by Keith Koenig
Well, here it is, that time again for the Folk Alliance conference to hit KC, providing Middle America and a world of Folk Music aficionados with a beautiful global agglomeration of Folk Music in all of it’s many shapes and colors.
The Folk Alliance intelligentsia seem to keep changing the format every year. The first two years, only local acts played on Wednesday night and this year, they allowed official showcases by national acts this time around. I work on Wednesday night, so missed night one, but there were fewer showcases that night, so it may just be my ritual to miss Wednesday night at the Folk Alliance shindig. Would have loved to have seen Aoife O’Donovan’s official showcase.
This year, instead of merely going to the public showcases, I went big and got a Folk Alliance membership, paid the fee for the whole fest and even got a hotel room at the Sheraton for three nights, so I wouldn’t have to drive home after being up all day and all night, and also because I wanted to totally immerse myself in the music and good vibes that this fest brings to town. It was totally worth it and I plan to do it again next year and in 2018 before it heads somewhere else. Road trip, anyone? But back to this year…
Thursday – 2/18:
I checked into the hotel and it appeared that many of the musicians were staying there, a mere two blocks from Crown Center, where most everything with the exception of some classes, took place. I missed some afternoon showcases, but wanted extra sleep so I could make it through a long night of music and fun.
Walking back and forth on the walkway is always fun during the fest because you never know who you’ll run into or who will be performing out there. In fact, during my first walk over, I met a lovely young lady who chatted me up named Sonia Seelinger. She is a songwriter who told me that although she wasn’t playing the fest, she was here to network and find an opportunity to play here next year. Hope she can make it happen.
Over in Crown Center, I hit Mecca. There was the usual cool sea of musicians, Industry people, and fans milling about. I said a quick hello to wonderful KC Folkie, Kasey Rausch, who totally deserves to be amongst the best that Folk Music has to offer globally. I saw two members of the quintet, Caitlin Jemma and the Goodness performing in the hallway and stopped for a couple of songs. I then went down to the lobby of the Crown Center Hotel and saw one of my favorite songwriters, Grant-Lee Phillips. He was talking to several people, so I figured I’d get to speak to him at some point, so walked away. About 20 minutes later, I’m milling around and there is Grant, by himself. I walked up and said hello and then, almost embarrassingly, let the fan boy in me loose. I told him I am anxiously awaiting his forthcoming CD, “The Narrows”, which I have pre-ordered and how I was looking forward to his official showcase, which was taking place in about an hour. He was so kind and gracious and thanked me for enjoying what he does. Then it was time to hit the Ballroom level for official showcases.
This year, unlike the last two, the Folk Alliance people made the public tickets limited and they all sold out in advance, so I am glad I didn’t go that route this year. Oh, and I made my first spotting of Beatle Bob at the fest! He is the guy with the Beatle haircut who is famous for travelling the country for the past three decades and dances in his own wonderful way during shows (you can find many Beatle Bob clips on YouTube and beyond), even at a Folk Fest. If you know of him, ya go, “Hey, there’s Beatle Bob!” If you aren’t aware of him, you’d think the guy is nuts with all of his 60’s style dancing when everyone else is sitting down watching. The guy is on a planet all his own and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.
Anyway, the first showcase I saw was by Glen Phillips, who was the lead singer for 90’s Alt-Rock band, Toad The Wet Sprocket, whom I have a CD or two from. He was OK and did a lovely version of Toad’s, “Walk On The Ocean”, but I was so psyched for Grant-Lee Phillip’s showcase that I was ready to move on after about three songs by Glen, but stuck it out.
Next up, Grant-Lee Phillip’s 30 minute set (most official showcases lasted 25-30 minutes) was one of my favorites of the whole darn weekend. The guy has such a wonderful voice and writes songs that are insanely good. I have enjoyed his music since the mid-90’s when his Alt-Rock band, Grant Lee Buffalo, released their second album, “Mighty Joe Moon”, which remains one of my all-time favorite albums to this day. His set included a couple of new songs from the forthcoming album, “The Narrows.” But he also played two of my favorite solo tunes, “Nightbirds” and “Buried Treasure” from his stellar 2009 album, “Little Moon”. He also played two songs from my beloved “Mighty Joe Moon” album, including the title track and the gorgeous “Honey Don’t Think.” It ended all too soon and someone really needs to bring him back to KC for a full solo show, which is how he performs for the most part these days.
After Grant’s beautiful performance, I saw Toronto-based Jadea Kelly’s set, which wasn’t bad. In the intro to her showcase, her sound was described as “a cross between Iris DeMent and Portishead.” An odd combo, but totally fitting. I remember liking her lead guitarist’s work, which was really atmospheric and brought to mind Bo Ramsey, who has played for Lucinda Williams. Next up was an amazing performance by buzz artists, Darlingside. The large room was packed and this quartet from Cambridge, MA., impressed us all. Outstanding harmonies (think Crosby, Stills, Nash & Yong), great musicianship and great humor between songs. These guys are going places. The guys switched instruments between songs, which was cool. A couple sitting next to me said, before they played, that these guys will “change your life.” Don’t know about THAT, but they are something special to be sure.
