It’s pretty hard to describe the Folk Alliance conference, other than hundreds (and that figure may well be larger) musicians, together with festival and concert producers, folk radio people, agents, publicists, record company sorts and the like commandeering a hotel for four days and nights of folk music—quite broadly defined. I arrived around 6:30 on Wednesday night, and after saying hi to musicians I knew—which happened about every ten feet in the lobby—I grabbed a very quick dinner and commenced to hear music. In the early evenings, there are seven converted hotel meeting rooms and ballrooms that make up “Performance Alley,” where the “official showcases,” complete with full sound systems and stages, take place. And in the afternoons and late nights (and I mean LATE) nights, the top three floors of the hotel make up a beehive of activity with “unofficial” showcases going on in what are your basic hotel rooms and a few larger suites. The Wednesday night is much less busy than the rest of the conference, but even so, there were generally 20-25 performances happening at any one time from 9 p.m., until well after midnight. You can double that number for the rest of the week, when the hallways are nearly impassible with musicians and others in what is a combination of business and partying.
Emma Beaton & Joel Savoy Practice for Free Lunch ConcertMy night got off to a great start with the duo of noted Cajun fiddler and singer Joel Savoy and cellist Emma Beaton (better known as the lead singer of the progressive folk/bluegrass band Joy Kills Sorrow) giving a different twist to Cajun music.
After a break to watch Jayhawk basketball, I wandered the showcases, often popping into a room for just one or two songs, and then migrating again. I’m always trying to balance seeing old friends and favorites perform, checking out the live performances of people whose CDs I’ve been playing, and discovering artists completely new to me. Tonight’s highlights had some of all three of these. I heard two fantastic songs by the Newfoundland group Ennis (formerly known as the Ennis Sisters), rooted in tradition but with a contemporary feel. One of these, Sing You Home, inspired by a dear friend who committed suicide, was one of the most moving songs I’ve heard in quite some time.
Ennis Performing Sing You HomeOne of my favorite CDs of the past year, We Could be Beekeepers, was by Maine-based banjo player and singer Putnam Smith, but I’d never seen him live until tonight. Backed up by a fine mandolin player from Asheville, N.C., Putnam’s sweet and quiet songs were quite wonderful live as well. While I arrived too late to squeeze into the totally packed room featuring a song circle by Sam Baker, Carrie Elkin and Danny Schmidt, this turned into a blessing in disguise, as I wandered into a room hosted by the Cumberland Collective, where I heard the sets featuring Mike Willis and Connor Rand with the Collective, a group of Nashville musicians blending folk, country, blues and a bit of a gospel sound as well. Even as I was there, the Collective grew, as a wonderful fiddler sat in and then an accordion player and washboard player walked into the room and joined in in mid-song. As far as I could tell, the collective features six songwriters, with keyboards, percussion and stand up bass, and some amazing voices rooted in soul music as well as country and folk. I am very much looking forward to their forthcoming debut CD!
The McMenamins - How It IsI treated myself to 25 minutes sitting in one place with the terrific Qristina and Quinn Bachand, a great sibling fiddle and guitar duo from British Columbia, doing hard driving Irish tunes (with guest flute and pipes player Zac Legar), along with a fine cover of Tracy Chapman’s Mountains o’ Things. I’d seen great sets from these young (ages 20 and 15) musicians at the Milwaukee Irish Fest this past summer, so this was a treat to myself to go along with the search for new music. That search paid dividends, though, with the Australian duo (and yes, even more siblings) The McMenamins. I had heard one song, Umbrella Town, from them in a song circle relatively early in the evening (10:30!) and wanted to hear a whole set, so stayed up for their 1:30 showcase. With Fleur singing lead and playing guitar, and her brother Simon playing hard driving fiddle and mandolin along with harmony vocals, they have strong original songs in folk-country vein, and I am very much looking forward to sharing tracks from their most recent CD in future weeks of Trail Mix.