Tuesday, June 03, 2008

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.

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