Folk Alliance Finds 2013: Great New Music from the Toronto Conference
The Folk Alliance International Conference was held this year in Toronto, and what a rush it was! It was my second year attending as a publicist for HearthPR, and also as a freelance roots music writer. This year I was able to put together a showcase room which was an incredible experience. In conjunction with 12X12 Management (Pokey Lafarge, Betse Ellis) and Quicksilver Productions (booking for Frank Solivan, New Country Rehab, Caleb Klauder), we rocked it from 10:30pm to 2:30 am three nights of Folk Alliance. Plus we had free beer! Having all my favorite artists playing a few feet from my face in a cramped motel room was an intense and wonderful thing for me and I highly recommend it for anyone looking to connect to more cool folks at these conferences.
Some of my highlights from our showcase room: Cape Breton Scottish music masters Mary Jane Lamond & Wendy MacIsaac breaking into a Gaelic version of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” mid-set, being hypnotized by Charlie Parr‘s country blues, Laura Cortese & Mariel Vandersteel‘s explosive fiddle duet on “Greasy Coat”, The Revelers packing the room with a sweaty Cajun dance, Québécois trad band De Temps Antan in close quarters was very intense and wonderful, Chris Coole & Ivan Rosenberg sang such beautiful, heart-breaking songs about the life of traveling musicians, Betse Ellis‘ jumping around and fiddling and singing “John Henry” and jamming like a madwoman with New Country Rehab, Joe Crookston is still one of my favorite story-songwriters, Tony Furtado‘s dazzling musicianship, and much much more!
This year I happened on some great finds and some wonderful new music that I would have likely missed without Folk Alliance. You can’t help but find something inspiring at Folk Alliance, and I recommend the conference to anyone with even a passing interest in American roots music.
Hearth Music Finds from the 2013 Folk Alliance International Conference in Toronto
Lee was, for me and many others, one of the truly surprising standout acts of Folk Alliance. In a fair world, his new album would get as much attention here as it did in the UK, where he’s from (Ground of Its Own was nominated for a Mercury Prize this year). But this isn’t a fair world, and I wager few people in the States have heard of him. Well, hopefully you can help me change this.
Sam Lee‘s formula seems simple at first. In a gently reverberating voice, he sings songs he learned from British travellers, the nomadic folk of the British Isles also known as tinkers that Brad Pitt so famously emulated in Guy Ritchie’s film, Snatch. Lee learned this music first as an apprentice to the legendary Scottish traveller Stanley Robertson (nephew of legendary singer Jeannie Robertson) and later to Irish travellers who he found and befriended. There’s a lovely article in the Economist about Robertson‘s upbringing, his stories and songs, and his life’s work in a fish factory. He sounds like a truly remarkable person. And the way Lee talks of him is enchanting. Interviewed in fRoots, Lee talks about Robertson’s influence with a deep reverence. Not just a mentor, Lee was chosen by Robertson to receive as many of his thousands of songs as possible before Robertson’s passing in 2009. And thought that must have been intense, Lee speaks too of Robertson’s spiritual influence, how Robertson traveled astral planes and could see into Lee’s future with an uncanny accuracy. Perhaps there’s a hint of romanticism here for the nomadic lifestyle of travellers, but Lee’s done the fieldwork, spending hours and days making lifelong friends among traveller communities, and drawing out some of the songs that have been part of a rich oral history for many generations. And here’s the thing: He’s an utterly transfixing interpret of these songs. On stage he sways and dances like a man lost in trance. Though his band is made up of Anglo artists playing on a huge variety of “world” instruments, nothing sounds fake or derivative. It’s because Lee’s actively disassembling and rebuilding the music in new ways. His quote from his fRoots interview is indicative of his take on folk music for a new generation: “Martin Carthy came out with this famous statement that the worst thing you can do with a folk song is not sing it. That was great at the time but I think now the worst thing you can do to a folk song is not change or challenge it.” At Folk Alliance, Lee stole the show, emanating a kind of animal charisma that had me calling him the “Father John Misty of British folk music.”
