The change of seasons early in the year can mean different things to different people. The arrival of spring signals March madness or the beginning of baseball season for sports fans, the fact that summer vacation is just around the corner for kids and the arrival of consistently warmer weather for those who just hate the cold. For music fans, however, spring marks something else, however: the arrival of festival season.
I've never seen a city that loves festivals so much. I'm not sure if it's because Tulsan's love being outside, because of the sense of community or simply being able to drink publicly in the streets. Nevertheless, once festival season opens, there seems to be something going on nearly every weekend in the Tulsa metro area.
Over the past few weeks we've already seen a few other festivals get things off to an early start: Moai Broadcast was the early bird of the bunch with Easter Island in April, while Bixby's BBQ and Music Festival was two weeks ago, followed by Broken Arrow's Rooster Days last weekend.
The true sign of festival season's arrival, however, is undoubtedly Tulsa International Mayfest. Now in its 39th year, the event has withstood economic climate changes, changes in leadership and in some years, pretty nasty weather. Nevertheless, Mayfest is still around and proves to be a cornerstone to Tulsa's love of spring, the arts and partying outdoors.
At its heart, Mayfest is an arts festival and prides itself in showcasing and developing local talent, especially in the visual arts. Of course, performing artists have also become essential to the festival and that's where music fans become more interested. During the day, Mayfest is truly an arts festival. At night, however, when the sun goes down and the art vendors start packing up their displays, the bands come out and things start getting lively.
I won't lie: Mayfest isn't anything like Dfest or Free Tulsa. It never has been and has no intentions of ever moving that direction. Festival directors do know the value of good entertainment, however, and when you've got a local talent pool as deep as Tulsa's, putting together an interesting lineup of performers isn't too difficult.
Mayfest isn't a rock festival by any means, but if you're willing to tolerate the crowds and join an audience that spans generations, you can get a nice sampling of some of Tulsa's most promising talent in multiple genres. Country, rock, jazz and blues acts all intermingle on three stages and coexist for four days, promising that you can find something that suits your taste at any time during the evening if you're willing to walk a few blocks.
Kick it Off
This year, the most interesting lineup of the festival may actually fall on opening night, Thursday, May 19. The Williams Green Stage (located between the Crown Plaza Hotel and Performing Arts Center, on 3rd Street between Main and Boston) kicks off with a night of jazz. Steve Hamm's Jambalaya Jass Band opens the evening at 7pm, followed by young jazz siren and ABoT music award winner Olivia Duhon at 8:15pm before Eldredge Jackson takes over Earl Clark's crown as favored son and headliner for the evening at 9:30pm.
Over on the David Cameron Community Stage (at the corner of 4th and Boston) rock and pop rule Thursday evening. The Loaded Dice kick things off at 5pm, before Mexico City based Sour Soul puts the "international" in Tulsa International Mayfest with an intriguing blend of pop, rock and psychedelica at 6:45pm. The schedule then pairs one of the city's most promising young pop rock bands with one of its best as FM Pilots lead into a closing set by local favorites RadioRadio.
The Bartlett Square Stage (5th and Main), meanwhile, provides the most eclectic lineup of the evening with Electric Rag Band at 5p, followed by Klondike5 String Band at 6:30pm and Moai Broadcast at 8pm before headliner Jenny Labow takes the stage at 9:30pm. This may be Labow's night, but I expect Moai to take advantage of the evening and return as a headliner next year.
In the Pocket
Tucked in the middle of the festival, Friday night's lineup is even more diverse, yet still offers a comfort zone for the weekend warriors in the crowd. It's "country night" on the Williams Stage as the classic country swing of The Roundup Boys segues into the red-dirt and alt-country of headliner and Sand Springs native, Brandon Jenkins. Ethnic diversity is the theme of the night on the Community Stage, beginning with the Celtic tunes of Beyond the Pale at 5:45pm and transitioning to Latin music with Latin American Rhythms Ensemble at 7:30pm and Norman-based headliner, Tekumbe, at 9:15pm.
Every year, the Bartlett Stage proves to be the place to be on weekends and this year is no different. Although the tone is decidedly rock on Friday night, it's no less diverse. David Castro Band is the most mainstream of the evening with a direct pop-rock sound at 5pm. The band that promises to steal the show with a blend of alt-country and indie rock is Green Corn Revival, making it worth heading out early to catch the group at 6:30pm. Things get groovy later in the evening as jam band Sheer Kahn and the Space Case takes the stage and transitions to the reggae-rock of Sam & the Stylees at 9:30pm.
