In which we have recovered from Folk Alliance 2023 enough to write about it
The 30,000 foot view of KC's most eclectic music industry event, from our own Nick Spacek.
The Folk Alliance International Conference, presented by Folk Alliance International, had its 2023 iteration this February 1-5 at the Westin Crown Center Hotel. With well over 100 artists performing over the course of five days, “crossing a diverse array of genres including Appalachian, Americana, Blues, Bluegrass, Celtic, Cajun, Global Roots, Hip-Hop, Old-Time, Singer-Songwriter, Spoken Word, Traditional, Zydeco, and various fusions,” it can be intimidating to figure out where to start.
The thing about the Folk Alliance International Conference is that, over the span of four nights, you take in so much music that it takes a while to properly process everything. The whole thing starts off with the the International Folk Music Awards on Wednesday, February 1, meaning that before there’s been a single showcase, you’ve had the chance to hear Janis Ian speak about her Lifetime Achievement award, seen Irish musician Wallis Bird cover Ian’s own “Better Times Will Come,” and heard Josh White, Jr. performing his father’s folk classic, “One Meatball,” to say nothing of speeches and a surprise appearance by Kansas City’s own Iris DeMent to pay tribute to John Prine.
Where do you go from there?
Upstairs to the hotel room private showcases for a bit of a digestif, catching local bluegrass act Gullywasher as our first official band of the conference, although it would not be the last time we’d hear frontman Chris Hudson’s dynamic voice ringing out of the course of the next few days. The Rev. Robert James and Matt Watroba were in the Michigan Room, in a performance which was a primer in the history of American roots music, while down the hall The Goddamsels made me stop dead in my tracks and listen, stunned, while on my way to see Kansas City’s Miki P play solo a couple floors up.
Some of my favorite bands over the course of the conference ended up being Francophone artists. There’s always a strong Canadian contingent at Folk Alliance, but this year, it seemed that I had the absolute most fun getting see bands and artists who took folk and turned into something exciting, rather than treating it as a serious capital ‘A’ Art Form. This meant acts like Le Diable à Cinq, Le Winston Band, and Les Rats d’Swompe, all of whom channeled Acadian music with various configurations which variously included fiddle, squeezebox, stompbox, and washboard, resulting in numerous opportunities for the audience to get up out of their seats and dance in the aisles.
Or, in the case or when Les Rats d’Swompe played the 20th floor Bentons space, my wife Tanya and I pushing away all the chairs in front of us in order to jig and stomp our way through their set. They were our favorite band of the entire festival after having been the act to which we were most looking forward, and it’s somewhat unfortunate that their official showcase set required a trip up in a dedicated elevator, rather than being in one of the ballroom level spaces where more could have happened upon them.
Thankfully, such was not the case for Bandits on the Run, who played an official Saturday night showcase, but who we caught playing multiple private showcases upstairs, giving numerous folks chances to hear the trio’s new single, “You Have Changed.” Much as I enjoyed it when we premiered it on the opening day of the conference, hearing it live is an awe-inspiring experience, and is currently the song I make everyone check out when they ask, “So, what new stuff do you like?” It ought to be a massive hit.
Speaking of getting folks to show up, while Folk Alliance offers innumerable opportunities to make new discoveries through diligent, ahead-of-time research or the in-the-moment experience of hearing a voice out a doorway and becoming transfixed, occasionally bribery is in order. For all of his showcases, Aleksi Campagne offered up free bags of Lays ketchup chips and maple crème sandwich cookies. The music was equally tasty, thankfully.
Native and Indigenous artists made a strong showing this year, as well. “Canada’s Wilco,” Silver Fox Band brought dad rock to the crowds, while the duo of Twin Flames mixed harmonies, flute, hand drum, and gruff vocals to craft a sound bigger than the two people in front of the crowd. Juno-nominated Aysanabee’s private showcase packed the small hotel room in which he played, and hearing the musician’s powerful voice in such an intimate space felt like getting let in on a very special secret.
For all of the folk on display, it was Adrian+Meredith who brought the closest thing to folk-punk at the conference. The duo, along with their crack backing band, brought a blend of the World/Inferno Friendship Society’s madcap cabaret, thanks to Meredith’s fiddle playing and mic’d up tap platform, and the ragged exuberance in Adrian’s voice and his strongly-strummed acoustic gave real This Bike is a Pipe Bomb vibes. More “this would sound good in an anarchist bookstore” bands next year, please.
Les Hay Babies’ psych-rock still has folky harmonies and a definite sense of place, and there’s really noting quite as lovely as drinking a beer at 10:30 on a Friday night while you see a whole-ass garage rock band play in a hotel room. It’s one of those experiences which makes Folk Alliance such an absolute treat–the constant stream of music you’ve never heard live being presented in an intimate environment with a crowd of people who are just as excited as you are is as exhausting as it is exhilarating, resulting in the need for some time to process it all.
I mean, seriously: seeing Scottish instrumental trio Talisk beat out rhythms so strong, you felt them in your chest as the full ballroom clapped along immediately after making a 40-minute drive and walking 3 blocks, and then immediately following that with the very-traditional The Armagh Rhymers, clad in masks and operating puppets? That’s a whole lot to take in at 7pm on a Friday, and when you go until 3am Saturday morning, the next day is a musical hangover.
Your eyes are bleary, your ears are ringing, and you’re thinking to yourself, “My god–did I actually see Memphis’ Own Legendary Yella P of Memphissippi Sounds play with Junior Kimbrough’s grandson, Cameron Kimbrough, on drums? Did I see David Amram do ‘House of the Rising Son‘ with Josh White Jr.? Did I see photographer Todd Zimmer restring a guitar for Wallis Bird? Did I ask Ben Kweller about the Ergs’ Ben Kweller EP?”
Yes. And more.