As the crowds wend their way home on Sunday afternoon from the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival, some head for Norman, Oklahoma for Don Conoscenti’s annual ‘post WoodyFest’ show at the Chouse. It has become a much-loved tradition and this year’s was particularly poignant as it was the first one after the death of artist and photographer, Tom Lee, joint owner of the Chouse. Lee passed away last October and his widow has continued to host house concerts at this converted church, a beautiful venue in which to listen to live music.
Conoscenti, joined by Terry ‘Buffalo’ Ware on guitar, Patrick Turnmire on drums and percussion, and Dan Daily on bass and tenor saxophone, announced that ‘tonight is for Tom Lee’ and opened with Stephen Foster’s Hard Times Come Again No More which although written in the 19th century, resonates today as many are indeed facing hard times. Throughout the evening, Conoscenti, a talented multi-instrumentalist, varied the set with original material and cover songs. Explaining how, where and why a particular song had been informed, he gave us a glimpse into his life as a travelling musician who seems to have found his current home in New Mexico a place of particular inspiration.
The first ten-song set included his own compositions Beautiful Valley and Black Eyed Suzi both inspired by New Mexico. My Brilliant Masterpiece and Drink Another Round harked back to his days in Atlanta, Georgia when he was part of a musical community, which included Kristian Bush (now in Sugarland), John Mayer, Shawn Mullins, Ellis Paul and Pierce Pettis. Echo a song he did not play for a long time but kept receiving requests for, which in 2010 won the ‘Best Song’ category in the New Mexico Music Awards, was received warmly. Red Man Sky included an extended jam with Daily really showcasing the beauty of the tenor saxophone.
Paying homage to Woody Guthrie, the penultimate song of this set was This Land Is Your Land, which ended with Conoscenti observing ‘thank you Woody Guthrie; man we need you as much as ever!’ The final song was a cover of Sam Baker’s Juarez. Conoscenti accompanied Baker on his 2010 UK tour and has many fond memories of his first visit there.
With so many musicians in town after the festival, there is always the chance that there will be a few special guests and tonight the first part of the second set was given over to The Damn Quails - a singer/songwriter duo who performed a song about Guthrie and a new one, California, from their upcoming album. Then it was back to Conoscenti and band who performed the Beatles’ Blackbird for hostess Mary Katherine; it was one of her late husband’s favourite songs. Other songs covered included Shady Grove based on an old English folk song and Hallelujah Leonard Cohen’s masterpiece. Covered by so many over the years, Conoscenti’s interpretation of Hallelujah is as inspiring as any you will hear.
Additional special guests were Peyton Tochterman and Claude ‘Butch’ Morgan. Tochterman, a late replacement to the WoodyFest roster was so well received that I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see him invited back, formally, next year. On the strength of just Johnsburg tonight, his CD sales were brisk. Morgan not only played a song, Big Boss Man, but joined in with the band for the final song of the night, The Very Thing That Makes You Rich (Makes Me Poor) popularised by Ry Cooder on his 1984 release BOP TILL YOU DROP.
A hot, sultry evening of music from a group of musicians who just enjoy playing with each other, for each other and for an audience. The sheer joy on the faces of all the participants was genuine and they had the best of times as did the audience, a few of whom danced the night away!
Conoscenti is nowhere near as well known or as commercially successful as he should be. He is a gifted musician and is looking to get back out on the road again. If you are a promoter of live music then do yourself a favour and book him! If you get the chance to see him, then do yourself a favour and go! Jela Webb