POSTED ON MAY 15, 2013:
Turning it up
Mayfest finds its aural and visual balance
Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit
Cpurtesy of The Eyes Media
For native Tulsans and anyone who has been transplanted here for any amount of time, Mayfest is as sure as the seasons. Actually, considering the fluctuating climate here, it may well be more consistent than the seasons. A mixture of art, food, and music, the festival is a signal to many that spring has arrived and summer is just around the corner.
The 41st annual Tulsa International Mayfest takes over the downtown area this weekend; from Thursday May 16 through Sunday, May 19, it once again offers something for everyone as Tulsa gets to celebrate the arts and the arrival of spring.
More than just another festival, Mayfest has always been a celebration of Tulsa and its heritage of embracing the arts. And although the festival has evolved since first being established by the Junior League of Tulsa in 1973 (then known as Jubilee '73), a vision for supporting the arts has always been central to the festival's focus.
Over the years, the festival has changed hands, being produced by Downtown Tulsa Unlimited (DTU) with the Art & Humanities Council of Tulsa from 1974 until DTU's dissolution in 2009, after which the festival became an independent event produced in cooperation with the Arts and Humanities Council.
Beyond leadership changes, however, the festival has expanded and contracted, as well as changed locations, over the course of its history. After beginning as a three-day event, the festival experimented with different formats during the '80s and early '90s, growing at one point to a ten-day festival and even moving to the Brady District for two years before relocating back to Downtown's Main Mall and scaling back to the four-day format that has been in place since 1993.
Through it all, an emphasis on the arts has remained central, with a primary focus on the visual arts and celebrating local talent with galleries while opening up the street booths and displays to local and regional artists and vendors. Surely, if one has spent a few years in Tulsa, memories linger of walking sunny streets downtown while browsing the vendors with the scent of various festival foods wafting through the air. After four decades, Mayfest has become a part of the fabric of Tulsa.
Although the performing arts have always been represented within Mayfest, it has always been a balancing act between the arts. When Mayfest added the International Music Competition to its list of attractions in 1980, it drew a star-studded lineup of performers from across the U.S. and seven other countries and drew crowds that pushed attendance over the quarter million mark for the first time, proving the value and attraction of music to the festival.
Courtesy of Jody Horton
Even so, over the years, Mayfest has struggled to find its niche and musical identity. By focusing on local and regional musicians, the festival has given many artists the chance to perform in front of new and expanded audiences. In some cases, it's putting club acts in front of an all-ages, family-oriented crowd that normally wouldn't come to see them play, and in others, it places young and developing acts in front of an audience far larger than it could reach on its own.
Of course, part of Mayfest's legacy includes an early performance by Hanson, as well as a headline on the main stage some 15 years later to celebrate the history of both the festival and the band. Headline acts over the years have crossed genre boundaries, reaching into jazz, country, rock and Red Dirt and featured national and regional artists of all types, while taking a special pride in presenting performers with Oklahoma and Tulsa ties. Over the past several years, Mayfest has proudly welcomed artists as diverse as Sister Hazel, Old 97's, Joe Diffie, 38 Special, Cherry Poppin' Daddies, Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, Wayman Tisdale, Grady Nichols and JD McPherson to the main stage to celebrate the arts.
Beyond those headline acts, however, Mayfest has consistently posed a quandary for local music fans as it struggled to balance the visual and performing arts. Although a handful of popular rock bands from the clubs have consistently been featured every year, Mayfest is far from focused on rock and reggae, nor concerned with booking simply the bands that have a consistent following in the nightclubs. With a focus on diversity, a walk through the festival grounds may reveal a folk singer one stage, a jazz band on another and a modern rock band on yet another, all within relatively close proximity.
Granted, that's part of the uniqueness of Mayfest as an arts festival, but it can also be its downfall, as music fans have trouble attaching an identity to the festival and its musical offerings. This is nothing new, however, and part of the struggle that comes with being an arts festival. If anything, one of Mayfest's biggest challenges in the past has been finding a balance between the visual and performing arts, in some cases causing a power struggle within the organization in past years between those whose focus prioritized the visual arts and those who preferred a performing arts emphasis.
