Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Brian Wilson to open Newport Folk

The newly eclectic Newport Folk Festival announced that former Beach Boy and composer-producer Brian Wilson will headline the festival's traditional opening night concert at The International Tennis Hall of Fame at the Newport Casino on Friday, August 1, 2008 in Newport, RI.

The facility is a historic place in the history of tennis and of old Newport, and is used twice a year to host the first night of both the Newport Folk and Jazz festivals. The separately priced gala concerts lend an air of history and elegance to the festivals. For Wilson, Newport will be a marquee stop on a full summer tour.

After the opening show, the festivals' Saturday and Sunday programs are held at nearby Fort Adams State Park. The festival also added a prominent name to the main stage lineup with singer-songwriter Steve Earle performing as a duet with alt-country singer Allison Moorer, who is also his wife.

The seniors chorus Young@Heart, recently featured in the documentary film by the same name, has also been added.

Monday, June 23, 2008

TBF Festival Notebook

By Donald Frazier

Coming down out of the workaday world into any four-day festival in a remote resort location is bound to be more than a change in scenery. But in the case of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, it’s an especially long, strange trip.

Festivarian Nation. More, perhaps, than any music event in America, this one positions itself as a sort of gathering of the clans. The festival website overtly says this is an annual reunion of a basically-cohesive group of music fans bonded by the culture of the festival. In the old days that meant lots of tie-dye and Indian bedspreads; now we can add dreadlocks and all-over tat’s. On the upside, it means this is an especially friendly event to attend, with sharing, caring, and narely a contrary word. On the downside, it means ‘most everybody here is already with a largish group of friends and family. Town Park, the site near the stage, is full of large emplacements comprising several tents, covered communal areas, and lots of loving if sometimes-silly décor (see photos). These groups come here every year, sometimes for decades.

Tent City. You can’t just show up in this tiny and tightly-controlled town, ticket in hand – it takes a good amount of foresight and planning. Forget about a hotel room – the few here are quite expensive, booked a year in advance and, besides, you miss out on the Festivarian vibe of it all. But finding a plot big enough for your tent in Town Park means arriving much earlier in the week. One Festivarian reports making the seven-hour drive from Denver after work on Monday, staking his claim, then driving back all night in time to be back at his law firm in time to start on Tuesday morning (”Good we have showers!”). Most parties will delegate one member to come here early and hold down the fort while the others plod through their day jobs until they can arrive on Thursday.

As for the others, refugees often have it better. There’s a large, grim commercial campground several miles down the road where you almost expect UN peacekeeping forces. We also saw more than a hundred people bedded out
in the open, in 40-degree weather on chaise lounges and such near the main gate. No, they weren’t on line for tickets. This is where they were, uh, ‘sleeping’.

Baby, you can drive my car. But not here. All of the friendliness of this event evaporates when it comes to parking your vehicle. A handful snare car camping passes. But the town bans all nonresident parking for the duration of the event, complete with a smiling but stern checkpoint on the one entrance to Telluride where they grant you enough time to unload and get out. Get out where? They say there is parking available off site. They do not say it is many miles away. Do not try for the ‘Carhenge’ lot – though closer, the lines for the shuttle bus are truly daunting. Better is Mountain Village – much farther away, but you get a fun ride to town center on the ski gondola, awesome by night.

Don’t bogart that air. Even the veterans on the Festival preview staff were amazed at the continual, thick wafting of herbal celebration over the festival grounds. No need to bring you own stash – just breathe deeply. In the campgrounds, however, serious alcohol is the party aid of choice, as we learned when a neighboring Festivarian offered up a solid belt of Jameson’s Irish – before breakfast.

Up the Creek. The finale of Sam Bush’s set on Saturday night featured everybody on the Festival program they could squeeze onto the main stage for a long, shoulder-to-shoulder version of Cripple Creek. The song has a distinct feel of a navigable body of water about it, like some murky Appalachian tributary of the Ohio. Perhaps Festival Preview is being cantankerous about this. But the real Cripple Creek in southern Colorado is a rocky gulch with, much of the year, not enough water to float a soapdish let alone a moonshiner’s rowboat. Just pointing this out.

