Show Review: Woody Guthrie Festival 2020 (Virtually) Celebration Continues (Pt. 2)

Show Reviews

WoodyFest Day 2

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The Virtual Woody Guthrie Festival continued Saturday July 18. Beginning at noon, the festival resumed with action packed line-up of panels and workshops streaming live and completely free via a plethora of streaming options. First up, there was a songwriting workshop hosted by Ellis Paul, and the invaluable education series went on to include: Appalachia: This Land is Home to Me hosted by Tom Breiding, Folk Collusion hosted by Tim Easton, Woody’s Country hosted by Rik Palieri, Collecting Woody Guthrie hosted by Barry Ollman, This Land is Your Land: A Celebration of 80 Years hosted by Deana McCloud, and lastly, fascinating panels discussing Native Music of Oklahoma presented by Oklahoma Film + Music Office, moderated by Sterlin Harjo & Dr. Hugh Foley |and included Zoom Panelists: Samantha Crain, Jula Harjo, Kylee Robison, Johnny Akeketa, Nokosee Fields, K-OSS, and Kalyn Fay and a second panel, Something to Say: Making Music That Matters presented by Oklahoma Humanities Moderated by Barry Ollman |and featuring panelists, Louie Pérez, Mary Gauthier, & Dr. Sunu Kodumthara. Strategically place between the last two informative panels, the winners of the 2020 Woody Guthrie Songwriting Contest were announced with Randy Lewis Brown taking top honors with his song, “Desoto Parish Nights.” In second place was Sharon Goldman with “Woody & Marjorie” and in third, Daniel Neihoff and his song, “Appalachian Cry.” Congratulations to these songwriters as well as all that entered. I have no doubt we’ll hear more from all of them.

The panels continued on until 7pm when the music schedule took over, with this evening’s host, Jaimee Harris, who nearly immediately hit you right in the feels with her powerful Texas “folk-n-roll” take on the late Jimmy Lafave/Woody Guthrie composition, “Peace Town,” followed by her own “Catch it Now.” What a beautiful start to what was an action packed evening. Next up, Jared Tyler delivered his “A Little Tonight”from his 2017 release, “Dirt on Your Hands” followed by Paul Burch and his take on Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd”. At the 2019 fest, Betty Soo joined Michael Fracasso for his Crystal Theatre set, but this year, she delivered a simply stunning, stop you in your tracks version of “Deportee.” Betty Soo is currently performing with Rebecca Loebe and Grace Pettis as the trio, Nobody’s Girl, and their album self-titled release should definitely be on your radar. Detroit songwriter Chris Buhalis with “Don’t Kill My Baby and My Son” a song Guthrie wrote about Laura and L.D. Nelson, a black mother and son lynched from a bridge over the Canadian River near Okemah in 1911. Buhalis’ rendition was one that truly resonated.

Next, the legendary Graham Nash who played the festival in Okemah back in 2016 returned, virtually to the festival, contributing “Be Yourself,” the classic sing-a-long “Teach Your Children” and what I believe was a new song, “Stars & Stripes.”  It’s got to be tough to follow a real legend like Nash, but that’s exactly what Crys Matthews did, and did admirably, with a trio of socially charged songs, “Change Makers,” “We Must Be Free” and “Battle Hymn For an Army of Lovers.” Next up, was Massachusetts songwriter and autism activist, Seth Glier, first with, “Coronation,” then “Justice For All” and finally with a bunch of friends joining in via Zoom for “This Land is Your Land.” The multi-talented, Gregory Page followed with Woody’s “Danville Girl” which was just a great version. Oklahoma’s own, Samantha Crain was next with perfect timing, having just released her brilliant new album, “A Small Death.” Crain’s recorded performances here, “Time On Your Side” and “High Horse” were definitely a highlight for me. Tom Breiding followed with a pair of songs addressing the blue-collar union workers, “Now It’s Here” and “This Land Is Home To Me.” Next, and moving down south we had Houstonian Matt Harlan and his timely “Low Pressure” which really impressed me.

