Britt Govea is building a music empire by doing his own thing, in Big
Sur and beyond.
By Stuart Thornton
June 18, 2009
On a stage built within Big Sur's Fernwood Campground, a topless
woman wearing an expressionless silver mask writhes her body like an
agitated snake while The Entrance Band plays the pummeling riffs of
their "Grim Reaper Blues" just a few feet away. Under a constellation
of Christmas lights at the Henry Miller Library, the members of
Brightblack Morning Light play a batch of smoky, bluesy hymns to a
crowd of silent hipsters and equally quiet redwoods. Inside the Big
Sur Spirit Garden's decorative stage, which looks a bit like a gilded
birdcage, the five young men of the Fleet Foxes croon like songbirds
over their intricate folk pop melodies. In the Santa Cruz Mountains'
Brookdale Lodge, a collection of models swim underwater in
extravagant dresses for a mermaid fashion show that precedes a set of
amped-up classic rock spiked with sci-fi lyrics courtesy of Howlin'
Rain. At Fernwood's bar, a sea of people, including a woman hanging
off a jukebox and another perched on a mantle above a fireplace,
strain to see the elfin Joanna Newsom furiously strum a giant gold
harp and debut songs from a forthcoming album at a surprise show.
These are some of the many indelible scenes that have been created by
Britt Govea and his Folk Yeah Presents over the past four and a half
years. Matter of fact, there's been so many memorable music moments
made by the concert organizer that one is tempted to start pitching
lesser memories created by other promoters overboard, like unwanted
cargo on a sinking ship: music scarred by shrill feedback from lousy
P.A. systems, nationally known acts performing for an audience that
includes a half-dozen people (counting the venue's staff).
There are a few reasons why Folk Yeah events stand out compared to
other concerts. First off, they often take place at incomparable
locations like the Henry Miller Library, where the stage show
includes a scattering of stars above. Or the allegedly haunted
Brookdale Lodge, where you can take in features like the Brook Room,
a restaurant with a free flowing creek coursing just a few feet away
from its dining tables. Or Fernwood, a lively establishment in Big
Sur where you can take a break from the action to visit one of the
area's only albino redwoods or be serenaded by the Big Sur River.
Then there are the crowds who attend Folk Yeah shows, which differ
from the audiences at a lot of Monterey County music events. Acres of
hipsters in tight corduroy blanket lawns like furrowed farm land.
Casually gorgeous neo-hippie girls perch animal pelts on their heads
as if they were 19th century trappers. But even though there's much
to look at within the crowds, Folk Yeah shows also draw batches of
nondescript music fans who know that if they aren't witnessing
history, they're at the very least taking in an act whose performance
would differ greatly in the confined quarters of a San Francisco club
or a Los Angeles dive bar.
But most of all, there's the music: From Chris Robinson of the Black
Crowes doing a rare solo acoustic gig for just 150 people at Fernwood
to Neil Young's wife, Pegi, playing her first-ever public solo
performance at the Henry Miller, where she was joined by her
classic-rock legend husband during the show's encore.
Inside Britt and April Govea's Seaside home, April's collection of
kitschy needlepoint art hangs on the wall. But the house's main focii
are the two turntables and a mixer that radiate the energy the sealed
off fireplace behind it can no longer contain.
Govea has been compared to great concert promoters of the past like
the late Bill Graham without the cutthroat business instincts.
Proof positive: Rolling Stone magazine recently named him and Folk
Yeah "Hot Promoter'' in their annual "Hot List'' issue under the
headline: "Super Furry Entrepreneurs.''
But he doesn't seem impressed by his new notoriety. As Govea selects
albums from a collection of records estimated at 3,000 he also has
around 5,000 CDs the concert producer/promoter explains how Folk
Yeah originated from a shot-in-the-dark e-mail to one of his idols,
quirky indie singer/songwriter Will Oldham (who currently goes by the
moniker Bonnie "Prince" Billy.)
At the time of the e-mail exchange, Govea, who moved to Monterey from
Bakersfield in 1997, was working as a creative services manager with
a local media outlet. "It was a random e-mail saying, 'Would you like
to play Big Sur someday?'" recalls Govea, dressed tonight in a white
t-shirt and blue jeans with his hair pulled back in a ponytail. "A
cryptic e-mail came back that said: 'I'd like to play Big Sur in two weeks.'"
