Joel Rafael feat. Graham Nash

City Winery / New York, NY

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photos by Leland Gorlin

Singer/songwriter and soft-core activist Joel Rafael made a rare and welcome stop at the City Winery to showcase his ninth and newest album, Baladista, and do a few radio shows while in the Big Apple. Radio probably only got a few songs out of him, but the sold-out show at City Winery got pretty much the entire album, plus a bonus artist.

Affable and sincere both on and off stage, Rafael sings of love and loss, of honor and justice, all without a shred of bitterness. From “El Bracero,” his homage to the migrant Mexican workers who labored to feed the US troops in WWII, but whose own lives were cut short on the job: “Fourteen when the truck-van exploded/Thirty-two when the train hit that bus…” Rafael’s perspective remains on the facts, and lets the truth speak for itself.

Most of the album, and therefore most of the concert, included very personal songs, often reminiscences of past loves. Rafael’s crystal-clear vocals and John Inman’s soulful slide guitar on “When I Go,” a standout tune by all accounts, were perfect. This farewell to his lover could be interpreted as “I’m going on tour, sweetie,” or more broadly as an end-of-life kiss goodbye.

Rafael’s band included his longtime Oklahoma buddy, Terry “Buffalo” Ware, who leads the house band at the Woody Guthrie festival every July, and who’s collaborated with Elmore favorites Ray Wylie Hubbard, John Fullbright, Sam Baker and others. True to form, Ware did a particularly memorable solo on Rafael’s “The Good Samaritan.”

Last, but not least, the finale included a Woody Guthrie tune, “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos”(also known as “Deportee”), and icon Graham Nash, who’d been hiding in the City Winery audience this whole time, got onstage to sing harmony. What a treat! And to think that three or four songs earlier, I already thought we had a perfect evening.

Suzanne Cadgène

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