As I loaded up and headed east towards Okemah, and day two of the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival, I couldn’t help but speculate. Could it top the previous day? I mean after all, Thursday’s performances had been exemplary, and I mean each and every single one. How rare is that? I mean, usually in a festival setting you’re bound to get a clunker; a less than enjoyable set for whatever reason. That simply hadn’t happened, and I almost felt like I was struggling with this fact. I decided to chalk it up to a euphoric reaction. The simple presence of music, as well as the welcoming and engaging atmosphere had most certainly played tricks on me somehow. Surely today would expose a shortcoming or a weakness. I readied myself somewhat unconvincingly.
After all, Friday’s lineup was packed with artists that I really, really like, several of whom I’ve seen before, or even reviewed albums or live shows for here on Americana Highways: REVIEW: Tim Easton’s “Exposition” is Vibrant Personal Testimony with Indefinable texture. Additionally, there were several artists that I had been really wanting to see, but for one reason or another hadn’t managed to up to this point. Certainly there would would be a disappointment or two today. As I pulled into downtown Okemah just before 1pm, I immediately noticed an increase in pedestrian traffic. Already, things were well under way, and I immediately regretted not arriving sooner.
Having meticulously studied the festival schedule, I had ensured my arrival would be more than adequate to ensure I didn’t miss Tim Easton’s 2pm set at the Crystal. This proved to be one of the best decisions I made the whole weekend, as it lead to one of my favorite musical discoveries in quite some time. As I made my way into the Crystal, Radoslav Lorković was just starting his set. Over the course of the next 45 minutes or so, Rad (as I came to learn he is affectionately called), along with his accordion and piano performed his unique blend of classical, jazz, country, blues and folk, all accentuated by his Croatian heritage. Throughout the remainder of the festival, Lorković would be in high demand, and would guest on set after set.
Still somewhat mesmerized by Lorković’s set, I settled in for Tim Easton’s. I had recently been given a download of Tim’s new album “Exposition” to review for Americana Highways here: REVIEW: Tim Easton’s “Exposition” is Vibrant Personal Testimony with Indefinable texture and was really excited to see those songs performed live. No disappointment here either. The songs live were even more vibrant and warmly presented than the recorded versions. The context that a song on the album had actually been recorded next door in the Okfuskee County Historical Center really brought things full circle. Already, my day was two for two. Next, as Annie Guthrie began preparing for her set, none other than proud papa Arlo Guthrie walked in from backstage and took a seat next to me at the front of the theatre for his daughter’s performance. It was perhaps the most surreal moment I’ve experienced over the course of several decades worth of concerts. I simply uttered a “Hi Arlo” as he settled in and gave me a friendly return hello and nod. Annie’s set was lighthearted and fun and already day two was looking as memorable as the first.
Next came my first true dilemma of the festival. Two artists I was really excited about seeing would be taking the stage at the same time in different venues. First, I headed over to the closer Bound For Glory tent to catch Nellie Clay. Nellie is an Oklahoma native, that has compiled an impressive catalog of songs as a “ramblin’ gal”. She and her guitar case have traveled some miles, and her songs made her one of my must-see sets. Nellie, who now lives in Okemah, seemed to be everywhere at once. If she actually wasn’t, she should have been an official fest ambassador. I saw and spoke with her at various venues and backstage areas as she showed support for countless artists. Nellie’s good people. Unfortunately, I was only able to take in about half her set, as I also really wanted to see fellow Oklahoman Ken Pomeroy a few blocks west at the Hen House. Despite her young age, Ken is quite an accomplished songwriter and performer and I was happy to finally catch one of her sets. Pomeroy won the first annual Jimmy LaFave Songwriting Contest, and for good reason, her songs are good. Here at the Hen House, she was joined by her band that featured Kyle Reid on guitar, her dad Skip on percussion and Johnny Carlton on bass. As much as I hated leaving Nellie’s set early, I was really glad to catch some of Ken’s songs as well. Pomroy’s set became one of my favorites of the whole fest.
Next, it was back over to the Bound For Glory Tent to catch yet another new favorite, Jared Tyler and band. I had already seen Tyler playing with Monica Taylor on day one, but I absolutely wasn’t prepared that he would also become one of my top three new discoveries of the festival. All three, discovered on the same day no less (Lorković , Pomroy and now Tyler). Joined by Seth lee Jones on guitar Tyler’s set was inspiring and the perfect warm up for one of my local favorites, Carter Sampson. Joined by her band, Luke Mullenix on bass, Kyle Reid on pedal steel, Jack Waters on Drums and Mike Satawake on guitar they tore through her latest album, “Lucky” with a “Queen of Oklahoma” encore. Easily another highlight.
Following Sampson’s set I headed over to a local restaurant for a quick bite before heading over to the Pastures of Plenty main stage for the headline performances. As I ate, I watched artists and coalition volunteers sharing meals and conversation as I processed the day so far. Seven performances on the day so far, and every one outstanding. Hard to believe, but 100% true. I made my way over to the main stage and caught the tale end of the “Songs of Audrey Auld” tribute featuring Nina Gerber, Pam Delgado and Jeri Jones. Auld, an Australian singer songwriter and festival mainstay passed away in 2015. These three ladies played a moving, yet fun set of her songs that culminated in the spreading of a few of Auld’s ashes on the Pastures of Plenty grounds. A really special moment for sure.
Next was one of my most anticipated sets of the weekend with John Paul White’s festival debut. Speaking with John before he took the stage, he joked with me wondering if any in the crowd even knew “who the hell he was”. If they didn’t they certainly did by the time he wrapped up a hypnotic and beautiful solo set. As I moved about photographing throughout his performance, over and over fans and other artists couldn’t stop commenting how wonderful White’s performance was. If White was truly concerned, he surely overcame those concerns with a wealth of new fans. His special rendition of Guthrie’s “Pastures of Plenty” proved to be yet another magical festival moment for me. Closing out Friday night’s performance’s were the one-two punch of Joel Rafael followed by Ellis Paul. Both men are Woody Fest Coalition Advisory Board members, staples of the festival, and add an immeasurable degree of sincerity with their songs. It was my first time seeing each songwriter live, but I certainly hope it won’t be the last. In particular, Raphael’s “Glory Bound” was truly wonderful, while Paul’s moving “God’s Promise” (joined by Terry Ware and Radoslav Lorković) certainly captured my attention.
So here at the close of day two, I pull onto westbound I-40 still somewhat in disbelief of all I’ve taken in so far. Tomorrow’s another day, and I can hardly wait. Day three’s schedule is another super one on paper and at this point I have no doubts that it won’t live up to its promise.
More information on Woody Fest can be viewed here: https://www.woodyfest.com/