It was on. One of Govea's favorite artists of all-time would play in
his own backyard if he could secure a venue and make sure that he
wasn't going to suffer a staggering financial loss.
Govea chose Fernwood, because he knew the room sounded good. Then, he
traveled up to Santa Cruz and San Francisco's Amoeba Records with his
wife April to promote the show using grassroots methods: hanging up
concert posters. Even though he secured 150 reservations via e-mail
in just four days, Govea still didn't know if anyone would actually
show up. Since he didn't have a ticketing system, he was relying on
the 150 individuals with reservations to actually drive down to Big
Sur, pay for the tickets and then attend the performance.
Amazingly, every single person who'd signed up appeared including
professional surfer Dan Malloy and the show, which featured Oldham
performing with guitarist Matt Sweeney (Cat Power, Zwan), sold out.
"That was a proud moment definitely, but it was also nerve wracking,"
About three months later, the fledgling promoter decided to book
another show at Fernwood a performance by singer/songwriter
Victoria Williams. Upwards of 100 people attended, better than a lot
of local shows, but it didn't approach the raging success of Oldham's
gig. "I realized I was going to stick with this younger music I'm
into," Govea says.
From there, Govea and Folk Yeah gained traction and began to stage
coup after musical coup, getting indie folk phenomenon Devendra
Banhart to play a set at Fernwood's Quiet, Quiet Ocean Spell Festival
and folk legend Ramblin' Jack Elliott to join up-and-comers
Brightblack Morning Light and Lavender Diamond at Henry Miller
Library's Quiet Quiet Forest Spectrum Festival. But it was a November
2006 Fernwood show by Sweden's Black Sabbath-influenced Witchcraft
that Govea sees as a turning point. "It turned on a lot of people
that Folk Yeah is not [just] folk," he says.
These days, to the growing number of music fans who have been
catching Folk Yeah's events, the only common thread to the vast range
of acts is the quality.
Folk Yeah put on performances by '60s icons (Country Joe McDonald,
Elliott), bruising hard rockers (Witchcraft, Pearls and Brass, Black
Mountain), world music acts (Extra Golden, Fool's Gold), dance music
creators (Tussle, Jonas Reinhardt), a British folk legend (Bert
Jansch), a groundbreaking German electronica duo (Cluster), an
acclaimed noise pop group (Animal Collective) and plenty of indie
rock royalty (Jenny Lewis, Black Francis of the Pixies, the Fiery Furnaces.)
Pointing to his album collection, Govea indicates the secret
ingredient unifying the wildly divergent acts that perform at his
shows. "Basically, Folk Yeah is me trying to get anyone on these
records to Big Sur," he says. "It's a record collection come to life.
It's so random."
Govea also has an uncanny knack for bringing acts to Monterey County
(and the Bay Area) just moments before they reach higher plateaus of
popularity. Three weeks after he got the Fleet Foxes to perform at
the Big Sur Spirit Garden in September 2008, the band was featured in
a two-page spread in Rolling Stone, followed by a high-profile gig on
Saturday Night Live in January. The group's self-titled debut nabbed
all sorts of end-of-the-year accolades including Mojo's No. 1 Album
of 2008, while vocalist Robin Pecknold was proclaimed the "Voice of
the Year" by Spin Magazine.
In 2007, Govea managed to get two members of rock's elite to travel
down to the wilds of Big Sur for a handful of Folk Yeah shows. Govea
says the first occurred when Paradigm, a Monterey-based agency that
books shows for powerhouse acts like Aerosmith and Dave Matthews
Band, approached him to organize a weekend's worth of performances
for Chris Robinson of The Black Crowes. After a Friday night show to
a crowd packed like matchsticks inside Fernwood Bar, Robinson
performed Sunday afternoon outside the Henry Miller Library. "It just
really fit the vibe of the music he played that day," Govea says.
But, in June 2007, Govea accomplished an even more impressive feat
getting reclusive rock legend Neil Young up on the Henry Miller
Library's stage. It all came about as simply as Govea's first Folk
Yeah show. The music enthusiast read a blurb in Mojo magazine that
Neil's wife Pegi was cutting her debut CD with her husband's band.
Govea reached out to Pegi via e-mail, and the next thing he knew he
was organizing her first-ever show and tour.
Pegi's first public concert was held under a canopy of redwoods at
the Henry Miller Library. While Pegi performed a set of her
country-tinged rock, Govea took in the music and her husband's
pride. "Watching Neil Young watch his wife for the first time
onstage, that was an amazing moment," Govea says.
