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Eclectic sound of Joel Rafael Band evokes pure pleasure

By Ginny Masullo
Northwest Arkansas Times
August 20, 2000

If you could see the sound of the music of the Joel Rafael Band, it would be like seeing 100,000 swallowtail butterflies surround you.

I had the great pleasure of hearing the Joel Rafael Band at the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in July. While the influence of Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie (who vastly influenced Dylan) is apparent, the Joel Rafael Band has evolved its own unique sound.

To hear a band that sounds like no one else is as refreshing as drinking pure water. Purity of sound is what the listener gets when listening to Rafael's latest CD, "Hopper." This winged flower of an album evokes the sweetness of life even as the sadness of the world is faced in stories sung about real people.

Rafael, who pens most of the songs on this album, writes about friends and family in a style that is 21st century folk. But like much folk music today, the label folk does little to describe the eclectic sound on "Hopper." Blending traditional straightforward melodies with a world beat laid down by percussionist Jeff Berkley, "Hopper's" sound can hardly be categorized.

Berkley was in hot demand at the Guthrie Folk Festival, where he sat in with several performers. For a drummer, his equipment is simple, and he plays entirely with his hands. His contribution is a subtle but powerful facet of the band's contemporary yet traditional sound.

The violin parts are arranged and played by Rafael's daughter, Jamaica. Jamaica's music is a soulful ingredient of "Hopper." The violin breaks on "Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key" (words by Woody Guthrie, melody by Billy Bragg) are especially haunting and heartfelt. I have heard several interpretations of this song, and none compares with the one on "Hopper." This is the cut where the color of the butterflies is clearly in focus.

Folk music was Rafael's first love, and he studied Woody Guthrie as well as his contemporaries, Joan Baez, Dylan and others. He has performed since the 1960s solo and in various combinations of bands, opening for artists Crosby Stills and Nash, John Lee Hooker, Iris Dement, Taj Mahal and Sheryl Crow. With his group now considered on of San Diego's premier acoustic bands, Rafael won the 1995 Kerrville Folk Festival's "New Folk Emerging Songwriter" Award. I'd say he is well emerged and downright blazing.

While most of Rafael's lyrics are personal, they resonate the universal and magically blend the mood of the '60s and '70s with the present. China Basin Digs, which has a spoken word break written and performed by John Trudell, tells in Woody Guthrie style the sad side of Americana.

Rafael's current band has been together about eight years. If you want a piece of heaven on earth, give a listen to Hopper.

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