His debut album, Ground of Its Own, is the kind of album that sneaks up on you. There’s immense power here, the kind of electricity in the old songs that powered a village, that fueled a people. You’ll be listening with half an ear, perhaps reading a book or a magazine article, when a single line of an old ballad will knife into you, as Lee’s voice effortlessly parts the skin. Tears will come to your eyes and you won’t be sure why. It’s because there’s something in each of us, something born of the late night campfire, that wants to touch the windswept unconscious where the heart of these songs is buried. Lee approaches his music from an almost spiritual level, and after listening you start to think about whether there’s some swiftly flowing, nearly uncontrolled river in these songs that we’ve bricked over. We’ve built our pop music palaces on paved streets over this river, and have forgotten it was there. Until Lee breaks through the pavement and we suddenly don’t understand our own music anymore.
Old ballads were clearly a big hit at Folk Alliance this year. Along with British wunderkind Sam Lee, Americans Anais Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer were another revelation. Anais Mitchell is a well-known songwriter on the American roots music circuit, with a number of well-loved and beautiful albums under her belt. Jefferson Hamer is a wildly inventive acoustic roots multi-instrumentalist living in Brooklyn. In 2012, Hamer released a fascinating duo album, The Murphy Beds, with Dublin folk musician Eamon O’Leary. That album seems a precursor to his work with Anais Mitchell, and it was clear he was using that album to pull apart the insides of the old traditional ballads looking for their heart. Collaborating with Anais Mitchell (he was lead guitarist in her band) for the utterly spellbinding 2013 album, Child Ballads (released in the US March 19), Mitchell and Hamer enchanted the audiences at Folk Alliance. We’d all heard these songs many times, but Mitchell and Hamer brought something new, a level of complexity and simple beauty that somehow broadened the songs. Their voices interlocked like wood parquet floors, and Hamer’s guitar lines were often whole instrumental tunes in themselves. And yet through the complex arrangements, they never lost sight of the story. That’s the real key with singing ballads. That’s what the great old ballad singers understood. If you lose the story when you’re listening, you lose the point of the performance. Instead, Mtichell and Hamer’s renditions of classic Child Ballads like “Geordie”, “Willie of Winsbury”, and “Tam Lin” are utterly riveting. Performing in a packed, sweaty showcase hall at Folk Alliance, they sucked the air out of the room with their music, and the crowd was held in rapt attention. It’s no wonder–their voices on these Child Ballads are impossible fragile, like holding an ice crystal. This is the kind of music you’ll want to savor, to turn over and over, admiring for its beauty.
Nora Jane Struthers & The Party Line:
I came to Folk Alliance looking forward to catching Nora Jane Struthers (just “Jane” to her friends) live. As the former lead singer of Bearfoot and an avowed roots music social networking maven, I was figuring she’d deliver on her promise of long-form story songs, twanged-out acoustic music, and honey-dipped vocals. And I wasn’t wrong! She’s a killer performer, decked out in vintage dresses from her extensive and famed collection, and belting out ceiling high vocals at the drop of hat. Definitely the kind of music perfect for long road-trips on hot summer days with the windows rolled down. Or a cramped hotel room at midnight. Her new album, Carnival, drops April 16 and it’s a collection of road-worn Americana folk anthems, tied together with a red-hot backing band.
Aaron Jonah Lewis:
And that band brings me to a major discovery: young old-time players Aaron Jonah Lewis (fiddle) and clawhammer banjo berserker Joe Overton. Both are key players in Nora Jane Struther’s band, where they’re great, but I was treated to some intense late night duo jams from these guys that blew my mind. I’ve heard quite a lot of old-time fiddle and banjo playing, trust me, but I’ve never heard it like this. They both played at break-neck speeds, Aaron’s fiddle whipping around tight corners like a high-end sports car, and Joe’s clawhammer banjo was wickedly complex. He improvised wildly across the fingerboard, playing on a fretless banjo to boot, and came up with the most interesting counterpoint. It was like watching Bach hopped up on speed, composing kickass barn dance tunes in Appalachia. Kind of. Both these players are people you need to watch. Aaron’s just dropped a new album (he releases a lot of helter-skelter old-time albums and videos with various picking friends) via one of his bands, The Square Peg Rounders, called Galax, NYC, an ode to the urban Appalachian movement that’s lighting up the old-time scene. Galax NYC is a fun set of old-time tunes played with a lot of joy. It’s just the thing to perk up a rainy Spring day, as I’ve found from personal experience!
