Photos by Laura Carbone
By far my personal favorite conference, Folk Alliance has regional chapters around the world, smaller but no less fun than the main event in Kansas City. This year, some 850 casually-clad, guitar-strumming, banjo-picking, spoon-playing lovers of harmony in song (and in life) descended on a former borscht-belt resort and collectively raised the roof for three days.
With a lot to see and hear, we kept busy from noon to dawn. The conference rooms boasted seminars on diverse aspects of the music business, from making a video to running a venue to marketing on social media to negotiating fees and writing contracts, all featuring panelists with a particular expertise in the subject.
After breaking for bread, booze and banter, the formal showcases started around 7 PM, with curated artists designed to represent the breadth of the folk genre. A range of bluegrass (Spuyten Duyvil), singer/songwriter (the Young Novelists), Quebecois (there’s a large Canadian presence in Folk Alliance), sitar ragas (Sultans of String) and a cover of “Bohemian Rhapsody” (by Shun Ng) on solo acoustic guitar kept the audience poised for the Next New Thing.
All showcased artists performed well, but of course a few (subjectively) emerged as favorites. Robert Jones and Matt Watroba not only performed blues incredibly well (Did you know you can blow a killer harmonica riff through your nose? Robert Jones does.), but the two Detroit educators gave us a history of American music, taking us from field hollers through the blues on up into rap. In a particularly insightful medley, they played the same five notes and three chords in blues, country, bluegrass, R&B and rap songs. The five notes are the intro to “My Girl.” The finale was Son House’s “Death Letter” blues as a rap song—still playing the same three chords and five notes. Instructive, and also the first rap song I ever liked, if anyone cares.
Another completely different blues duo, Mollie O’Brien and Rich Moore, gave us familiar songs (and one original), reinvented. O’Brien’s stunning vocals swing from delicacy to domination in a heartbeat, and Moore’s exquisite guitar provides more than just background. This marriage was made in Heaven.
Grammy winner Pat Donohue, who some might recognize from NPR’s A Prairie Home Companion, must be among the best fingerpickers in the world. He also writes some screamingly funny songs, two of which we heard on Saturday: “Irish Blues” (a.k.a. a hangover), and “Would You Like to Play the Guitar” to the tune of “Swinging On A Star,” which tickled the folk audience with lines like “Would you like to play the guitar… or would you rather get a job?”
The Folk Alliance family is nothing if not eclectic, and that’s why we had an Indian sitar player teamed up with a fiddle and guitar. The Sultans of String, with Anwar Khurshid (Khurshid has about twice as many strings on his sitar than the other two instruments combined), play folk music, for sure, but exactly which folks’ music is hard to tell. Irish, Indian, Cajun, Americana, there’s a little spice from each culture in their music, though sometimes the turmeric outweighs the Guinness, or the garlic and cayenne. Part of the fun is following the fusion of these folk cultures, into which the band introduces jazz undertones; we’re never quite able to pin it down, but it works so well we never wondered “Where the Hell are they going with this?”
Heading upstairs to the Folk Alliance patented “All My Room Is A Stage” concept, we bounced among three hotel floors, tripping from one room to another and watching acts change every 15 or 20 minutes. Thankfully, we caught up with Elmore writer Dennis McDonough (he spells it McDoNoUgh!) in one of his many personas, and heard his hilarious “I’m From New Jersey Too” song, his homage to his home state and its native sons—a little like Adam Sandler’s “Hanukkah Song,” but funnier. Later, McDonough reminded us that he’s a serious musician as he stepped in to deliver inspired harmonies to Tim Rice’s moving “Harry,” when fiddler Gary Oleyar (Loggins & Messina) was delayed, and again, solo, performing his own “Sunflower.” That’s the beauty of NERFA and Folk Alliance events: attendees see many performers in many configurations, and are able to appreciate the range of true artists.
Which brings me to Brad Cole, who alerted me to his upcoming showcase, where he said he would be joined by friends, and to photographer Laura Carbone, who alerted me to a showcase with Robertson Treacher, who I had never seen. It turned out that it was the same showcase, where Cole, Treacher and one Matt Nakoa traded off their own songs in heartstopping harmony. Individually, these guys shine, but together, they’re positively brilliant. We hope it’s true that Cole, Treacher and Nakoa will develop a joint project after the positive reaction−and the fun they obviously had−at NERFA.
That’s what Folk Alliance is all about: getting together, trying new things, having fun and upping your game. Chalk up another successful year at NERFA.
– Suzanne Cadgène