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Joel Rafael House Concert Review

By Andy Jones
Vision Company Records
Vision Well West House Concerts

Last Saturday night (8/17) my wife Christi and I headed over to a house concert series in Agoura to see the Joel Rafael Band. I’d never heard of these guys before, but the house concert series is a well-known and well-attended one that always draws first-rate artists. I figured we couldn’t go wrong.

I was right.

Rafael is a San Diego, CA singer/songwriter and the group has released three discs of original Rafael material. Additional Rafael cuts appear on compilations like Appleseed’s recent Pete Seeger tribute and Roz and Howard Larman’s FolkScene collection.

Just back from the annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in Okemah Oklahoma, the band’s new record is entitled Woodeye, Songs of Woody Guthrie. Agoura was the first West Coast stop on the band’s CD release tour. The band’s touring line up is Joel Rafael on guitar and vocal, Carl Johnson on acoustic lead guitar, Joel’s daughter, Jamaica Rafael on violin, viola and harmony vocals and Jeff Berkley on dumbek and cymbals. (The studio disc features band member Jeff Rothchild on bass guitar throughout, and guest appearances by Van Dyke Parks on accordion, Matt Cortsonis on bottle neck guitar and mandola, Dan Potruch and Frenchy O’Brien on percussion with Ellis Paul, Jennifer Warnes and Sky Nicholas adding vocals.)

I’ve heard a few scratchy Guthrie recordings in my life and I’ve heard a few people do covers but I’m no expert. All the better, probably, for the purity of my experience. Guthrie is an icon, and in some circles covering his tunes with a self-conscious performance would probably be considered dangerous territory. Joel and the band carried it off beautifully, playing throughout the evening with grace, conviction and heart. These guys, especially Joel himself, love Guthrie. In Joel’s case, so much that he’s made the music his own, going so far at one point to create a brand-new melody to a long-forgotten and music-less Guthrie lyric. This is not music that is caught in the past. Rafael’s devotion and the band’s performance are an immediate joy whether or not one has a well-established previous relationship with Woody Guthrie music.

At the end of the evening I bought two discs; the new Woodeye release and the group’s self-titled 1994 Joel Rafael Band debut. Both discs have been going back and forth from my house to my car CD changer ever since. There is a tremendous sense of heart and compassion in the music of the Joel Rafael band. You hear it when he covers Woody Guthrie. You hear it in his original tunes. I’ll be seeking out the two Rafael discs I haven’t heard in the coming weeks.

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