The steep incline from Highway One at Big Sur leveled abruptly and there was the Festival amidst a cluster of buildings on a sweeping lawn. In front of the lawn was a pool surrounding by a handsome slate deck. Behind this pool, the Pacific Ocean, lazy and quiet, glass-like under a carpet of kelp. At the rear of this pool, there were four painted canvases hung as backdrops, a stage setting for the annual Big Sur Folk Festival.
This past weekend in alternately chilly and warm weather and under overcast skies, some of American's best contemporary musicians performed, at the Big Sur Folk Festival, a romantic musical idyl by the sea. For two days thousands lay about the Esalen Institute's spacious grounds, caught up in the gentle atmosphere, delighted in each other, the setting and the performers as well.
The setting was such that had there been no formal presentation of performers the weekend would have left as strong a good memory. As it is, the weekend lingers in memory much the same as did the Monterey Pop Festival of '67, or perhaps Woodstock.
There were no battalions of cops ducking squadrons of flying wine bottles at this festival. There were no enemies, only friends. The performers and the audience were one, in the experience, the setting and the mood they jointly created.
All the performers that appeared were known by the audience (with two notable exceptions). All performed for free, proceeds from ticket sales going to the Institute for the Study of Non-Violence.
The festival's formal music presentation began when Joan Baez led the Festival's cast of performers into the staging area from the midst of the audience singing "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" and "O Happy Day" as she proceeded, the audience standing and clapping time.
The stage area cleared and Baez started to sing. The audience joined in as she sang "I Shall Be Released" making it a hymn. It was the first of many sing-alongs she would initiate throughout the Festival. "I Shall Be Free" and the Stone's "As Tears Go By" were among others.
Joan Baez, in and out of the crowd - on stage with her guitar - with Dorothy Morrison - with Mimi Farina - then again with her Mountain Resistance Band. She was accompanied throughout the weekend by Steve Stills, by John Sebastian. Singing acappella, her voice echoing back from the hills above, was both eerie and beautiful when she sang "Carry It On" in a voice surprisingly strong and sure.
Joan Baez, sounding a warm greeting to the kids lining the road above watching free, then speaking about what her draft resistor is experiencing in jail, (horrors and all) proudly saying he has not been rehabilitated. She sang as well as I have seen her sing before but with more joy and less sorrow in her reading of lyric. More than any other, her presence and voice dominated the Festival. She set the mood.
Following Joan Baez was the Incredible String Band, introduced as a duo from England who between them "played 150 instruments." They came on stage with two funky young ladies and after a promising opening back country type song called "How Happy I Am" tuned for the major part of the remaining time allotted them. The Two Girls, all soya sauce and brown rice but lacking in any visible or audible musical or show biz attributes added to this tedium. The String Band were, when they finally got into playing, very good. Their material from their albums, mixture of witty lyrics, exotic musicianship and boring endless recitations was presented to advantage.
Saturday afternoon's show and Sunday's differed only in the order the performers were presented. Ex Beau Brummel leader, Sal Valentino, slow to get into it on Saturday was excellent on Sunday when he sang his songs beautifully accompanied by Steve Stills, Chris Ethridge, John Sebastian and drummer Dallas Taylor.
John Sebastian, covered head to toe in tie dye and introduced as the favorite son of the Hog Farm was received warmly by the crowd. He was good, accompanying himself on guitar, reminding one how many great records he had written as he sang "Lovin' You," "Goin' Fishin'." "Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind," "Darlin' Companion," and some new songs from his new album. It was an impressive debut for Sebastian on the West coast as a single performer, one deserving of the great reception he got as he finished.
Mimi Farina, a bride at last year's folk fest, was teamed with partner Julie Payne, they sang sweetly and were warmly received as legends often are.
Joni Mitchell sang. Oh how she did that! And she wasn't on the program, (neither were Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young). Her voice carried out over the Esalen grounds, over the ocean fitting the setting and sounding better than I have ever heard her.
Joni Mitchell was another of the performers who added more than just her talent to a stage. She sang a song about Woodstock. Forgetting the audience did not have her vocal range, she took the time to teach them a chorus they could not sing. The audience, perhaps flattered at her thinking so highly of their vocal abilities, gave her a loving hand as she brought on a friend, Ruthann Freidman, a new unheard, about to have a record out, yet as sure of herself on stage as any who had proceeded her. She was one of the new faces of the Festival, sensual, a folk singer of the Baez, Collins, Mitchell mold. She turned the audience on differently than any of those artists would have. She was sexy and there was a tone of lust to the applause. Seventeen year old Carol Cisneros, on the other hand was virginal, was fragile voiced and sang Mexican and American folk songs, sounding remarkably like the early Baez, I wasn't impressed as most.
The Big Sur Folk Choir were well intentioned, boring, then too good, and off quickly on Sunday.
Dorothy Morrison was the unknown quantity among the Festival stars. Her hit recording of "O Happy Day" with the California Youth Choir gave only a hint of what she would sound like. Well she sounds nice indeed. With her four soulful sisters, she with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, were the crowd pleasers of the Festival. Every time the woman walked on stage she just took over, whether singing with Baez or letting one of her sisters do a solo. Black or white, I never expected to see any performer upstage Baez which she did briefly (Baez has her moments when it gets away from her too) during the singing of "O Happy Day." It was during Dorothy Morrison's set that the first dive into the pool took place, the first en masse rising and snake dancing in the audience occurred. She got the first ovation as well.
Soul! That's it. It was gospel, R&B - it was fun, almost religious in effect.
Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young were, predictably, the main crowd pleasers. With Baez the only super-stars at the Festival, they also were, with Baez and Morrison, the best performers at the Festival. Less conscious of themselves as pop stars than as musicians, they displayed their voices to good effect, were tighter (Sunday) than I've seen them and deserved the hysteria and shouts that greeted the end of their set. At the close of both Saturday and Sunday's shows they performed Neil Young's "Down By The River." On Saturday the song provided a fist fight near the gate side, two new dancers, a few pool divers and dancing all around. Sunday they played the song even better and the crowd formed gigantic snake dances that weaved ecstatically (there was much wine, pot and acid at this Festival) through the grounds. David Crosby chanted, "positive" throughout the set.
The Big Sur Folk Festival may or may not have been better last year. In the context of 1969 and the super-shucks that have gone down, it was great, in a musical context it was successful and as a gathering it showed how it could be, if wild dreams prevail.
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