Circle Be Unbroken," featuring a stage full of most
of the evening's performers.
Preceding the Seeger-Guthrie set Saturday night was
another charter performer at the festival, the Joel Rafael
Band. A quiet treasure, Rafael brought down nightfall with
his patient, comforting roots music. The band consists of
congas, acoustic guitars and viola -- a wellspring of wood
creating wholly organic and soothing sounds. In addition to
being the only performer in three days to point out the
bloated, bright full moon shining over the festival
grounds, Rafael evoked Guthrie with a most weathered and
righteous approach. He first sang "Way Down Yonder in the
Minor Key," one of the Guthrie lyrics Billy Bragg and Wilco
put to music, then he tackled a rare Guthrie tune called
"Don't Kill My Baby and My Son" about the planned lynching of
a black woman, her young son and her baby near Okemah early
in the century. During his "Talkin' Oklahoma Hills," though,
he summed up folk musicians' burgeoning perspective on
Guthrie, saying, "Will Rogers is the most famous Oklahoman
in the whole country, and Woody Guthrie is the most famous
Oklahoman in the whole wide world."
Pastures of Plenty: Oklahoma town draws wealth of talent to honor Woody Guthrie
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
OKEMAH — The July afternoon heat was hard and brutal,
even with an uninspired breeze. Triple-digit temperatures
radiated from Okemah's downtown pavement, and shoe soles
foolish enough to be tramping up and down Broadway at
highnoon stuck to the blacktop. Townspeople hibernated in
air-conditioned places of business, peering warily out
And yet . . . where was that accordion music coming
In the heart of downtown Okemah, in the little patch of
park that now boasts a crude statue of Woody Guthrie, sat
Rosemary Hatcher huffing on her squeezebox. A former music
teacher from California, now living in Payola, Hatcher was
visiting Okemah for the third annual Woody Guthrie Free
Folk Festival, a festival that took over the small town
with live music events from Wednesday to Sunday. On
Thursday, she had setup her stool and music stand in the
tiny park and was pumping softlyunder the shade of her
straw cowboy hat and four huddling pinetrees.
"I just got this Woody Guthrie songbook," Hatcher said,
clothes-pinning the pages to the music stand. "I'm playing
through a lot of songs I haven't played before. You know,
they were meant to be played on guitar. This book even
tells you where to put your capo. But I think they sound
nice with accordion, too. Do you know this one, `Oklahoma
"I just like to travel and play my music," she said,
echoing the sentiments of the majority of musicians playing
at the festival, most of whom donate their time for the
privilege of offering up their songs in Guthrie's
Feeling hot, hot, hot
Erica Wheeler started her set on the festival's Pastures
of Plenty main stage with a song called "Hot," she said "in
honor of all of you who are."
She'd been battling the 100-plus heat index all day
Thursday, refusing her 2 p.m. sound check (as all of the
day's acts did) because of the oppressive temperatures. On
stage that evening, the sun had just begun to ease off as
the Maryland songstress began strumming her pretty,
"It gets to hot / I ain't complaining / No, I am not," she
sang, and she meant it, despite her wardrobe: long sleeves
and an ankle-length skirt, all black.
The following day, bluesy singer Peter Keane voiced his
own ideas about the heat.
"Today is Woody's birthday," he said, "and that's why they
have the festival here. Makes you kind of wish he'd been
born in March or April, doesn't it?"
The protest against Woody Guthrie in his hometown has
dwindled to a feeble poster in a storefront window. It's a
blown-up copy of an anonymous newspaper column from a 1989
edition of the Oklahoma Constitution, and it's posted in
the window of Okemah's American Legion building.
The column, titled "Woody Was No Hero," lambasted the
Oklahoma Gazette, a weekly newspaper in Oklahoma City, for
honoring Guthrie through its Oklahoma Music Awards. The
actual awards were called Woodys.
"He loved the totalitarian dictatorship of Josef Stalin,"
the author proclaimed about the songwriter, on whose guitar
was scrawled the slogan "This Machine Kills Fascists," and
the column wrongly described Guthrie as "a militant
A woman in a nearby clothes shop, when asked about the
sign, discouraged investigation of the matter.