Visa problems spoil Béla's African workshop

Some of the most immediate performances in Telluride took place far from the main stage. Living up to its mission to advance the form, this festival every year conducts a number of clinics and competitions to discover new talent, showcase new ideas and pass on skills to a new generation. For example, Saturday morning saw Michael Harnick and Bobby Wintringham expound upon the fine points of instrument construction with the precision of any exacting craftsmen.

For the next event, Bela Fleck was to appear with Senegalese kora master Boubacar Diabete. Fleck, a demanding scholar of music, has over the last several years become increasingly interested in the African origins of American roots music, conducting projects with the likes of Diebete and Senegalese superstar of Afropop, Baaba Maal. Throw Down Your Heart, a documentary of his travels and collaborations in Africa, is being screened at the festival. More to follow.

But it was not to be. Diabete, like so many African musicians over the last several years, was kept out of the United States by mysterious visa and passport complications. Such complications have always plagued African musicians. But they have skyrocketed after 9/11. Officially-condoned bigotry toward Muslims convinced many musicians they were not wanted here. Even prominent and well-known African musicians such as Salif Keita and Kanda Bongo Man have been flatly denied permission to enter the United States or seen their efforts grow vastly more complicated and expensive. Others, such as Maal, began to travel with only a small entourage rather than the complete stage show they had offered.

Certainly one element of these troubles was tumultuous internal politics of many African nations, such as the protracted civil war in Zaire. (Which is why we hardly ever see any soukous in the United States anymore.) But a far larger factor has been the antipathy of the current regime in Washington toward black artists with a Muslim heritage. Never a fan of cultural diversity, the Bush administration has since 9/11 has in its actions and with its surrogates shown a suspicion and even hostility towards of cultural influences that are not Christian, white, and allied with its geopolitical purposes.

The main one of these purpose, of course, has been to whip up war fever towards Islamic societies. Cultural exchange and the understanding it brings might make it hard to demonize them, and make us less likely to accept lies about weapons of mass destruction.

Thus the events of the harsh world outside penetrate even this sylvan bubble of privilege for those who live here and good times for those of us who visit. But there may be a silver lining. On the walk from Elks Park stage to the festival grounds, political volunteers were signing up new voter registrations. And they were not doing so for the party currently in the White House.

Skaggs-Hornsby and Leftover Salmon top Friday at TBF

By Donald Frazier

It was a night of star turns in Telluride as Ricky Skaggs, Bruce Hornsby, the omnipresent Sam Bush, and the tight ensemble of soloists in Leftover Salmon took the stage in a flurry of high virtuosity on every instrument in the bluegrass arsenal, from fiddle and dobro to banjo and mandolin.

Ricky Skaggs took it one step further, unveiling a new piano-based sound. And this is no honky-tonk percussive upright or an electronic keyboard, but the full-throated grand piano of Bruce Hornsby. The effect: layers of warmth and texture that imparted a jazzy sweep and structure to even the most familiar tunes. Add The Kentucky Thunder's ability to produce a roomful of sound with a handful of instruments, and the effect was the bluegrass version of a symphony.

As one of the legends of Telluride where it was born several years ago in the serendipitous combination of two undermanned bands, Leftover Salmon brought two of everything, with battling solos in fiddle, mandolin, and banjo. Technical and self-referential? Perhaps - but only if you expect introspection and revelation from these songs. In their hands, even the most familiar songs in the canon such as 'Shuckin' the Corn' became an enthusiastic demonstration of the form and its varieties that infected the audience with the artists' joy in playing.

Sam Bush brings a whole lotta Led to Telluride

By Donald Frazier

Perhaps it’s too soon to name the high point of the festival season. But the peak of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival took place at precisely 9:37 p.m. Saturday night of the Summer Solstice, when Sam Bush swung from a jazz fusion violin homage to Jean-Luc Ponty into a Celtic fiddle improv that segued, with a vast collective gasp from the crowd of thousands, into Whole Lotta Love.

