All Night (All Week) Long! A World of Roots Music Comes to Kansas City
Your head nods … suddenly you find yourself drifting into a sea of musicians, thousands … performers and bands marching forward and back in hotel guestroom hallways. Setting up in hotel room after hotel room from the dark of night to the light of next morning. You’re not dreaming, just moving in the flow of the private sessions of the recent (Feb. 17-21) Folk Alliance International Conference in Kansas City.
The bands come from many locales and countries and are joined in their tumultuous ramblings by musical management, performing arts venues, recording labels, and media reps. Note after note, building and rebuilding mini castles of sound within the sharply confined architecture of hotel hallways and bedrooms. Instruments compete for space with the human throng, and you have to be alert not to get knocked over in the rush.
Artists are hoping (primarily) to get booked by venues – Berkeley’s Freight and Selvedge, for one of many examples, or any one of a number of house concerts countrywide – or, possibly, signed by recording labels or noticed by media.
It’s a seemingly endless potpourri of sights, sounds, and tastes. Many sites (hotel rooms and suites) have offerings of appetizers, snacks, and desserts, often homemade, plus wine, beers, and fresh made drink concoctions. Some sponsors (often recording labels or management companies) offer green rooms for their artists and guests to relax between times. In one of these, I had the delightful chance to catch up with Carrie Elkin and ask her about her new knock-out recording project and to meet the charming young Swamp Brothers.
I knew about Carrie’s upcoming record because I’d just heard her in a room across the hall, performing first with her husband and partner Danny Schmidt, then solo when Danny left to do another show down the hall. What I found awesome was a song she’d written that dealt with her father’s love of Beach Boys music, with Carrie pouring her love of her (seemingly somewhat eccentric) father into excerpts from several seminal Beach Boy surfing songs.
I include the eccentric remark with respect and based on one of Carrie’s signature anecdotes that night about her dad’s thousands of dollars of rolled pennies that she and Danny collected from her father’s basement floor after his passing, only to find that banks won’t take rolled coins anymore. She and Danny had to unroll every one and recount. She wrote this song shortly afterward. You’ll never hear more emotion, not to mention beauty, poured into select surfing lyrics.
Playing flute and doing some improvised singing, with accordion accompaniment, in another room just down the hall that night was David Amram, who wrote the score to the quirky work of beat magic called Pull My Daisy, a film from the 50’s narrated by Amram’s friend Jack Kerouac and starring beat poets Allen Ginsburg and Gregory Corso, beat writer William Burroughs, painter Larry Rivers, and Amram himself as I recall. Amram was also named the first guest composer of the New York Philharmonic by Leonard Bernstein and has worked with virtually every major jazz musician from Davis to Monk. Very cordial and relaxed in this setting, Amram matched his surroundings, which featured soft strings of colored lights and servings of hot spiced popcorn and a refreshing fresh-made lime mixed drink. Having known the beats, I had the pleasure of speaking briefly with Amram about his friends.
On these multiple floors of guestrooms of the Westin, the walls were covered with flyers and posters for myriad musical artists, and the elevator doors were totally plastered with huge posters emblazoned with the rosters of musical management companies from the U.S. and Canada. Tables in the rooms and entryways were packed with stacks of artist cards and flyers as well as some CDs. In another part of the hotel, there was an exhibit hall full of tables with artists, reps, and CDs that was open several hours each day.
But that “ain’t” all. Underneath the Westin’s high, cascading waterfall in its lobby and at tables and corners throughout the expansive common areas of the hotel, buskers and jammers tuned up and played in all combination of instruments and voices, while others compared notes and travels and discoveries of the long weekend.
In addition to the private sessions were a number of significant public occasions, including: at least a hundred public performances – featuring acts including Judy Collins, Corey Harris, Hot Club of Cow Town – stretching from 6 to 11 p.m. daily in numerous auditoriums in the Westin. The Westin also hosted a final event, a Folk Festival on Sunday with still more concerts by artists including Peter Case and Robbie Fulkes, a folk arts and guitars/acoustic instruments exhibit hall, and other offerings. There was one large room, by the way, that served during the week as an instrument check room, always packed with instruments ranging from huge basses to a tiny toy piano.
Of those acts completely new to me (though I’d heard of at least one of them), impressing me most at public and private showcases (and it was impossible, at least for me, to catch more than a small percentage of the total) included:
Birds of Chicago (they were the ones I had heard of and was eager to experience), an absolutely drop-dead, knock-out band featuring a dynamic young, lead married couple from, yes, Chicago, with their two-year-old daughter napping nearby during the public performance. I was seated next to a group of Kansas City folks in for the concerts that night. They became instant believers as well, saying they would follow the band in the future. The lady next to me and I kept turning toward each other with our eyes saying “wow!”
