Folk Alliance International 2020 Recap and Review

Listen to the Spotify playlist HERE

Day 1

Flying into New Orleans at dusk, seeing lights from emptying office buildings and starting-to-get-busy restaurants and bars glinting red and orange and blue and green, I thought: “This is a city of water.”

I haven’t been to New Orleans in more than 15 years – pre-Katrina, in fact. And even though I KNOW it’s below sea level and even though I KNOW it truly is a city surrounded by water, it was jolting to see it in person, from above. Of course, once the plane was on the runway, and once I was in the airport, at baggage claim, in the cab, at the hotel…well, then it was New Orleans! Land of “Laissez les bon temps rouler.” Land of beads and krewes and Tuesdays that are fat. Land of much warmer temperatures than where I’d come from and the promise of great music on the horizon.

Big decision ahead: Who do I go hear first at the 2020 Folk Alliance International Conference (FAI)? I settled on the official showcase for Nefesh Mountain. This is a bluegrass group from New Jersey, fronted by a husband and a wife determined to, as they say, “bring together the worlds of American Roots music with Jewish heritage and tradition.” That’s a pretty specific description, and I was impressed by the recordings and videos I listened to before the conference.

I was also impressed by how clearly this duo, Doni Zasloff and Eric Lindberg, state their goal and their mission: “We are proud to be representing a voice of diversity.” And, in their earnest and heartfelt lyrics, they truly seem to be genuine about that goal. The band’s newest recording, their third, also emphasizes that goal. It’s called Songs for the Sparrows and they described it from stage like this: “We wanted to put together an album for all people who’ve been discriminated against.” And, though it wasn’t explicitly stated, they also seem to want to be the voice for those who, for whatever reason, can’t raise their own. I love the thought process behind this…though, admittedly, the execution of the music wasn’t as compelling as I’d hoped.

Here’s what I liked about this band: they’re a 5-piece band and the violinist (Alan Grubner) was FANTASTIC. He took solos, he backed off when the singers needed to shine, he was clearly engaged with what he was doing; I could have listened to him play his fiddle for much longer than he did.

I also liked the energy of the group: earnest, sweet, and as well-meaning as they might be, they’re also able to kick it in to a higher gear and get loud. A band who can control emotions, dynamics, tempos, and moods is well on its way to appealing to a big crowd.

And, the harmonies between Zasloff and Lindberg were pretty tight – they’ve clearly been making music together for a long time and they know how to really support each other. I do wish each individual voice was a little more compelling…but maybe they shine when they sing together. They are, after all, a duo.

Next – The Oshima Brothers. Now, these siblings from Belfast, Maine have been singing together since they were kids. Well, since they were YOUNGER kids: Sean is 24 and Jaime is 21. I was quite keen to see them on stage at FAI – sibling harmonies? Yes please.

I was a little…surprised, shall we say, by the first song in their set. It’s called “Color Blind,” and as I was listening, I thought, “Huh. This does not sound like what I listened to online.” It sounded more like something you might hear on a pop station/service, rather than on a folk/roots/Americana/bluegrass station/service. There was a lot of falsetto. There was some hair tossing. It was…interesting.

As they continued their set, though, I wondered if maybe “Color Blind” was something new they were trying; the other songs, including a lovely original country waltz, were much more cohesive. And focused much more on what this pair is truly great at – harmonizing with each other. They are at their best, I think, when they keep things simple. I hope they’ll keep that in mind as they continue on their musical journey.

Next up – The Revelers! This 6-piece band, based in Lafayette, Louisiana, has been around since 2010. What makes them unique is the fact that they play a lot of different kinds of music – Americana, Cajun, Zydeco…they’ve got a sound that incorporates lots of specific musical genres and, I think, that practice really makes them stand out.

They’re also a ton of fun – as the folks dancing in the aisles and in front of the stage would attest to, I think. “They’re cool,” someone said next to me and, frankly, I agree. This is the kind of a band you want to hear when you’re at a bar with friends and ready to dance for a while – they’re fun. That’s the kind of energy they bring.