Next up was Steve Poltz. He is most famous for co-writing a hit or two for Jewel back in the day, but the guy is an absolute hoot! He show was almost more stand up comedy as it was actual music. He even put the guitar down, took the mike off of the stand and told a lengthy story where a song might have been, but he was so damn funny, we didn’t really care. His songs were at times touching and at times hilarious, including “I Want All My Friends To Be Happy” and “Folksinger.” Great set by Steve. Then I caught the first three songs by a spirited young group from Florida called Laney Jones & The Spirits. They were not bad. I would have stayed for the whole set, but I figured as it was one of the last official showcase of the night and ended at 10:45, I wanted to get to the few elevators set up to go up to floors 5-7, where the afterhours hotel room private showcases were held. Good idea, as it was packed over there and took time to actually get on a elevator going up, cramped like sardines. They really need to have stairwells open, which wasn’t the case.
Anyway, I made it up to a small room which had about 9 seats in it and got a cozy one right next to a bed in the room. I rested my arm on the bed, it was that close. The first artist I saw was an Australian singer named Krista Polvere. Easy on the eyes and Ryan Adams is a fan and has recently recorded with her, so I figured I’d catch her hotel room showcase. She had a guitarist with her whom she had met earlier in the day, who learned her songs and did fine solo work throughout. There were only four people in the room listening to these lovely songs and on her final song, Krista said the song she was about to play was about her marriage and divorce and that she apologized if she got a bit emotional. So, she is singing this song and lo and behold, a tear streams down her face. Then another and I though, wow, it doesn’t get anymore intimate than THIS. I really just wanted to give her a hug.
Next up was L.A.-based Michelle Lewis, whose solo set was also quite good. The final set in that room I saw was from the lovely and talented Michaela Anne. I saw her wonderful official showcase during my first Folk Alliance fest and enjoyed her album “Ease My Mind” which she handed me an advanced copy of at the time. It was great seeing her again and I look forward to her new CD coming out in May. Michaela has star quality and I hope she gets a wider audience.
I walked out of that room and who do I see? Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, who won a lifetime achievement award the night before at the Folk Alliance Awards gala. I shook his hand and asked him how he was and he simply said, “tired” with a smile. “How cool was that?”, I asked myself for the next hour or so.
Next up, it was time to drop in on The Grahams, a NYC-based Husband and wife duo who I have seen play at all three Folk Alliance fests I have attended, as they are fine purveyors of Americana music and super nice folks to boot. I caught about 30 minutes of The Grahams set and after each set, they would yell out, “Free Bourbon in here” and by gosh, there were two MASSIVE bottles of said substance right next to me. No, I did not imbibe, as I wanted to be upright during the wee hours of the night/morning. The last song I saw from them was a nice cover of Alejandro Escovado’s “Broken Bottle.”
Speaking of beverages, there was a lack of water on the floors of the private showcase hotel rooms. There was a river of beer and oddly, no public restrooms upstairs. The restrooms in the rooms where music was being played appeared to be de facto dressing rooms for the artists. One guy asked if it was OK to use the restroom in one room and I said I couldn’t really make that call, but knock yourself out…and so he did.
I then saw two songs by Canadian Songwriter Abigail Lapell and a full set by Canuck Husband and Wife who call themselves The Young Novelists. I enjoyed what they did. Then on to a UK/Ireland-based room to see British trio, Lady Maisery. Man, were they talented. One of the trio even played a harp. How they got it up and into that small setting is a mystery. It wasn’t terribly huge, but still very much a harp.
Next up, a gorgeous London songwriter named Roxanne de Bastian. Very easy on the eyes and I shamefully admit that is why I choose to check out her set. But what do you know, she is very much a talented and thoughtful songwriter. Loved her song about red and white blood cells, which don’t come up enough in songs, if you ask me. She gave me a copy of an ep after the set. Then I saw an ethereal young songwriter from Montreal (by way of Winnipeg) named Jenny Berkel. Her songs were just beautiful and the musicians who backed her up were really strong (more on Jenny later).
Finally, winding down to the late, late hours, I saw a full set from The Bombadils from Toronto. I had seen them playing in the hotel lobby the last two years and they epitomize everything that is wonderful about this conference as you get the idea that these folks play music for the sheer love of it. The past two year, they were a quartet. Two members have moved on and a cellist is now on board and their hotel room showcase proved them to be just as genuine as ever. Their final song, an instrumental, was introduced in French, translating to “Squirrels Rule The Day, Raccoons Rule The Night.” How could I not love ’em? I then spoke to their “Band Mom”, Gisele, whom I met last year and she is so nice and like many of us, a lifelong music fan who is very knowledgeable on the topic. I spoke to her a few times during the fest and if she epitomizes the stereotypical kindness and warmth of the Canadian populace (the members of The Bombadils are also truly nice people) , then I may have to look into buying a summer home in Ontario! Love that group!
I finished my first night with two songs by Canadian singer Heather Stryka before heading into a room and catching the last four songs of a showcase by Denver trio, Edison. Easily one of the best things I saw during the fest. The band played with a ferocity that was mind blowing! Singer Sarah Slater pounced up on a cabinet in the room during one song, nearly knocking a TV over and then pounced on the bed if the room during another song. Band member Dustin Morris was also impressive, playing Mandolin, Bass drum and floor toms, as well as trumpet, sometimes during the same song! It was a truly feral performance and you can tell this band is going to be huge if the right people take notice. A killer live band and such nice to people to talk with after the set. I was a little afraid of Sarah at first because she is intense, of course in the BEST sense of the word. Those guys blew me away. Edison…remember the name. When they are playing arenas, I can say I saw them laying waste to a hotel room in KC at 3:30 in the A.M. Speaking if which, it is truly cool to hear live music in an intimate space in the middle of the night. My first night ended just after 3:30 and I made to trek across the walkway back to the hotel very satisfied with my first night of Folk Alliance and hungry for more.
Be sure to read parts 2 & 3 of Keith’s coverage!