Once seen as a relic of dated earnestness and time-capsule politics, folk music has recently been reinvigorated by a host of new performers who are liberal in their interpretation of the genre’s sometimes stodgy requirements of style and sound. The Folk Alliance International Conference, now in its third year in Kansas City, offered a clear demonstration that folk music need not be contained by such rigidity, nor must it always adhere to the requirements of sincerity laid down by its most luminous figures. Held February 17th through the 21st at the Sheraton and Westin Crown Center Hotels, the conference offered both official showcases open to the public and private hotel-room showcases available only to conference attendees. Here’s a brief rundown of the highlights:
The former front man of the 90s rock n’ roll band Grant Lee Buffalo, Phillips’ elastic voice has aged well, and his sturdy songs and amiable stage presence earned a spirited response from the crowd. Phillips’ music is simple enough, but his brawny voice gives each song an edge and heaviness that many of his contemporaries have sought to imitate. A new song, “Smoke and Sparks,” lurked with dark intensity and moody undertones. While Phillips’ music has always displayed a penchant for crunchy electric guitars, his set at Folk Alliance suggests a performer capable of adapting to the situation and fitting in comfortably among rockers and folkies alike.
Ann Arbor-based songwriter Chris Bathgate proved to be the conference’s most oddball choice, as his music bore little resemblance to most of the other performers at the conference. Bathgate’s music was far more reminiscent of groups like Mojave 3, Low, Sun Kil Moon, and Damien Jurado. His music is atmospheric, dreamy, lush, and full of shimmering guitars and bursts of noisy percussion. Backed up by members of the Michigan-based group The Go Rounds, Bathgate’s music was rapturous and foreboding, crackling with plenty of ambient guitar effects triggered by a slew of pedals. It was perhaps the loudest set of the conference, a designation that the band seemed to relish. Buoyed by strong support from public radio and a busy schedule of collaborations and side projects, Bathgate is destined for a breakout in 2016.
Jeffrey Martin may have a nondescript name and an unfussy style, but his music is full of wry detail, stirring character portraits, and an attention to subtleties that commanded the attention of the small number of fans who crammed into one of the hotel’s tiny conference rooms. His short official showcase set occasionally flirted with maudlin sentimentality, but his songs never became stale or banal. He proved too good for that. As he displayed during his “Live at KJHK” set, he’s also got a wicked sense of humor, a feature of his personality that he ought to demonstrate more.
There are few performers who express more unencumbered joy and ceaseless positivity on stage that Steve Poltz. The 56-year-old songwriter from San Diego is best known for having co-written “You Were Meant For Me,” Jewel’s 1995 smash hit (Poltz also appeared in the music video). While Poltz is certainly capable of solemnity and heartfelt themes, his music is playful, goofy, strange, and often absolutely hysterical. In concert, Poltz is known to stretch out his songs to 10-15 minutes by frequently interrupting them with anecdotes and asides. At this set, Poltz was far less loquacious, preferring instead to move briskly between songs while still offering plenty of witticisms and absurd commentary on everything from the tribulations of being a folk singer, to his actual real-life recovery from an onstage stroke. Poltz closed his set with a cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Uncle John’s Band,” a group that Poltz admits he was reluctant to embrace given his punk rock roots. His set closed with the uplifting, good-natured “I Want All My Friends to Be Happy.” Later that night, Poltz performed two private late night showcases, displaying his abilities as a more sentimental songwriter while still indulging his natural inclination for unlikely scenarios, such as on “Fistfight at a Vegan Brunch.” He closed his first private showcase with “Long Haul,” wherein he asked everyone in the small hotel room to put their arms around the person next to them and assure them you’d be with them “till the end.”
This New Orleans-based singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist got her start with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, but her music has come to embody the cross-cultural, diverse sounds of the Crescent City, more so than the Appalachian folk of her previous band. Accompanied two other multi-instrumentalists, McCalla’s voice is simple, almost innocent, and it belies the heavy themes of some of her songs, many of which were inspired by the work of poet Langston Hughes and her Haitian heritage. McCalla’s music full of unusual sounds—dissonant triangles, percussive banjos, and her principal instrument, the cello, which she bows and plucks with equal parts fury and precision. While Folk Alliance has made a concerted effort to present a more racially and ethnically diverse lineup, McCalla’s presence as one of the few performers of color suggests the genre is still struggling with issues of diversity and minority representation, which was the topic of a panel at which McCalla spoke earlier in the day.
Judy Collins & Ari Hest
Collins was easily one of the conference’s most accomplished and storied performers, having spent six decades in and out of folk music. For her 35 minute Folk Alliance set, Collins focused almost exclusively on material she had written with the singer-songwriter Ari Hest, who accompanied her on guitar and vocals. Hest’s pleasant baritone and Collins’ ethereal upper-register proved to be a seamless match, but the material was often a bit sleepy, if amicable and pleasant. The 76-year-old Collins has lost a little on her voice, but it still proved remarkably agile, rarely cracking or breaking apart, and her witty and utterly charming stage banter gave her a genteel sophistication that has aged gracefully. While the crowd may have wanted to hear more of Collins’ hits, she did close with “Someday Soon,” a song that sounded fresh and lively and resisted being saddled with nostalgia—an impulse that Collins defiantly resisted throughout her too-brief set.
Jesse Aycock & Lauren Barth
Tulsa, Oklahoma-based singer-guitarist Jesse Aycock was accompanied by California singer-songwriter Lauren Barth for his private showcase in the Oklahoma Room at the Westin Hotel. Aycock is best known for his guitar work with the jam-band super group Hard Working Americans, led by singer Todd Snider and bassist Dave Schools of Widespread Panic. Aycock and Barth’s music is far more subdued, leading Barth to crack that it was more like “soft working Americans.” Their voices were perfectly matched, as the nasal, yet utterly affecting imperfections of Aycock’s voice connected seamlessly to the pitch of Barth’s harmonies. The duo’s songs were simple and pure, and they often acquired a Gram Parsons-Emmylou Harris quality, a feature made even more noticeable by their choice to record their “Live at KJHK” set in their hotel room. Fans of film director Cameron Crowe will remember that the fictionalized versions of Gram and Emmylou appear playing together in a hotel room in a memorable scene from Crowe’s Almost Famous. The resemblance to Aycock and Barth was uncanny, proving to be one of the conference’s highlights—a highlight only available to a lucky few and another one of those fleeting moments of joyous unpredictability that have come to characterize the conference.