Bonnie Whitmore was next, and dropped some wisdom, reciting Woody’s quote, “It’s a folksinger’s job to comfort disturbed people and to disturb comfortable people,” before unleashing her 8-string bass for a brand new song, “Time To Shoot” from her forthcoming album, Last Will & Testament due September 1st. Live from his barn, we had Jacob Tovar delivering memorable takes on “I Felt Love” and “Three Good Reasons (For Leaving Tulsa)” providing a necessary honky-tonk atmosphere. The captivating Branjae returned to WoodyFest, this time with Josh Westbrook on guitar for a great pair of tunes, “Who Knows” and “Everybody Knows.”  Branjae and the band she co-fronts, Count Tutu were a highlight of last year’s festival, so it was great to see her back. If any musician has gotten the whole livestream thing down, it’s BJ Barham. The man’s a workhorse by nature, and has been sharing songs online ever since this damn pandemic coincided with the release of his amazing new American Aquarium album Lamentations. Barham is one of my favorite songwriters presently, and he certainly didn’t disappoint by delivering two of his recent bests. “Me + Mine” (Lamentations) is from the new album, and I personally think it might be the best song he’s written. Of course, his performance of “The World Is On Fire” from 2018’s Things Change was perfectly chosen as well.

Next was Emma’s Revolution featuring Pat Humphries and Sandy O., joined by Grammy Award winning fiddler and Klezmatics member, Lisa Gutkin performing, “Gonna Get Through This World” along with a Zoom screen collective of other musicians. Another Texas songwriter that’s won over the hearts of WoodyFest, is Jamie Lin Wilson, who provided a beautiful version of “Oklahoma Stars” written with Okemah’s own, Evan Felker. Hot on the heels of his album release, “Bloomin’”, the fabulous Josh Okeefe delivered two of the album’s best, “We’re All The Same” and “Son Of The Working Class.” Okeefe was one of the artists I was most looking forward to seeing and talking to at this years fest, but his performances here certainly hit the mark. Fresh from his “Folk Collusion” panel earlier in the day, Tim Easton returned to play two of his best, “Old New Straitsville Blues” and “Don’t Spectate, Participate.” Next, Brennen Leigh brought her smart country flavored storytelling with a great protest song, “Pipeline.” Following Leigh, we had songwriter and activist, Seth Bernard with a cut from his brand new album, “Let Love Light The Way” and “This is the American Earth,” before Raye Zaragoza presented “Fight Like A Girl” and a new song from her upcoming release Warrior.

WoodyFest just wouldn’t seem complete without John Fullbright, and though he’d been featured on the Tuesday night broadcast with a song recorded from 2019’s fest, tonight he was back with a new song, tentatively titled, “Sailors At Sea,” and the wonderful “Fat Man.” It’s got to be hard to follow Fullbright, but if anyone could do it, Glen Hansard certainly could. Now, I’m not sure if Hansard was going to be a performer had the 2020 WoodyFest actually gone forward in Okemah this year. But having been fortunate to see him perform live in 2019, I can only imagine how great of a performance the man would have delivered from the Pastures of Plenty stage. As it was, Hansard gave one of my favorite performances of the evening, with recorded songs from his home in Dublin. “Leave A Light,” a cover of Woody’s “Ramblin’,” and what seemed to be a brand new song capturing the turmoil in our streets. Hansard is one of my favorite music discoveries of the past ten years or so, and I highly recommend diving deep into his catalog of solo songs as well as with the Frames and The Swell Season. His new album, last years, The Wild Willing is nothing short of genius.

Taking us into the evenings home stretch, Mary Gauthier was joined by host, Jaimee Harris for stunning versions of “Make America Great Again” and the perfect story song, “Last of the Hobo Kings.”  Jason Mraz and his ukulele were up next for “Look For the Good,” before moving to the piano for “Make Love,” and lastly, joined by Joel Rafael for an intimate version of his song “Under Our Skin” from Rafael’s 2019 “Rose Avenue.” Finally, Jaimee Harris returned to her hosting duties to close up shop for the evening with a tale of the great Jimmy Lafave and a clip of Lafave and friends closing out the 2014 WoodyFest with “This Land Is Your Land.” Always a perfect choice.

WoodyFest continued its Virtual 2020 Festival for its final day on Sunday July 19th hosted by Terry “Buffalo” Ware, and featuring Carter Sampson, Butch Hancock, The Red Dirt Rangers and more. I’ll detail this final day and recap WoodyFest 2020 in a final piece later this week. Stay tuned!

A replay of this first night can be found here:


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