On Thursday April 30, Tulsa’s Woody Guthrie Center (WGC) kicked off a long weekend of festivities to celebrate its 2nd anniversary with a concert at the Cain’s Ballroom featuring Oklahoman musicians John Fullbright, Samantha Crain and the Paul Benjaman Band. Those familiar with the fabled troubadour and activist know Guthrie’s relationship with his hometown and state hasn’t always been a smooth one. His political leanings were not particularly popular with his fellow Okies. In 2011, Tulsa’s George Kaiser Family Foundation purchased Guthrie’s archives, moving them two years later from New York to a new home in the WGC, a renovated 12,000 square foot facility in Tulsa’s burgeoning Brady Arts District.
This concert was a fitting tribute to Guthrie and his legacy, with a lineup that the folk legend himself would surely have approved. WGC Executive Director, Deana McLoud, was pleased with the selection of homegrown talent, too. “Woody wrote at the bottom of the lyrics on ‘This Land is Your Land’: ‘All you can write is what you can see’, and we see that in all three of these musicians. They write songs about the world around them. They write songs about the things they love and things they don’t like and things they think need to be changed. It’s incredible the way they actually do continue that legacy.”
Paul Benjaman opened the night with a rollicking set of funk-driven grooves. Part of “The New Tulsa Sound” (a group of talented, young, local musicians who take their cues from the classic rock roots of J.J. Cale and Leon Russell), Benjaman’s music melds that distinct 70s sound with his own mix of funk, jazz, swing and soul.
Samantha Crain was up next. Accompanying herself on acoustic guitar and backed by the very talented John Calvin Abney, Crain used her uniquely beautiful vocals to full effect, starting with the uptempo “Never Going Back” from her noteworthy 2013 release, Kid Face. The Shawnee, OK born Crain is of Choctaw heritage, and her skilled songwriting is rivaled only by her lovely voice, extraordinary but without all of the affectation that’s currently all too common among many young female vocalists.
Crain interacted comfortably with the audience, sharing funny anecdotes as she tuned her guitar between songs. A fan of Jeff Tweedy, Crain noted that in her version of heaven, she would be surrounded by a semi-circle of alternately tuned acoustic guitars like Tweedy has on stage for his solo performances. For her next-to-last song, Crain played “Somewhere All the Time”, a tune she claims she was inspired to write in case there is ever a sequel to the 1978 trucker movie Convoy. “One thing Paul and John and I have in common with Woody Guthrie is that we get to write songs about sticking it to the man,” Crain explained before closing her set. “And if you’re wondering who ‘the man’ is, and you’re at this concert, you’re not the man.”
Fullbright started his set accompanied only by his gifted guitarist, Terry “Buffalo” Ware. “There’s an intimidating number of you out there,” Fullbright observed with a smile, then proceeded to deliver an outstanding evening of music. After noting, “I don’t believe happy songs,” Fullbright launched into a crowd pleasing version of “Happy”, complete with an impressive round of whistling.
This Grammy-nominated musician continued with one brilliant song after another, bringing out saxophonist Michael Staub to join the band for several tunes, including the clever “Satan and St. Paul”. Entertaining the audience with his dry wit, Fullbright radiated a very likeable combination of intelligence, humility and humor.
While Fullbright puts on a fantastic performance with his first-rate band, it’s hard to beat the simple, but powerful effect of this outstanding singer songwriter alone at the keyboard with his harmonica. Fortunately, the audience at the Cain’s was treated to the best of both worlds.
Near the end of the night, Fullbright called Paul Benjaman and Jesse Aycock back onto the stage for a rousing rendition of “All the Time in the World”. He apologized in advance for the geographic slurs contained in the song’s lyrics before beginning this audience favorite.
Is my land, it’s my country
Eastern Oklahoma is a beautiful sight
Northern Oklahoma might as well be Kansas,
Never go to Southern Oklahoma at night
Bringing everyone (including noted composer David Amram who was in town for the celebration) out on stage for an incredible finale, Fullbright gave a musical nod to both Bob Wills and Guthrie, ending the night with a syncopated, funked-up version of “Take Me Back to Tulsa” and a Dixieland sing-along of “This Land is Your Land.”
*Photo Credit: Vicky Farmer