The fact of the matter, however, is that Mayfest is essentially an arts festival during the day, with a focus on the visual arts. Once the sun goes down and the vendors start packing up, however, music takes center stage and becomes the main attraction to draw and keep people downtown for the evening.
Within the past few years, Mayfest has been refining its vision and seems to have found a balance between the two worlds. Mayfest Executive Director Heather Pingry said she felt that the visual and performing arts were somewhat dependent on each other, which necessitates some careful work.
"It's definitely a balancing act, especially when the stages and artists are right next to each other," she said. "We don't want it to be so loud that the artists can't talk or do business, but at the same time, we don't want to minimize the musicians and their talent, so it can be tricky," she explained. "Both are equally important, though. There's no way we could have one without the other. Both are essential to the success of Mayfest."
With that in mind, Mayfest's Performing Arts Steering Committee has continued in its focus to try and assemble a broad expanse of talent for 2013 in order to create a solid experience for fans of the visual arts and music and both local and national talent. As we head into the weekend, Tulsa has much to look forward to.
Courtesy of Uncle Lucius
Although most people don't consider Mayfest for music in the afternoon, for those who work downtown, it proves to be a great opportunity to enjoy something different for lunch while taking in the sunshine and a few. Although there has always been something going on during the lunch hour, this year's lineup offers good reason to cut out of the office in the early afternoon.
If settling in on the Williams Green, you can expect to hear the classic rock covers of Mayfest veterans Eric & the Blasters beginning at noon on Thursday and 11am on Friday.
Thursday afternoon is a good day to settle in at the David Cameron Community Stage at 4th and Boston during the lunch hour as Red Wood Rising brings its roots rock and textured pop to the streets at 11:30am to set the tone for a great weekend of music. Friday afternoon turns to the "arts" side of the performing arts with Turtle Creek Cloggers on the same stage.
The Macy's Stage at Bartlett Square (5th and Main) is always a safe bet during the lunch hour, and this year is no different as Mayfest focuses on pop and rock with Jenny LaBow Thursday morning at 11:30am and Dan Crossland on Friday, beginning at 11am.
Saturday afternoon offers a solid mix as well, beginning on the softer side with Christopher Riley and Andrew Lopatin at 11am and noon, respectively, before giving way to Wayne Humbyrd's Jazz Experience at 1:15p. If you're in the downtown area on Saturday afternoon, you'll want to make sure to be at Bartlett Square at 2:45pm for Brujoroots' mix of Latin and Caribbean influences as they have quickly become one of Tulsa's best (and possibly most underrated) groups of musicians with an eclectic world beat sound. Once you're there, the afternoon continues with the good vibes with Steve Lidell and Eric Himan & the Soultre Singers filling out the daytime hours.
While the main stage on Williams Green is largely devoted to national headline acts, Mayfest also has two stages dedicated to local and regional talent. The Macy's Stage remains a central location for Mayfest's music and the stage that showcases a diverse mix of Tulsa's favorite acts while the Cameron largely stays the course with pop and rock this year.
Once the evening starts to settle in on Thursday, May 16, Tulsans have plenty of pop and rock to choose from. The normal formula is swapped just bit to open the festival as the Cameron Stage presents Admiral Twin at 7pm, followed by the straight-up rock of Theory Driven at 8:30pm and Black Kat Benders' blues at 9:30pm. Over on the Bartlett Square Stage, Paradise Avenue gets the evening rocking at 6:30pm before handing things over at 8pm to Roots of Thought. Sam & the Stylees wrap things up with a 9:30pm set that mixes rock and reggae for a great street party.
Friday night mixes vocal pop, Americana and rock on the Cameron stage with Ethan Crossing, Elsa Cross, and Grooveyard beginning at 7pm. Bartlett Square catches a groove early with the great Jambalaya Jass band at 5pm, then transitions to the pop of Jake Wesly Rogers before wrapping up with a couple of Tulsa's most popular pop/rock acts, All About A Bubble and Dante & the Hawks.