Note: I tried and tried to convince Aaron and Joe to cut a duo old-time album together. Hopefully they’re thinking about it! In the meantime, grab a copy of Galax, NYC for Aaron’s fine fine fiddling and a copy of Nora Jane’s new album Carnival for Joe’s beautiful banjo playing.
Fish & Bird’s Cassette Tape:
Canadian acoustic folk-rockers Fish & Bird always do well at Folk Alliance (and we’ve written about them before), but they outdid themselves this year. And in the most clever way. They wandered all over handing out custom made cassette tapes of their music titled 10 Golden Hits. A fun ploy, but I just loved how they actually made the cassette tapes out to look like those old nerdy folk music tapes I have piling up in my closet, most of them from obscure Canadian record labels. They got the fonts right, the whole look of it right, and jamming their tape into my dusty old boom box, I got a shiver from the old analog feel and sound of the play lever on my boom box. I was flooded with memories of my many roots music cassettes and the hours I spent with my original yellow walkmen. So much of roots and folk music is about memory and these guys nailed it with their retro packaging. And the music’s great too! Just as the title says, these are 10 Golden Hits from their back catalogue (and I think one new song), including their 2011 album Every Whisper is a Shout Across the Void, which we reviewed HERE, and their 2009 album, Left Brain Blues, which we reviewed HERE.
I asked guitarist Ryan Boeur where the cassette tape idea came from. I love his response: “We know a lot of people with old trucks that only have cassette players!” Talk about a slice of rural Canadiana.
If you’ve never heard Fish & Bird before, the cassette tape is a perfect way to get into their music. If you have heard them before, like me, the mix of songs is a great way to rediscover their music. So buy it would ya?
A.J. Roach & Nuala Kennedy:
Roach was a totally new discovery for me. He participated in a great songwriters-in-the-round session at Brad Yoder‘s room (shout-out to Brad Yoder for sharing his room with so many great songwriters and inspiring everyone) and the word is that he and Irish flute/singer Nuala Kennedy will be releasing an album together soon (they’re an item). I’m VERY much looking forward to that album. Together, Roach and Kennedy made a great team, her beautifully rich vocals complimenting his own tremulous (in a good way) vocals, and her fluid and rich flute playing bringing a new sound to his songs. I got ahold of Roach’s last album, Pleistocene, which was produced by Kentucky-born indie roots banjo king Matt Bauer, and it’s a fascinating bit of quaver-folk (new term I coined!). In the showcase, Roach was dressed as a dapper Southern gentleman, and had a deep Southern accent. On the album he brings that kind of gentlemanly flare to a healthy batch of songs. His songwriting is subtle, gentle, intricate, but still hummable, still singable. It’s a fine line between obscure songwriting and memorable lyrics and Roach treads it expertly.
This trio of amazing vocalists (Abbie Gardner, Molly Venter, Laurie MacAllister) wasn’t really a new find, since they’ve been building huge buzz in the folk music world for years, but this was the first time I’d seen them live… And WOW! Even missing one of their three singers (Abbie Gardner was trying to save her voice for their later official showcase), they still belted out hair-raisingly beautiful harmonies at a level of professionalism that was stunning. I sat through the whole performance (which is usually difficult with my ADD musical personality) entranced by their music and singing. Great songs, both original and some traditional (their cover of “Come On In My Kitchen” from their last album is just glorious), and great playing as well. The most powerful moment for me from their performance was their show-stopping cover of the old Doc Watson song “Long Journey Home.” Behind them, the hotel room window looked out on the bleak gray cityscape of Toronto as bitter snow flurries whirled past. It’s one of those moments that remind you just how powerful this music can be. Pick up their latest album, Light in the Sky! It’s a blend of folk, twang, and country, mixed just right.
