By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The annual Folk Alliance International conference got underway Feb. 15, 2017 at the Westin Crown Center in Kansas City, kicking off four days of public and private showcases by bands and singers-songwriters from the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Australia, France and other far-flung places, along with bookers, radio hosts and industry professionals. This year the conference attracted about 2,700 registered delegates.
As usual (this is my third year), the performers were full of surprises. The word “folk” can bring to mind hillbillies plunking on banjos or old lefties singing labor songs. But as the conference has illustrated again and again, folk is anything musicians want it to be.
Handmade Moments, a high-energy, musically unpredictable Arkansas/California duo, delivered a prime example on opening night. The husky-voiced Anna Horton and gifted guitarist Joel Ludford wove a spell at their public showcase in the Brookside Room that was wild, exciting and unclassifiable. You could hear influences — jazz, bossa nova, punk, hip hop, the aggressive sax style of Fela Kuti — but in the end all you can say is that Horton and Ludford have created their own genre.
In their 25-minute official showcase they embraced the conference’s theme this year: Forbidden Folk. They sang originals about the ecological effects of fracking and other destructive human activities. And they offered a song about the current occupant of the White House. All presidents do damage, Ludford said in his introduction, but Trump “is the most accurate representation of the history of America.”
Their approach to songwriting is utterly original and incorporates vocal beat-box rhythm “tracks,” harmonies and sophisticated jazz-influenced solos on Ludford’s guitar. Horton makes an indelible contribution not only with her remarkable voice but also with her work on the bass clarinet, a commanding instrument almost as long as she is tall. But this instrument is not just an adornment. She puts real muscle behind it.
Later that evening, when I caught the first private hotel-room showcases of the conference, Handmade Moments demonstrated their astounding versatility with a set that had a completely different feel. Horton and Ludford switched off on standup bass and sang quirky originals and old jazz tunes they learned during a spell in New Orleans.
As performers, Ludford and Horton are charming and funny, but it’s their music that sticks with you. The compelling and addictive thing about Folk Alliance International is the opportunity to hear music you never would have even known about, much less cross the street to hear. Handmade Moments did all that, and so did others.
Al Scorch, a singer-songwriter out of Chicago who records with Bloodshot Records, writes original material that is raucous, poetic and intense. He’s a genial, lumbering presence on stage whose candid asides between tunes are acerbic but endearing. His songs reflect social and political issues, but always with a human face. Scorch performs mainly on the banjo and fiddler Jess McIntosh gave him accomplished support at his showcase. Their punkish music has little to do with genres we normally associate with the fiddle and banjo.
Track Dogs is a four-member band that, although based in Madrid, consists of two Irishmen, one Englishman and an American. Their unique instrumentation includes guitar (Garrett Wall), banjo and flamenco rhythm box (Robbie K. Jones), trumpet (Howard Brown) and electric bass (Dave Mooney). As you might expect from that lineup, their music is eclectic, with strains of Irish traditions, Spanish influences, rock, pop and jazz. It’s a seductive stew.
At Folk Alliance these guys performed with feverish intensity. As Wall explained during their set, they were trying to squeeze a 90-minute show into 25 minutes. A memorable original, “So Much Dust,” reflected on human existence:
You do all you can/To fight the good fight like a man/But times like these they take too much/And all we have to show is so much dust.
A song for our times.
The Jellyman’s Daughter, a three-piece Scottish band out of Edinburgh, shared a private showcase with The Bean Project from Melbourne, Australia. Emily Kelly and Graham Coe, founders of Jellyman’s Daughter, wove stunning vocal harmonies with Coe’s percussive work on the cello. The Bean Project founders, guitarist Ben Langdon and Bryce Turcato on French horn, created a distinctive sound, thanks principally to Turcato’s amazing solos on the horn.
To close Wednesday evening, I caught part of a private showcase by the The Railsplitters, an innovative five-piece band out of Colorado. I saw this exceptional bunch at last year’s conference. They employ the instruments of bluegrass, but they make their own music, which can be as creative as any jazz band.
Blues, a genre inextricably (and blissfully) tied to folk music, showed up in Kansas City thanks to at least two master instrumentalists.
