Folk Alliance International Conference convincingly emphasized the I in its name

Folk Alliance International Conference
February 17-21, 2016
Westin Crown Center Hotel

By design, the Folk Alliance International Conference puts the absolute top of the folk performance curve on display. At the very worst, the music is still, you know, good

So over past few gorgeous February days, the only obstacles to edification were on the attendees, who may occasionally have suffered Temporary Banjo Overload or had to face down Severe Rest Deficit. Over those humps, however, there were some 1,500 musicians working to get the attention of around 225 presenters (booking agents, DJs, etc.). The official showcases were selected from hundreds of submissions. And in the private showcases, even the least experienced musicians were at the absolute top of their game.

Here are a few of the high points I got to witness:

Official Showcases

“Folk” is a designation independent of nationality, and this year, performers from around the globe brought their own cultures to town, in all shapes and sizes — and bounced American music right back to us in new ways. Montreal’s HuDost, for instance, a huge swirl of traditional Sufi music (and dancing), Balkan styles, American country music and just plain rock, made folk music that sounded arena-ready. 

M.C. Hansen brought American singer-songwriter styles back across the Atlantic with a Danish twist — imagine Lyle Lovett singing about avalanches — in a way that was absolutely wrenching. Like Lovett, he was enormously funny but slyly moving, usually at the same time. 

Japan’s Pirates Canoe used duo bluegrass styles to make “Ballerina Meena Jane,” a story about the challenges faced by a dancer friend, as traditional as “Angeline the Baker.” 

Scotland-born Canadian David Francey closed a full ballroom show with a song called “Kansas.”  

Private Showcases

Every year, there are moments in the Private Showcases so perfect and unearned it feels almost sinful to be there. Jenny Ritter, from British Columbia, led a “last night” sing-along of “We Must Sing” that felt angelic. A packed Oklahoma Room burst into a spontaneous roar-along with Chris Lee Becker’s “Oh Sister, O Brother.” Perla Battala, who has toured with Leonard Cohen and the Gipsy Kings (among others), turned in a set of Cohen’s “Suzanne” (framed by Stephen Foster’s “O Susannah”) and “Bird on a Wire” that put the entire suite into a trance. At such moments, the wristband to get into these rooms is worth every penny.

Kansas City Folkfest
The conference is still working to find the best way to build local performers into the schedule, and this year, local showcases, even private ones, were a little scarce. (The Matchsellers, who joined Bliss Hippy for a wild, funny song circle, were a notable exception.) The best place to find them was at Sunday’s all-day public event, the first Kansas City Folkfest.

The Folkfest started with a Gospel Session, where a full house of mostly local (and still fresh) attendees, enjoyed KC’s own Millie Edwards, Vancouver gospel group the Sojourners, Birds of Chicago and many others.  

Locals like Sara Morgan and Under the Big Oak Tree held down the more traditionally American genres, and wonderful performances by locally based Allyu, with a blend of South and Central American styles, and Ensemble Iberica, with a set featuring the music of the Romany culture, kept the international flavor alive.

The Folkfest closed with a set from San Antonio natives Los Texmaniacs, who worked hard to educate the audience about the origins of conjunto music — and to get them dancing. It was a triumphant ending.

Best Covers of the Week

In each set, Happy Traum, a key figure in the ’60s Greenwich Village folk scene, covered songs like “Careless Love” by his teachers Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. Local flatpicker Julian Davis, in what was almost certainly the only Lemmy Kilmister tribute of the week, closed his set with a vicious bluegrass version of Motorhead’s “Ace of Spades.”

The best covers had to came from keynote speaker Judy Collins. As she delivered a rollicking history of the songwriters she’d worked with — Leonard Cohen, Eric Andersen, Pete Seeger — she dropped in snippets of music she’d sung early in her career. It’s true that most audiences join in with “Turn, Turn, Turn!” or “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” but when the crowd begins singing, in unison, with the second verse of “The Gypsy Rover,” it can only be the Folk Alliance.

Categories: Music