Red Molly: Come On In My Kitchen
I’m a huge sucker for old-timey jugband hokum music, and Sheesham & Lotus sure delivered. Crowded around a bizarre lead pipe contraption designed to filter two voices into “glorious MONO”, this trio of roots musicians from Ontario belted out crazy vintage songs and harmonica dance tunes with the kind of glee that you would have found at an old medicine show in the South. Consummate showmen, they danced around so much and sang and shouted with such abandon that all my crappy iPhone pictures came out completely blurred. They had everyone in the room shouting along and clapping, and their music was just about impossible to sit down for. They covered songs of their latest album, 1929, and mixed it up between old fiddle tunes and back-alley hokum songs like the absolutely excellent song “1929”. Do NOT miss these guys live if at all possible, and check out their last album for a huge helping of happy hokum goodness!
Sheesham & Lotus: 1929
Melody Walker is a well know roots musician and songwriter based out of the Bay Area. Her side project band Front Country recently won Rockygrass (and got to go on the Mountain Song at Sea cruise which sounded fabulous) and her latest album, Gold Rush Goddess, has been doing well. I liked that album a lot for its interesting mix of twangy folk, acoustic rock, and ethnomusicology. That last element was a bit of a surprise, but the Afro-Cuban elements in the title song make a surprisingly great combination with the kick-ass feminine storyline. Melody’s partner Jacob Groopman played a big role in the Gold Rush Goddess album, and brought some of his experience playing Afro-Beat bands in the Bay Area as well. I liked the album a lot, but was even more surprised at how great Melody and Jacob sounded just as an acoustic duo, which is how they played our showcase room. Melody’s got a shout-to-the-back-of-the-hall voice, that puts out a surprising amount of power with a surprising amount of control. Jacob’s lovely harmonies were more than a match for her voice, and the two seemed to spin each other up to even better heights musically. Also, and this is very important for Folk Alliance, they just really get folk music. They weren’t afraid to cover Paul Simon’s Graceland, a daunting feat, and they played it straight (no crazy re-envisioning). We were all singing along and clapping along and it felt so great for that moment to be really participating in actual folk music. Which is the point of Folk Alliance. Melody and Jacob are going into the studio soon for a duet album and I for one can’t wait to hear what this will sound like. Here’s a sample of the two together from a previous EP:
Canadian indie folk singer Jenny Ritter was one of my favorite discoveries of 2012, and we profiled her via a No Depression Inside the Songs feature which I just love: CHECK IT OUT. It was great to see her at Folk Alliance in Toronto and I heard some great buzz about her over there, but I was equally happy to meet Elise Boeur, the fiddler from her band. Elise has been in a number of interconnected Canadian roots music bands, including O’Mally, but recently she’s been deeply entrenched in Scandinavia learning tunes. Now she’s back and has a trio with Jenny Ritter on guitar and Adam Hill on bass. Simply lovely Scandinavian fiddle music with an indie vibe. Love love love. Get a full album out soon Elise!!
I’d heard about Connor before from his beautiful videos filmed live at Empty Sea Studios in Seattle. Then I met him by chance in the halls of Folk Alliance hanging out with my songwriting hero and idol Joe Crookston. He was leaning in to learn a song from Joe when I drunkenly interrupted. I felt a bit bad about this, but I asked for his album anyways. Now I’ve been in love with the song “Pencil Frames” all this week. Connor’s a remarkably gentle songwriter, capable of swift turns-of-phrase that deepen the song in the most beautiful ways.
Connor Garvey: Pencil Frame
This song of Connor’s always breaks my heart:
I met Jeremy late night outside our showcase room. We got to talking and I was floored to find out not only that he’d lived in Seattle for years, but that he’d been a hardcore busker at Pike Place and we had some friends in common. We especially had Jim Hinde in common. Jim was a giant of a man, a real force in the Seattle busking community. Indeed he was about the only one who could corral all the different buskers with their wildly diverse personalities into a festival (the Pike Place Busker Festival). He was a good man and I loved working with him at Northwest Folklife. He was also a great songwriter. Jeremy sent me his last album, Mint Juleps, and I’ve been enjoying some of the songs on it quite a bit. He’s a folk songwriter of the very best kind: the kind of folk songwriter whose songs can be enjoyed on the streets or in a coffeeshop, the kind of folk singer that writes about people because he truly cares.
Jeremy Fisher: Spin, Spin
WHEW! That’s it for now! We’ll be back next year for sure and we hope to see you there!
The 2014 Folk Alliance International Conference will be held in Kansas City, MO from February 19-23. Registration beings July 1, 2013. Get crackin’!