Folk Alley at Folk Alliance International 2012: Just a Few of Those Who Impressed
by Jim Blum, FolkAlley.com
Kenneth Pattingale and Joey Ryan are the Milk Carton Kids, two southern California singers who teamed up to focus on close harmony with their voices and their acoustic guitars. They dressed in retro suits and looked like they could have been in Herman’s Hermits or even the early Beatles. They were also both jesters, but behind all of this is solid musicianship and songs that you want to hear over and over. Think Simon and Garfunkel meets Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.
This group was the surprise of the conference last year and the stars this year. They feature banjo played like an electric guitar, octave violin, 1/2 of an upright bass, and Bonnie Paine who plays stomp box, washboard, and bongos. She is like a human percussion machine. Elephant Revival was created and assembled. The players are from all over the country. They decided to play together and each of the members decided to move to Nederland, Colorado to start a new life together. The songs are original, thoughtful, and catchy. This is a soft spoken bunch, but their music has impact and they are quickly developing a following.
This cat plays every instrument known, and is a sought after producer in Canada. He also writes some biting songs and can sing them with ease. Yet he looks like a clean cut college senior. All that was missing was the sweater. Recently Steve has been resurrecting the music of The Mississippi Sheiks, who Bob Dylan also admired. The Sheiks were one of the first of the early 20th century string bands who went for energy first, and often strayed into unchartered territory. Though Dawson himself is a much more accomplished player, he too takes musical risks and adventures and now we know why.
Nora Jane Struthers & P. J. George
Nora Jane used to teach high school English but her Dad played guitar and convinced his daughter to write and sing. Multi-instrumentalist P. J. George sings with her. Both are in The Bootleggers and Bearfoot. Struthers sees a relationship in the writers of classic literature and folk heroes like Tim O’Brien and Doc Watson. Her stories are full of vivid details and what a voice.
From England, two brothers and two cousins got into their parents record collection and came out of the basement singing and writing. The Dunwells offer excellent lead and trio singing along with acoustic and electric guitars, resonator guitar and percussion. They are full of energy and came away from the conference with several bookings.
The golden voice of Tracy Grammer is singing mostly Dave Carter songs lately. This year the Dave Carter Legacy Project has been announced with a concentrated effort being made to archive and perform his songs. It was strange and beautiful to hear her sing his words written in the past – many seemed prophetic – especially those which may have been about his own passing. His poetry is often at a level few attain.
Gretchen has been writing for major country and pop singers for 20 years. That’s about as long as she has been working with pianist and accordion player Barry Walsh. The two were recently married (by minister Rodney Crowell). Gretchen’s writing is deep, seldom 1st person, and insists that her characters take risks. The production on her new album is pretty slick so it was nice to hear them acoustically.
Alright, he’s not an old man. Chris Luedecke appears to be in his thirties and is a recent father of twins. He is one of the few singers who accompanies himself primarily on banjo. His songs are often life lessons (“Inchworm,” “Send My Troubles Away”) and tend to strike you before you realize you might be slipping. I hope that makes some sense to you. If not, go buy one of his albums. He is a thoughtful, wonderful guy.
Mary Gauthier & Tania Elizabeth
Yes, that is 5-string fiddler Tania Elizabeth of the Duhks, backing up one of the toughest songwriters we have. Mary Gauthier grew up in a foster home and eventually found her birth mother who then refused to meet her. How do you live with that? On top of that, her brother is in prison. Still, she told us that her songs are not intended to be sad, because nobody learns anything in a sad song. Rather, she hopes her music offers a sense of connection for others who are also struggling. Though she didn’t say it, Mary also offers us hope, because we can rise up together much easier than by ourselves.