Then, as Pegi came out onstage for the evening's encore, music fans
were treated to an extra special sight: an appearance by Neil, who
played a splintery bit of electric sitar on his wife's "Love Like
Water" and some guitar and harmonica on Toni Brown's "Sometimes Like
a River (Loving You)" and the traditional "Number 9 Train."
Holding up the album cover of Graham Nash's 1971 solo album Songs For
Beginners, Govea explains how he is parlaying his success as a
concert promoter into making waves within another area of the music
industry. With Nash's daughter Niles, Govea is executive producing a
tribute album to the record, which he views as a classic. "I just
love all the songs, and I think out of the Crosby, Stills, Nash &
Young mix, Graham is overlooked," he says.
What's most impressive about Govea's foray into recording are the
acts he has secured to cover Nash's songs for the tribute. The Fleet
Foxes, Devendra Banhart and Vetiver are all planning to contribute
tracks. The CD, which is scheduled to be out this November, will
definitely garner national interest due to its high-profile acts.
In another way, Govea is having an impact on the music world by
introducing like-minded acts from different generations to one
another. When the Fleet Foxes, who drape intricate Beach Boys-styled
vocals over ornate folk rock, came to Big Sur to play a Folk Yeah
show at the Spirit Garden this past September, Govea introduced the
young band to an actual Beach Boy: Big Sur's Al Jardine. Jardine
caught the show, and was blown away. "As far as harmony singing, they
are the best right now," Jardine says.
Recently, Jardine asked the Fleet Foxes' Robin Pecknold to write a
song for him. Although Pecknold probably does not have enough time to
write something for Jardine's upcoming solo CD, A Postcard From
California, the two "are checking in with each other right now. I'd
love to have them down here," Jardine says.
With increasingly impressive contacts in the music business saved on
his iPhone, Govea is poised to get more and more music legends and
critically acclaimed up-and-coming acts to Big Sur. This July 4th
weekend, Folk Yeah is co-presenting what it hopes will be an annual
music festival featuring the California rock band The Mother Hips
called the Mother Hips Hipnic. The two-day event will include
performances by the Hips along with sets by Everest, Little Wings and
the Parson Red Heads.
Govea even hopes to pull off a multi-day concert that tops Festival
in the Forest in the near future. "The goal is to do something next
year at [Andrew] Molera [State Park]," he says. And after extensive
negotiations, longtime indie fave Stephen Malkmus is coming to a Folk
Yeah event in Big Sur on July 24.
After Govea spins records by newer acts including Kurt Vile and
VietNam, his attention turns away from his turntables for the first
time this evening. He shifts his gaze to his flat screen TV instead,
where a rough cut of Festival in the Forest (The Film), a music
documentary about his most ambitious production yet, is being shown.
In the movie which has been compared to the groundbreaking Monterey
Pop, D.A. Pennebaker's documentary about the 1967 festival with the
likes of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Otis Redding a rambunctious
crowd bangs on pots and pans in front of the stage erected within
Fernwood's Campground as San Francisco's Port O' Brien perform their
rousing "I Woke Up Today." Later, bassist Cassie Berman sings the
chorus of the Silver Jews' "Suffering Jukebox," as the song's writer
David Beman, who is also her husband and the band's leader, attempts
to hide from the crowd near a drum set. "He's the suffering jukebox,"
Govea announces as he points towards the screen.
Directed by Alexander Klein, a Los Angeles-based filmmaker who
previously made a documentary titled God Went Surfing with the Devil
about Palestinians and Israelis who surf, the movie intersperses live
performances from the September 2008 two-day festival with interviews
with the concert's tie-dyed and frequently long-haired audience. It
almost appears all of the show's attendees traveled to Big Sur not
from Los Angeles or San Francisco, but rather from 1969. "His goal
was to document the event, the vibe, so it would be a film not a
music doc," Govea says.
