Folk Alliance Finds 2014
It’s been about a month since the annual Folk Alliance International Conference in Kansas City, Missouri, but I’m still listening to all kinds of music from the new albums I picked up there and I’m still buzzing from the intensely rewarding experience of hosting my own room. Actually, I hosted the room with two other organizations: Quicksilver Productions and 12X12 Management, and our room ended up being quite the late-night destination! There were some amazing all-star jams, bizarre impromptu dance parties, and copious amounts of fun to be had. Here are just a few highlights:
–Laurie Lewis had such a great showcase. Intense! She was pogoing around the stage like a maniac!
–Riley Baugus was so amazing. His solo cover of Dock Boggs’ “Country Blues” blew my mind, and he closed out our showcase room by lining out Amazing Grace. If you’ve never heard lining out, basically all the eerie harmonies of old-time music seem to come from it.
–Billy Strings blew my mind! Take a metal band and squeeze it into the body of a 21 year old bluegrass guitarist. DAMN!
– Willie Watson: LOVED his set in our room. So amazing, but the highlight was his cover of “On the Road Again”, the gnarliest of all old jugband songs.
– Sarah Jarosz was so lovely on our stage. Her cover of The Everly Brother’ “On the Wings of a Nightingale” was swoon worthy.
– The Tillers were amazing live! SO much fun to watch. I promoted and loved their album but couldn’t believe their live sets.
Aside from all the fun meeting and hanging out with folks, I also benefited from a fat stack of albums that I brought back. Here are 8 of the best albums from this stack for y’all to check out:
2013. M.C. Records.
Guy Davis played our showcase room and just about charmed us silly. No surprise there, he’s known as one of the foremost country blues interpreters around, and each album of his is a little treasure box. But singing along to his delightful song “Love Looks Good On You,” I was just happy to have a part in his music. There’s something welcoming to what he does, something that draws you in in a way that’s unusual for the blues. Isn’t this supposed to be a solo affair? The hard times of a single man, voice raised in protest? With Davis, the blues reaches to its own deeper meaning: a collection of traditions and old byways inspired by the past but refreshingly present. Davis’ new album, Juba Dance, seems almost too easy, an illusion born from Davis’ total mastery of the traditions. Here he’s wandering the back roads of the African-American experience, seemingly picking songs as scraps floating through the air. The title song, “Juba Dance,” references the great African-American dancer Master Juba, but is really, as Davis says, “an excuse for me to play claw-hammer banjo the way I really want to, combined with a butt shaking rhythm.” “See That My Grave is Kept Clean,” with Davis joined by the Blind Boys of Alabama is a revelation. As a songwriter, Davis excels here again. Aside from “Love Looks Good On You,” which should be this album’s single, I’ve got huge love for his song “Lost Again,” which manages to be a bit funny and poignant at the same time. “Did You See My Baby” is about the cutest ribald blues song featuring a harmonica that I’ve heard. Watching Guy perform this and shake his ass was a definite Folk Alliance highlight! Juba Dance is an utterly delightful album full of surprises. I didn’t know Guy Davis played the banjo so well, for example. Find your own surprises!
Special note here for Italian harmonica master Fabrizio Poggi who was funny and charming in person with Guy Davis and shines like a polished gem on Guy’s album. Fabrizio also passed me his own “solo” album, Spirit of Mercy, which I absolutely loved. He’s got insanely good guests on his album like Flaco Jimenez, Eric Bibb, Charlie Musselwhite, Garth Hudson, and The Blind Boys of Alabama. There’s a lot of killer harmonica, but Fabrizio also sings on this. It’s pretty unusual to hear the blues sung with a thick Italian accent, but he understands the blues so well that he actually manages to sound better than most blues singers I know. It’s a totally fun album that I’ve listened to quite a lot.
One of the best young singers of her generation, Bella Hardy has been making serious waves in the UK. Her music hasn’t quite reached across the pond yet, but that’s no fault of hers. At Folk Alliance, her performance was spellbinding, just her and her fiddle, fingerpicking along with her songs or fiddling cross-rhythms while singing. It was a very pure performance, unfettered by tricks or speed, but allowed to unfold at the speed of the song. Her new album battleplan is a masterwork, a blend of old traditional songs cleverly subverted through her intonation and meaning, or new songs built on the same foundations, but with fresher flowers and greener branches. If you want to know where British folk is right now, Bella Hardy’s the best window to a new generation.
2011 is hardly a new album, but since it’s so difficult to get Welsh, Celtic or even British folk albums sent to the US these days (hate to break it to you folks, but our European counterparts often see us as a third world country when it comes to arts support), we’ll go ahead and call this one new. Wales had a particularly strong presence at Folk Alliance this year thanks to governmental support from the UK and the work of folks like Danny Kilbride and Blanche Rowen of Trac: Folk Development for Wales. Excellent Welsh artists like Olion Byw and harpist/vocalist Gwennan Gibbard came out, but for me the standout was young Welsh supergroup Calan. They had it all: bagpipes, hot fiddling, harp, Welsh vocals, even something I would never have expected finding: a Welsh clog-off. My wife was at WOMEX in Cardiff, Wales, last year and picked up a pair of Welsh wooden clogs. But I’d never seen actual Welsh clogging, which was an astonishingly aerobic activity! Calan put on a great live show, and bring a warmth of youthful enthusiasm to the old Welsh traditions.