"That's not how the majority of this town feels anymore,"
A good sign
J.R. Payne knows how Okemah used to feel about Woody. He
also knows something about signs that pop up when the
festival comes around.
"This town for a long time was pretty hooky-hooky over
all that propaganda," he said, making a see-sawing so-so
motion with both hands, "though none of it amounts to a hill
Payne tends the Okfuskee County Historical Museum,
downtownnext to the Crystal Theater where several festival
performances take place. He's quick to point out a long
sign that sits atop a case of Guthrie artifacts in the
museum. The sign reads, "This Land Is Your Land."
"I had that sign made several years ago, and one morning
I noticed that it had disappeared," Payne said. "But then,
when all this Woody Guthrie hullabaloo started just last
year or so, well, suddenly that sign came back out."
Among three rooms full of regional memorabilia, the
museum shows off several Guthrie photographs, including two
classphotos (you can quickly pick out Woody's aw-shucks
smirk without the aid of the notations) and one photograph
of a girlish, near-toddler Guthrie standing outside his
family's original Okemah home.
Payne, 82, remembers Guthrie from these school days. His
first year at Okemah High School was Woody's last year
"He was living back in the trees there," Payne said,
pointing toward the east where Woody had lived alone in his
old gang clubhouse behind his family's last Okemah home. "He
was just a guy, you know. Funny. He was the joke editor for
the school paper. But he was just like anybody else."
Real roots music
In addition to the main-stage concerts each evening,
this year's festival included live music all day long at
two Okemah mainstays: the Brick Street Cafe and Lou's Rocky
Road Tavern. Several main-stage acts reappeared on these
stages -- Ellis Paul played for a while Saturday afternoon at
Lou's -- and even more new artists played here, including a
new band with an incredible legacy.
The group was called Rig, an acronym for the members'
last names -- Tao Rodriguez (Pete Seeger's grandson), Sara
Lee and Abe Guthrie (Arlo's kids), John Irion (Sara Lee's
husband) -- and they played an unadvertised show Saturday
afternoon to a packed house at the Brick Street Cafe.
Playing mostly old folk songs from their respective family
lineages, they opened with a rousing rendition of Guthrie's
"Union Maid" and closed with an equally ferocious "Rock Island
Line," both belted out with real passion by a red-faced
Seeger and Arlo Guthrie were in attendance, beaming with
Some of the most exciting performances at this year's
festival were at the late-night All-Star Jams in the
spacious basement of the Brick Street Cafe. Hosted by the
Red Dirt Rangers, the shows carried on after each night's
main-stage concert and featured the Rangers as a house band
for whichever performers happened to be in the cafe with
This is where fans could see real musicianship unfold.
For instance, Michael Fracasso took the basement stage
Thursday night and unleashed a more raucous side of
himself, shouting a series of chords to the band before
beginning the song and letting the players improvise parts
as each song plowed along.
George Barton, from Barton and Sweeney, led the band --
which that night featured Don Conoscenti, the Neal Cassady
of folkmusic, on drums -- through a visceral blues song,
singing, "You don't have to be black to feel blue / Any
color will do." Scott Aycock, host of the "Folk Salad" show on
KWGS 89.5-FM, led the band through a haunted, wailing
rendition of Dylan's "One More Cup of Coffee." Friday night,
Stillwater's Jason Bolan and the Stragglers took over the
stage for three songs and had the entire basement full of
people on its feet dancing.
The Rangers held court a while each night there, too.
Friday night they performed "Dwight Twilley's Garage Sale," a
song singer-guitarist Brad Piccolo wrote about stopping at
a garage sale run by Tulsa's own pop legend Twilley. "I wish
I could afford that guitar," Piccolo sings, "I'd take it home
and write a hit song / Say adios to the bars."