Saturday evening brings a mix of new acts and a couple of local standards to downtown as Not Easily Broken, Pop Machine, and Midori & Ezra Boy provide the pop and rock on the Cameron Stage beginning at 6:30pm. Over at Bartlett Square, the music continues to evolve as the bluegrass of Klondike 5 gives way to Carnegie's modern rock and New Orleans-based Gravy wraps up the night with soulful, blues-based rock grooves.
Sunday afternoons are traditionally more relaxed as Mayfest winds down, and this year is no different. If you find yourself out to grab some sun and one more round of festival snacks, though, you can catch annual stalwart Leon Rollerson on the Cameron Stage at 11:30am or the Shadia Dahlal Dance studio followed by the Caribbean vibe of Something Steel at Bartlett Square. The weekend wraps up with the Americana of Black Bonnet Ballyhoo on the Cameron Stage at 4:30pm, but your best bet is the catch an all-too-infrequent performance by Tulsa Rock Ensemble, blending classical and classic rock to bring your Mayfest experience to a close.
The Main Event
Up to this point, all is pretty much par for the course: a nice mixture of local favorites with a few younger acts and lesser-known artists representing a cross section of genres. It may not be obvious to everyone, but where Mayfest has really stepped it up this year is with the mainstage performers and headliners for each night of the festival. Although Mayfest attendees may not know many of the names, the talent is unparalleled with a half dozen rising artists that truly focus on the craft of songwriting, which is an art in and of itself.
With the assistance of Julie Watson, who also does bookings for the All Souls Acoustic Coffeehouse series and Tulsa Roots Music, Mayfest has gathered what many music fans will consider the festival's strongest and most consistent lineup in years. Each of the artists has a strong pedigree and a strong and loyal following, and although there may not be any household names in the bunch just yet, with two nominees for this year's Grammy Awards in the bunch, chances are one or more of the group will emerge from under the radar of public awareness by the end of the year.
"We have the visual arts down really well, but Julie really helped beef up the music side," Pingry said. "It's exciting, because we've got a group of up-and-coming musicians that are all really growing as artists, and I think that's exactly what we needed for Mayfest. Some people may not know all of the names, but I think if they come out, they'll be really impressed by the talent we have this year."
So, just what do we have coming to the stage on the Williams Green to get excited about this year? A look at the list reveals artists whose profiles are on the rise.
One of the most exciting of the weekend actually arrives in Tulsa on Thursday evening as Oklahoma native John Fullbright takes the stage at 7:45pm following an opening set by Red Dirt Rangers at 6:15pm. Over the course of the past four years since he launched his solo career, Fullbright has evolved from an understated performer with a gift for lyrics to a young man with a commanding stage presence and an even stronger gift for songwriting.
Back in January of 2010, when he opened for Robbie Fulks and Robbie Gjersoe, Fullbright cited songwriters like Townes Van Zandt, Jimmy Webb, Guy Clark and Steve Earle as mentors.
Courtesy of Peyton Hoge
"For me, it's all about the songs. I try to be a student of songwriting more than anything else," Fullbright said. "I've been studying the good guys, the masters, and focusing on one song at a time."
That focus paid off over the past year when his 2012 release, From the Ground Up, initially only received critical praise from publications such as The Wall Street Journal and Boston Globe. The album also landed him plenty of attention and airplay on National Public Radio and XM/Sirius satellite radio, including multiple appearances on NPR's World Music Café program, which quickly brought him a wider national audience.
The year culminated in a Grammy nomination in the "Best Americana Album" category (which he unfortunately yet graciously lost to Bonnie Raitt) and a trip to Los Angeles to perform at the awards ceremonies three months ago. From here, Fulbright's star continues to rise, so Mayfest presents a great opportunity to catch the native Oklahoman before he moves on to even larger venues.
Fullbright is followed by another impressive artist as Monte Montgomery takes the stage as the evening's headliner at 9:30pm. For many Tulsa music fans, Montgomery is a known quantity, as his career began in the early '90s, signaled by his 1993 debut album, Lost & Found. His reputation grew around his live performances and guitar playing, which mixed lightening fast fingerpicking with a distinctly rhythmic and percussive attack, at times reminiscent of Lindsey Buckingham.
