Joel Rafael Band

Joel Rafael Band


Considered one of the most refreshing acts on the folk festival scene, the Joel Rafael Band have been performing and touring the country for the last ten years and just released their fourth CD, Woodeye.


If there is one thing Joel Rafael likes as much as a good song, it’s a good story. And this is most definitely, a good story.

This is the story of a guy who moved to LA as a kid and discovered music in the form of his mom’s big band records and The Al Jolson Story on Million Dollar Movie. It’s about a boy whose parents drive him down to Tijuana to buy his first guitar for twenty-five dollars, which he uses to overcome his shyness. It’s the story of a young man who pursues a career as a folk artist, just as Dylan goes electric. It’s the story of a talented singer and songwriter who, after several near hits and near misses chooses the well being of his wife and children over chasing the star of his own career. And for ten years he works at The San Diego Wild Animal Park to provide stability for his family.

It is the story of a man, his children grown, his family secure, who is encouraged by his intimates to pick up the guitar and hit the road again. And it is the story of a talented musician and gentleman, who at an age where most careers are over or in sharp decline, finds his career only really just beginning. A music career that starts at fifty? It’s a miracle. A well-deserved, nice-thing-happens-to nice-guy miracle. And a very good story.

It is the story of Joel Rafael.

“Woodeye,” his new album, is a collection of Woody Guthrie songs. It is a record of remarkable depth and insightful humor. Helmed by Joel and Dan Rothchild, with a band that features Joel’s daughter Jamaica on vocals and violin, “Woodeye” is simply the best-produced folk album in recent memory. It is hands down the best collection of Guthrie songs I’ve ever heard. And I know I’ve heard almost all of them. Oh I know, I know, you’ve probably heard about Billy Bragg & Wilco and their hit album "Mermaid Avenue" and the various celebrities who have recorded Woody’s songs. In fact you may wonder how a guy without a famous name or even a big record label could get the rights from the Guthrie Foundation. “Well,” says Joel, “I just called them up,” as if it were that simple. Which, as it turns out, like a lot of things in life, it was.

Of course, Joel has been playing folk music for a while. And to see him play, to hear him play live, it is easy to understand why anyone would say yes to him. A jaunty man with a hippie’s long hair, a professor’s glasses, and a voice that sounds like a cross between Mercy and Vengeance, he walks and talks as if he came off the pages of a 1930’s Steinbeck novel. You can practically feel the dust swirling ‘round his work boots as he sings, a voice filled with muddy roads past and highways present. Hell, on first listen, he even sings a lot like Mr. Guthrie, until you get to the third or fifth listen and realize that his is as authentic as any American voice you have heard in a very long time.

For five straight years, Joel took that voice and his band that he lovingly says, “has been dressing and decorating my songs for a decade” to play at the annual Guthrie Festival in Woody’s hometown of Okemah, Oklahoma. His talent made first a fan, then a friend, of Arlo Guthrie himself.

“I had composed music for lyrics Woody had written called ‘Dance A Little Longer’,” Rafael said, “and I was hoping to record it. Nora (Guthrie) runs the Guthrie Foundation and Archives. So I called her up and she said, ‘well, Arlo gave you the thumbs up, so go ahead!’” An upbeat tune reminiscent of a Saturday night Square Dance and a prayer for words, it is the highlight on an album of highlights. What is amazing is that two of the best of a surplus of good performances sound as if they are replicas of Woody’s originals, except that Woody never recorded them. “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportee)” and “Don¹t Kill My Baby and My Son” feel as old as a sepia photograph, but are as evocative and provocative as anything you have in your CD Player this minute. His versions of “Pretty Boy Floyd” and “I Ain’t Got No Home” are far more accessible and moving than anything recorded by his big name counterparts singing their versions of these folk songs.

I know, I know. Folk music? Why should I listen to Folk music? Folk music is often seen as something quaint, outdated, something your grandfather sung before the family moved to the big city. But this album is only Folk in appearance: It is Rhythm in its veins, and Blues in its soul. Hard to believe that a few average folks armed only with their acoustic instruments and a great sense of harmony could compete with driving drum machines and screaming guitars, but it’s true. Though written over forty years ago, the band makes these songs sound like they were written today. In fact, if “Plane Wreck” were sung to a different kind of beat, its lyrics would qualify as Rap.

Look. I don’t have to tell you what’s going on out there in the world. You know. You know what we’re facing. We need this music, this traditional American music, which has been sung in cotton fields and concert halls,


Woodeye (2003) Inside/Nine Yards Records
Hopper (2000) Inside Recordings
Old Wood Barn (1996) Reluctant Angel Records
Joel Rafael Band (1994) Reluctant Angel Records
Folkscene, Vol. 3 (2001) Red House Records
If I Had a Song; The Songs of Pete Seeger, Vol. 2 (2001) Appleseed Recordings

Set List

All original songs plus songs from Woodeye: the Songs of Woody Guthrie, including the Guthrie/Rafael co-write "Dance A Little Longer."

Sets are usually 45 minutes to 75 minutes.