My Adventures at the 2015 Folk Alliance Music Fair

by Keith Koenig
Sheraton Hotel at Crown Center, Kansas City, Missouri, Feb. 19-21
  Last year’s initial Folk Alliance Conference in Kansas City was a revelation to someone who has always loved and supported live music in this city. Although I bought tickets for the public showcases last year and did not register for the conferences and afterhour jam sessions in the hotel rooms, I still managed to check out a song or two in all 11 rooms featuring music at the Westin Crown Center Hotel and ended up seeing 40 acts over three nights. So many great discoveries and the vibe in that hotel was magical, with constant jam sessions going on in the lobby, the stairwells, outside, and on the skywalk between Union Station all the way to the Sheraton Hotel on McGee.This year, they moved the public showcases over to the Sheraton Hotel, stating that there would be more room (so not true) as the Westin got so crowded last year that it was rumored that the Fire Marshall almost shut it down. I didn’t realize that I wasn’t going to see the showcases at the Westin this time around, so I was a little disappointed and wondered how this would impact my overall experience this year.The verdict: Last year was just a magical, life changing experience. This year, I had to seek out the magic, and overall, this year’s music fair was pretty fulfilling, but I didn’t get the same warm and fuzzy feeling I took home last year.It was still a grand experience, though. So, I will definitely not procrastinate like I did after last year’s fest and will register early for the whole conference next year. That gets you all of the performances in both hotels, including the after hour hotel room performances.

One advantage of the public showcases this year is that the artists got to play longer sets. At the actual conference, each artist gets 20-25 minutes and then another artist sweeps in immediately to play their showcase. Having said that, it does allow you to sample a wider variety of artists.

Nearly half of the artists at the 25 dollar a night public music fair were local. Love me some local music, but I see most of these KC artists throughout the year as it is. Anyway, Here is what I experienced at this year’s 2015 Folk Alliance Music Fair.

Settle in…

Night 1:

Although the showcases I paid for were at the Sheraton, I made it a pact each night to show up at the hotel and then immediately take the skywalk over to the Weston Hotel at Crown Center and to mill around the Conference area until someone accosted me and tossed me out, which never occurred. First off, You get to see so many artists when crossing the skywalk between hotels.

You also got to see impromptu sets by many of the artists. These also took place in the lobbies and hallways of both hotels. So, I would walk through the Westin side, picking up any free promo CDs and flyers/promo cards I could get my hands on (Hey, I ain’t proud!) and then to also speak to some of the artists and folks I recognized and to listen to some fine music being made on the spot.

So, in the first hour or so after arrival on night one (I got to the hotel each afternoon at around 4:30, although the music didn’t start until 7 PM), I said hello or spoke briefly to local artists like Kasey Rausch, Sara Morgan, Bob Walkenhorst (as he was heading upstairs for his showcase), a Texas songwriter named Daniel Thomas Phipps, who looked like a cross between Jesus and Charles Manson (blasphemous, but entirely true) , and got to meet Matt Young, the mandolin/harmonica player for the band, Ghost of Paul Revere, from Portland, Maine, as we waiting for our slices at D’Bronx Deli.

As I was eating said slice, I looked up to see the legendary Beatle Bob walking by. For the uninitiated, Beatle Bob is a dude from St. Louis who goes to live shows most every night of the year and dances by himself in his own original style. He travels to shows and festivals all over the country doing this, always wearing a sharp suit and sporting his Beatles haircut (think George Harrison circa 1964) and as so many artists have had the pleasure of spotting Beatle Bob at their performances, he has gotten to announce bands from the stages of Bonnaroo and Coachella. To get a taste of Beatle Bob, check out the cool video on Youtube for the song, “My Kind of Soldier” by Guided By Voices, which is more or less a tribute to Beatle Bob. Anyway, I sprung outta my seat to meet Bob and he talked to me for almost 20 minutes. What a cool and gregarious guy Beatle Bob is.

