IN MEMORIUM: JOEL OKIDA, MUSIC JOURNALIST EXTRAORDINAIRE
A quiet but vital presence will be absent this weekend at the annual return of the Long Beach Crawfish Festival. Just one year ago in the Guide’s coverage of that event, we wrote, “As Joel Okida observes in his page-one story in the  summer print edition of FolkWorks, only in Southern California do we celebrate Mardi Gras more than once a year, and in the summer, instead of February.”
Now, the Second Line parade must march for him (July 30, just before STEP RIDEAU takes the stage at 7 pm). Joel Okida is gone, lost to a massive heart attack.
Joel was an artist, a writer, a journalist, and an astute observer who helped us all to see things at their essence or in dimensions we might have missed altogether. And he enjoyed signing his emails with playful quotes and quips, like “ ‘How many people here have telekinetic powers? Raise my hand.’ – Emo Philips.”
Joel was a prolific writer for FolkWorks and a contributor here in the Guide. When the editor was recovering from his initial eye surgery in October 2009, Joel covered events for our readers. He wrote a pair of concert reviews for us then. One was on the all-star ensemble WORKS PROGRESS ADMINISTRATION (aka WPA) and their show at Largo in L.A., the other on BOULDER ACOUSTIC SOCIETY, that virtuosic ensemble from the Centennial State who played the Coffee Gallery Backstage in Altadena. Both are still good reads that make you feel like you were there or help you remember the time you saw either of these fine bands perform.
He reviewed for us the Greek Theatre performance of “THREE GIRLS AND THEIR BUDDY, the ensemble of EMMYLOU HARRIS, SHAWN COLVIN, PATTY GRIFFIN, & BUDDY MILLER.
Joel was a consummate writer. He knew how to turn a phrase with effect and purpose.
In his review for the Guide of a 2009 all-star phenom, he wrote, “WPA, aka WORKS PROGRESS ADMINISTRATION, is a superb conglomerate of ace musicians who have put together a collection of songs that are all as rich as they are varied. This band can stretch out across several genres like they are the house band for all things Americana. The musicianship is solid as a rock (and roll) and they let each other shine in both songs and solos.”
Then he got meaningfully expressive: “The core members of sibs SARA & SEAN WATKINS (of NICKEL CREEK), GLEN PHILLIPS (TOAD THE WET SPROCKET), and LUKE BULLA (LYLE LOVETT) are a quartet of solid singers who can back up the vocals with some sharp instrumentals. At the Largo show, semi-regulars GREG LEISZ (Bill Frisell, Joni Mitchell, Dave Alvin), massaged out some very spot-on lapsteel riffs, BENMONT TENCH (Tom Petty) played the hell out of the house upright piano, SEBASTIAN STEINBERG (Soul Coughing) punctuated the rhythms on bass, and local skin spanker DON HEFFINGTON, rocked each number like this could be his old band. The interplay was tight and each song was ripe with melodies juicy and soulful.”
He wrote more, but can you visualize the essence of that night? So can we.
Here are some examples from his other reviews for the Guide:
Subtitled “Getting Bolder by the Minute,” his play on words with the band’s name set the stage for what followed. He wrote, “The name BOULDER ACOUSTIC SOCIETY may sound like a monthly gathering of Colorado audio engineers, but, in fact, is the moniker of four lively musicians who come together on stages across the country to entertain many a sell-out audience.” He cited them as a “multi-faceted music machine.” He detailed their charm and ability, “With a sharp jab or subtle irony, they can get you grinning broadly to any number of rollicking up tempo numbers and then cut you off at the knees with a lament like accordion / keyboard player SCOTT McCORMICK’s ‘Take My Hand.’ From there, they take that lump out of your throat and boost you up with an inspired gospel hymn.”
Yes, Joel always captured the feel of every note, and he reveled in it. In his full review, he covers the specific key contributions of each band member. He always did that, recognizing the reason each musician was on stage, and what they brought. From the same review:
“Not many bands can be everything to everybody, but BAS touches upon so many musical areas that if they did a show comprised of early music lullabies, bird calls of the Pacific Northwest, Paganini violin concertos and the Star Spangled Banner on ukulele, you would only be mildly surprised, but not shocked at all by how well they do it.”
Joel’s output was consistently bright, punchy, and thoughtful, all at the same time. We savored what he wrote, as did many others whose concert ticket purchases followed his guidance.
He once sent us an alliterative piece he did on VAGABOND OPERA. It’s vintage Joel Okida:
“As the traveling ensemble Vagabond Opera makes its way up and down the west coast, they will soon park here and bring an entertainment to our fine but fickle and financially-strapped city; an evening which promises to be filled with tongue-in-cheekiness, cheery chicanery, and perhaps a skosh of the scoundrel. Performing selections from the their last recording, ‘The Zeitgeist Beckons,’ as well as offerings from two previous CDs, the staunchly acoustic Vagabond Opera brings thrills and chills in their ‘opera in four acts, maybe even five.’ A tantalizing tango, a tarantella tarriance, a wandering waltz, and who knows, maybe even a triple-measured mazurka will be performed with full operatic interpretation and expert instrumental-attended accompaniment.”
Writing for the Guide about “THREE GIRLS AND THEIR BUDDY,” Joel expressed, “Hey, EMMY LOU is the grand dame of iconic folk/no wig country music so what’s not to love?” He celebrated “Voices sparkling with varying degrees of twang and quiver, three sopranos and BUDDY MILLER’s distinct and forceful delivery provided for an evening of defining Americana prose-like singing.”
