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The Kate Wolf Festival

Surrounded by depressing news on health care and a non-functional president and congress I decided to escape the real world and treat myself to a weekend away from the media and go listen to great music. About 4,000 other people had the same idea. We went to the Kate Wolf Music Festival at Black Oak Ranch north of Laytonville.

Enjoyment and relaxation to me is laying on my back in the shade looking at the wind blowing the leaves on the oak trees over my head and listening to someone like Bruce Cockburn singing. Later I’ll wander over to the food court featuring local and north state food vendors and go through a decision crisis on what to have for dinner. (The Humboldt Hippie pizza with prosciutto, onions. jalapenos and pineapple was yummy.) Vendors are offering beautiful hand made arts and crafts all around the music meadow. What can I say, it’s a rough job being a festival attendee but heck, and someone has to do it.

This was the 16th consecutive year I have gone to Black Oak Ranch in Laytonville to hear music both new and long familiar to me. There is always someone performing Kate Wolf’s songs somewhere on the festival grounds. A folksinger that died way to young she lives on in her music and the musicians she inspired.

The hands down absolutely best performer this year was Lukas Nelson and his band Promise of the Real. Talk about talented…someone said he sings like his daddy Willie Nelson but he’s channeling Bob Marley and the Grateful Dead while he does it. The program said his music style was Cowboy Hippie Surf Rock but his use of jazz also was amazing. He played a set, and then went to the late night gathering spot, called to Hobo Jungle, and play until 3:30 a.m. to a packed crowd.

Every year I find a new favorite that so impresses me I rush right over to the music booth as soon as the set is over and buy their CD. This year it was Keith Greninger, Dayan Kai & friends. Their music had a message and it was a message I wanted to hear…one that told us to keep working and keep hoping for change…their musicianship was amazing and harmonies lovely.

There were 80 performances over four days on four stages. Musical man of many talents Joe Craven played with a half dozen performers. Wavy Gravy, hippie icon and old fart, entertained us with stories of his colorful life between sets. The band Playing for Change gave us music from all over the world. Ferron and her All Star Band and Brandi Carlile had music with a message. Carrie Rodriguez can play a fiddle like no one else and Rising Appalachia was two women with beautiful harmonies.

The management of the festival always manages to find a golden oldie performer for the aged festival crowd. Over the years we’ve had Donovan, Marianne Faithful, Little Anthony and the Imperials, Richie Havens, and this Charles Thomas and the Drifters. The Drifters gave us dancing music and when they played “Let’s Do The Twist” the younger folks stood back and cheered as old folks contorted their bodies in moves I hadn’t seen since the mid 60’s.

The festival had Hatha Yoga and Tai Chi every morning in the music meadow with 100 folks stretching, gospel sing-alongs Sunday morning, Ukulele Jam Circles, open mic times on the smaller stages, kids activities and a creek flowing rapidly, if not deeply, to go cool off in. It also had 100-degree heat for three days but you can’t control Mother Nature. There was lots of shade and breezes to help and Sunday was absolutely perfect…about 80 degrees.

Wavy Gravy told us we’re too old to be flower children anymore but we can embrace being flower geezers. We elders enjoyed the little kids who came with their young parents. A tiny tot would trip and fall and 3,000 grandparents were there to pick the kid up and dust him off and return him to mom. Artisans would take the time to crouch down and speak seriously to curious children about their art. There were those walking hand in hand enjoying a new love and silver haired couples waltzing who had been in love for 40 years.

I guess we know how old we’re getting when we listened to Sarah Lee Guthrie singing her grandfather Woody Guthrie’s songs. I remember musician Greg Brown’s daughter singing a few years ago. Many old songsters are using their kids in their band.

As the campgrounds emptied out Monday morning and everyone recognized work, family, and wretched politics awaited them people left smiling. We might have been sunburnt, dehydrated, and dusty but damn, it had been a great weekend. Consider going to the Kate Wolf festival next year. It’s close to home and the music is great even if you aren’t a flower geezer.


  1. Kevin penney July 5, 2017

    Sounds like you had a thoroughly good time. Wish i could have made it but the logistics involved on getting there from the U.K.presented something of a challenge. I shall work on it for next year cos it sounds like it might be worth the effort.Thanks for whetting my appetite. Kevin ps I fell in love with Kate last August and made it to her 75th anniversary concert in January to honour her. The music festival would be a further pleasure.

  2. james marmon July 6, 2017

    “Surrounded by depressing news on health care and a non-functional president and congress I decided to escape the real world and treat myself to a weekend away from the media and go listen to great music.”

    Is there any chance you could stay there permanently?

  3. Cliff Skioff July 6, 2017

    I have loved Keith and Dayan’s message for 20 years. Compulsive fan. Biggest influence in my journey.

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