He has long stringy hair, he is pale and thin, and stares at you with the biggest of eyes. His delivery is gruff, but full of character and wisdom. At first we couldn’t tell whether Malcolm Holcombe was kidding with us or if he was just an overly serious guy, but when he invited us all over to his house for mashed potatoes we knew it wasn’t the latter. Someone once told him a story about attendees of the Kerrville Folk Festival collecting raindrops for drinking water and out came “To Drink The Rain,” a wonderfully thoughtful proverb that became the title of his album. He is the Tom Waits of Folk Music.
Like his high school buddy Slaid Cleaves, Rod Picott (“pie-caught”) is a soft spoken, kind hearted songwriter from Maine. Also like Slaid, Rod doesn’t shy away from serious subject matter as his new album demonstrates. During our live broadcast he sang two songs that he and Slaid co-wrote, “Rust Belt Fields” and “Welding Burns.” Both songs champion the working person and emphasize that hard work and long hours no longer promise success or even happiness. That doesn’t mean you won’t find Picott enjoyable. His songs are engaging, musical, and they bring hidden thoughts out of the closet.
Jimmy LaFave with Radoslav Lorkovic, Phil Hurley
Jimmy LaFave has one of those voices that crys out and grabs your heart. His connection with listeners begins with the songs, but his delivery carries the message straight into your soul. Joining him at Folk Alliance were Radoslav Lorkovic on piano and accordion and Phil Hurley on electric guitar. It was a thrill to watch both listening hard to Jimmy’s words and then filling in between verses with just the right notes to help the song make sense. Jimmy is working hard on several Woody Guthrie projects to help celebrate the legend’s 100th birthday. He can speak eloquently and off the cuff on Guthrie’s amazing and somewhat still untold story.
I heard this band’s energy coming out of a small hotel room on the 19th floor late one night. There was hardly room to go in as there were 8 people in the band plus guests. At first I thought I was listening to The Band, but then I heard Bonnie Raitt, and then Marvin Gaye. It wasn’t a copy band by any stretch; there was talent in every corner of the room and each song seemed better than the last. The “Collective” all live in Nashville and have never toured. In an age where metal, punk, and grunge draw consistent crowds, I’d like to see this band in front of that audience and watch jaws drop.
Mariel is a soften spoken fiddler from California and a graduate of The Berklee School of Music in Boston. She can (and did) demonstrate a wide variety of skills. I heard her play in an old timey style backing banjoist Putnam Smith, Irish music as a member of Annalivia, and Norwegian music when she pulled out the Hardanger fiddle. She played this instrument as guitarist Jordan Tice backed her up in her own showcase. She also has a sweet singing voice. This diversity of skills can only help her find more work and more fans and she is a wonderful person to boot.
Years back a friend of mine was pushing me to listen to Sam who I thought was only a skilled guitarist. When I heard the album Union with Gabriel Valla, I quickly realized that he is a triple threat as a writer and very passionate singer along with being a seasoned player. I wrote a glowing review and choose this album as the best of the year in 2006. Imagine my thrill to see him in a small hotel room showcase at midnight with only 7 other people watching. He sang 2 songs from Union, – “St Augustine,” about second chances, and Verlon Thompson’s “The Christians and the Outlaws,” about nature and reincarnation. Sam reminds me of a top flight major league pitcher with a handful of pitches and command of each.
Phoebe Hunt and Brazos on the River
Phoebe Hunt was the fiddler and singer for the now defunct Belleville Outfit. She is a captivating personality and easily dominates the room. At Folk Alliance she was joined by Bellville’s, Conner Forsythe, on keys and both closed the conference by joining another terrific Austin band called Brazos on the River. Once again, you could barely squeeze in the room. One of the band’s guitarists played a nylon strung small guitar and other played more of a hollow body electric. Both players could sing and all were backed by upright bass and snare drum. Phoebe called out one song after another. She seems to favor old show tunes or new songs in that style. My big thrill at the conference was their encore which she dedicated to me. “…if you can walk you can dance, if you can dance you can fly…” Considering the loss of my terrible limp through total hip replacement following the conference last year, this song spoke volumes, and it seemed to mean a lot to everyone in the room.