Read our coverage of Folk Alliance International 2018 in Kansas City MO
Folk Alliance International
Kansas City Missouri
February 14 to 18 2018
By Rob Dickens
The festival and conference that is celebrating its thirty-year anniversary. From humble beginnings in Malibu California in 1989 with just 130 participants (including artists), Folk Alliance International continues to spread its wings. In Kansas City Missouri this year, it takes over the Westin Crown Centre like a benevolent, all-pervasive creeper.
Kansas City is the largest city in Missouri with a population of almost 500,000. It became a critical point for expansion into the West with three key trails passing through it and much of its history thankfully remains on show. The majestic Union Station is but one of the indicators of grandeur that have been preserved and celebrated, as is the famous jazz district 18th and Vine which is undergoing a re-awakening. The FAI event has been held here for the past five years.
The gathering has many distinct components:
- The International Folk Music Awards held on the Wednesday night
- The Conference and Exhibit Hall Thursday to Saturday, including keynote speakers Richard Thompson and John Oates
- Official Showcases Thursday to Saturday evenings
- Private Showcases Wednesday to Saturday (late night) and Thursday to Saturday (day)
- Kansas City Folk Festival (Sunday)
There were around 200 artists selected for the Official Showcases – you can find them all here. By my reckoning, there were another 400-500 delegates who performed at some point in the private showcases. Total attendance this year was a record 2,750 from twenty-five countries with a high number of first-timers like myself (1,000).
The International Folk Music Awards
The Folk Awards were held in the beautifully restored Folly Theatre (built 1901) in the vibrant Power and Light District. You can read about the life-time Award recipients here. The show itself was a somewhat low-key, modest affair.
On the positive, there were strong performances from host Ruthie Foster (“Phenomenal Woman”) and Anais Mitchell (“Why We Build The Wall”), interesting videos about FAI history, Richie Havens and Elektra Records. Awards for 2017 announced on the night were: Album of the Year – Freedom Highway by Rhiannon Giddens, Song of the Year: “You Didn’t Call My Name” by Molly Tuttle and Artist of the Year: Ordinary Elephant.
The Peter Paul and Mary life-time Award was not mentioned at all on the night even though it was featured in the following day’s official media release. Peter Yarrow of the group was jailed in 1970 for taking sexual liberties with a fourteen-year old girl. One of the resonating conference themes this year was promoting a safe music community which clearly is at odds with that history. Why there was no mention on the night of this specific award is one thing, what’s more puzzling is the granting of the order in the first place, given the laudable goal of the FAI. There were also some awkward moments during proceedings, the Staley Falcon Chorale overfilled the stage and the sing-along finale of “Goodnight Irene” might not be to everyone’s tastes.
The Richard Thompson interview was a treat.
Topics ranged over London in the late 1960’s including the UFO Club, how the repertoire of Fairport Convention evolved from covers to originals and, more importantly, the use of new songs steeped in the Celtic traditions, the recording and critical involvement of the great violinist Dave Swarbrick, Sandy Denny joining the band, the importance of aligning their music with audience desires, the devastating motorway accident that claimed the lives of the then drummer Martin Lamble and Thompson’s girlfriend.
Fascinating was the discussion on Bob Dylan with Thompson declaring that Dylan changed the face of face of popular music with the politicisation and ‘coding’ of lyrics. The interviewer was Steve Winick from the Library of Congress.
Alas, I chose not to attend any other panel sessions (around 50 in all) as there was live music on offer constantly, which proved to be an irresistible alternative.
This was the most alluring and enjoyable part of the week, 180 individual artist performances.
Sets lasted only thirty minutes with not much time in between, so that format provided terrific insights into many artists. I attended as numerous as I could but in reality only a fraction of the total. I did, however, stay for the entirety of each set given their relative brevity and avoided rushing around too much to avoid only being exposed to unrepresentative snippets from the backs of rooms.
