The first of many songs I heard Friday at Folk Alliance was “Bright Morning Sun,” by a very fine young Boston singer-songwriter, Connor Garvey. While it was 2 p.m., this was fitting for me, as I was far from being awake yet as he sang “Let the Sun Come In.” Garvey had other strong songs, including "Back Roads" and "Moved On," where he showed off considerable fingerpicking guitar skills. But I only became fully awake with the high energy Billy Jonas Band. I first heard Billy Jonas as part of the duo The Billys some 18 years ago in Austin, Texas, and the latest musical incarnation of the Asheville, N.C., songwriter continues his tradition of exuberate wordplay and his “one man band” array of percussive instruments, but this time with a fine four-piece band. Billy’s sweet and tender side came out on “Sleeping Together,” where the couple is, in fact, only sleeping the first time they share a bed: “In our cocoon, we lay like spoons, sleeping together.” The band’s gorgeous four part harmonies wrapped Billy’s lyrics in a gorgeous cloud, as he sang: “Someday when we’re old and gray, when looks and lust have gone away, I hope……we’re still sleeping together.” The dazzling wordplay came to the fore on “I Have a Theory” and “Holy Man,” which was incredibly funny and incredibly spiritual at the same time. Then I got to hear one song from Jenny Reynolds, who had actually finished her showcase but when I walked in asked if she could do another song for me - and they let her. I’m glad, it was a very powerful song called “The Trouble I’m in,” sung from the point of view of someone in the Confessional in Catholic Church.
Drew Nelson - Promised Land
After spending the rest of the afternoon wandering and schmoozing in the exhibit hall, I was lucky enough to have a chance encounter with Drew Nelson and have dinner with this very interesting singer-songwriter from Grand Rapids, Mich., who is “breaking out” in the folk world later than most (at age 40) and whose songs reflect his blue collar Midwestern background. Then, it was the early evening formal showcases — these are the ones with real stages, full sound systems and bigger rooms. And this evening had some gems, mostly in the room featuring artists on Red House Records. Austin based Carrie Elkin had a kick ass set with powerful guitar, both acoustic and electric, from Anthony da Costa and wonderful vocal harmonies from fellow Austinites Raina Rose and Danny Schmidt, on a set featuring her song "Jesse Likes Bird," one of the most played songs on folk radio this past year. Then Drew Nelson kept the energy level high in a set highlighted by his powerful story song "Danny and Maria," and the gossip surrounding their unconventional romance (“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, it’s something how things get around in a small town” and the song "Promised Land," which he dedicated to his buddies from Desert Storm: “Welcome to the world of the working poor, here in the promised land”).
Danny Schmidt - Stained Glass After taking a break from the Red House array of singer-songwriters to catch MAZ, an outstanding Montreal band blending traditional French Canadian fiddle music with jazz, it was back to the Red House showcase to catch Danny Schmidt’s outstanding set. He was doing all new songs, most of which I saw him do the previous night in a song circle (see the blog for yesterday for my comments on those), but he also resurrected his very powerful older song, "Stained Glass," where an old man tried to rebuild a broken stained glass window of the Resurrection in the week before Easter. The result was anything but beautiful, but “in every pane of glass was all the joy and pain of man." This is quite a long song, but the audience was totally riveted, and indeed as the cliche goes, were hanging on every word.
Danny Schmidt is - in my mind - one of the finest songwriters working today. He was followed by Tracy Grammer, singing the songs of one of the finest songwriters I ever was blessed to hear, her late partner Dave Carter. Tracy actually started with a Kate Wolf song, "Across the Great Divide," before three great Carter songs, "Hard to Make it," "Ordinary Town," and "Gentle Arms of Eden," in which the many wonderful musicians in the room sang along. She also shared the story of finding, after Dave’s death, a letter he wrote to his parents at age 12, which he ended with the Biblical quote: “A prophet is without honor in his own land,” which seems to prefigure Dave’s unwillingness to be confined to what was expected of him.
Jimmy LaFave - Only One AngelAfter that, it was the chaos of the unofficial showcases, where I saw bits and pieces of a lot of artists, but also found some ports in the storm for more extended periods. My luck was at its peak when I got the ONE seat in a crowded room to hear Jimmy LaFave — right in front of Jimmy about two feet away. With great work from Rad Lorkovic on piano and accordion and Phil Hurley on electric guitar, this set combined the highest level of professionalism and emotional power. When LaFave sings, his voice is the soul of a weather beaten angel of the southern plains. Speaking of angels, shivers ran down my spine as Jimmy sang “There is only one angel, and baby that is you.” LaFave is one of the great interpreters of Dylan, and he totally inhabited yet transformed “Just Like a Woman,” and was even better on the obscure Dylan song, “Dusty Old Fairgrounds.” LaFave closed his set with a requested song, "Walk Away Renee," where he took the old pop song to new levels of yearning and heartbreak.
Amidst the many songwriters, there are a number of very fine Celtic bands here again this year. I was quite taken by a quartet of young women called The Forge, which included a harpist I had seen at a past conference, Maeve Gilchrist from Edinburgh, and the teenage sisters from Nova Scotia, Cassie and Maggie MacDonald. I’m definitely checking out their full official showcases Saturday night and will report in more detail on both. I also caught a bit of the lovely instrumental work of guitarist Sam Pacetti, and two songs from a very impressive country/folk duo from Australia called The Yearlings. Also of note, the new duo of Allison Russell, who I knew from her Lawrence appearances with Po’ Girl, and Chicago songwriter J.T. Nero - with offbeat songs and unconventional voices that go very well together. Last but not least, caught a set of new songs from Halifax songwriter Rose Cousins, including a gorgeous, though immensely sad, song called “For the Best,” from her just released CD. I am sure this is one of many you will hear in future weeks of Trail Mix on KPR.