The Main Event
Phil the Music.
For all intents and purposes, Saturday night's lineup on the Williams Green stage is the primary show of the weekend and this year Mayfest puts a classic rock twist on the evening. The tone is set early by Tulsa Honors Orchestra (featuring Tulsa Rock Quartet) at 6:30pm, as the ensemble takes a number of pop standards and rearranges them for strings. The theme continues as Bradio takes over on the Green at 8pm with an orchestrated set of Beatles tunes before headliner Phil Brown's Guitar Army closes out with his rendering of a catalog of Jimi Hendrix tunes, a few of his own and a handful of classic rock staples.
Brown's credentials state that he's played with Little Feat and Kool & the Gang and he's written songs for Cher, Pat Benatar and Ace Frehley, amongst others. Both additional guitarists, Ray McCarty and Frank Harrison, have played with Hendrix drummer Buddy Miles and bassist Dave Copenhaver has worked with both Leon Russell and J.J. Cale, giving the group a distinct classic rock pedigree.
If you'd rather live in the here and now or are interested in what bridges the gap, get out early to catch Jesse Aycock & Friends, showcasing the New Tulsa Sound -- a modern take in the same spirit of the classic Tulsa Sound. Aycock takes the Bartlett Square stage at 4pm to kick off an evening that spotlights great songwriting first and foremost. Aycock is followed by Susan Herndon at 5:30pm, Tony Romanello and the Black Jackets at 7pm, Travis Kidd at 8:30pm and South 40 at 9:45pm.
Pop and hip hop intermix on Saturday evening at the Community Stage with rock act Not Easily Broken at 6:30pm, followed by hip hop/rock hybrid iLLPHONiCS at 8:30pm and Lega-C, who is transitioning from rapper to pop singer at 9:45pm.
Call it a Wrap
The festival wraps up on Sunday afternoon and is fairly quiet, but a 3pm set by rising pop star Chase Stites on the Community Stage justifies a final swing downtown for one more corndog or gyro. Finally, the traditional closing act Gordy and Zoe wrap things up on the Bartlett Stage at 4pm.
I know I'm not the only one who would like to see more local acts in the schedule as I can think of a number of deserving acts that were passed by this year. Overall, however, the Mayfest committee and performing arts chairs Eric and Sarah Gomez deserve kudos for putting together a diverse and family friendly lineup that doesn't lean heavily to any particular segment or genre and exposes a number of local artists to a whole new audience. It may be an arts festival, but Mayfest has still done a solid job of serving the music community and reminding us why we love festival season.
Although Mayfest may dominate the weekend, it's far from the only thing going on in Tulsa. There's plenty more to choose from and a number of high profile shows that will register on many people's "can't miss" radar. Here are a few of the highlights.
• Thursday, May 19 -- OKC band Traindodge is back for another round at Soundpony to jumpstart the weekend, this time with Lizard Police as the local support. The Move lights things up at The Colony on Thursday as well, but the real highlight of the night is Turnpike Troubadours making its first headline appearance at Cain's Ballroom. These boys are touring hard and blowing up, so this should be a special show.
• Friday, May 20 -- Brookside Music Crawl gives Mayfest a run for its money as the monthly event warms up in May with Stars Go Dim, Chris Clark, Gumbo Poets, Scott Allan Knost, Swan & Sword and Deer People at multiple venues within walking distance for a musical pub crawl. As far as big shows go, Earth, Wind & Fire's 40th anniversary tour stops at Brady Theater for night full of hits and funk rock fusion that multiple generations can enjoy.
Finally, perhaps the most important show of the week for many will be Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey premiering "The Race Riot Suite" in its entirety at Tulsa PAC's Williams Theater with two performances at 8pm and 10pm.
• Saturday, May 21 -- Bruhouse throws down with its own "Beach Party" Saturday with the return of Curt Hill Band as well as Brandon Clark band, Jay Lashley, Rockwell, Karl Werner and DJ Matt, all with no cover charge. Meanwhile, BASSMEANT spins at Eclipse and Wolves plays Crystal Pistol with The Secret Post, Heresy Theory and Outsider.
The night's big show is guitarist extraordinaire, Tommy Emmanuel, returning to headline Tulsa PAC with his brother Phil Emmanuel. Finally, if you're looking for something fresh, Radio City is your best bet at Mercury Lounge.
• Sunday, May 22 -- Tulsa's music scene breathes a sigh of relief, so relax with Paul Benjaman Band at Riverwalk Amphitheater or Olivia Duhon and rest up for the coming Memorial Day weekend.
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