Summer in America for music lovers means one thing: Festival Season. Starting in late May all across the country music festivals begin to draw folks out of hibernation and get feet moving, hips swaying and their mojo right again. By June winter is a forgotten girlfriend and music festivals are lifting us all to new heights of appreciation for dancing, soaring vocals, epic guitar solos and everybody’s favorite intoxicated and grooving to his/her own beat hippy dippy do dah free movement performer. When early September strolls along, you are kicking off your sandals the minute you walk onto the festival grounds and shake your hips for the next three hours cause the music just isn’t the same without the sun on your skin and fall is making her usual leisurely stroll into our collective conscious?
Festivals litter the landscape in every small town; giving folks a reason to grab the lawn chairs, fill up the cooler and head over to meet friends for a fun afternoon or night out. The big city festivals, held everywhere, boast line-ups that make music lovers giddy with excitement and have multiple bands play tunes for ten hours a day, four days straight. Hundreds of thousands of lyric hungry residents flock to these festivals due to the copious amount and variety of music, along with the more famous names they draw to play.
Such large scale festivals as Lollapalooza, Coachella, Wisconsin’s Summerfest, Bonaroo, Joshua Tree, Enchanted Forest Festival, and so on occur from the East coast to the West on every summer weekend available. Showcasing bands such as Red Hot Chili Peppers, U2, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Kenny Chesney, Katie Perry, Weezer in addition to every other big name you can think of. You could easily drive across the country starting in New York and check out large scale weekend festivals every weekend as you drove to California over the course of the summer – and what a vacation that would be huh?
Over the years I have had the good fortune of attending a ton of music festivals, spanning the spectrum from small to over the top. For my money, after having attended the last two years, the Kate Wolf Music Festival in at Black Oak Ranch in Laytonville, Ca. is the best bang for the festival buck out there. You could line up all the festivals in front of me with an offering of two tickets to any one, and I would gladly reply, “I’ll take Kate thanks.”
“I love the Kate Wolf Festival because it’s so laid back and hip with real ‘from the heart’ music in a beautiful natural setting…it reminds me of the good ol’ days. Hey! These ARE the good ol’ days when you’re at The Kate Wolf Festival…“
— Charlie Musselwhite.
Why do I love this festival? It has all the elements you want in a festival:
Terrific, diverse and talented musicians – check.
Beautiful, serene setting – check.
Surprisingly tasty and good for you carnival food – check plus.
Super friendly staff – check.
Ample camping – check.
Music all day and night – check plus plus.
Sunny days and cool nights – check.
Astounding stars in the sky – 25 checks.
Soothing and refreshing river to skinny dip in – check.
Family atmosphere – check.
Fair ticket prices – check.
Close proximity to all performers – check.
Fun, goofy characters everywhere – check.
Yeah, that about covers it! When you combine all the above factors, mix them in a pot with the laid back Northern Cali vibe and the fact the property is owned by the famous 60’s icon from Woodstock, Wavy Gravy, well, you have a festival that serves up the exact amount of multiple “Man, that band was awesome. I just danced my ass off at two in the afternoon for an hour. Let’s go take a dip in the river to cool off” moments necessary to make you smitten with all that Kate offers.
Kate Wolf re-popularized folk music in Northern California in the 1970’s, and went on to national recognition before her untimely passing in 1986. Whether she was playing to 500 people in a music hall, or 85 in a coffee house, her audience felt as if she had touched each one of them individually. Her music always had a strong impact on those who heard it. Fans would tell her that she was writing just what they were feeling.
“Sometimes we just can’t find the words, but we all have those same feelings. You feel these things, and you don’t think it’s okay to say them, or you can’t quite get the words, and then it comes, and it’s just this breaking loose: you have a way to say it.”
The festival takes place at Black Oak Ranch, the Mendocino home to the Hog Farm and Camp WinnaRainbow, a circus camp for kids, is three hours north of San Francisco and two hours south of Arcata. Featuring 150 acres of Old Growth Oak Trees, a flowing creek, hot showers and spacious on site camping for all. Throughout the four day event there are workshops, a kids area with activities going on all day, Hatha Yoga and Tai-Chi, a music jamming area, hobo jungle, open mic performance opportunities, a ukulele jam circle, hula hooping and hoop dancing.
As taken from the Kate Wolf Music Festival website:
“It all started 24 years ago when Wavy Gravy asked Jerry Garcia if he would do a concert to raise funds to help with the mortgage payments at Black Oak Ranch. Jerry said if you can get Bill Graham to co-produce the show with you I’ll do it. So Wavy asked Bill and “Electric on the Eel” was born. 1987 was the year that Jerry decided to take his acoustic/electric show to Broadway, so Jerry used the Electric on the Eel show as his springboard to the Big Apple.
Bringing in David Nelson, Sandy Rothman, & John Kahn for the acoustic set while having his Jerry Garcia Band for the electric set ended up being the same line up that eventually made it’s way to New York in October. Who would have guessed that this groundbreaking show on Broadway would find it’s start at French’s Camp in Southern Humboldt County with Wavy Gravy as MC.
