SAN DIEGO When Joel Rafael and his band play the Woody Guthrie Free Folk Festival this weekend in Woody Guthrie's hometown of Okemah, Okla., they will precede a performance by some more familiar faces, including the late folk singer's heir Arlo Guthrie and Woody's fellow traveler Pete Seeger.
But the Joel Rafael Band are no strangers to Okemah, having played at both previous Free Folk Festivals they headlined the Saturday show last year.
Still, Rafael and his crew remain largely unknown elsewhere, despite the fact that singer/guitarist Rafael, who just turned 51, has been performing folk music since its '60s heyday. As a high schooler in Los Angeles, he haunted the Troubadour and the Ice House in Pasadena, Calif., along with the likes of popular comedian Steve Martin, a one-time banjo player.
Currently a resident of north San Diego County, Rafael may not be obscure for long. He won the new Folk Emerging Songwriter contest at the 1995 Kerrville Folk Festival, following in the footsteps of Mary Chapin Carpenter, Nanci Griffith and Shawn Colvin.
Rafael's superb new album, Hopper, is the second release on singer/songwriter Jackson Browne's fledgling label, Inside Recordings. (The first was by musician and spoken-word artist John Trudell, who also appears on Rafael's CD.)
In a recent appearance at Dizzy's, a new venue near Rafael's home, the band highlighted Hopper and evoked the memory of the inspirational Guthrie.
Rafael opened with "Ballad of Bellingham," off his previous album, Old Wood Barn. The autobiographical story of his flight from Seattle to more bucolic Bellingham, Wash., and then to the even more rustic North Cascades, showed the inspiration of Browne, whom Rafael and his wife had first seen open for Joni Mitchell in 1972.
"We thought he'd be a soul singer," Rafael recalled. But watching Browne perform proved instructional, too. Rafael said he realized then that he didn't have to just write "fictional stories," that he could just be himself in his songs.
In the years since, Rafael has performed as a duo with rockabilly filly Rosie Flores and opened for the likes of Crosby, Stills and Nash, Laura Nyro and John Lee Hooker.
He self-released his first album, The Joel Rafael Band (Reluctant Angel, 1994), and followed that with Old Wood Barn in 1996. His records caught Browne's ear, and last year, Rafael found himself at Browne's Groovemaster studio, where he recorded Hopper.
One of the selections from Hopper will already be familiar to those acquainted with the Billy Bragg/Wilco Mermaid Avenue projects, wherein English folkie Bragg and the American band teamed up and put music to recently uncovered Woody Guthrie lyrics.
At Dizzy's, Rafael did a lovely, playful reading of "Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key," which he'd learned from a third party before actually hearing Mermaid Avenue himself "I didn't care much for their version," he said earlier in the evening.
Rafael said he first heard Guthrie while picking suitable listening material for his children. (One of Rafael's offspring, singer and violin and viola player Jamaica Rafael, is now in his band.)
"China Basin Digs" (RealAudio excerpt) a Rafael original also off Hopper, carries on Guthrie's tradition of politically charged commentary on current events.
Drawn from a newspaper article about some constantly uprooted San Francisco homeless people, the song provided a trenchant observation "The home of the brave/ The brave have no home." The two Rafaels and the band's percussionist Jeff Berkley sang in moving three-part harmony about these urban "deportees."
Logically enough, that was followed by one of Guthrie's most memorable songs, "Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportee)."
Rafael also performed one of Guthrie's more obscure songs, "Don't Kill My Baby and My Son."
"Even Arlo didn't know it," Rafael recalled. Set in Okemah, Guthrie's hometown, the song took dead aim at the South's lynching tradition.
Rafael's "Solo Pasando" ("Only Passing") (RealAudio excerpt) recalled his mentor's vagabond persona. Rafael and guitarist Carl Johnson traded understated licks, with Jamaica Rafael providing evocative string work and Berkley adding just the right percussive accents.
Rafael closed the set with his own "Mi Amigo," from Hopper and his unreleased composition "Wild Honey."
After performing at the first Free Folk Festival and headlining last year's edition, Rafael said he's glad to share the spotlight this year with such better-known artists as Arlo Guthrie and Seeger.
"It's a better position for me," he said, acknowledging that he's more likely to win some new fans who might not otherwise catch his set.