Norman Music Festival
Lead singer Branjae Jackson and Tulsa-based Count Tutu perform at the 10th annual Norman Music Festival. (Michael Duncan)

An ash tray dangled by a chain from the ceiling in the dark, smoky dive they call the Bluebonnet Bar on east Main Street in Norman. A large mural of Budweiser horses decorated the otherwise blue walls. The night’s Texas Rangers game, sound turned down, played on the TV above the bar.

And in the corner, a four-man band pieced together the day before by a 19-year-old from Ada, Oklahoma, stood on a foot-high stage playing blues rock.

Not all of the three-day Norman Music Festival is glitzy lights, big stages and large crowds.

Where you sometimes hear the best music is in the little places — venues that coat-and-tie folks might avoid the other 51 weekends of the year — like the Bluebonnet Bar, tucked between a dress shop and a yoga studio on east Main Street.

Friday night, the blues riffs from young Connor Hicks’ guitar danced out the front door, and people came in, like moths to a light. Hicks was one of 214 bands and singers scheduled for big stages and little stages at the 10th annual Norman Music Festival this past weekend, although some outdoor performances were rained out Saturday.

“Who are these guys?” asked Melodye Pipes, a Norman local who was among those drawn in. “This is the best band I’ve heard all night — and I’m not the only one saying that.”

Norman Music Festival
Connor Hicks plays blues-rock at the Bluebonnet Bar during the 10th annual Norman Music Festival. (Michael Duncan)

‘You have to take action’

For Hicks, the performance almost didn’t happen. His regular drummer and bass player had scheduling conflicts. Two of the four on stage were fill-ins.

“We didn’t even have a chance to practice,” Hicks said.

No matter. With John Mayer-like songs (Hicks recently jammed with a member of Mayer’s band in California), Allman Brothers-sounding guitars and a Justin Timberlake voice, Hicks, accompanied by his friends’ backup talent, carried the night during his one-hour set.

His version of  Bill Withers’ classic Ain’t No Sunshine had even the bar regulars in the festival mood.

“That’s fuckin’ awesome!” shouted one patron, with a plastic cup of beer raised in salute to Hicks’ band, as he exited the bar.

Meanwhile, down the street at Michelangelo’s Coffee and Wine Bar, a seasoned acoustic guitar player, Nathan Brown, was singing to a noticeably more sedate audience, seated on deep cushioned couches positioned just in front of the pastry display case of lemon cake and cinnamon turnovers.

Norman Music Festival
Singer-songwriter Nathan Brown pays tribute to Jimmy LaFave at Michelangelo’s during the 10th annual Norman Music Festival. (Michael Duncan)

Brown, a former Norman resident, ex-OU professor and one-time Nashville song-writer,  paid tribute to red dirt music legend and friend, Jimmy LaFave (who according to press reports is fighting terminal cancer) by singing the tune Never Is A Moment.

“Jimmy LaFave is an Oklahoma music icon. A singer-songwriter that has Bob Dylan down better than Bob Dylan,” Brown said.

Brown, who recently moved to Austin to be closer to the music scene there, is no slouch himself when it comes to writing. He was named the 2013 poet laureate for the state of Oklahoma.
But he makes sure not to mix his poetry with his song-writing.

“I tell people it’s like what they say: Anyone who plays tennis knows if you play racket ball it will mess up your swing. I have to keep them totally separate.”

Outside, where Main Street was closed to form a pedestrian mall lined by food and t-shirt vendors, the crowd milling about began to thin about 10:30 p.m. In the middle of the street was one of the non-invited musicians — one of several who set up on a street corner or even in the middle of the street — to play for tips.

Norman Music Festival
Ian Horn plays for tips in the middle of Norman’s Main Street. (Michael Duncan)

Ian Horn, 20, a Yukon guitar player, had traveled to Norman to see a friend perform on stage, only to learn that he had come on the wrong night.  Horn had not planned on playing his guitar, but since he was there — oh well, it was back to the car to get it and return to open up musical shop in the middle of the intersection of Main and Crawford.

“Hey, you have to take action, right?” he said  “When I see somebody out here, I want to connect with them. Maybe create a spark for them with my songs.”

Norman Music Festival
Crowd members braved the elements Saturday, April 29, 2017, at the Norman Music Festival. (Michael Duncan)

Rain, rain go away

The rains had come hard and heavy Saturday morning. Some of the afternoon outdoor stage acts were cancelled. That made the indoor performances even more popular as the diminished crowd sought shelter in dry places like Norman’s historic Sooner Theatre, where harp player M. Bailey Stephenson (performing as “Sun Riah”) played songs that fit the meditative mood of the day.

The pluck of her harp strings, accompanied by Stephenson’s own melodic voice,  filled the inside of the high-ceiling Italianate-designed theater with what might be called an experimental sound, as the patter of raindrops fell outside.

Norman Music Festival
Harpist M. Bailey Stephenson performs with rapper Jabee at the 10th annual Norman Music Festival. (Michael Duncan)

Stephenson described her music as reflecting on life’s journey and choices.

“I sometimes have difficulty categorizing it. You can describe it as a space of thoughts and emotions, much like hearing things that I’m working through,” she said.

She is set to release a new album July 21 called Sitting with Sounds and Listening for Ghosts — songs about her late grandmother’s homeplace in Mulhall, Oklahoma, where Bailey grew up as a child.

“It’s about how that home changed with my life, and reflecting on how it was. How it has changed. And how I have changed with it,” she said.

By late Saturday afternoon, thunder was the sound that covered Main Street. But by nightfall, the rain turned to a drizzle and the crowds returned to the outdoor stages‚ sparked by high energy bands like Tulsa’s jazz-funk group Henna Roso and the 11-piece Count Tutu (featuring the flamboyant singer/dancer Branjae Jackson).

Later, the rain had stopped altogether, and a large crowd gathered at the Fowler Automotive Main Stage to hear Washington, D.C.-based Oddisee and Good Company. The San Francisco garage rock band Thee Oh Sees followed.

And even harpist Stephenson got into the late night scene, joining noted Oklahoma City artist Jabee on another stage with her massive harp — this time to play rap.

So while mother nature wasn’t too kind to NMF this year, that didn’t stop the artists and music-goers from turning Norman’s Main Street into the most active four-city-block music venue in the state, at least for a weekend.