Four more years at French’s Camp, with Jerry performing every other year, made up the 5 year run for Electric On The Eel. Hot Tuna, Commander Cody, Ry Cooder & David Lindley rounded out the performances there, bringing an eclectic mix to the home of Reggae on the River.
2001 saw a new festival arriving at Black Oak Ranch. The Kate Wolf Music Festival had started as a one time retrospective event in 1996 to celebrate the life and music of Kate Wolf. After the show all of Kate’s friends and fans had such a good time that it was decided to make it an annual event. After five years in Santa Rosa, Ca., the festival went looking for a new home. One of Kate’s dear friends was Wavy Gravy, who suggested they look at Black Oak Ranch as a possible new site. After a few meetings it was decided to move the festival to it’s new home at Black Oak Ranch. Twenty years later finds the festival drawing record crowds and bringing in new fans every year for what some call the “gem” of music festivals.
It takes a community to make a festival, thanks for your support!”
As you have probably guessed, the festival centers on singer-songwriters. Out of respect for Kate Wolf’s history and with an eye towards both finding and promoting new artists who specialize in that genre, the festival brings forth musicians from all cultures and walks of life who embrace the fabled yet more important than ever field of telling stories through song. And make no mistake; this is not just a folk music festival.
The shear breadth and diversity of musical offerings is superb. Bands from all over the world are invited to share their sound and voice to this multi-cultural phenomenon, with the possibility of seeing African Mamba, Cuban Salsa, Southern Rock and Zydeco music within a two-hour period. And that is just two hours. Imagine how much more variety you can catch if you stay and camp for the entire four days. Twenty plus hours of music each and every day, enough to fill your musical cup until it runneth over!
And like I said, when you are over heated from grooving to some cool beat you can meander on down to the river and relax in refreshing mountain water. Folks are lounging about in lawn chairs, floating downstream in rafts, kids are spraying each other with water guns and everyone is chillin’ out, figuring out what band to catch next.
You won’t find any of the popular performers here unless they are songwriters past their prime, but with significant contributions to the songbook of our lives. A perfect example was John Prine this year. While his voice no longer possesses that youthful quality and strength, he more than made up for it with stories, charm and stage experience. A seasoned delivery of certain lyrics can accomplish just as much as a soaring one.
What you will find is a plethora of unique, talented, hungry and hard-working entertainers who bring a certain charisma to the stage. Kate doesn’t jive with boring, stale and lackluster artists; she wants those still yearning to slap the crowd in the proverbial ass and get that tail feather shaking (a.k.a. your keister)!
Four stages are set-up throughout the ranch, each of varying size and crowd capacity. There is of course a main stage with a huge, open field in front for lawn chairs and blankets. At the back of the main stage audience area and off to the side is another stage. This is great because often you can simply turn your chair around to hear the next band on the stage behind you once the one in front of you finishes up. Or, you can pick up your chair, walk through shopper’s alley and check out one of the other two smaller, more intimate stages. The farthest stage in the back is known at the Forest Stage and is ensconced by bails of hay to sit on, covered by awnings to escape the blazing afternoon sun.
We found ourselves wandering from stage to stage all weekend, with long breaks in the river or quick runs to grab some of the fantastic, mostly organic and natural carnival treats served in the food vending area. The event organizers have water spritzers to keep people temperate, and they sell ice all weekend long so you can keep your elixirs cold.
The festival is made up of almost entirely volunteers. And they do the most amazing job creating a friendly, ‘whatever we can do to help’ atmosphere. They have volunteers driving golf carts around offering rides to anyone who needs one, always with a smile and a few kind words. Other volunteers are walking around with giant water canons spraying the crowd throughout the day. If you lose something they immediately get on the walkie-talkies and start asking if any other volunteer has found it. The volunteers cheerfully run and maintain all the bathrooms, along with routinely cleaning up the garbage bins during the day.
Best festival staff ever! The kicker is that because it is hosted on private land there is zero police presence. Amazingly in 2017, they are not necessary. Everyone attending the festival has a neighborly attitude, quick to share food or lend a hand with camp arrangements. We constantly made friends with the people sitting and/or dancing near us, participating in a lot of heartfelt hugs after sharing kickass musical performances.
At the end of the day, Mendocino, Northern California is retired Hippie country. Many of the die-hard, 60’s, granola eating, tree hugging, world-peace and people loving crew that made that era the decade of love slowly found their way north of San Francisco to settle down. Add this fact to the already tranquil vibe enormous oak trees and a mountain setting create, toss in music that is all about bringing people together and to a higher level – well, you have this atmosphere were everyone behaves with respect, civility and decency towards one another. Nary one bad word or incident have I experienced or seen over the last two years.
Don’t think for a second the crowd consists of only one demographic. The age spectrum is fully represented here, with breast-feeding moms finding comfort in the cool waters, rug rats chasing giant bubbles and hula hooping, young kids riding bikes and running amok, teenagers grouping together in shady spots, millennials pausing from their cell phones long enough to eat some food and grandparents sitting on blankets bopping their heads. On numerous occasions I gleefully watched a member of the AARP category pass a joint to someone easily less than 1/3 their age, with the receiver and giver both smiling as they bopped their heads to the rhythm of the band.