That reputation only continued to grow as Montgomery won the title of "Best Acoustic Guitarist" for seven consecutive years (1998-2004) at the Austin Music Awards, and Guitar Player Magazine named him as one of the "Top 50 All-Time Greatest Guitarists" in 2004. Beyond amazing guitar work, however, Montgomery has built a deep catalog of songs, with eleven albums, including his latest release, Tethered (his first new material in four years), which came out last December. It's been over a year since Montgomery stopped in Tulsa for an acoustic show at All Souls and roughly three years since he's performed a larger show at Cain's Ballroom, which makes Mayfest a welcome return for an amazing musician and local favorite.
Friday night's lineup on the Williams Green is even stronger, as it takes a distinctly bluesy and southern rock turn. Jason Isbell first made a name for himself when he joined the Drive By Truckers following the release of that group's signature Southern Rock Opera in 2001. Over the course of the next six years, Isbell proved to be more than just a guitarist in the band, however, as his contributions to the albums Decoration Day, The Dirty South and A Blessing and a Curse drew as much critical praise as those of the band's co-founders Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley.
Isbell amicably parted ways with the band in 2007 to pursue his own career and subsequently launched the 400 Unit. As an Alabama native, Isbell's work with his backing band (also comprised of Alabama musicians) bears the indelible stamp of the legendary Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section and studios. Although his work is often classified as alt-country, it proves to be more of a balance of southern rock and soul, tempered with country flourishes.
Steady touring and a half dozen album releases have kept Isbell busy since he launched his solo career, which has brought him to Tulsa for appearances at Cain's Ballroom three times to play before small -- but loyal -- crowds. This year's appearance on Mayfest's main stage at 7:45pm puts Isbell in front of a larger audience that should quickly connect with his country-infused Southern rock and soul.
The surprise of the weekend may just arrive when Royal Southern Brotherhood hits the main stage at 9:30pm on Friday night. Although the band itself is a relatively unknown quantity, it has an unmatched pedigree and is expected to explode on the blues and jam band circuits within the next year as it runs headlong into the summer playing the festival circuit.
Fronted by Cyril Neville (of The Meters and Neville brothers) with Devon Allman (son of Greg Allman) and Texas blues guitarist Mike Zito, the group is already turning heads with its self-titled debut album, which was released in May of 2012. The lineup is completed by bassist Charlie Wooten -- who has played with Zydefunk and Woods Brothers -- and Yonrico Scott, drummer for Derek Trucks Band, Gregg Allman and The Allman Brothers.
With a sound that merges southern blues-rock with the souls and funk of Neville and Wooten's previous projects, Royal Southern Brotherhood not only represents a new emergence of classic, blues-based southern rock, but a marriage between the genre's history and its next generation of players. The names alone speak for themselves and provide reason to go out of your way to see the band as it makes its Tulsa debut at Mayfest this year.
Austin-based Uncle Lucius leads off the Saturday lineup at 7:45pm with a bluesy Southern rock sound that fits a Saturday evening lounging on the Williams Green. After debuting in Tulsa with an appearance at the Guthrie Green last October (and an encore performance at Fassler Hall later that evening), this group has quickly made headway with Tulsa music fans, warranting a February appearance at The Vanguard before returning to play for Mayfest this weekend.
Although the band wears its Texas blues roots on its sleeve, this is more than just another Southern rock act. The soulful delivery and independent attitude of the group make it a party band that audiences of all ages can identify with, from classic blues fans to the younger indie-rock crowd. As fun as this will be, though, it's merely a prelude to the night's headliner and a rocker that should finally reach the size audience that he deserves with the Mayfest crowd.
Will Hoge isn't a stranger to Tulsa, but it's been a few years since he's connected with the audience here. His last stop in town was as the opening act for Shinedown's acoustic tour at Osage Event Center in December of 2010, preceded by a club appearance in September of 2005.
