On a surreal and starry night nearly two years ago — one of those rare September evenings in Northern California that mark the transition from summer to fall — Angel Olsen picked up a guitar and serenaded a crowd of hushed, awestruck attendees. Her backdrop was a column of towering redwood trees, and the site was the Henry Miller Memorial Library, the former Big Sur residence of the legendary American novelist, which now stands as a monument for visitors to the famous coastal village.
Wrapped up in blankets and wool sweaters, the gathered crowd sipped beer and wine as Olsen cooed and crooned, pairing her unpretentious musical approach with an equally affable stage presence. She performed an austere collection of her early recordings, while regaling the audience with tales from her career and personal life.
One could mistake the gig for an informal gathering of friends, reuniting in the woods to share a good time together. But this was actually a publicized stop on a major tour for the nationally-renowned Olsen. This magical combination — of a revered artist and a picturesque, out-of-the-way venue — is the signature of San Francisco-based Britt Govea, founder of Bay Area boutique music promotion company, Folk Yeah.
Over the past 15 years, Folk Yeah has made a name for itself by hosting big-name acts at highly intimate, unique spaces. In addition to putting on shows at at the Henry Miller Library, Govea has staged performances at the Fernwood Campground & Resort in Big Sur; the Brookdale Lodge in the unincorporated town of Brookdale off of Highway 9 in the Santa Cruz Mountains; and Pappy & Harriet’s, a tavern in Pioneertown, a Wild West-themed hamlet near Joshua Tree National Park, where hundreds of Westerns were filmed during the 1940s and 1950s.
In short, there really is no other live music promoter in the region like Govea.
Another Planet Entertainment, the once-scrappy successor to Bill Graham Presents, has a venerable history and can lay claim to must-see large events, like Outside Lands. APE also books shows at a number of other iconic local venues, including The Independent, The Fox, and The Greek. But in recent years, it has grown in size and influence and now competes with the likes of Live Nation and Goldenvoice in an increasingly homogenized and corporate live music landscape.
Folk Yeah’s clout lies in its commitment to unique, outside-the-box musical gatherings. In addition to its far-flung shows, Folk Yeah has also come to be known for the multi-night residencies it puts on at the company’s San Francisco home base, The Chapel.
It stands to reason that there would never be live performances at many of the sites Folk Yeah selects if not for the imaginative approach of Govea and Co. It takes a sort of willful ingenuity and optimism to create art and music in such places, and Govea is embracing those same auspicious instincts now that he and his industry are faced with the challenges of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Although San Francisco is slowly re-opening, Mayor London Breed’s phased approach has yet to set a timeline for when live music venues may operate again. Uncertainty abounds, but the return of live music is particularly difficult to predict. Some speculate that live shows will not return until 2021.
Govea isn’t buying that story, and he and his many partners are moving forward with the idea that live music will return very soon.
“We are hoping to put on some reduced-capacity shows by the end of the summer,” Govea says. “I don’t think putting on shows with, you know, 30 percent capacity, will necessarily save the bottom lines of these venues, but I think it will do wonders for the morale of the people who work in the industry and for all of us who so desperately want live music to return.”
Govea clearly cares about his partners, and Folk Yeah thrives in large part because of all personal relationships he has fostered over the years with independent venues with no ties to financial heavyweights like Another Planet Entertainment, Live Nation, Ticketmaster, and Goldenvoice. Those venues include Harlow’s in Sacramento, Starline Social Club in Oakland, the Felton Music Hall, and the Chapel.
Govea is nervous about the financial future of many of those sites, but he actually sees their small confines as a strength. While they lack the financial muscle of their competitors, Govea thinks they will be the first ones to reopen because they host relatively few people.
“All the venues I have talked to are absolutely ready to reopen now,” Govea says. “They believe they will have the greenlight to restart their operations soon, so long as they reduce their capacity and take the right public health measures.”
Govea is already moving ahead on one of his most ambitious undertakings — the two-day Huichica Music Festival at the Gundlach Bundschu Winery in Sonoma. Unlike many other multi-day gatherings, the festival has not been cancelled, but rather postponed — moved back from June to October 16 and 17.
Last month, Folk Yeah announced the new dates and the revised lineup, which included nearly all of the acts who were slated to take the stage on the original date. Govea says all the musicians, including headliners such as Yo La Tengo and Mac DeMarco, are eager to play at the festival, despite warnings of mass gatherings.
Govea also says the festival, which takes place across several small stages throughout the winery grounds, will have reduced capacity in 2020. There will be social distancing protections in place, plus hand sanitizer and other cleaning materials deployed throughout the site. Still, he concedes that “nothing is guaranteed” at this point, as Sonoma County continues on a phased reopening approach of its own.
Govea has a good feeling about Huichica, because unlike Outside Lands, Coachella or other mega festivals, he feels that the Sonoma County affair is not the kind of “mass gathering” that represents the biggest question mark of the post-coronavirus world.
“We feel like the smaller, the better at this point,” says Govea, who adds that the festival sold 50 two-day passes on the first night the new dates were announced. “Because it was never a huge festival to begin with, we believe we can pull this off while still having the very best public health protections in mind.”
Govea says he already has some ideas for shows at the Chapel, which benefits from having a second room that serves as a dining area (sit-down establishments are tentatively slated to reopen on July 13.) He also says that many of his partners — such as Harlow’s, The Chapel and Starline Social Club — own the buildings in which they operate, which is a huge help during the down times. He says he’s more concerned about the venues that hold live music as a bonus — places like Fernwood in Big Sur — which are reliant on tourist dollars.
While Govea has helped stage some livestream fundraising performances to support the venues he works with, he clearly would prefer to organize the real thing. Govea is the talent buyer at The Chapel, and he’s been saddened to see almost all the venue’s 40 or so workers temporarily laid off (the site hasn’t hosted a live event since early March.) Govea urgently wants a return to live music so the Chapel can quickly rehire those individuals. He has been able to retain the handful of staffers who work with him at Folk Yeah, but all of those employees have side jobs.
“I feel terrible for all the people who have lost their jobs because of this pandemic,” Govea says. “It’s such a rough time for everybody. And again, I don’t expect this to be the saving grace for a building that’s used to putting on music 330 days a year, but anything in that direction can be a hopeful start.”
The question remains, however, how comfortable people will be returning anywhere en masse. While the Chapel is not a baseball stadium, seeing live music there would certainly require people to stand considerably close to another. Factor in that many audience members yell, scream, exhort, and cling to each other after a few drinks, and any concert starts looking like a potential super-spreader event.
Shannon Bodrogi, the guitarist and vocalist for SOAR, a four-piece indie rock band formerly based in San Francisco, says her group would be wary about returning any time soon to live shows.
“For the most part we are hesitant to commit to anything at this point, with there being so many unknowns around public safety,” says Bodrogi, who recently moved to Seattle from San Francisco. “Even if states were reopened and it was deemed safe, I really would still be hesitant until there is a vaccine. It’s not worth jeopardizing the health of our families and friends. We miss playing music with our friends though!”
Govea emphasizes that the health and safety of musicians, workers and fans are of the utmost importance to him, and in conversations with the artists that he works with, he finds that the overwhelming majority were eager to return to performing live.
Perhaps its willful naivete, blind optimism or a pragmatic approach that is closer to reality than many might think, but Govea is dead-set on returning to his job of staging great shows in the coming months.
“It may take a little longer than I hope, but when music comes back, it’s gonna be glorious,” Govea says. “Even if it’s 100 people in a 500 people room, it will be great. I miss music so much. I miss being with people, no matter how far or close apart we are. But either way, the music will live within us, until it can live outside of us again.”