Jess Yoakum Visits UVM Thanks to the Dedication of Local Cripple

“Folksinger seeks public relations manager for Vermont gigs – must have full physical and mental capacities.” This was the job description that flashed into my head while working on publicity for Jess Yoakum’s recent shows in Burlington. Actually, I hadn’t applied for this job, it was more of a volunteer position. Jess is a friend of mine, and a few months ago I had suggested that she play a gig in Burlington.

I hadn’t realized that gravity and some icy stairs would get the best of me and I’d wind up having knee surgery less than two weeks before her scheduled visit. But I was determined not to let my clumsiness get in the way of her first performance in the Green Mountain State, so I enlisted the help of my visiting mother in pulling off a (small) publicity campaign. We made a great team -she didn’t know her way around town and I was on crutches and in a leg brace, giving directions from the back seat of the car. So off we went, driving all over Burlington, braking for every bulletin board we could find to poster. Never mind the posters- if wrong turns and illegal parking could get us an audience, we would surely fill the venues. On schedule, Jess arrived in style in a sleek white minivan with tinted windows – part P. Diddy and part soccer mom. The folksinger was here. Jess is one of those people with contagious energy, which was a welcome contrast to the rainy weekend weather.

Her two Burlington performances, one at UVM’s Living/Learning Center and one at the Radio Bean, were promoting her newly released self-titled album. After looking at the listing in my favorite weekly newspaper, it looked as if Jess might have had a gender identity crisis. She was listed as “Jeff” Yoakum for her Saturday performance. Luckily, she took this all in stride. In fact, I got the feeling that this type of comedy is all in a day’s work for a folksinger. The warm red light of the Radio Bean seemed to fit the mood Saturday evening, as Jess’s smooth voice enveloped the coffee drinkers with lyrics such as “It’s Friday night and I’m watching bath bubbles form figures, then dissolve around me like they’re clouds. I could absorb all this water and still shed no tears, I could hold my breath forever….” Her songs explore the emotional complexities of relationships and her experiences on the road.

Jess draws influence from such folk legends as Joni Mitchell and Patty Griffin, capturing audiences with her unique, soulful melodies. Jess Yoakum’s songs seem to convey insight beyond her 27 years. In “The Leaving Song” she sings, “We both talked the world in metaphors – black and white and greed and spite and we stayed in the playground of our thoughts, a level distance from our hearts.” The event at the UVM Living and Learning Center was coordinated by Sarah Greenleaf and Tim Shiner and included performances by local poet Myra Flynn, and other musical talents. When Burlington gets another visit from Jess Yoakum, I hope and that she will keep me on board as her official Vermont publicist. Next time I might even be able to help her carry equipment.

Jess Yoakum performs regularly in the Boston area. Her CD can be purchased in Burlington at the Peace and Justice store and will soon be available on her website, www.jessyoakum.com. Request to hear the CD on WRUV by calling the on-air DJ at 802-656-4399.