The 2011 Kate Wolf Memorial Music Festival, Laytonville, California 6/24-26
It’s not a new concept: We honor the dead by indulging the living. We keep the dead alive by being alive, ourselves. We remember the dead in song and to that song we dance, wide-eyed and illuminated. But, when it comes to the memory of the late folksinger Kate Wolf, it’s a little more complicated than all that. Honoring a musician — even one you may not have heard of before — is a little bit different than honoring other dearly departed. In some ways, it can be easier, because they left us their songs, their catalogs, their life’s work. And so we play the albums, we view the videos and — like watching “Thriller” on YouTube — their voice still echoes in the air and in the ear. But, regardless of how it may have started during its humble beginnings 16 years ago, the Kate Wolf Memorial Festival doesn’t do it like that. At least, not exactly.
Held over three days at the Black Oak Ranch in Laytonville, Calif. — the home of Wavy Gravy’s infamous Hog Farm hippie commune and his Camp Winnarainbow for children — the Kate Wolf Memorial Festival is far, far away from being a 72-hour memorial service. With a marquee lineup that, this year, included Los Lobos, Mavis Staples, Taj Mahal, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Bruce Cockburn, Todd Snider with Great American Taxi, Jorma Kaukonen, Houston Jones (feat. former Waybacks guitarist Glenn Houston) and others, the festival is a bona-fide three-day mom-and-pop music fest — except, perhaps, this one might just have a little more heart. It’s everywhere you look.
The moment I arrived, this was clear: “This property is part of an actual commune, so there’s some magic right there,” a volunteer told me at check in. “It’s definitely a hippie festival.” And that, it is. Wavy Gravy sat on a couch backstage reminiscing about the land, while friends of the festival staff sat around a campfire teaching each other Beatles tunes on the ukulele. A giant peace sign illuminated the backstage kitchen. The food court featured vegan crepes and mate-lemonades. And rather than fight for space in the field, most people brought low-back chairs which they set up early in the morning, on top of identifying blankets, and then left openly with an open invitation for strangers to keep their seats warm until they got back. If you didn’t have your own chair, you almost always still had a chair. As you know, it usually doesn’t quite work like that. But it sure does work.
Musically, the festival is as laid-back as it is in all other regards. Few of the main stage bands seemed to mention Wolf by name and even fewer may have actually been influenced by her music, but all of the bands sure did feel right at home on the stage. And, for many of them, it is a home — performers have a way of being asked back here…and accepting the invitation. A day after the gates closed, when he was already on the other side of the continent in Toronto, Steve Berlin from Los Lobos told me that returning to the festival is always something the band looks forward to seeing on their schedule. “And, of course, Wavy Gravy being there — he’s a huge fan of ours,” says Berlin, proudly. “Every time [Kate Wolf] shows up on our itinerary. it’s always a cause for rejoicing.”
Interestingly, Berlin also admitted that he’s not really familiar with Kate Wolf’s music itself. “I don’t think I’m that familiar with it, I’m embarrassed to say,” he confessed. “I know a little bit of the history [of the event], but probably not as much as I should. And I’m sure that goes for the rest of the guys as well.” Doesn’t matter — Los Lobos’ set was a fitting tribute to Kate Wolf, anyway. Why? Because it made people get up out of their seats (no easy feat at this place, believe me), dance, laugh with one another, and as Billy Joel might say, “forget about the life for awhile.”
When Los Lobos performed a couple Grateful Dead tunes (“West L.A. Fadeaway,” “Bertha,”) the entire audience seemed to know them by heart; it certainly sounded like everyone there sang along.
Granted, that might not have happened if they were Kate Wolf songs — but, that said, the other big singalong of the weekend came during what was, undeniably, one of the unexpected highlights of the entire event — a set of Kate Wolf covers performed by Poor Man’s Whiskey.
“We never met her, but we had a band that used to play called the Cash Valley Drifters,” frontman Eli Jebidiah told the hushed crowd. “We didn’t know what bluegrass was, so we’d go to this little tavern to drink and all they played were Kate Wolf songs.” After that, he said, he became even more familiar — intimate, even — with her songs when a cassette got stuck in his player during a stint in the Peace Corps. “And here we are, ironically, at the Kate Wolf Festival.” Applause, applause.
The music that followed was some of the most moving of the weekend, especially when the band invited their close friends, the Mother Hips’ Tim Bluhm and his wife Nicki (of Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers) onstage to help out with four songs, including “Here in California” and “Give Yourself to Love.” The latter featured Nicki nailing Kate’s vocals in a way that sent chills up every chair-sitting spine on the lawn.
The Bluhms also sat-in with Poor Man’s Whiskey on the main stage a day earlier for a special second-time-ever engagement of an all-star collective called Poor Buttered Rumsky. Consisting of the members of Poor Man’s Whiskey and Hot Buttered Rum, the stage turned over a number of times while both bands played musical chairs, performing songs from both of their catalogs such as Whiskey’s “Humboldt Hoedown,” (which elicited many cheers due to the close geographical proximity) and Rum’s “Blackberry Pie.” On a humorous note, the band noted that they were drinking PBR’s onstage in honor of Poor Buttered Rumsky’s initials — PBR.
Mavis Staples had a field full of atheists and agnostics all sing the gospel while Jorma Kaukonen sat down to perform David Bromberg’s “Helpless Blues” with the help of Bromberg himself. The pair also, it should be noted, performed the Grateful Dead’s “I Know You Rider” — which was, of course, another big hit with the crowd.
At one point, Wavy Gravy said into a microphone, “Eternity Now — that’s my motto.” It’s a good motto to have and, if ever that were true, it was one of those things that you couldn’t help but wish were true at that exact moment. For, like all of the truly great festivals — the ones that transcend their own lineup, that overcome their inherent consumerist nature, the ones that really make a difference in people’s lives — when everything was in mid-swing, there was nowhere else anyone there would’ve rather been.
And that, my friends, is how you celebrate the memory of someone’s life. In Laytonville, at least, it’s certainly how they celebrate Kate Wolf’s.