I’ve worked a bunch with Lindsay Lou & The Flatbellys in the past, so of course I love their music, but I wasn’t prepared for how much I loved their brand-new EP. It’s only four songs, but I must have hit repeat at least four times in a row while driving down I5 from Vancouver, BC to Seattle, WA late one night. The Here Between EP takes them out of the rootsgrass or jazzgrass world they were in with the previous album and puts them more into the contemporary stringband field, like Joy Kills Sorrow or Crooked Still. Lindsay Lou’s vocals are as heavenly as usual, but the songs have a wicked complexity that shows the group maturing to their new sound. The standout track is the divine gospel song “The River Jordan”, actually written by Michigan friends and label mates Seth & May. Lindsay’s vocals on this song are transcendent, and the restraint of the arrangement shows a beautiful maturity in the band. “The Fix” is another one of my favorites, with the unusual chorus: “I’m not looking for an answer, I’m not trying for a tired old bag of tricks/ I need a fix, a frame shift.” I think the EP as a whole is their frame shift as a band, and I’m looking forward to their upcoming full length later this year.
Maja & David. Nord.
2013. GO’ Danish Folk Music.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: David Boulanger is one of the best traditional fiddlers in Québec, and one of the best young trad fiddlers around today. He’s not only a versatile player who stars in one of the largest trad bands, La Bottine Souriante, but he’s also a devoted student of the tradition, dedicating himself to the rough and winding crooked tunes that are so special to Québec. His album with the band La part du queteux and his album with flutist Jean Duval are two of my favorite Québécois albums thanks to his powerful and inventive fiddling. His new project, Maja & David, came from a meeting with Danish fiddler Maja Kjaer Jacobsen, and the duo album they’ve released blends both Danish and Québécois traditions effortlessly. There are certainly some kinds of links between the two in place: aside from the popular group Haugaard & Hoirup recording with Québécois bands a number of years ago, both traditions both seem to love rhythmic, droning tunes on the fiddle. And both fiddlers are so strong here. It’s a delight to hear Maja and David play together, probably as much of a delight as it was for them recording the album. At Folk Alliance, people were literally running to their room to see what the music was about, so I predict that this will be a breakout year for both Maja & David!
Spencer & Rains. The Old Man and the Old Woman.
Howard Rains has been top of my list of new fiddlers after hearing his previous album of old Texas fiddle tunes. He’s a tireless tune sourcer and a great fiddler in his own right. I tracked him down at Folk Alliance specifically to get his new album: Spencer & Rains (Rains w/fiddler & guitarist Trisha Spencer). Here he’s joined by long time friend Spencer and the duo turn in a whole slew of killer tunes and songs drawn from their deep research. At times, it doesn’t even seem like old-time stringband music, hinting at things older and murkier in the depths of the old-time pool. That’s when they’re at their best, blissfully happy to pull and pull on these old things, raising them up from the muck. You’ll certainly recognize some of the tune names here as constants in the scene, but each one feels different, and if you didn’t look at the tune list while listening, like me, each tune would feel refreshingly different. And in between the reworked or differently constructed constants, are lovely gems like the title tune from Amos Chase of Grantville, KS, “Gettin’ Upstairs” from Welsley Chrisson of Yancey County, KY, “Broaddus” from Hollis Wright of Kennard, TX, or “Belladonna Waltz”, which Rains wrote himself. Any way you cut it, this is a lovely album played with great care and sensitivity.
The Ballad of Losing You.
2013. Missed Connection Records.
Saskatoon singer-songwriter Zachary Lucky records songs that sound like a tired cowboy’s dreamscape. With a whispered, grizzled voice, a mournful banjo, and a fingerpicked acoustic guitar, he crafts evocative and somewhat depressing soundscapes from the bones of acoustic roots music. As a songwriter, he taps easily into Canadian ranch culture, bringing a world-weariness that seems to suit the vanishing life of the Canadian cowboy. Lucky writes the kind of songs you’d imagine writing on the morning of a long tour, with so many strong memories behind you. They look forward to the future, but seem trapped by the past, pulled backwards against their will. His songs are dynamic, and you’ll find yourself entrapped when trying to parse the lyrics. I especially recommend “Merry Month of May” and “Morning Words”. “Salty Air” also has an intriguing and beautiful melody and rhythmic feel. Zachary Lucky’s the kind of songwriter it pays to return to again and again.
Shook Twins. What We Do.
2014. Curlypinky Records.
It’s pretty hard to resist the Shook Twins. A twin sister whirlwind of Americana folk pop, they always manage to charm me, both live and on recordings. Their new album, What We Do, comes out April 2014 and is full of their banjo-driven jams that nod towards reggae beats or pop backbeats as easily as to Appalachian roots. Both Katelyn and Laurie Shook, who lead the group, have a kind of easy, sunny sibling harmony that forms the bedrock of the group. Plus they bring a seriously quirky aesthetic to the music, incorporating banjo drum, glockenspiel, ambient vocal loops, a repurposed old telephone/microphone, and this curious golden egg I keep seeing in their press photos. Their new album was recorded by The Lumineers’ producer Ryan Hadlock at his awesome Bear Creek recording studio in Washington, but the group is based out of Portland, Oregon. Sure, there’s an element of Portlandia to their music, but it’s just about impossible not to fall in step with the Shook Twins, and you certainly won’t regret picking this one up.
PRE-ORDER WHAT WE DO ON AMAZON (drops April 8, 2014)
This article first appeared in KITHFOLK, the new quarterly digital roots music magazine and website from Hearth Music. Check out Issue #1, Winter 2014 HERE. Issue highlights include exclusive interviews with Malian guitarist Vieux Farka Touré, Smithsonian Folkways artist Elizabeth Mitchell, New Orleans roots activists Rising Appalachia and anarcho-folk legends Blackbird Raum. Lots of album reviews and streamable audio. Beautiful original graphic design throughout.