One cut of the film will make local audiences who missed the unique
event kick themselves. It was shown at this year's South By Southwest
Music Festival after sets by The Entrance Band, Fool's Gold and
Akron/Family. In the future, Govea hopes to get the movie into film
festivals and tours of the West Coast, where some of the acts from
the film would perform at the screenings. A sneak preview of Festival
in the Forest (The Film) will be shown at Hollywood's Silent Movie
Theatre on June 25 alongside 1971's Celebration at Big Sur, a
documentary about a concert at Esalen Institute that included
performances by Joan Baez and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
For those who didn't make it down to Big Sur for the weekend-long
concert, Festival in the Forest took over Fernwood's whole campground
and the neighboring bar. The 400 people attending the event,
including Oscar-nominated actor John C. Reilly, were treated to
intimate performances by indie acts Little Joy and Devendra Banhart's
Megapuss, film screenings and late night DJ sets. But Govea says that
the festival began as something completely different.
Initially, Govea decided to put on his first show in the Fernwood
Campground with the noise pop/electronica act Animal Collective.
Then, just months before the show, Animal Collective realized they
could no longer make the gig, forcing Govea to scramble to find some
replacement acts for the weekend. Another major hurdle arose as Big
Sur was overtaken by a massive wildfire last summer. "I was working
on the festival, and then the fire broke out," Govea says. "I was
like, 'Oh shit, this festival is doomed.'"
Changing focus, Govea decided to recast the festival as a benefit for
the Big Sur Volunteer Fire Brigade, which caused a cast of impressive
musical talent to sign on and play for hugely discounted rates.
Though making it a benefit was the right thing to do, Govea realizes
the music event may have turned out to be his most financially
successful undertaking. "The Festival in the Forest was the only show
I could have made money on and it was a benefit," he laughs.
Still, Govea views the Festival in the Forest, which raised $12,000
for the Big Sur Volunteer Fire Brigade, as Folk Yeah's high water
point so far. "The last four years were laying the groundwork to
make that one special event happen," he says.
Guy Blakeslee, the singer and guitarist of the searing rock and blues
trio The Entrance Band, who will be performing at Malkmus' show, has
played almost a dozen Folk Yeah shows at venues including Santa
Cruz's Brookdale Lodge and San Francisco's Great American Music Hall.
But he says Festival in the Forest, where his group played two sets,
stands out. "I think that that was probably the pinnacle of the first
phase of Folk Yeah," he says.
Due to the success of such Folk Yeah events as the Animal Collective
show at the Henry Miller Library in June which sold out just 180
seconds after tickets went on sale Govea's talents are now in
demand all over California. Recently, the Great American Music Hall
and Los Angeles' El Rey Theatre have brought in the promoter to help
the venues organize some of their music events.
In addition, Magnus Torén, the executive director of the Henry Miller
Library, invited Govea to join the non-profit's board of directors.
"What Folk Yeah has brought to the library is some of the best events
we've had here," Torén says. A few seconds later, he adds: "His
obvious support for this place and his affection for it made him an
obvious choice for the board."
Andy Cabic, who has done solo DJ sets at Folk Yeah shows and played
Folk Yeah events with his folk rock band Vetiver, says that a lot of
the appeal of Folk Yeah concerts can be directly attributed to Govea.
"Just doing a Folk Yeah show means you are dealing with Britt," he
says. "That means doing the show will be easy."
Blakeslee says Govea's talents lie in creating a memorable event,
rather than just booking impressive musical talent. He compares
Govea's philosophy for creating shows to LSD guru Timothy Leary's
beliefs about the ingredients necessary for embarking on a positive
hallucinogenic experience. "The set and setting is what produces the
conditions to make a good trip," Blakeslee says. "Britt makes
concerts like that. He creates a setting where going to the show is
like going on a psychedelic trip."
For now Govea is clearly concerned with the present. At his home on
this May evening, with headphones on, he seamlessly blends a track
from Bob Dylan's new album, Together Through Life, into a song from
Neil Young's Tonight the Night that morphs into two numbers from
Captain Beefheart's Safe as Milk. "We just play records all day and
all night," April says, as her husband seems immersed in another world.
The rest of the songs Govea plays this evening hang together like a
dangling strand of DNA, connecting music decades apart and possibly
revealing Govea's true genetic makeup. It becomes apparent how much
contemporary noise pop group Animal Collective is influenced by the
Beach Boys after Govea puts one on and then the other. After that,
the Fleet Foxes sing rich harmonies, followed by a former couple with
local roots, Mimi and Richard Farina. By the time I leave the Goveas'
home, way past 1am, the Grateful Dead's "Operator" is spinning on the
turntable, and there's no apparent end in sight to the music ringing
through the air.
For a complete list of Folk Yeah's upcoming events, visit