Last week I cheated and took a quick look forward to this week's Mayfest and what we have lined up for the music portion of the festival. I primarily focused on the local artists that will benefit from being exposed to a wider audience, though, only skimming over this year's headliners.
In the past, Mayfest has tried a little of everything, touching on genres from Red Dirt and alt-country to jazz, blues and rock with artists as diverse as Brandon Jenkins, Tito Puente, Cherry Poppin' Daddies and even Joan Jett. This year, the festival continues to span genres, but it feels like Mayfest is on point by sticking close to home and giving the Main Stage on the Williams Green a local and regional feel. Over the course of three nights, two of the headliners, Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey and JD McPherson, have Tulsa ties while the remaining artist, Hayes Carll, is a Texas based act with a vibe that definitely fits Tulsa's affinity for strong songwriting and classic rock and country roots.
Thursday night's headliner, Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, is no stranger to Tulsa and no rookie to Mayfest. Formed in 1994, the group has undergone various changes in lineup as it has evolved musically, ranging from a sprawling ensemble down to a tight-knit trio. In 2009, the group settled into its current quartet configuration with founding member Brian Haas on piano, Josh Raymer on drums, Chris Combs on lap steel and Jeff Harshbarger on upright bass, venturing into what has been called Red Dirt Jazz.
Never content to sit still, however, the quartet isn't limited by boundaries and continues to evolve. After finally realizing its vision to translate Beethoven's 3rd and 6th Symphonies with a full orchestra for the group's Ludwig project, which debuted at OK Mozart in June 2010 with the Bartlesville Symphony Orchestra, Chris Combs took inspiration from the process and started writing what would become The Race Riot Suite. As a sonic retelling of the 1921 race riot that destroyed Tulsa's Black Wall Street, the suite currently stands as JFJO's signature work.
After touring nationally and internationally, Jacob Fred brings the suite back to Tulsa once again for yet another free, public performance that should reach and even broader audience than those who gathered at Free Tulsa last year. If you haven't made an effort to see and hear Jacob Fred over the past couple of years, now is the time to do it. This should be a signature performance by the group and a fitting opening for Mayfest, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary and continues to tie itself to Tulsa's rich arts history.
Sure, Friday night's headliner Hayes Carll is a Texas native that wears his country roots on his sleeve. You'd be short sighted to discount his relevance to Mayfest just because he's not a Tulsa native, however. He's definitely a string player in the regional music scenes and his songs range from the rockabilly rumble of "Stomp and Holler" to classic country and a bluesy country swing. If you think he doesn't fit in or belong in Tulsa, you're obviously not familiar with the legacy that we've got just across the train tracks from Mayfest at Cain's Ballroom.
Based largely on his Texas roots and strong songwriting, Carll has drawn comparisons to Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark and Ray Wylie Hubbard. If he were a generation older, however, it's not a stretch to think that comparisons would scroll him back to the likes of JJ Cale, Leon Russell and the group that is considered part of the original Tulsa Sound of the '70s.
After having headlined at Cain's Ballroom with the release of his latest album, KMAG YOYO, Mayfest was lucky enough to secure him to headline the main stage on Friday night and give the festival some added reach and diversity. More importantly than anything else, though, Carll is known for his poignant songwriting as much as his live performances, which will make his Friday night set one of the highlights of the weekend.
To wrap up the weekend on Saturday night, Mayfest has reached out to a local boy who's been blowing up nationally over the course of the past year and continues to just get bigger. JD McPherson is a Tulsa native, TU grad and visual artist who first grabbed our attention as a member of the rockabilly ensemble, The Starkweather Boys. After catching the ear and attention of Jimmy Sutton, Sutton tabbed McPherson to back him for a few shows and eventually the two planned McPherson's solo debut, Signs and Signifiers, which was released on Hi-Style Records in 2010.
The album, which was recorded in Sutton's home studio, quickly garnered rave reviews from critics and landed him on NPR's list of "artists you should know" in 2011. Needless to say, it also launched McPherson on the national touring circuit and as his star has continued to rise, even more doors have opened.
Unfortunately, I was not able to get hold of McPherson before his Mayfest appearance to discuss the album and its quick rise as he's been on tour in Europe over the past three weeks and will be resuming his stateside tour with a show in Oklahoma City on Friday night and Mayfest on Saturday. You'll undoubtedly be hearing more about him this year, however, as Signs and Signifiers was picked up by Rounder Records and rereleased on April 17, giving it even wider distribution.
McPherson's shows at SXSW were highlights of this year's festival for many as he got great reviews for his performance at the Buffalo Lounge and I caught him as a guest of Wayne Kramer (of MC5) as part of the Jail Guitar Doors showcase on Friday night. This Mayfest performance is McPherson's first Tulsa appearance since he played Mercury Lounge last summer, but it's not your only chance to catch him. He will be back to headline the Music for the Mother Road benefit concert at Cain's Ballroom on June 13, but this is your chance to get acquainted with him for free as he wraps up the main stage at Mayfest on Saturday night.
Overall, Mayfest's choices for headliners this year may be the festival's most consistent and promising of the past five years or more. If the weather holds out as forecasted (sunny to partly cloudy with highs in the mid 80s and lows in the mid 60s), this could be one of the best Mayfest weekends we've seen in a long time. Any night you get out promises to be a great evening where you can't go wrong, so check out the full lineup at tulsamayfest.org and spend your weekend celebrating Tulsa.
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