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Radio Bob's Take on Folk Alliance Conference 2013: Day ONE

Bob McWilliams,               aka Radio Bob

Having escaped Lawrence just before the big blizzard, I arrived at the site of this year's Folk Alliance Conference very late Wednesday night, but still with enough time to catch a 1 a.m. showcase by the Canadian duo of siblings, fiddler and singer Qristina Bachand (in her early 20s) and her 17-year-old brother, guitarist Quinn Bachand. Drawing heavily upon the Celtic tune tradition, they provided a lively welcome to Toronto. Before heading off to bed, I also caught some lively rockabilly from another Canadian group, Petunia and the Vipers.


"Red Rocking Chair" by Qristina & Quinn Bachand


The next day, the conference got into full swing, with a mix of panels and workshops with a plethora of performance showcases spanning a wide range of folk music. First stop: a "crooked tunes" showcase hosted by Kansas City's own fiery fiddler Betse Ellis. "Crooked" tunes have an irregular number of beats, and they were demonstrated by Ellis, as well as an Appalachian group, The Gallinippers Old Time String Band; the Métis Fiddler Quartet, who drew upon the musical traditions of the Métis, descendants of Europeans who intermarried with people of the First Nations, and the Yukon old-time fiddler, Allan Benjamin, who wore snowshoes to clog along with his playing.


Nuala Kennedy with Andy Hillhouse performing at Folk Alliance 2013. (Photo by Bob McWilliams)The early evening "performance alley" showcases are held in various hotel meeting and ballrooms, with full sound systems, followed by late night private showcases, which take up three floors of regular hotel rooms and suites converted into makeshift performance spaces. I caught three outstanding performance alley showcases, starting with the Irish singer and fiddler Nuala Kennedy, who brought new life to traditional tunes and a "lively" murder ballad, with the help of an outstanding bass and guitar by Joel Phillips and Andy Hillhouse. The highlight of her set was a beautiful original love song set to waltz time.

Anaïs Mitchell: NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert

From there, I caught a new singer-songwriter to my ears, Nels Andrews, based in Brooklyn. Just last week, I had auditioned his recent album, Scrimshaw (debuting on Trail Mix this week), and was impressed to the extent that I wanted to make sure and hear him in person. I was not disappointed at all, as he did a fine musical adaptation of a Yeats poem, and a piece called Flotsam that had the audience singing and humming the refrain on the way out the door. I headed to hear the duo of Anaïs Mitchell, one of the finest young singer-songwriters to emerge in the last decade, and Jefferson Hamer, singing traditional English ballads from their brand new CD, Child Ballads (expect to hear a lot of this album in coming weeks on Trail Mix). These story songs tend to run long, so they only had time to do three in their 20-minute showcase, but the packed room was completely captivated, nonetheless. Their vocal and guitar blend breathed new life into their very old songs, and their version of Geordie was particularly heart wrenching.

After that, it was the chaos of the private showcase floors, where at any one time well over 40 acts were playing, usually in 20- to 30-minute showcases. I made sure to arrive early to one of my favorite showcase rooms every year, the "Sweet Beaver Suite," featuring Canadian groups, for the wonderful trio from Newfoundland, The Once, whose latest CD has been a mainstay on KPR's  Trail Mix over the last year. Then it was a great showcase in a tiny room by guitarist and banjo player Tony Furtado, backed by bassist Sam Howard, for some great blues slide guitar numbers, a terrific reworking by Tony of the old folk song Peggy-O, and a beautiful original banjo tune, with special guest fiddler Trent Freeman from the band The Fretless.

"Wild Bill Jones" by Pharis & Jason Romero

Fiddler and singer Laura Cortese has been a key part of the Boston music scene and showcased a fascinating group with fiddler Mariel Vandersteel and cellist (and KC area native) Valerie Thompson, who told me she grew up listening to Trail Mix on KPR! Joined by guests including singer Rose Cousins, Cortese and her band showed how contemporary, original songs could be blended with a string ensemble rooted in traditional music. To get deeper into a traditional vein, I saw the duo of Pharis and Jason Romero, from the tiny British Columbia town of Horsefly, where they make banjos as well as sing old time music, with a sound very much derived from the old country "brother" duets. Highlights included Wild Bill Jones and a spooky, bluesy gospel song titled for the refrain, "That Just Suits Me." I had hoped to see the group Dry Bones, with Leonard Podolak of The Duhks, but could barely jam into the doorway of the packed room, so after holding my camera above the throng for a picture, wrapped up my night with the high energy French Canadian group De Temps Antan.

Music Notes for DAY TWO Folk Alliance Conference 2013

Music Notes for DAY THREE Folk Alliance Conference 2013

Bob McWilliams, who earned his B.A. and M.A. in history at the University of Kansas and his J.D. from Harvard Law School, far prefers radio to law. He's hosted jazz programs on KANU and KPR since 1983, and became jazz director and Jazz in the Night's weeknight host in 1996. He also did graduate work in jazz history with the late Dick Wright. He co-hosted the Flint Hills Special for many years, and has produced and hosted Trail Mix, blending contemporary and traditional celtic, folk, bluegrass and beyond, since it began in 1994. He's also active in teaching U.S. History at Johnson County Community College, and is a passionate St. Louis Cardinals baseball fan and Kansas Jayhawk basketball fan, as well as an avid if not particulary talented tennis player. Somehow, he also finds time to be an avid reader of fiction and non-fiction, and indulges his news habit with three daily newspapers and numerous magazines. Bob also founded the nonprofit West Side Folk concert series in Lawrence. "To me, there's nothing quite like 'goosebump music,' the music that makes time slow down and draws you in, away from everything else, and leaves you with goosebumps," Bob said. "I hope listeners enjoy the music on many levels, but I also hope that, on occasion, I can leave them with 'goosebump' moments."