2016 Folk Alliance International: Day Three

Westin Crown Center / Kansas City, MO

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Photos by Mandy Pichler


Anyone who treasures his beauty rest will find himself a pauper after Folk Alliance. A good four hours after packing it in for the night, we rolled out of bed, eager to begin again, starting with a stiff coffee or three.

We headed for the Exhibit Hall, which we’d missed on Day Two, not realizing it closed at 1 PM. Wandering the halls, we found the usual booths featuring organizations, record labels and instrument manufacturers interesting, but not earthshaking. The leisurely stroll did allow us to catch up with friends who, for a change, weren’t rushed to get to the next event. The Exhibit Hall and the mezzanine lobby just outside it remain the best place to put ear to the ground for advice on hot acts and new discoveries.

Panel discussions, workshops and the business of music meetings dominate the midday hours, with panels on bookkeeping, studio and production tips, regional updates (DC, the UK, legendary US venues), legal needs and mentorship programs. Friday was the last of an incredible two-day offering: MusicCares provided FREE dental care, including x-rays and cleanings, screenings as well as custom earplugs, and America’s Best Contacts & Eyeglasses sponsored FREE vision screenings—walk out with a new prescription.

The evening’s events kicked off with keynote speaker Judy Collins, who walked onstage and began to sing, a cappella. For the next hour, Collins told the story of her life and career, recalling how many of her most beloved tunes drifted into her life, peppering her reminiscences with generous snippets of each song and her offbeat humor. Leonard Cohen, for example, then solely a poet, arrived at her door with a guitar and said he didn’t sing, didn’t play guitar and had some words which may or may not be a song. Two whole days later, he finally presented her with “Suzanne,” and Collins informed him, “It’s a song.”

After nearly an hour, Collins said, “Oh no! Someone’s holding up a little sign that says ‘You’ve gone on too long and said nothing, you fool!’” Continuing unabashed, Collins finally closed her remarks with a singalong. “You can sing melody or harmony…or another song entirely, it’s the spirit that counts,” she announced, and we all sang “Amazing Grace,” in harmony.

Collins appeared again, in a lovely official showcase performance, accompanied by her longtime keyboard accompanist Russell Walden and Ari Hest, who played guitar and provided harmony and occasional leads.

Upstairs, the aptly-named Fretless (viola, two violins and a cello) reinvent the string quartet as a high-energy pan-folk group. With the violins playing lead and rhythm, typical guitar roles, and the cello often played like a slap-bass, this instrumental group shifts from Celtic to jazz to bluegrass playfully and with panache. “June Tune,” rife with contrapuntal harmonies and shifting solo turns, is symphonic in structure and folk in feel. Delightful and a tad surreal, Fretless has broken new ground.

Everyone was talking about the Accidentals, rock n’ roll and jazzy trio who have been playing together over a quarter of their lives: nearly six years. These 20-year-olds romp loud and proud through their own material, and surely are on their way up. Toasting their success will have to wait until they’re old enough to drink, though.

David Amram’s been old enough to hoist a glass for 64 years, but the legend who’s played with every other legend on the planet (Dizzy Gillespie, Willie Nelson, Charles Mingus, Leonard Bernstein, Tito Puente, Stan Getz, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Steve Goodman, Sonny Rollins, T.S. Monk, Johnny Depp, Levon Helm, etc.) and composed over 100 orchestral and chamber music works, scores for Broadway theater and films (e.g. Splendor in the Grass and The Manchurian Candidate) as well as two operas, chose to perform Woody Guthrie’s “Pastures of Plenty” to start off his set. Ever the individualist, Amram alternated between electric keyboard and an African gourd flute, two of the dozens of instruments he plays. Ever smiling and joking, Amram gives to the community not only with his music, but in his tireless work on behalf of younger artists and the arts community as a whole.

Highlighting the fine line between folk and blues, ‘50s folk pioneer Happy Traum kicked in his set with Gillian Welch’s “Make Me A Pallet On Your Floor” and segued into Brownie McGee’s “Careless Love” and “Sporting Life,” all three tunes backed by Traum’s classic finger picking skills. While some artists convey power by singing loud, Traum forces us to lean in and pay attention with his quiet restraint. A masterful performance of course: Traum’s a master.

Americana artist Kim Richey has had success writing for others (Trisha Yearwood, Brooks & Dunne, Dixie Chicks, Patty Loveless, the Greencards, etc.) and in film and TV scores (For the Love of the Game, Dawson’s Creek, Buffy the Vampire Slayer), but her career as a performer has lagged behind slightly, and for the life of me, I don’t know why. One of Richey’s hits (via Miss Yearwood), “Thorn in My Heart,” is pure comfort food, despite the title. Rich and thoughtful, Richey’s own vocals deliver her song perfectly, not needing much embellishment—luckily, because Dan Mitchell, her accompanist, helped her out on a keyboard about the size of a loaf of French bread. Betty Soo arrived in time to provide a little harmony on “Those Words We Said.” Richey had to give some of us background about the title of one tune, a reference to the evaporation that occurs between the putting whiskey in a cask and the final aged product: the difference is the “Angels’ Share,” which Mitchell accompanied on (I think) cornet .

Choosing highlights of Folk Alliance is a task for professionals, for sure. There’s so much talent walking the halls, the hard part isn’t finding it, it’s covering it all, and we still have one day to go.

– Suzanne Cadgène


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