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.
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.