The Oregon tale
This year's Guthrie festival included a film screening
among all the music. "Roll On, Columbia: Woody Guthrie and
the Bonneville Power Administration" is a documentary about
Guthrie's 30-day job in May 1941 writing songs about the
dam projects along the Columbia River in Oregon and
Washington. The video was released in February and was
produced by Michael Majdic, an associate professor at the
University of Oregon.
The film neatly sums up this pivotal chapter in
Guthrie's career, featuring interviews with Arlo Guthrie,
Pete Seeger, Mary Guthrie Boyle (Woody's first wife), Studs
Terkel, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Nora Guthrie (Woody's
sister) and numerous BPA dam workers. It was during this
unusual assignment that Guthrie wrote some of his most
sparkling work, including "Pastures of Plenty," "Hard
Travelin' " and "The Biggest Thing a Man Has Ever Done."
The three screenings of the film this weekend in Okemah
were part of a larger program that included performances of
the songs by another Oregon professor, Bill Murlin, and
Guthrie impersonator Carl Allen.
Ellis, himself and us
Bill McCloud, McCloud is the president of the Orphanage
Society in Pryor, which puts on the festival with the Woody
Guthrie Coalition, introducd Boston singer Ellis Paul,
saying, "People said we'd never get Ellis Paul this year,
that he'd gotten too big for us. But that's not what Ellis
Paul, who's performed at all three Guthrie festivals
thus far, told the large crowd Friday night that he plans
to play the festival every year he's asked to.
Paul's song "The World Ain't Slowing Down" is featured
prominently in the latest hit film from the Farrelly
brothers starring Jim Carrey, "Me, Myself and Irene." The
only thing the new prominence has brough Paul is the
ability to retrieve stolen goods, as he said in a story
from the stage.
"I went to the premiere of the movie and the party
afterwards, and I decided not to take my cell phone inside.
I figured, it's a Hollywood party, everyone's going to have
the things, I don't want to be one of those people," he
said. "When I got out to my car that night, my phone had
Later that week, Paul was singing the National Anthem at
the baseball game between the Boston Red Sox and the New
"A friend of mine there said, `Hey, Ellis, I just talked
to the guy who stole your phone.' So I called the number
and said,`Hey, you've got my cell phone.' The guy said, `I
know. You're famous.' He'd been talking to my old girl
friends and probably doing interviews. I think he's doing
Letterman next week."
Paul played a thrilling, albeit brief, set with fellow
singer-songwriter Don Conoscenti and Joel Rafael Band
percussionist Jeff Berkeley. He included his rousing
rendition of Guthrie's "Hard Travelin'."
Shy rockers in flight
Ellis Paul has charted higher than the northeast
Oklahoma duo of Barton and Sweeney, but the Oklahomans'
music has soared much higher -- physically.
Earlier this year, NASA astronauts took Barton and
Sweeney's latest CD, "On the Timeline," with them on a space
shuttle mission. The space walkers heard Barton and Sweeney
in a bar one night, bought the disc, then called later to
ask if they could take it with them into orbit. One morning
during the mission, the astronauts were awakened with one
of the tracks.
That's a little consolation for Sweeney, who recalls
when Paul got the better of him at the 1994 Kerrville New
Folk Contest. Paul won first place; Sweeney got second.
"That's why his name's a little bigger on the festival
T-shirts there," Sweeney laughed.
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
Pete Seeger is the godhead of American folk music, but
like most folks, he was bowled over when he first saw Woody
"It was a magic moment," Seeger said in a recent interview
with the Tulsa World. "Woody had hitchhiked from New York to
California for a midnight benefit concert to raise money
for the California agricultural workers, most of whom were
Okies. I was working in Washington (D.C.), and Alan Lomax
drove me up for it ... I was on the program with one song.
I got a smattering of polite applause; it's quite
embarrassing to think about now, really. Woody was the star
of the evening.
"He strolled onto that stage with his hat on the back of
his head, and he just started telling stories. He started,
‘Oklahoma's a very rich state. We got oil. You want some
oil, you go down into a hole and get you some. We got coal.
You want coal, you go down into a hole and get you some.