Highlights were many:
Rachel Baiman (Nashville) had a two-piece accompaniment which testified to the merits of her breezy and delightful album of last year, Shame (Free Dirt Records). The title track, “I Could’ve Been Your Lover Too”, “Never Tire Of The Road” (a languid tribute to Woody Guthrie) and “Let Them Go To Heaven” were engaging. A new song about Thanksgiving was impressive.
A performer since the age of eleven, Molly Tuttle was recently awarded the IBMA Guitarist Of The Year (the first female), joining the exalted ranks of Bryan Sutton, Tony Rice and Doc Watson. Also, the recipient of the Folk Award for Song Of The Year. A master instrumentalist and a gifted songwriter, she was splendid with tunes from her new EP Rise and others, such as “Good Enough”, “Friend Of A Friend” and a sweet cover of John Hartford’s “Gentle On My Mind”.
Finally got to see Jon Langford. This Welshman who resides in Chicago and is a stalwart of Bloodshot Records, had only an acoustic show with the Four Lost Souls (there were only three, but who’s counting?) but he demonstrated plenty of evidence of the fire in his belly as he prowled the stage and immersed himself in the groove. Songs today included “Fish Out Of Water”, “Natchez Trace”, “Storm On The Ocean”, “Drone Operator”, “Masterpiece” and “Snake Behind Glass”
There’s something that is not quite right on first appearance. Canadian singer-songwriter (from Saskatchewan) Colter Wall draws his vocals from low within his body, the deepest voice somewhat incongruous to his slight frame. His lyrics are from the frontier and etched history. His self-titled debut album was released last year and he put on a terrific set with songs such as “Thirteen Silver Dollars” exuding power.
The War and Treaty were passionate, joyful and spontaneous. It was a show and then some. I was keen to see a whole set (albeit brief) after a glimpse of them on the Cayamo music cruise. The back story is quite remarkable and may bring a tear to your eye, as might their revelation on stage. Check them out when you can.
Gretchen Peters. To my mind, one of the sharpest, instinctive songwriters I have heard. Seeing her again here just confirmed to me her lyrical and melodic power. “Matador”, “Five minutes”, “When All You Got Is A Hammer” and “Idelwild” were exceptionally delivered with the polished keyboard and accordion of Barry Walsh. The outstanding news is that of a new album, expected to be released in May this year and we got a taste with two new songs that maybe called “That Night In Wichita” and “Life Is A Disappearing Act”.
Canada’s Rose Cousins provided one of our best albums of 2017. Seeing her live did not disabuse me of her talent in any way. Her set included her solo (guitar and keyboards), with string players, a guest in Mary Chapin Carpenter and a choir of friends so large that they were dripping off the stage. “Farmer’s Wife”, “Chains”, and the closing all-cast finale of “Grace” were memorable.
Texan Sam Baker‘s last album was Land Of Doubt. His set did not linger on that meaningful collection, instead he seemed to follow the spirit of the moment and enthrall the audience with his sparse, intense tunes. We were also treated to his humour and confronted with the personal tragedy that befell him many years ago and the impact that it has had on the rest of his life. Gripping.
Yirrmal hails from Yirrkala in the Northern Territory in Australia. This indigenous performer sings with fire and fervour about his homeland and culture with such feeling that he seems to hypnotise the room. He started the set with a vocal dedication to the traditional owners of the land here. It was sweet and poignant, yet it appeared that you could have heard it three blocks away. The sound through the corridors of The Westin Hotel acted as a call to arms and the room was packed within minutes. The emotion caused this writer to be more than a little homesick. A wonderful, genuine talent that is under-appreciated in his own country. See featured image.
Over 3,000 private showcases were held here. That’s right, 3000! During the day and late at night, three floors of the host hotel were hired out by industry, music associations, other festival reps and as many artists that could physically play, did so. Solo shows, duos, bands, in-the-round – everything you could imagine, rapid-fire performances in rooms crowded (some had not removed the beds) with doers, watchers, hosts and anybody else close and personal. The private showcase guide alone measured 80 pages.