Lloyd Spiegel, an Australian man-mountain, is arguably the best guitarist I’ve ever heard live. His mind-blowing finger work is so smooth that he hardly seems to break a sweat, and his voice is the other half of the show.
A lot of people play guitar, but nobody does it quite like Spiegel, who has been making music professionally since he was 16 years old. He tells a fascinating story about legendary bluesman Brownie McGhee. After hearing Spiegel’s debut album, which included a couple of McGhee covers, McGhee called the Aussie father. The old bluesman made an offer: Let the kid come live with McGhee in Oakland, Calif. and he’ll teach him how to play the McGhee tunes he thinks he knows. Thus began a remarkable apprenticeship.
Since then Spiegel has spent considerable time in the states, including Chicago and Kansas City. He plays with a breathtaking authority, and he doesn’t just stick to blues. He can play lyrical material as well. Thursday night he proved himself an excellent storyteller between numbers in a 25-minute set — which included his instantly memorable original, “If I Killed Ya When I Met Ya (I’d Be Out of Jail By Now).”
Later on Thursday night I caught a private showcase by Tony Furtado, a formidable player on guitar and banjo from Portland, Ore. His style is rooted in the blues, but he performs a range of material, including originals. On guitar he often used a slide on his little finger, which he employed with dazzling results. The slide added texture and freshness to tunes like Woody Guthrie’s “I Ain’t Got No Home.”
His repertoire also included a classic folk song, “Peggy-O,” and a Furtado original: “Astoria,” an addictive instrumental he performed on the banjo cello. In Furtado’s hands, the deep-toned instrument sounds more aggressive than a bluegrass banjo. He had to keep things tight in his 25-minute set, but I got the feeling he could have easily played the tune as long as his fingers were up to it.
One thing became clear during Folk Alliance International: Bluegrass ain’t exactly bluegrass anymore.
I caught part of a private showcase by The Barefoot Movement, a Nashville band whose sound transcends the genre. I’m glad I was there for a beautiful waltz-time ballad, “The Second Time Around.” Later I watched their full public showcase and took note of their versatility. Fiddler and lead vocalist Noah Wall, guitarist and singer Alex Conerly, mandolinist Tommy Norris and bassist Katie Blomarz are excellent instrumentalists. And lead singer Wall is a charismatic presence. And yes, they do perform barefoot.
Trout Steak Revival, like The Barefoot Movement and The Railsplitters, employs traditional bluegrass instruments to their own ends. The Denver band’s original tunes and arrangements are structured less like traditional bluegrass than…well, pop music. The band’s five members, Will Koster (guitar and dobro), Bevin Foley (fiddle), Travis McNamara (banjo), Casey Houlihan (bass) and Steve Foltz (guitar and mandolin), are all fine instrumentalists, and four of them can handle lead vocals, which tells you something about their versatility. Tunes like “Go On” and “Brighter Every Day” stick with you.
I encountered two duos who are also part of the bluegrass family, more or less. The Brother Brothers combine fiddle and cello and sublime harmonies. Adam and David Moss really are brothers and they really can sing. 10 String Symphony, based in Nashville, consists of two champion fiddlers, Rachel Baiman and Christian Sedelmyer. Their original material, represented no better than by “Mad Girl’s Love Song,” is innovative and exciting and they proved to be fine harmony singers.
Canadian Coco Love Alcorn might be described as a secular gospel artist. In her 25-minute set, I didn’t hear “God” or “Heaven” mentioned, but her music has a natural spiritual feel. Her lyric writing is economical and vivid. When she combines the words with irresistible melodies, the result is magnetic. Alcorn performed with two polished sidemen, bassist Connor Walsh and percussionist Jon Foster, both of whom provided backup vocals. The crowd loved her.
Another Canadian, Alysha Brilla, wowed a packed house at Benton’s (on the 20th floor) with her charismatic stage presence, humor, transcendent voice and serious lyrics. In her brightly colored dress and blouse, she projected the image of a tropical flower — an explosion of color and grace, delicate but powerful. (And she played the only blue guitar I saw at the conference.) Accompanied by percussionist/bassist Sammy Duke, Brilla won the crowd over with her infectious originals, including “Immigrant,” “Bigger Than That” and “No More Violence.”
