From the Kate Wolf Festival: the music

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We enjoyed the scene at the Kate Wolf Music Festival, but ultimately we came for the music. We were not disappointed.

The well-known acts (“well-known” meaning that I had heard of them) were as good as you would expect: Joan Baez, Los Lobos, the Indigo Girls (who I liked more than I thought I would), the New Orleans Cajun band Beusoliel, Rodney Crowell, and Tom Paxton. So were acts that I know but you may not, like the Duhks (pronounced “Ducks”); the Playing for Change Band, made up of street musicians from all over the world; and the bluegrass duo Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott.

But a lot of the fun was finding favorites among performers who were new to us. Among them: David Luning, a Sonoma County singer who reminded me a little of John Prine and Arlo Guthrie; Amy Helm, the daughter of Levon Helm of The Band; Joe Pug, who some have compared to Dylan; the Blues Broads; Three Women and the Truth (Mary Gauthier, Eliza Gilkerson, and Lynn Miles); and Paper Bird.

There were also performers who we only caught a bit of but who seemed intriguing: Spark and Whisper, a duo named Anita Sandwina and Velvy Appleton (Robin thinks she is Spark and he is Whisper, but I’m not sure); Patchy Sanders, a group from Ashland, Ore.; Poor Man’s Whiskey, which does a lot of tribute sets; Anne and Pete Sibley; and the Highway Poets.

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Perhaps our favorite “discovery” was a Sonoma County trio called the Bootleg Honeys (pictured). They only made it to the main stage as back-up singers for David Luning, but on other stages they performed one set of Kate Wolf songs and one of their own. They have terrific voices that blend beautifully. The only CD they had was a homemade job with three songs and a handwritten label. They claim to have a Web site, but I couldn’t find it. They are on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.

None of this is to slight other performers at the festival. With more than 30 acts on four stages, and many of the performances overlapping, it was impossible see everyone. In addition, the performances started around 10 in the morning (except the first day) and lasted until 2 a.m. We couldn’t stay up that late, though we could hear some of the later sets out in the campground.

On the main stage, each day seemed to have a theme. The first day was heavy on blues and roots rock (with the Blues Broads, Jackie Greene, and to some extent the Duhks). The second day leaned toward rock-and-roll (Darlene Love, Garth Hudson, Los Lobos). On the final day the festival returned to its folk roots (Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott, the Indigo Girls, Tom Paxton, Joan Baez).

One of the most amazing performances was by Darlene Love, who rocked the house — or, I should say, the meadow — with songs from the 50’s and early 60’s. Back then she was mainly a backup singer to performers like Elvis Presley and Sam Cooke, but she recently achieved a measure of fame in the Oscar-winning documentary Twenty Feet From Stardom. Her bandleader said she couldn’t do an encore because she was 73 and had already given her all. No one felt cheated.

The Playing for Change Band was also terrific. Playing for Change is not just a band but a project designed “to bring the world together through music” and build music schools in the developing world. Their YouTube videos are worth checking out.

Tom Paxton and Wavy Gravy drew a crowd for an hour of reminiscences about life in Greenwich Village in the 50’s and early 60’s, and Paxton sang a not-yet-released song he has written about Dave Van Ronk. (Mr. Gravy, who first gained fame as an MC at Woodstock, is sort of the gray eminence of the festival, albeit one who goes around wearing a red nose. He is a member of the Hog Farm collective, which owns Black Oak Ranch, where the festival is held.)

The most surreal performance was by Garth Hudson and his wife, Sister Maud. He is a virtuoso multi-instrumentalist who was a member of The Band. He plays and Sister Maud handles the singing. With a full beard, a black hat, and a black Los Lobos jacket, he was barely visible as he hunched over the piano or organ. Sister Maud, who appears to be blind, was also hard to see, dressed all in black with dark glasses. It was an odd tableau, but his playing and her singing were memorable. He also did a number with Los Lobos.

Joan Baez gave the final performance of the festival. She sounded as good as ever and even did a creditable imitation of Bob Dylan on one of his songs. She closed out by doing three songs with “the Indigos,” as she called them, ending with “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” It was quite an experience to hear those three voices melding.

It’s traditional to close the festival with what is probably Kate Wolf’s best-known song, “Give Yourself to Love.” I assumed that they would bring out as many of the performers as possible to sing it. Instead, Joan Baez and the Indigo Girls left the stage and a crew reset it for a group of singers who were hard to identify from back where we were. Many people were packing up and leaving by the time the song started. Maybe it’s logistically impossible to get so many disparate performers together for the final song, but it seemed like an anticlimactic end to a terrific event.

But that’s a quibble. We enjoyed the festival a lot. Who knows, we might even go to another one.

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