Prancing and weaving about the stage, he showed us what it would have been like if Jimi Hendrix had played the violin. Led Zeppelin started out, surprisingly enough, as a Celtic roots revival band. But it takes an energetic music scholar like Sam Bush to demonstrate the bloodlines connecting bluegrass with its forebears and everyone else who followed, even big-hair rockers. One onlooker even expected him to set fire to his fiddle.

The entire evening was like that. A lengthy version of Bob Marley’s Freedom laid down the right reggae beat, but his treatment of the classic was anything but a druggy ganja reverie. In his hands, it gained a propulsion and urgency that made it new. John Oates – yes, that John Oates – sat in for classics such as Maneater. Even the standards kicking off the set forged the new direction that Sam Bush was thinking of when he conceived The New Grass Revival some years ago.

Like so many of the acts here, the Yonder Mountain String Band traces its lineage to his seminal act from the seventies. No Expectations, the center of their set earlier on Saturday, was not simply a countrified version of the Rolling Stones classic. True to its roots as an homage to Robert Johnson, it attained a wide range of tone and feeling reaching deep into the Delta Blues. This is in keeping with Yonder Mountain’s mission: with one foot in the conventions of bluegrass and another in the free-wheeling, eclectic experimentation of the jam band movement, they seem to be putting levels of personal expression into a style that used to prize form over feeling.

The Frames closing set took the program far beyond anything a bluegrass purist would recognize. Leadman Glen Hansard, familiar to Americans as the star of the Academy Award winning film Closer, traces his musical roots to the street buskers of Dublin. Moody, contemplative, and at times even turgid in the mode of The Cowboy Junkies, this Irish act exposed a vein of astringent romanticism as far as possible from the lively moods of a bluegrass event. Music from the underground clubs of a rainy country, here in a high country box canyon.

Sam Bush’s Led Zeppelin moment was so electrifying that the next day, Canadian folk-rockers The Duhks, when called upon for an encore, tried out their own version of Whole Lotta Love with wheeling and soaring violins. It capped off a decidedly non-bluegrass morning: the Duhks, with Cajun, Gospel and even Latin grooves; and the patriarch of country soul, Grammy-winning Solomon Burke. Not a mandolin in sight.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Ryan Adams and Ani DiFranco anchor Thursday night at Telluride

By Donald Frazier

As a number of high-profile commercial festivals command attention this summer, the Big Daddy of bluegrass events continues to draw thousands to its Rocky Mountain home of 35 years, the once-funky and now-tony Telluride, Colorado. More than any other event, this one positions itself as keeper of the flame for the ongoing evolution of this musical form.

Headliners include Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby, Leftover Salmon, The Yonder Mountain String Band, Hot Rize, Arlo Guthrie (!), and the artistic founder of this event, the venerable Sam Bush. But opening first night, featuring Ani DiFranco and Ryan Adams and the Cardinals, demonstrated two threads pulling bluegrass in new and different directions.

Time was, an urban and edgy artist like DiFranco would not be at the TellurideBluegrass among all of the old-timey pickers. But times change, forms evolve, and now a new generation of bluegrass fan has emerged with less loyalty to the past but an appreciation for the authenticity of experience they find here. From the looks of it, they found what they want in her terse, moody set that broke through the angst with shouts and yells of pain and passion.

Meanwhile, Ryan Adams delivered a highly proficient, even slick performance that got the crowd to its feet but would have been equally at home in a conventional rock arena.

Closer to the bone, the next morning Bela Fleck presented a series of duets with a wildly diverse set of partners, from Bryon Sutton (guitar), Sam Bush (violin) (not mandolin), Jerry Douglas (dobro), Noam Pikelny (banjo), Abigail Washburn (banjo) and Edgar Meyer, a standing bassist of extraordinary attainment in classical music as well.

Best, he then turned in a solo set inspired by his study with masters of African music such as Toumani Diabete and Baaba Maal that has been made into a new documentary, Throw Down Your Heart. Fair to say that this, also, would not happen in the old days. Same later on, when Telluride veteran Peter Rowan and the Free Mexican Airforce gave a rousing clinic of what happens when you interpret bluegrass through the prism of reggae, Tex Mex, and rockabilly. This, from a disciple of Bill Monroe.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Mather negotiations are back on track

Following the outcry that resulted from news that Strawberry Music Festivals could lose its lease for Camp Mather, the City of San Francisco-owned camp in the High Sierras, the festival revealed Friday that negotiations are back on track. An open letter from Strawberry management said that the festival and city Recreation and Parks department are now in agreement on the terms of a new lease.