You want food, clothes or groceries, you just go into a
hole and stay there.' And he did that all night, singing
songs and telling jokes.
People were just charmed by his laconic control of the
situation, and I was one of them."
As a close friend of Guthrie's for the next 30-plus
years, Seeger would collect countless tales of Woody's
musical magic — all the while becoming a folk legend on his
Extraordinary common folk
Seeger's destiny ran parallel to Guthrie's throughout
the most productive years of their youth. While Guthrie
found his path to folk music in his travels among the
country's migrant workers and poor, Seeger discovered his
way at home. His father, Charles Seeger, was one of the
country's premier musicologists. Young Pete fell in love
with folk music when he and his father attended a folk
festival in 1935 in North Carolina.
But Seeger wasn't sure at first where he fit into folk
music. After dropping out of Harvard University, he spent
much of his time helping Alan Lomax at the Library of
Congress' Archive of Folk Song. There he got to know
Guthrie, another regular at the archive. The two became
fast friends, and Seeger learned everything he could from
Guthrie about music, politics and social commitment.
After the two songwriters traveled to Oklahoma together
in 1940 (see related story), Seeger went back to New York
City and formed the Almanac Singers, the precursor to his
more famous — and influential — folk group, the Weavers, in
the early '50s. With these groups, and on his own, Seeger
became a repository of American folk music. He learned the
songs and the stories behind them, from centuries-old tales
of struggle to new songs from an early '60s upstart named
Seeger is 81 now, and he doesn't perform as often as he
used to. ("I'm 70 percent there from the shoulders down and
30 percent from the shoulders up," he jokes about himself.)
Still, he's decided to come to Oklahoma for the third Woody
Guthrie Free Folk Festival simply because he can't turn
down the opportunity to honor his late friend one more time
— especially on his home turf.
"I'm glad the people in Okemah are welcoming their
friends and neighbors and fellow Oklahomans. It's actually
a very brave and noble thing to do this," Seeger said.
"Okemah, I don't think, hasn't always been so welcoming. One
of the singers at this festival is Larry Long. He's one of
Woody's musical children. He never knew Woody but through
his songs. He came and worked in the Okemah schools for a
year or so, teaching the kids all of Woody's songs. There
was a local banker there who was quite upset about that. He
felt Woody was best forgotten. He was quite outnumbered."
Seeger himself has had his moments of doubt about Woody.
When Woody would shove songs into Seeger's hands — freshly
ripped from Woody's typewriter — Seeger said he often
thought they were too silly, simple or even dumb. Over
time, however, Seeger began to see the beauty of Woody's
simplicity and innocence.
"Over the years, I just gradually realized what an
absolute genius Woody was," Seeger said. "He fought long and
hard for his beliefs, and he created instantaneously. He
rarely rewrote anything. He had the genius of simplicity.
Any damn fool can get complicated. I confess that when I
first heard ‘This Land Is Your Land,' I thought it was a
little simple. That shows how wrong people can be. That
song hit the spot with millions."
Seeger's own songs have hit the spot with millions.
Seeger's songs, though, were most often commercial hits in
the hands of other performers — "If I Had a Hammer" for Trini
Lopez and Peter, Paul and Mary or "Turn! Turn! Turn!" for the
The same was true for Guthrie. Most of the young folkies
paying tribute these days discovered Woody by way of Dylan.
Even Billy Bragg, who made the critically acclaimed "Mermaid
Avenue" albums of lost Guthrie lyrics with the band Wilco,
heard Dylan first.
Guthrie's legacy, though, did not fade, even after his
decline throughout the '60s and his death in '67. The
opening of the Woody Guthrie Archives in New York City in
1996 spurred an appropriately grassroots revival of Woody's
songs and spirit, part of which resulted in the Okemah
festival taking off from its inception three years ago.
It's a legacy that's too important to ignore, Seeger said --
it simply can't die. Long life, if not eternal life, is the
very essence of the folk tradition.
