After an afternoon of panels and schmoozing, the music began in earnest for me at Day Two of the Folk Alliance Conference in Memphis with a 21st birthday celebration for Anthony da Costa, who I first heard at the Folk Alliance conference five years ago, when people kept telling me, “You HAVE to go hear this 16 year old who writes amazing songs.” He’s kept writing amazing songs, and this event featured a wide range of artists doing their favorite da Costa songs, kicking off with Danny Schmidt and Carrie Elkin singing “I’m Saved,” which includes the line: “I can’t even drink” (at which point da Costa smiled and raised his beer bottle to a line that as of last night, was no longer directly relevant). Other highlights included the duo The Sea, The Sea singing “The Devil’s Won” and another duo, 3 Penny Acre, singing “Dolly and Porter.”
Folk Alliance always involved a lot of choices: who to try to see, how long to stay at any showcase, how much to plan and how much to go with the musical flow. And sometimes, you can’t get in where you want to. As was the case with my attempt to see Kathy Mattea. But I did manage to squeeze in for one song - but what a song! An acapella version of Jean Ritchie’s “In the Cool of the Day.” From the mountain purity of Kathy Mattea, I went to the bluesy, swampy vocal dynamo Jonell Mosser, who especially tore it up on Dylan’s “Trust Yourself.” Both of these performances were in the larger performance rooms, but after that, it was 5 ½ hours in the mostly very small private showcase rooms on the top three floors of the hotel. At first, I was catching one or two songs before moving on. Highlights included a new song, “Start,” from SONiA of disappear fear, with the line: “You don’t need hands to hold somebody’s heart, and you don’t need plans, you just need to start.” Vanessa Lively did lovely songs in Greek and Spanish in a traditional songs room. Fiddler Mariel Vandersteel joined by guitarist Jordan Tice did Irish and Norwegian tunes, (on the latter, Vandersteel played the Hardanger fiddle).
Ana Egge - Fairest of Them AllAt this point, though, I was ready to stay in one place for a while, and found the perfect landing spot: A song circle featuring Danny Schmidt (with Carrie Elkin on harmony vocals), Jonathan Byrd, and Ana Egge, and I was lucky enough to get the last chair in the room—less than two feet from Ana at one end of the lineup. As far as the songwriter side of the conference performances, this room was the highlight for sure. Four terrific songs from four excellent songwriters. Some of the highlights: Schmidt’s “Love Wins Again” with the lines: “Love fights with rings on her fingers, love bites when she leans in too close, but toe to toe if the toes start touching, you don’t stand a chance.” Jonathan Byrd’s powerful "I Was an Oak Tree,” from his recent CD Cackalack, and one of my favorite songs in recent years. Egge went all the way back to her first album, in 1997, for the tale of a girl on the make for stardom and the less than happy results, “Fairest of Them All,” where she rocked out on her national guitar. Byrd’s quiet song of heartbreak, “It Don’t Make Sense to Me,” with the gem of a line: “all I got is a future that I can’t forget.” The circle wrapped up with Egge singing "Motorcycle," a track off her new CD Bad Blood (produced by and featuring Steve Earle).
I was on the move again after that. Squeezed into the doorway to see Mary Gauthier, with fiddler Tania Elizabeth, sing “The Saddest Train of All.” Onto The Atomic Duo out of Austin, with Silas Lowe and Mark Rubin, doing wild country blues licks and runs on national mandolin and national guitar, with pointed lyrics on disasters, murders and politics. Highlights included Texas City (on an oil rig explosion) and Trickle Down, which Silas says he’s unsure if this counts as a disaster song or a Marxist polemic. From there to the new Boston string band, Annalivia, with twin fiddles, rhythm guitar and the outstanding lead guitar and mandolin of Flynn Cohen. They shone on "Sweet Sunny South" and a set of Irish fiddle tunes.
Mo' Mojo - AcadianaThe vocal harmony award of the night went to the trio Brother Sun, with Greg Greenway, Joe Jencks, and Pat Wictor, who debuted at last year’s conference. Nothing more gorgeous could be conceived than the vocal harmonies on the chorus to “All I Want Is a Garden." And, for me, nothing is more heartwarming every year than seeing New Orleans fiddler, guitariand songwriter Gina Forsyth, who conveys such a big heart and soul in her music. When she saw me enter the room, she told me the next song was for me, since she knew it was one of my favorites — and also told me it was okay to cry. And some tears and goosebumps did appear as she sang “Eddie,” a song about the troubles of life, and the short troubled life of her nephew Eddie. She was inspiring with her song “Better Than This” and gave her set a humorous coda with her musical description of her years attending Folk Alliance conferences in Memphis, from a performer’s perspective, which included “My showcase, it was splendid…it was early and sparsely attended.” And she looked to the future, since the conference will be in Toronto next year and then moving to Kansas City the next five years: “Don’t look at me in pity, we’ll do it all again in Kansas City."
The Fretless - Brigitte MulhollandAt this point (2:10 a.m.) it was time to “lively up,” which was easy to do with Mo’ Mojo, a hard driving Cajun and zydeco band. Odd to sit on a hotel bed, with comfy pillows, while people rock out with accordion, washboard, fiddles, drums, guitars and sax. But they were great fun. As was the Canadian combo, Oliver Swain’s Big Machine. Swain, former member of such fine bands as the Bill Hilly band and Scruj MacDuhk, mostly played bass, bowing lines in unison with the band’s fiddler on a cool version of John Henry. Unlike most string bands, this also had a trumpet player who added a new twist on traditional tunes. Showing up late was the band’s guitarist, the sensational teenager Quinn Bachand, but he brought his sister Qristina, who filled in when the band’s regular fiddler, Ivonne Hernandez, had to split to play with another of her bands. And it was that band, The Fretless, that was the final stop, after 3 a.m, on my musical tour of showcase rooms for the night. And what a nightcap they were—the instrumentation of a classical string quartet—two violins, viola and cello, but deeply versed in folk music. An amazing band, and I am looking forward to sharing music from their debut album in future weeks on Trail Mix on KPR!