"While this process is not over and there are several very important steps that remain, Strawberry Management is optimistic that a final agreement will be reached given the progress made to date," the letter read.

The lease must pass muster by the San Francisco City Attorney and gain final approval in a Recreation and Parks Department Commission meeting on August 18. If all goes well, the Strawberry community can celebrate 10 days later when the Fall 2008 festival opens for what otherwise could have been the last Strawberry at Camp Mather. —Dan Ruby

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Pastures of plenty

By Jimmy Carlisle

It’s less than a month till the large field overlooking the Okemah golf course and the distant hot and cold water towers will be transformed into Pastures of Plenty, which will hold the main stage for the 11th annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival, also known as WoodyFest (July 9-13, Okemah OK).

That's the stage where Judy Collins (yes, the Judy Collins, in answer to one of the festivals message board writers) will be closing the festival with her performance on Saturday night. She will have come full circle with this performance, having performed at the benefit for Woody Guthrie back in 1968, where she sang "Union Maid" and "Deportee."

Collins once said that after hearing Woody she stopped playing classical music on the piano and took up the guitar. Thank goodness she did, because without her hearing Woody we would not have had her version of songs such as "Both Sides Now," "Send in the Clowns" and countless others she has blessed us with. And now 37 years later she is playing in Woody’s home town, and she may even check out the Crystal Theater, where Woody once played and watched an occasional movie.

The theater is the festival's second main stage and the site of the Wednesday night opening show with the one and only Country Joe McDonald doing his Woody Guthrie tribute show, a one-man two-act play using Woody’s words and music.

There is some sadness this year. The festival recently lost one of its true stars, the godfather of red dirt music, Mr. Bob Childers, who passed away in April. There will be a special benefit show in his honor at the famous Cains Ballroom in Tulsa Tuesday night before the official start of this year’s festival. It will be a night to honor Childers and the great music he has left us with. If you are in the area, it will a show you will not want to miss.

Check the festival web site to find out more info and a complete lineup of the artists.

Another special guest this year will be the original Left Lou, who was Woody’s partner on KFVD radio in Los Angeles. On Friday, at Lou’s Rocky Road tavern will be Lefty Lou’s story time. It was on Lou’s back porch that Woody penned Oklahoma Hills while waiting on Lou to get ready. It’s a treat to have someone who worked so close to Woody come and share her experiences.

Friday night will also feature a special performance called Remembering Phil Ochs, hosted by the folk singer's sister Sonny Ochs and featuring Jimmy Lafave, John Gorka, The Rangers and many more. Phil of course was a protest singer who left his mark in the music world with such songs as "Power and the Glory" and my favorite, "Love Me, I’m a Liberal." What better way for the festival to honor the man than in Woody’s home town in a pasture just outside of town, full of music fans in the middle of an Oklahoma night with the full moon overhead. Who knows who might come on stage to join in the tribute to a true icon of the 1960s (maybe the FBI will even show up). This is destined to be a show that will be talked about for years to come.

Okay, gas is at an all-time high, but this year is shaping up to be an especially memorable festival. Do yourself a favor and come join the festivities in the Pastures of Plenty.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Strawberry fest acknowleges site uncertainty

By Dan Ruby

Strawberry Music Festivals today acknowledged the truth of rumors that the festival is in danger of losing its lease for the idyllic site where the event has been held twice a year since 1984.

In a detailed email posted to several lists, Strawberry management laid out the issues involved in the lease negotiations with the City of San Francisco Parks and Recreation Department, which is responsible for the property. The tone of the message was not particularly hopeful, but the message said the festival would make every effort to reach a settlement before August 18, which appears to be a deadline set by the festival so that it has sufficient lead time to make plans for a move if necessary.

