International Folk Alliance Conference – Palais Des Congres and Hyatt (Montreal, Quebec)
Two disparate Canadian performances bookmarked this year’s International Folk Alliance Conference in Montreal.
Early on the opening night of the three-day music extravaganza, ASCAP honored sisters Kate and Anna McGarrigle with a lifetime achievement award. The hotel ballroom where this celebratory event took place was packed as the sisters were lauded with congratulatory messages from fellow musicians and treated to a sweet acoustic version of their own “Heart Like A Wheel” from Catie Curtis and Lori McKenna.
After the accolades, the McGarrigles took the stage and were joined by special guests, including Emmylou Harris. As they and their full backing band made their way through harmony-rich songs such as “Goin’ Back To Harlan” and “Talk To Me Of Mendocino”, it became obvious why the McGarrigles are not just Canadian national treasures but international music royalty: Their songs are timeless pieces of beauty.
In the wee morning hours on the final day of the conference, a markedly different kind of performance took place. Up-and-coming Toronto singer-songwriter Justin Rutledge played his acoustic guitar and harmonica and sang a sleepy but pretty set in an eleventh-floor suite brimming with about fifteen people.
Rutledge softly fingerpicked his way through songs from his strong independent album No Never Alone. He played “1855”, a time-travel love song that invokes the spirit of Walt Whitman, and “Too Sober To Sleep”, a down-and-out number that features the scorching lyrics: “God damn my liver when it’s thirsty/God damn my wallet when it’s dry/I’m too sober to sleep/But I’m too drunk to cry.” Then Rutledge called on the D.Rangers, the self-described “bluegrass madmen” from Winnipeg, to accompany him on a rollicking original call-and-response tune called “Don’t Be So Mean, Jellybean”.
The McGarrigles, straddling both sides of 60 years old, have been recording and performing their homespun brand of folk music for more than three decades. They represent one facet of the genre. Rutledge, 26 and still largely undiscovered, represents another. What this weekend showed is that there’s plenty of room for both in the current folk landscape, as well as countless acts between them.
There were three major components to the conference. First, there was the exhibition hall, which featured musical vendors, record labels, performers, and sessions covering topics such as “Getting Your Music Into Film And Television” and “Can Great Recordings Be Made At Home? (Answer…Yes!)”
A few blocks away at the host hotel, the other two components came together, mostly at night — often late, late at night. The first were the prominent musician showcases. These were happening in the lower-level ballrooms. As with most major music festivals, if you mapped out your schedule carefully, you could bounce around and see dozens of artists each night on the many scattered stages. Acts generally played 30 minutes or less; many played multiple times during the weekend.
Then there were the more informal in-room showcases that happened all weekend on the eleventh and twelfth floors. You could roam from suite to suite and room to room and see various artists playing with modest or no amplification until about 3 a.m. most nights.
One thing is for sure: Old-time is raging. The Duhks, highlighting material from their recent self-titled debut on Sugar Hill, performed to throngs wherever they played. If it was a ballroom, most seats were filled and emptied only for dancing. If it was a hotel room, the crowds spilled into the hallway, with folks standing on their toes to try to catch a glimpse of this buzz band from Winnipeg.
Other old-time acts also made their presence known. Uncle Earl, made up of five young women from all over the United States, crowded around one microphone and played intricately arranged versions of traditional songs. They were spellbinding. Boston band Crooked Still, behind the sultry vocals of Aoife O’Donovan and the lead cello of Rushad Eggleston, made some attractive old-time noise of their own.
A revamped Wailin’ Jennys were also impressive. The Canadian trio of Ruth Moody, Nicky Mehta and Annabelle Chvostek mesmerized a packed ballroom with their alluring three-part harmonies on songs such as “Beautiful Dawn” from their recent disc 40 Days.
Outside the Rad Trad realm, performers who stood out included Amy Speace of Jersey City, New Jersey, who played airy, catchy songs from her forthcoming album featuring guests Gary Louris and Cliff Eberhart, and Texas troubadour Jimmy LaFave, who along with his band brought some roadhouse flavor to the event.
Perhaps most representative of the spirit of the conference was Portland, Maine, singer-songwriter Tom Acousti, who played one late night to just a couple of people in one of the hotel rooms. The small crowd didn’t bother him as he passionately belted out songs and asked for requests.
“This conference isn’t about performing to huge crowds,” Acousti said later. “It’s very much a one-on-one kind of thing. That’s what makes it so special.”