Meanwhile, Joel found “… PATTY GRIFFIN to be near transcendent in her songwriting and elocution of her evening’s song selection.”
You always learned when you read Joel’s reviews. Sometimes, it was what he already knew:
“Admittedly, I have been a BUDDY MILLER fan for a long time, both in his smart and stylish guitar playing but also his singing and songwriting. Truly an underrated performer outside of the folk/country/roots genre where he is known and well-respected. His ‘Shelter Me’ and ‘All My Tears’ etched into the night, counterpoint to the sweet vocals of the womanly takes on tales of woe.”
Sometimes, Joel introduced us as he learned himself:
“I was not a SHAWN COLVIN fan before, not because I didn’t like her music, but because I just never really got around to listening to a lot of her book although she enjoyed many a hit in the genre several years ago. She was spot on when her turn came around and no slouch on guitar either.”
(The Guide ran reviews of that show by eight different writers. Read them all at
Joel’s “Three Girls” review continued, “I think the youngster in the group at 45, Griffin, would win my honors for charismatic readings of her material. ‘Heavenly Day’ and ‘Mary’ really stood out and I also liked that deadpan novelty tune, which for lack of not knowing the unrecorded title, must be something like, ‘It’s a Dud’ (one of the two ‘love’ songs that she’s ever written, according to her).”
When you read that, you know what to look for when you see her perform. That’s what Joel gave us, every time he wrote for the folk-Americana music community. That, and his quiet, comfortable presence that somehow was just challenging enough that you always wanted to know what he thought, and you reveled in it whether or not you agreed with him.
Joel tipped us to a show that we put in the Guide for March 10, 2008. He called SLIM CESSNA’S AUTO CLUB (playing that night at Safari Sam’s in L.A.) “Colorado psychobilly gospel sweathogs.”
Joel Okida gave you enough detail to build your own cognitive framework, whether or not you were there, but never so much minutiae that it became esoteric or limited to those who saw the show.
As a prominent member of a multifaceted community of always-struggling writers with rich resumes, Joel could speak in many of the same subtleties of nomenclature and tech jargon with us, exploring still more aspects of how everything is connected to everything else. It was always fun to talk shop about any of many shops with Joel.
The Guide’s editor remembers Joel riding to the rescue when an overdue CD review ran up against recovery from one of the editor’s several eye surgeries and its prohibition of computer use. A phone call to Joel, and FolkWorks got the review on time – Joel’s review – to the benefit of the very deserving roots-jazz-Americana artist LAWRENCE (“Don’t Call Her Larry”) LEBO. Yep, Joel was a good guy.
And he was an unassuming guy. Despite being an influential writer, and one with a devoted following, Joel rarely sought media privileges. He won tickets from the Guide to see CHRIS HILLMAN at the Grammy Museum, competing just like our other readers, rather than asking if we had a ticket for him. When the editor hosted the annual Cowboy Christmas Concert in the Autry Museum’s Wells Fargo Theatre, Joel was humbled that we put him on the guest list. Joel’s unassuming humility often limited how many shows he could afford to attend, and once we discerned that, we always made it a priority to get him tickets when we hoped he might write for us.
Joel loved the more kinetic forms of folk dance, especially Cajun / zydeco dance. He journeyed to Louisiana for immersion when he could, and he was a reliable presence on the local dance scene where he was universally known and loved. It was while taking part in a dance that he was stricken with the massive heart attack from which he never recovered before dying three days later.
After years of caring for sick and aging parents who finally passed, Joel was just beginning to enjoy a new found freedom and planning more ambitious travels. He had a long hit list of festivals before him, across many states. We will surely catch ourselves looking for him at old haunts and new ones for a long time to come.
We will miss our conversations with Joel most of all. Always quick on his feet, things he said nonetheless sounded thoughtful and reflective. That’s rare and notable. It came with a humor that was deadpan dry and witty and occasioned brow-raising hilarity. The guy was wise, and anyone aspiring to wisdom wanted him around. We miss him. A lot.
You can read a compilation of Joel’s reviews for The Guide at
In addition, FolkWorks has a tribute and links to his many features and reviews that graced their pages, both paper and cyber. That’s available on page one at www.folkworks.org.
There is a memorial service for Joel Okida on August 7, from 3-8 pm. Here are the details:
“IN LOVING MEMORY OF JOEL OKIDA,” a gathering in memory of our friend. (Open invitation to everyone who knew Joel.) Includes an opportunity for those who would like to share their thoughts and for those who would like to play music in tribute to Joel, so bring your instruments. Hosts are asking for those who have an art piece made my Joel to bring it for a group installation and appreciation of his work. They say, “We think he’d have liked that.”
This is a potluck, so all food / drink contributions are greatly appreciated. It’s at Warren & Wendy’s, 1001 N. Cedar Street, Glendale 91207. Email, firstname.lastname@example.org; Warren’s phones, 818-548-4566 or 818-219-3346; Wendy’s phone, 818-246-2124. They need help setting up on Friday, August 5; Warren has a WICKED TINKERS show on Saturday (in Ojai, in the Spotlight Events section) and will be out of town, hence the Friday set-up. Please call or email the hosts if you can be there Friday to help for Sunday’s event.
Read the reviews that Joel wrote for the Guide, collected in one place, at
Read much more of Joel’s work in the current memorial retrospective in FolkWorks, online at www.folkworks.org.