Yep, that’s California. Live and let live. Go ahead and smoke, drink a beer, get up and groove a little – just don’t be a dick. Keeping it real and simple.
I am very lucky in that my girl, Alison, loves music and dancing. This was not only her first year at Kate Wolf, but also our first festival together. We had a blast! I adore her because she is not afraid to get right in to the groove and have fun. If she hears a note that makes her feet kick up, she lets that note take control. No ‘what will everyone else think who is not dancing right now’ filter at all – and I love it. Dancing sets the soul free, lights a fire in the heart. It makes you feel alive almost more than anything else we can do.
And dance we did. A lot. We sat back and enjoyed many a show too. You can go any which way you want here. Nobody is upset if you are sitting with a friend, enjoying a beer and having a conversation or if you are hell bent for leather, cutting a proverbial rug in front of the stage, or your seat. Couches are for your home, the grass beneath your feet is not meant for shoes.
The biggest reason Kate Wolf is my girl, is the infectious joy each band brings to the stage. These people love doing what they do. They hold this particular festival in great esteem. All weekend long the artists will share with the audience their reasons why this festival is so near and dear to their hearts, sharing amusing tales from past years, how many times they applied before they were accepted to the line up, how many of the other artists present inspired them, how much it means to be playing in the gorgeous setting Black Oak Ranch provides and so on.
The singer songwriters who play Kate Wolf all reiterate the same point, it is not only a highlight for them, but also even more somewhat a stamp they have made it to a certain level of success. A revered trophy for the fictitious mantle place to be able to say, “Yeah, we have been invited to play Kate before.” Especially as you move up the performance chain and earn both better stage positions and later time slots. It was such a pleasure to see bands that had been slotted for early times and lesser stages last year, move up to more prominent stages and the coveted late afternoon/early evening time placements this time around. As you would hope, all of them upped their games this year and improved on their overall songwriting and showmanship skills.
The crowd’s energy is there for the taking, it’s fun to see who recognizes that and either capitalizes on it, or runs away with it, the crowd right there with them every step. You get to see bands decide right there and then how bad they want it – It being the next level of harmony, presence, energy, community and ecstasy! Truly, it is very rare to be front and center for career defining moments, times when a person or group of people rise to the occasion and find a new paradigm. The Kate Wolf Music Festival gives performers and audience members the chance to participate in many of these “Wow, they just Kicked Ass” situations.
Many of the musicians talk openly of the friendships they form here with other entertainers; the mentoring and bonding that seem to form a large part of the backstage tradition Kate has nourished over the years. During many shows singers would stop and regale the crowd with tales of past year’s when some ‘established performer’ they always admired took them aside, talked all things music over a bottle of whiskey and provided words of encouragement as they, the ones still looking for those notches on the belt, traveled the road these seasoned veterans have already etched their names on in many places.
In the most sincere tribute they can make to all that Kate Wolf stood for all there is a palpable brotherhood/sisterhood amongst everyone who brings their instrument to the festival – here, everybody has a voice and a song worth listening to, encouraging and supporting. This is evident by the amount of times bands would invite other band members on stage to collaborate, something that happens routinely throughout the weekend. These folks love to mix it up with other quality performers and it shows, particularly late Saturday night and Sunday all day.
The last 24 hours ought to be called Kate’s “The Best Garage Band You Will Ever See” Jamboree!
When you get the chance, let your fingers walk on over to our video section for a smattering of performances we captured for your viewing enjoyment.
Yes, there are bigger festivals. Unequivocally, there are festivals that offer much more famous peeps to see. Yet whenever I go to these there is a feeling missing, a certain kind of warmth is lacking in the whole endeavor. At some point, many of the festivals become so organized, so over sponsored and attended they leave you financially drained and emotionally wanting. Kate makes up for all of that with her diligent efforts to be intimate, endearing and inclusive. She is indeed the Hostess with the Most-ess!
For us, next year is already a no-brainer. We are going to grab our erstwhile dancing wizard Turner-Man, my trusty side-kick the last two years, and make our way up Hwy 101 again. Once a year I need to go see my musical mistress Kate, with all her charms, so I can feel rejuvenated and restored. She makes me feel like everything is going to be all right despite how messed up the world seems these days. She is the warm campfire we all need to sit by once a summer to remind us no matter how quickly time goes by, there is always time for a little “footloose and fancy free” action.
If you are so inclined, we will be out by the river in late June of 2018, God willing and the creek don’t rise, sometime in the afternoon no doubt! Hopefully, we will see you lounging on a lawn chair, cold one in hand, smile on your face and music in your heart. Come on over and say hi, I will be the one in a cowboy hat grinning from ear to ear with a pretty ginger by my side doing the same.
Yep, Kate’s my girl. She may not be the most popular girl at school, she may not catch all the other boy’s eyes, but I fancy her. You could say I am smitten with her. There is nothing wrong with a harmless crush is there?