The email also confirmed that the festival has been exploring the purchase of a property in nearby Mariposa County that is said to possess many of the characteristics of the Camp Mather location. The email said the festival would consider a more distant move if a "spectacular" venue presented itself, but seemed to imply that the preference is to stay in the same general vicinity.

It also plainly stated that the festival has every intention of continuing whatever the outcome of this issue, refuting rumors that management would shut down the festival rather than undergo a move.

Once before, Strawberry and SF Parks Rec went to the mat before reaching a new four-year deal. A letter writing campaign by Strawberry-goers was thought to have been helpful in that case, and now the festival has asked fans to contact city officials with their comments. Full information and addresses to write to are posted on the festival home page.

As I posted here earlier this week, a move like this will be a wrenching experience for the Strawberry faithful but other festivals have executed site changes with relatively little pain. An example is the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival, which will debut its new site next month in upstate New York.

Strawberry management is to be applauded for its open communications with fans on this matter. If a move becomes necessary, this kind of advance warning to its fans will reduce the inevitable outcry when it is finally announced. One way or another, it seems there will be a resolution on or before the August deadline.

Strawberry Park finishes on a high note

By Ted Lehmann

Strawberry Park Bluegrass Festival finished on Sunday with four very strong performances surrounding the delightful on-stage debut of this year’s Kids Academy. After a short rain delay and some mugginess on Saturday night, the day dawned misty and a little muggy but quickly cleared into a warm, dry, sunny day – perfect for bluegrass.

The morning’s music opened with Dry Branch Fire Squad’s traditional gospel set. Now, considering that it’s Dry Branch Fire Squad and Strawberry Park is in New England, you might expect something quite different than you would find a bit further south. And different it was, although filled with respect at the same time.

Nature and the power of God’s creation remained before the audience with Laurie Lewis’ very fine set. Lewis’ lovely voice blended with Tom Rozum or Scott Huffman in close harmony explores lost love, the beauty of the outdoors, lost friends, and more.

The Grascals have been busy on the festival circuit and in the recording studio for about three years now. They have made a couple of personnel changes, first adding Aaron McDaris at banjo and recently replacing Jimmy Mattingly on fiddle with Jeremy Abshire. McDaris took over with barely a ripple. Abshire is a fine fiddler with lots of life and enthusiasm to him. The Grascals present a lively and fast moving show that’s entertaining and musical at once.

How many festivals save one of the all-time great bluegrass bands for closing on Sunday afternoon? Not many, but Strawberry Park does. What’s left to say about the Lonesome River Band. Sammy Shelor, four time IBMA banjo player of the year, has established his own style as a standard for others to emulate.

These are excerpts from Ted's full report, available here with original photography.

Jenny Brook Bluegrass preview

By Ted Lehmann
The Jenny Brook Bluegrass Festival will kick off its eighth four-day season on June 26, 2008 at the Weston Recreation Area a mile or two north of the picturesque village of Weston, VT off Greendale Road. This delightful, small festival will feature the strongest lineup in its history. National bands are led by The Dan Tyminski Band and include The Gibson Brothers, Dan Paisley & Southern Grass, and David Parmley & Continental Divide. Supplementing these bands will be local and regional bands, many familiar favorites at this annual get together. Although the park offers no hookups, camping spaces will be a premium. The gates open first thing Thursday morning, and wise campers will arrive early.

While the Weston Recreation Area has no water or electricity, it is not without its charm. There’s a pond on the premises for children to swim in, a playground area, and a tennis court used for basketball during this festival. The views of the surrounding hills are lovely and the air bracing and refreshing. This year Jenny Brook is being held a week later than it has historically been held. The site, the crowd, and the Sawyer family make this a family friendly event. Hosts Candi and Seth Sawyer’s two young sons, Mathew and Adam, are listed as co-hosts, are very much in evidence, and are truly part of the charm of this event. Candi’s valiant battle against multiple sclerosis and Mathew’s medical history are an integral part of this festival, making it a celebration of their struggles as well as a testimony to their love of the music. Seth Sawyer is a gifted songwriter as well as singer, whose contributions to the festival are quiet and very important.