So, my first music showcase of the night was Nashville songwriter Tim Easton. He played alongside fiddle player and vocalist Megan Palmer and their 45 minute set was full of good songs and the crowded room was appreciative. That is one thing I noticed throughout the fair is that the public showcases were all pretty crowded. It was thought that moving the public over to the Sheraton would help, but the showcases were all pretty packed, frighteningly so at times! Anyway, Beatle Bob danced through much of Tim’s set and for those who are aware of him, he brings a smile and the thought that Beatle Bob was at a show I attended! If you don’t know who he was (the majority of folks at the Conference), they are thinking, “Who IS that crazy sonuva…?” He definitely divides people, but he did turn up at a handful of showcases I attended over the weekend and I dug it every time.

Next up, I made it over to the largest ballroom of the six that were featuring music (there was also a film room) at the Sheraton to grab a seat for Bela Fleck, which I knew would be crowded. Before them, I sat through a nice, although not overly exciting set by The Rainmakers’ Bob Walkenhorst and Jeff Porter, who have been playing most every Wednesday night at the Record Bar for the past several years.

Bob gracefully gave the first 15 minutes of his time to his “opening act” – his daughter, Una. Una played three songs by herself and seemed more than a bit nervous, but did OK. Bob and Jeff then played for a half hour. doing mostly stuff from the album they released a few years back. The highlight for me was the one Rainmakers song I recognized, which was “Kansas City Times” from the 25 UP album.

After their set, Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn took the stage.  Not only was every seat filled in the large room, there were as many people standing!  It was scary crowded.

Bela and Abigail started with a cover of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” which came off like a Murder Ballad (LOVE Abigail’s voice!). They played many songs from the album they released together last year and Bela got a solo spot in which he showed the crowd what a major talent he is. He plays with a speed that would make Eddie Van Halen proud! Abigail also sang a song entirely in Chinese.Who knew?

I made it through an hour of their set and then split, as I wanted to catch Kevn Kinney from Atlanta band, Drivin’ N Cryin’. He was playing in the adjoining ballroom and as the Bela Fleck crowd was a Fire Marshall’s nightmare, I wasn’t too disappointed in leaving the Bela Fleck set early.

The ‘circle of song’ format that had Kevn Kinney on stage alongside two other songwriters, Dan Navarro (Los Angeles) and Anthony da Costa, was the best thing I saw/heard on night one. The three songwriters would do a song and then pass it on to the next guy. I missed the first song of their set, but got to see 50 minutes from these three talented songwriters.

Drivin’ N Cryin’ is a band I loved in the 80’s. I have the three albums they released that decade and dug the video for their song, “Build a Fire” in the early 90’s.

As good as Kevn Kinney was Thursday night, the other two artists were equally as good. Dan Navarro sang with such a passion that he almost flew out of his chair during his songs and his strong voice reminded me of Gordon Lightfoot in his prime.

The real surprise was 23 year old Anthony da Costa. While the other two slayed their acoustic guitars, Anthony augmented the other two artist’s song with some fine electric guitar work and his songs were just beautiful with an Indie Rock/Pop sensibility. You will certainly be hearing more from Anthony da Costa in the near future.

From there, I took in two songs from Brooklynite Folkie, Kristin Andreassen, before stumbling into five songs from raucous local band, Whiskey For The Lady. Man, were they cool! They played their Roots music at break neck speed. The last song I heard from them was a Rocked up cover of “These Boots Were Made For Walking,” in which their upright Bass Player was headbanging as if he were in Metallica. Would love to see them do a full show at Knuckleheads.

I ended night one with three songs by local band, The Hardship Letters, who are lead by KC renaissance man, Tony Ladesich. Didn’t hear much Folk in what they did, but they do play some nice meat and potatoes Heartland Rock. Not a bad way to end my first night of music.

Stay tuned for mor of Keith’s impressions in another post.

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