I saw three duos perform an in-the-round session in a pretty small room – two songs each and a lot of good-natured ‘excuse me’s’ as they crammed around the performance space in the true spirit of collaboration. The afternoon sessions were easier going. By late night, the corridors of these poster-festooned floors were crowded with people chatting, endeavouring to find rooms, waiting in the doorways to get into the rooms. Glorious musical mayhem.
This did not suit everyone – some complained to me about the dark, the lack of personal space and the hurried sets. Sometimes you were so close to the artists, it was a little intimidating.
All this I did not mind at all – sometimes adopting a strict planning approach, other times totally random. There were a fair scattering of hits and misses and most performances were in acoustic mode only, but all were highly successful ways to search out as much new talent as possible – perfect for one such as myself.
A special nod to performances by Mary Bragg, Hope Dunbar, Ordinary Elephant, Mare Wakefield and Nomad, John Blek, Beppe Gambetta, Josh Harty and Abbie Hoffman.
Kansas City Folk Music Festival
The third annual KC Music Festival featured four stages of local, national, and international talent and an artisan market. While it also was situated at The Westin Hotel, this event was mainly for the local community and I recognised very few people from the previous days. The line-up was a bit of a mixed bag. Riley Downing of The Deslondes had a set at noon which was his third in the past twelve hours! It was a shaggy dog affair but likeable. The other major highlight was legendary conjunto musician Flaco Jiménez who shared the stage for a short while with Max Baca and Los TexManiacs. Flaco’s tearful departure was a touching moment. Singer/songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter closed the day and the FAI-sponsored events with a show that was a little too middle-of-the-road for my tastes.
Other activities were intertwined during the above:
* Artist in Residence program, The Musical Matrix: Music, Math and Media Arts featuring Henry Nam explored the connection between music, sound, mathematics, and art.
* CommUNITY gathering addressing Harassment and Discrimination in the Music Industry.
* Showing Up for Racial Justice facilitated a training teaching tangible skills to discuss and disrupt white privilege.
* Committing to a Safe Music Community pledge created by FAI’s Advocacy Committee was signed by hundreds of conference attendees including the Board of Directors.
* First-ever Global Summits: peer sessions to create deeper connections that help establish and maintain the rich ecology of folk music.
* Community Outreach to Children’s Mercy Hospital and Ronald McDonald House.
* Three-day Louis Jay Meyers Music Camp featuring 43 instructors teaching 78 distinct classes.
The 31st conference will take place February 13 – 17, 2019, in Montréal, Canada. The host hotel, the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth, will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s bed-in, where they wrote “Give Peace a Chance.” The theme in 2019, The Spirit of Creativity, will explore the artistic process from inspiration to innovation.
This was a big event in a whole host of ways. The sheer length, the number of artists and their showcases, the large show of industry and media representatives, not to mention the diversity and differing scale of the various happenings.
The Awards Show needs some improvement in pacing and its live performances, plus I really did not need the Festival at the end of some full days (and nights) of much music beforehand. All else was an unabashed pleasure. The challenging choices of top rate performances was a treat. Over that time, I had the joy of seeing some performers I admired on CD in the flesh for the first time, experienced so many new names and re-acquainted with cherished artists. Also I was able to catch up with friends, both old and new, sharing the same passion of following the muse. Plenty on industry talk to immerse yourself in if you were that way inclined. Another feature that I revelled in was the youthful exuberance of a large proportion of the attendees – totally infectious.
Would I go again? Sure thing!!
But I would be better prepared at the next pass. Folk Alliance International has so much to offer. If you were planning to go for the first time, I suggest that you try to get there with someone who has done it before unless you fall on the more intrepid side of the music exploration scale.
The TriFest Music Tour 2018 will spend some time in Kansas City – see here for info.
Read our coverage of Folk Alliance International 2018 in Kansas City MO