In that five-year span, Hoge put together a pair of the strongest albums of his career in The Wreckage (2009) and VII (2011), as well as a pair of EPs. Although most people don't know his name, many know his songwriting, as Eli Young Band recorded his song, "Even If It Breaks Your Heart" (from The Wreckage) and rode the song to the top of the country charts in 2012. Not only did that land Hoge his first No. 1 single, but also Song of the Year nominations at awards shows for both the Academy of Country Music and the Country Music Association, as well as a 2013 Grammy nomination in the same category.
As a result, Hoge's stock has gone up dramatically in Nashville as he's quickly become an in-demand songwriter, but that hasn't distracted him from his own career. After spending time in the studio over the winter, Hoge recently shared that his next record is currently finished, with plans to release the first single in August and follow with Never Give In, tentatively set for an October 15 release.
Of course, the attention given to "Even If It Breaks Your Heart" led to opportunities for Hoge, who opened shows for both Eli Young Band and Dierks Bentley as part of his 2012 touring schedule.
Another of Hoge's songs was released to the country market last week as Lady Antebellum recorded a version of "Better Off (Now That You're Gone)" (which originally appeared on Hoge's Blackbird on a Lonely Wire album in 2003) for the group's latest album, Golden.
When asked how that came about, Hoge said simply, "I had just dropped the kids off at school and my phone rang. It was Charles Kelly, who had gotten my number from a friend and he said he'd had Blackbird since college and wanted to record 'Better Off' for their new album."
Of course, Hoge agreed and was even invited into the studio to record harmonica tracks for the new version of his song. He has also made headway in the southwest, where his latest single with Wade Bowen, "Another Song Nobody Will Hear," shot to the top of the Texas Music Charts.
For anyone who has followed Hoge's career, it's rather ironic that he's finally getting his due credit within country circles. As a songwriter, he translates to all genres, but his writing has always fallen more on the rock side, comparing favorably to artists such as Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, and early Elvis Costello.
Regardless of where the attention comes from, however, Hoge is finally coming into his own. Saturday night's headline performance at 9:30pm on the main stage will surely be a highlight of the weekend.
Individually, each of the acts booked for the Williams Green stage is an impressive talent that would be a welcome addition to any music festival. When combined for a full weekend's lineup, however, the grouping is even more impressive -- and appropriate for Mayfest's emphasis on the arts.
More Than Music
With all the emphasis on Mayfest's expanded efforts on the musical front, you might infer that the visual arts are taking a lesser role, but that's far from the case. As always, Mayfest will be displaying its juried invitational gallery, with all pieces on display also available for sale. This year's Youth Art Gallery will also showcase artwork of K-12 students from the Performing Arts Center LaFortune Studio.
New to the festival this year is a project that came about as a partnership with Tulsa Children's Museum and WPX Energy that saw mentors help students from Hawthorne Elementary School create art from recycled, reused and repurposed materials. The resulting pieces and the "Reclaim This" exhibit are on display in the Performing Arts Center Gallery from April 30 through May 28.
Also new to Mayfest this year is the addition of the Kid Zone attractions, where children can pay $5 to go through a gallery tent and pick out a piece of art to take home with them. According to Pingry, this is one of the features that Mayfest is most excited about this year.
"Our goal is to have kids start creating their own art collections," she said. "This is something hands-on that lets them pick out something of their own, that hopefully they will take home and start collecting on their own."
Of course, Mayfest wouldn't be complete without the streetside vendors, and over 100 artists and vendors will be displaying their goods along the Main Mall again this year. A wide variety of food options will be available again this year, with the selection becoming even wider as a number of Tulsa's food trucks will be on hand to provide even more choices.
When all packaged together, Mayfest continues to evolve as it presents one of its strongest events to date in its 41st year. More details on Tulsa International Mayfest, including directions, gallery information, festival history and performing artist schedules, can be found online at tulsamayfest.org. Spread across downtown Tulsa's Main Mall area, spanning Main Street and S. Boston Ave from 3rd to 5th Streets, Tulsa Mayfest returns to celebrate art, music and our community this weekend for four glorious days of culture.
You'll be sad if you miss it. And your friends will probably make fun of you.
URL for this story: http://www.urbantulsa.comhttp://www.urbantulsa.com/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A60027