Jenny Brook bills itself as a traditional festival and tends towards booking traditional bands. This year two of the headliners are among the hottest traditional bands on the circuit and offer an interesting contrast. The Dan Tyminski Band has come together for a year while Allison Krause is on tour with Robert Plant and Union Station is on hiatus. Tyminski and Barry Bales, also from AKUS, have joined with Ron Stuart on banjo, Adam Steffey (on leave or having left Mountain Heart) on mandolin, and Justin Moses on fiddle. This band has garnered lots of attention and rave reviews from those who’ve seen them. They’re a straight ahead bluegrass band playing familiar songs and ones that sound familiar, even if they aren’t. Tyminski, a native of Rutland, VT, has a familiar and well-liked voice. He has lead a musically first rate band into the most desirable venues right out of the box. Getting him at a small festival like Jenny Brook is a real coup. Each of the individual players in the Dan Band, as it has come to be known, is at the top of the profession in acclaim as well as in terms of national recognition.

This is an excerpt from Ted Lehmann's full Jenny Brook preview, available here with complete lineup analysis including original photography. Thanks Ted.

Video: Laura Love and "Black to Bluegrass"

Funky folkie Laura Love talks with Festival Preview about the "Black to Bluegrass" evening she hosted at Wintergrass 2008 featuring Ruthie Foster, The Ebony Hillbillies and her new band Laura Love & Harper's Ferry. The performances paid homage to the African American roots of bluegrass music. Love makes the argument that American traditional music resulted from a union of folk traditions from the British Isles and Africa.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Wintergrass gets an early jump

There is so much competition for festival attendees that some festivals have taken to making earlier and earlier lineup announcements, possibly intending to discourage regular festival attendees from sampling competitive fests.

At least that's my best guess for why Wintergrass put out its preliminary February 2009 lineup yesterday, at least three months earlier than usual. In past years, I have run into the Wintergrass producing team at the IBMA conference in September or October, where they would be dropping hints but not publishing a full list.

It's just the beginning of June, but, hey, who's complaining. The festival is off to a great start with the following names attached: Tim O'Brien, Laurie Lewis and the Right Hands, Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper, The Steeldrivers, Alison Brown & Joe Craven,
Tony Trischka Territory, Adrienne Young, Blue Highway, Missy Raines, 3 Ring Circle, The McCoury Boys, Bearfoot Bluegrass, Hot Buttered Rum, Scythian and Monroe Crossing.

One item of interest is the appearance of The McCoury Boys, which is presumably the name of the Del McCoury Band when Del stays home. Or when the band plays a late-night show after a main stage appearance, as with the upcoming Telluride Bluegrass Festival, in which the full band plays on Thursday afternoon and The McCoury Boys & Friends play the Sheriden Opera House that night.

In our interview with Del several months back he talked of his future retirement. I doubt this is it, but the Telluride and Wintergrass bookings suggest that sons Ronnie and Robbie are getting ready to step into the vacuum that Del will leave behind him when he does decide to hang it up.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Buzz grows over possible Strawberry move

The Strawberry Music Festival email list is buzzing today with talk about a possible move to a new location that could become necessary for the 2009 season. The festival's long-time home, Camp Mather outside the gates of Yosemite National Park, is an ideal setting that thousands of fans have come to think of as their home away from home. It is owned by the City of San Francisco, and the festival's contract for occupying the camp for two holiday weekends each summer is up for renewal, according to several posters on the list.

Once before, the festival went toe-to-toe with the city in contract negotiations, but ended up with a settlement. The posters are suggesting that the city might insist on more favorable terms this time around. The hints we have been hearing could be leaks from the festival, either to prepare fans for the possibility of a difficult move or to show a willingness to move as a hard-nose negotiating tactic.

[Update: Subsequent postings suggest the issues are more complex than this analysis. We'll follow developments.]

If the change happens, knowledgeable fans believe it could be announced before or during the Fall festival August 28-31. (Tickets for that festival sold out last week.) While a site change would surely be a daunting challenge for the festival and its fans, it could also yield long-term benefits.