The Dead South, from Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, four guys on acoustic instruments with distinctive looks, sounds, Western costumes, and dance moves, a raucous, easy humor, and an infectious beat. I heard them and caught them out the corner of my eye from the Westin hallways, being drawn into one of their guest room shows the first time I heard them. It happened again; and I saw them a final time in their public performance in the scenic room at the top of the Westin. At their shows, the guys had a wooden stand-alone sign reading The Dead South with a dead black crow mannequin dangling from the top.
The Sea The Sea, another young couple, from Connecticut, also touring with young children, stunning in their instrumentation (glass harmonica, etc.), lyrics, and harmonies (compared to Milk Carton Kids). I was turned on to them by other artists, including Birds, and caught them in one of their private sessions.
The Young Novelists, ditto, though not currently touring with their kids and I’d not heard about them from the artists – great, original lyrics and vocals, not to mention a great cover of Carter and Cash’s Jackson. Graydon James, who writes most of their exceptional lyrics, is a young, published novelist himself. The band is, again, from Canada … from Toronto. I saw/heard them at their public concert that was part of the Sunday Folk Festival. I’d been drawn to them by their name.
I’ll add that I like all of their names; they’re right there among the best.
When I asked other performers who’d they’d liked best, one band often came up. I couldn’t catch them at their times at the conference, but I’ve become a believer, listening, since I returned home, to their album Birds Say. That band, Darlingside, rules. I found later that Darlingside won the Alliance’s Artist of the Year Award earlier in the week.
Another artist I learned of after the fact that I want to mention is a performer who is a newcomer perhaps to most of us, a ubiquitous master of acoustic instruments and a singer who brings to life the blues and honky-tonk and other musics of early African Americans in this country – Jeron “Blind Boy” (blind from an early age) Paxton. Paxton did a number of workshops in the playing of acoustic instruments in addition to his public and private performances.
During the conference, their manager became a friend, and I agree with him that his Sultans of Strings, another Canadian group, are energetic and completely engaging virtuosos of guitar, violin, and other stringed instruments. Their fingers fly across the strings about as fast as fingers are capable. These gentlemen tell me they can sing as well. Bill Kirchen became another friend that week; though I could only catch the end of one of his workshops and missed his performances. I heard nothing but good however of this original member of Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen. And, I missed the conference shows of friends from back home in Norfolk, Mike and Amy Aiken, but we made plans to talk article ideas soon. The Aikins divide their time between their boat in Norfolk and their home in (where else?) East Nashville.
This (the events of the above paragraph) being one of the virtues of the conference for its thousands of attendees, the chance to make new friends and contacts and revisit old ones while having the opportunity to compare road stories and share many conversations, songs, ideas, and plans. Carrie Elkin had written in her newsletter about those advantages, knowing well about them, with her having attended the event for many years. Indeed, she met Danny there. “Not bad getting a husband here!” she giggled that night. Also, she did the public showcases so many years in a row that organizers set a limit to the number of consecutive public appearances an artist can do before having to sit out a year. Hence, Danny did a public showcase this year, but Carrie did not.
Additionally, as part of the overall, yet separate, there was a music camp hosted at the adjacent Sheraton Crown Center Hotel. The two hotels were connected by several long walkways, and cabs and shuttles ran guests and conference participants back and forth day and night. Both hotels accessed into the high rise Crown Center Shopping Center.
The music camp was a remarkable opportunity to participate in small, intimate workshops with the likes of: McArthur Award-winning, fingerstyle blues player/singer extraordinaire Corey Harris, who was featured in a Martin Scorsese documentary; famed British rocker Albert Lee; Hot Club of Cowtown; David Amram; Blind Boy Paxton; Betty Soo; and numerous others. I took several days of these workshops, including ones by Lee, Harris, and Cowtown.
The conference offered musical artists additional advantages such as sessions on health care for musical artists and a variety of informative panels and discussions. Keynote speaker was Judy Collins. And, the kick-off night featured the Alliance’s Annual Gala Awards, which this year included:
Lifetime Achievement Award: Ramblin’ Jack Elliott (who, at 84, attended and shared anecdotes of his time with Woody Guthrie, Dylan, and others)
Legacy Lifetime Achievement Award (posthumous): Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee
Album of the Year: Tomorrow is My Turn by Rhiannon Giddens
Song of the Year: Best Medicine by The Stray Birds
Artist of the Year: Darlingside, who performed at the ceremony
Another highpoint of the program was when 99-year-old fiddler and instrument maker Violet Hensley played a fiddle tune and followed up by dancing a jig (yes, dancing!).
While I’d planned to be at the awards gala, for unforeseen reasons, I missed it. I’m glad to say though that in my lifetime, I’ve seen both Ramblin’ Jack and Sonny and Terry perform live, each time in exceptional, intimate settings, Jack in Kate Wolf’s old hangout in Lagunitas, CA and Sonny and Terry in a funky music performance bar in South Bend, IN.
The conference is sponsored annually by Folk Alliance International, which is based in Kansas City and provides national and regional programs throughout the year.