My schedule didn’t allow time for many regional rooms — Alaska, Wisconsin, Sweden, Canada — but I did pop into the Oklahoma Room, where I caught a short set by singer-songwriter Dan Martin that included his “You Don’t Know This Town Like Me” and the imaginative “Cannon’s Lament.”
One Oklahoman I didn’t get to see is Chris Lee Becker, but I picked up a copy of his CD, “Imaginary Friends,” which reveals him to be an acerbic, inventive and often raucous songwriter. There are some serious tunesmiths down in the state that boasts the birthplace of Woody Guthrie.
I first encountered the Lemon Bucket Orkestra in the Westin lobby, where the 11-member band (including a “gypsy” dancer) played a spontaneous set of what sounded like Eastern European and maybe Middle Eastern jams performed frantically with a punkish, theatrical sensibility. Later I caught part of their showcase at Benton’s, but the noise level quickly drove me to the elevator. During the setup I noticed that almost every instrument, including the tuba, was individually miked. Strange, since they would have been plenty loud with no microphones at all.
The conference theme this year was Forbidden Folk, a nod to folk music’s long, honorable tradition of protest songs. I heard a few, but none so effective as “Freedom,” an original song by Ariana Gillis. At her late-night private showcase, Gillis delivered a plaintive call to action.
Freedom, freedom where have you been? she sang. I’ve been missing you so long.
Guns and soldiers, bullets, patrollers. Freedom never felt so wrong.
Says it all in the hyper-polarized, fragmented political era in which we find ourselves.
Folk music seems to have a North American identity, thanks to Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and others. But this conference draws people from all over the world. Indeed, FAI’s executive director, Aengus Finnan, is a Canadian born in Ireland.
Nobody has a patent on folk music, American or otherwise. And now there’s a curious sub-genre: Americana performed by non-Americans. That concept is the brain child of radio host Michael Park. His show, “The International Americana Music Show,” is carried on a number of U.S. public radio stations as well as international outlets.
Park hosted his own stage at the conference and that’s where I saw the French band Doolin‘. In an intense, 25-minute set, the five-member group sometimes performed in English, sometimes in French, but regardless of the song’s origins the band delivered it expertly.
Instruments include guitar, whistle, bass, accordion and electric bass. These guys are fun to watch onstage, and if the music sounds more Irish than American (besides a cover of Bob Dylan’s “The Ballad of Hollis Brown”) no one was complaining. Without question, this is a great band.
Blair Dunlop, a singer-songwriter from England, shares his countrymen’s proclivity for an expansive vocabulary and a dry sense of humor. How many Americans would use “ascertain” in a lyric, as Dunlop does in “She Won’t Cry For Me”? In “Sweet on You” he sings: “If you don’t like Ry Cooder, how could I ever be sweet on you?” In a new song he incorporated the phrase “hydraulic electricity” into the lyrics, “which,” he said, “is my career highlight to date.”
One afternoon I stepped into a private showcase where The Changing Room, an elegant folk band based in Cornwall, shared an absurdly small space with two American songwriters — Mary Battiata of Washington DC and Ali Sperry of Nashville.
Forcing three acts to share a 25-minute slot seems crazy, but all involved persevered. Batavia, a former Washington Post reporter, has a soft, traveled voice and an appealing laid-back presence. Sperry shared a memorable romantic ballad, “Our Biography,” which she co-wrote as a duet with Robby Hecht.
The Changing Room sings in English and Cornish. Led by founders Tanya Brittain and
Sam Kelly, the band creates a unique sound with a combination of accordion, guitar, harp and banjo. “A River Runs Between,” an original, was lovely.
I attended the conference with my wife, Donna Trussell, who took the pictures you see here. Asked in the second or third day how she was doing, her response spoke for me and a lot of other people: “Exhausted. Happy.”
Robert Coleman Trussell is a musician and freelance writer covering the arts in Kansas City. He wrote an advance piece on the conference and FAI’s future in Kansas City for the January issue of KC Studio.