This year, an analogous east coast festival, the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival, is undergoing a site change after 31 years in the same location. The first Grey Fox festival at the new site on a farm in Oak Hill NY is coming up July 17-20.

The results of the move will be seen then, but from all I have seen both the festival and the fan base are making a relatively smooth transition. Sure, some problems can be expected to arise and attendance may be off a tad due to the uncertainty, but it would appear that the Grey Fox team is on its way to having successfully managed a wrenching transition.

Should the Strawberry rumors come true, we can hope that Strawberry management does an equally good job of preparing the festival regulars for what is sure to be a difficult experience. — Dan Ruby

Kate Wolf lineup is fresh yet familiar

How do they do it at the Kate Wolf festival? Every year I am amazed at how good a lineup the Wolf family and Cumulus Presents manages to put together for this northern California folk festival. They got me again this year with the following artists, all favorites of mine:

Keb' Mo', Taj Mahal, The Waifs, The Greencards, Greg Brown, John Gorka and Lucy Kaplansky, Todd Snider, Ani DiFranco, Los Lobos, David Lindley—and the list goes on. A lot of those names seemed pretty familiar from previous festivals, including the two I've atttended before, so I sat down to do a bit of analysis (thanks to the festival for providing complete historical lineups).

The first thing to note is there are a handful of musicians who are part of the festival almost every year, including Greg Brown, Rosalie Sorrels and the great sidewoman Nina Gerber. Utah Phillips was another of these until he passed away last month. Each of these had close associations with the late Kate Wolf, who passed away in 1986.

But what may be more interesting is the number of artists who are semi-regulars, which I will define as having appeared at three or more Kate Wolf festivals since its inception. Among this year's crop, we have John Gorka (3), Lucy Kaplansky (4), Jimmy LeFave (5), The Waifs (3), Cris Williamson (3), and Ruthie Foster (3).

I think this is a smart way to program a festival, by creating a core set of artists who can be expected to return every third of fourth year. Fans get a chance to follow these artists as they progress in their music, without burning out on too much repetition. Some other semi-regulars who are not on this year's bill are: Dave Alvin, Eliza Gilkyson, Iris Dement, Laurie Lewis and Peter Rowan.

On the other hand, each lineup also brings in some artists who are first-timers, usually including several of the headline names. This year the Kate Wolf performing virgins include Keb' Mo', Todd Snider, Los Lobos, Ani DiFranco and The Greencards. Not at all bad as fresh blood goes.

Lots of other festivals have some version of this programming formula. Among the bigger roots festivals, both MerleFest and Telluride Bluegrass seek to program a mix of regulars and newbies. But I know of no other mid-sized roots festival that plays the lineup game as well as the Kate Wolf festival.

Kate Wolf fest will be a Utah Phillips memorial

Of all the artists who are frequent performers at the Kate Wolf Music Festival, coming up June 27-29 at the Black Oak Ranch in Laytonville CA, few were as part of the festival scenery as the great Utah Phillips, who passed away two weeks at 73 after a long bout with heart disease. (I'll have more to say about the Kate Wolf lineup in another post.)

Musicians and folk music fans around the country have joined an outpouring of tributes to the folksinger, who always seemed like he came to us from an earlier time but whose songs of tramping on steam trains and organizing workers with the Wobblies continued to have relevance to our times. But few of the tributes are apt to be as heartfelt as at Kate Wolf, where Utah appeared on the main stage, in workshops and as an emcee for nine of the festival's 12 years, missing only 1999 and 2004-5, when his ailment put him out of commission.

Fortunately, Utah rebounded and was able to appear at Kate Wolf and other festivals in 2006 and 2007, giving his many fans a last chance to see him in good form on the circuit. At Strawberry Spring 2007, I got a chance to chat with him a bit, as well as enjoy his familiar repertoire one last time.

The festival is a memorial for Kate Wolf, another great deceased folksinger, with whom Phillips performed together on numerous occasions. Another of Utah's frequent partners, Rosalie Sorrells, is also a Kate Wolf regular, and can be expected to lead the remembrances along with Ani DiFranco, another past recording partner of Utah's who is one of the headliners at the upcoming festival. — Dan Ruby