"Woody's legacy will not die, ever. I'm not just saying
that. (In the '70s) Woody's second wife Marge went to
Washington to seek money to help fight Huntington's
Disease. President Carter said to the assembled group there
one day, ‘I'm not sure if any of you realize that this man
Woody Guthrie, centuries from now, will be better known
than anyone in this room,'" Seeger said. "I think he's quite
right. Who remembers President Buchanan's name? But
everyone knows Stephen Foster."
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
It was the spring of 1940, and Woody Guthrie was
becoming a star — or as close to one as he'd ever let
In May of that year, Woody stood alone in Victor
Records' New Jersey recording studio and sang out some of
his best — and now best-known — songs: "Dust Bowl Refugee," "I
Ain't Got No Home," "Do Re Mi," "So Long, It's Been Good to
Know You" and many more. He was paid $300 for the session,
more money than he'd ever thought a man could be paid for
singing "dusty ol' songs."
Immediately after the session, Woody wrote to his
younger sister Mary Jo back in Oklahoma about his recent
good fortune in New York City. "I just bought a new
Plymouth, and it really splits the breeze," he said. Then he
added, "I'm coming to Oklahoma as soon as I get a check from
Months later, he began that journey back home, and his
traveling companion was fellow folksinger Pete Seeger. It
would be a pivotal journey for Woody's political
motivations and a crystallizing moment in his personal
According to Joe Klein's Woody Guthrie: A Life, the two
young folkies headed south and rolled through the
Appalachian Mountains "carrying on a running conversation
about music and politics."
Along the trip, they stopped briefly in Tennessee to
visit the Highlander Folk School, a training center for
labor organizers. The owners, Myles and Zilphia Horton,
were focusing on the use of music as an organizing tool.
From then on, Woody became preoccupied with writing union
songs, and later in the trip he would pen his ultimate
They traveled through Arkansas into Oklahoma, stopping
in Konawa to visit Woody's family. It was a tense reunion.
The Guthries had been split up years before after Woody's
mother Nora went to the mental hospital in Norman. After
that, Mary Jo was sent to a relative's in Pampa, Texas, and
Woody's father, Charley, moved to Oklahoma City. Woody and
his older brother were left behind in Okemah to fend for
themselves. Woody's inherent restlessness got the better of
him, and he left soon after high school.
Charley was in Konawa during this visit, but as Klein
wrote, there was "a real tension between them, and the visit
lasted only a few hours."
They pressed on to Oklahoma City, where they spent a
night with local Communist Party organizers Bob and Ina
Wood. The Woods put Guthrie and Seeger to work, singing for
the poor people in the Hooverville shantytown on the banks
of the Canadian River. It was during this stay that Woody
wrote one of his most recognizable songs, "Union Maid."
Later in his life, Woody wrote that the song was
inspired by the story of a southern Tenant Farmers' Union
organizer who was badly beaten, but in a recent interview
with the Tulsa World Seeger recalled the more direct
inspiration for the song.
"We were in the (Woods') office, and Ina said, ‘Woody,
all these union songs are about brothers this and brothers
that. How about writing songs about union women?' " Seeger
said. "Well, it was true. The (union) meeting that night
might have been broken up had it not been for the women and
children singing songs and keeping it peaceful."
"Union Maid" — with its chorus, "Oh you can't scare me, I'm
stickin' to the union" — was written that night as a parody
of an older song called "Redwing." At first, Seeger thought
Woody's song was silly, but he said its simplicity and
directness soon won him over.
"His words now are much better than the ‘Redwing' words,"
he said. "Who would think that ‘stickin' to the' would be
such a fun line to sing?"
The rest of the trip was personally difficult. Woody and
Pete continued to Pampa, where Woody had left behind his
first wife and children. That reunion also was tense.
Seeger didn't stay long, opting to continue travelling west
after a few days. Woody left soon after that, leaving his
wife the $300. He headed back through Oklahoma City and
picked up Bob Wood, taking him back to New York City for a
huge Communist Party convention at Madison Square Garden.
When the convention was done, Woody gave Wood the
Plymouth so he could get home. It was the official car of
the Oklahoma Communist Party for several years after that.
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.