I didn’t quite know what to expect from the Folk Alliance 2014 Conference. Besides the odd location at the Crown Center Westin Hotel, I had uncertainties about the performers, many of whom I was completely unfamiliar with. Even though I host an alt-country/folk radio show, I have to admit to feeling overwhelmed and undersatisfied with many contemporary singer-songwriters/folkies/bearded guys with acoustic guitars. The market seems oversaturated, and so many of the singers blend together into an undifferentiated collection of predictable banality. While I’m sure there were plenty of performers like this at Folk Alliance 2014, I certainly didn’t see any of them. I may have just been lucky, or maybe the conference organizers were especially perceptive and discerning in their choice of acts. Whatever the case, this conference was the most fun I’ve had listening to live music in quite some time.
Here’s my day-to-day recap:
Thursday: Due to an unfortunate windshield wiper mishap (which someone should surely write a folk song about), I spent Thursday morning at a Lawrence, Kansas Firestone Auto Care store getting overcharged for a new wiper motor instead of listening to Graham Nash’s keynote address. However, I did arrive just in time to see a screening of the excellent documentary Tom Rush: No Regrets about the noted singer/guitarist Tom Rush. I was surprised that only about 40 people showed up to the screening and that I was the youngest person in the audience by about 45 years (only a slight exaggeration). The room sort of felt like a hippie retirement home, and as someone who, for better or worse, is continually called “an old soul,” I suppose I didn’t feel all that out of place. Rush made an appearance at the conclusion of the film for a very brief Q&A. One audience member introduced himself as Chuck Mitchell and said “Hey Tom, it’s Chuck Mitchell. It’s been about 50 years.” Mitchell made a joke and Rush responded with, “Chuck, you haven’t changed at all.” I didn’t find out until later that Chuck Mitchell is Joni Mitchell’s ex-husband. You never know who’s going to show up at these things, apparently. I had several hours to kill before the live performance showcases began, so I walked around the Westin and tried to size things up. Folk Alliance had the feel of some academic conferences I’ve attended, except with cooler people wearing cooler hats and there were dulcimers.
After the long break, I watched Tom Rush’s performance. The 73-year-old singer is best known for being among the earliest musicians to record songs written by Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne and for ushering in the singer/songwriter craze of the 1970s. Rush is an expert interpreter of other people’s songs, a fact that was evident in his sterling 45 minute performance. His voice has aged well and his unassuming and often funny stage banter have continued to be his hallmark, even 50+ years into an already established career. He’s also an impeccable guitarist, as demonstrated on a train song medley that closed out his set. While I would have loved to hear some of his better-known songs (“Child’s Song”, “These Days,” “Lost My Driving Wheel” were all notably absent from his setlist), Rush’s performance was clean, professional, and satisfying. It was an excellent way to start the conference and laid the groundwork for all the weirdness to come.
Friday: Dawn Landes, the New York City-based singer/songwriter got things started at 6pm. Judging from the turnout, folks are expecting her to be a breakout star. Unfortunately, she’s often referred to as “Josh Ritter’s ex-wife,” a designation that she shouldn’t need to deal with at this point in her career. She’s touring in support of a lovely new album called Bluebird, and most of her brief 25 minute set would be culled from the new record. She was accompanied by an upright bassist and a multi-instrumentalist. The song “Heel Toe” was the obvious standout, an absolutely gorgeous slow-dance ballad that deserves to be played after last call in dimly lit bars across the country. Next up was a singer/songwriter named Sean Rowe, whose far-too-brief three-song set was stunning. He opened with two songs from his 2012 album The Salesman and the Shark, “Flying” and “Joe’s Cult,” before closing things with a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “The River.” Rowe possesses a voice far different from any other performer I saw all weekend. His cavernous baritone is rattling, and yet he’s also capable of operatic flourishes that recall Tim Buckley’s finest work. Put simply, he has one hell of a voice, and his songs match the intensity of his pipes. Tom Waits and Nick Cave seem to be inspirations, but there is an underlying tenderness that is unique to Rowe. He got a huge reaction from the 30 people that crowded into the tiny conference room to see him.
Next up was one of the conference’s most accomplished elder statesman, the 83-year-old David Amram. Amram’s 60+ year career has defied genre categorization, a fact that he made obvious while introducing one of his song’s as an “ethnomusicologist’s nightmare.” Amram’s set was impossible to classify. There were elements of jazz, traditional Native American music, Western swing, and probably a few dozen other genres. He was backed up by the Los Amigos, a group of musicians young enough to be his grandchildren. The group was joined on an impromptu version of “House of the Rising Son,” by Josh White Jr. on guitar and vocals. It was one of the highlights of the conference, a completely spur-of-the-moment collaboration that likely won’t be repeated again. Amram was gracious enough to grant me a quick interview after the performance. Hearing him talk eloquently about Jack Kerouac, one of his friends and collaborators, was something I won’t soon forget. Next up on the main stage was the incomparable Steve Poltz. Poltz is probably best known for co-writing the song “You Were Meant For Me” with Jewel. He was the conference’s de facto master of ceremonies. As songwriter Tim Easton told me, if you want to know where the party is, find Steve Poltz. He is an absolutely hilarious storyteller and an exuberant live performer who looks like he’s having the time of his life when he performs. He danced with audience members and at one point kissed a large bearded man in the front row. During his lengthy freewheeling closer, “The Long Haul,” Poltz got everyone in the audience to put their arms around each and sing along to the chorus. It was such a lovely moment and such a profoundly joyful set of music, free of any irony or pretense. It was authentic and very moving. The crowd left gushing, and I heard several conference veterans say it was the best performance they had ever seen at Folk Alliance.
Saturday: Bobby Bare Jr. kicked things off at 6pm with a short but intense performance that showed off his dark wit and brawny voice. He also gave one of the conference’s best quotes when he stated that his home city, Nashville, was capable of producing both the worst and best music in the world. Another Nashville product, Tim Easton, gave a superb performance across the hall. Easton’s husky voice is his most impressive asset, and his wonderful “Festival Song” was perfectly suited to the conference’s final night. Austin’s Jon Dee Graham was up next. For this set he would be joined by his young son William on guitar. The performance was full of tender father-son moments, and William’s unique singing voice, while clearly still developing, offers a lot of promise. Jon Dee’s songs were the standouts, and it’s not hard to see why he is such a revered figure in Austin where he regularly performs a Wednesday night set at the famed Continental Club. Willie Watson, formerly of Old Crow Medicine Show, gave another fine performance of originals and classics of American roots music, including an excellent version of “James Alley Blues.” However, the night belonged to one of the conference’s finest songwriters, Dan Bern. Bern’s songs twist and turn on clever turns of phrase, and his earnest vocals are uniquely suited to his wryly humorous wit and stream-of-consciousness delivery. His songs are cutting in the best possible way, such as on the remarkable “Jerusalem” when he asks a lover not to question his love, “because maybe I don’t love you all that much.” He closed his set with the energetic “Baby Bye Bye,” where he was accompanied by some gorgeous electric banjo. It was a memorable way to end a genuinely unforgettable weekend.
You got the sense that for many of these musicians, this was the highlight of their year. It was a chance to jam with their heroes, to make new friends, to write songs with unlikely accomplices, and to hang out in crowded hotel rooms until the wee hours of the morning. Next year I’d love to try to stay in one of those crowded hotel rooms, even if it means I have to find an abandoned upright bass case to sleep in. I can’t wait for next year, and I hope this conference becomes a Kansas City fixture.
Written by Vince Meserko. Tune into Hickory Wind every Monday night from 8-10pm on 90.7fm KJHK.