What’s also unique about the group – made up, by the way, of former members of the Red Stick Ramblers and the Pine Leaf Boys – is that they take turns on lead vocals. They’re truly a band – everyone has a role to play and no one is the stand out “lead”; it’s a group effort, clearly. Plus, they have a saxophone and they know how to use it!

Actually, the unique pairing of instruments wasreally special – saxophone and violin played together, as did accordion and electric guitar. These kinds of unexpected duets added a layer of interest to the band’s set.

Next, a decision: do I stay or do I go? My first panel on Thursday is the one I’m moderating – a peer review session for folk DJs. It starts at 9am so I don’t want to be out too late and it’s already past 11pm. In the end, though, the lure of the British Underground Room (one of the private showcase rooms) and a performance by Emily Mae Winterswas too strong so I wandered up a few floors and settled in.

Before Winters took the stage, I caught the last 10 minutes of The Bookshop Band, a duo from England with a hook unlike any I’ve heard of before: they write and perform songs inspired by books. What a concept! I’d read a bit about them before coming to FAI but didn’t include them on my preview playlist (which you can find HERE) so I was glad to catch them in performance.

They’re great – tight harmonies between Ben Please and Beth Porter and a whole bevy of fantastic instruments, including guitar, glockenspiel, ukulele, harmonium, recorder and cello. I’m definitely going to try to catch another of their showcases between now and Saturday.

The last performance of the night was by London based musician Emily Mae Winters. Let me just say this: her voice is something special. And in the way of things that are special, it’s hard to fully describe it. It’s pure. It’s clear. It’s got a beautiful and natural vibrato to it. And Winters is very clearly comfortable using her vocal instrument to its greatest advantage.

I am so glad I got the chance to hear her perform at FAI. Not only did her voice grant a few moments of mindfulness in an otherwise chaotic night, she reminded me that these musicians work very, very hard to pursue this thing, this craft, that they love. Winters, for example, flew across an ocean for the chance to play for a total of about 2 hours this week; she mentioned that she was dealing with jet lag but you never would have been able to tell by her calm and confident stage presence, by her genuine audience banter, and by the clarity of her beautiful lyrics.

What also struck me, in addition to the sheer elegance and beauty of her voice, was how adept she is at using very specific place imagery – places you and I probably don’t know about – and somehow making those places accessible to every single person in the room. There’s a … let’s call it a “specific universality” to her lyrics and that, in my opinion, is hugely powerful.

And there you have it. Night one of FAI 2020 complete; come back for an update on day two! I moderate my first-ever panel, check out other panels (“Greening Folk Events,” “Effective Leadership in Non-Profit Music Organizations,” a key-note conference address by Mavis Staples!!!!!!), head to the merch area to try to buy a new water bottle because I left mine on the airplane, and, of course, check out more great music.

Day 2

*Hey, if you don’t want to read this whole post, check out these musicians! Highlights from the second night of the Folk Alliance International Conference in New Orleans, Louisiana!
> Mariel Buckley

> Darling West

> Raina Rose

> Jig Jam

Have you been to a big conference before? It’s almost overwhelming, to be honest, though not in a negative way. The energy of a large conference is infectious; as I took the escalator down to the lobby level late in the afternoon, I got this amazing glimpse of what looked like HUNDREDS of musicians tuning their instruments, talking with radio djs and publicists, reconnecting with old friends, and making new ones, too. The air felt alive, almost, and that’s the feeling that really makes these kinds of events worthwhile.

The day started early with a session I was moderating. Essentially, folk djs from around the United States and Canada gathered together to…chat. There wasn’t anything specific on the agenda, though I did have some topics prepared in case of the awkward lull that happens when you’re in the midst of a group of people you don’t really know.

This session was really a chance for people who do similar things to meet, exchange contact info, and talk. The session started at 9am (pretty early after a night of music!) and so I was expecting maybe 10 or 12 people to be there. Wrong. 40 people showed up and let me tell you: folk djs have a lot of opinions…about everything. I was surprised by the vehemence and passion some of the djs displayed about certain topics – I thought we were all supposed to be mellow music lovers!

Ultimately, it was an engaging conversation about whether or not to connect with our listening audiences and how to best do it, the most effective way to share our playlists with each other and with the music reporting world, how to attract and mentor young announcers/hosts/djs, and more. A good start to the day, for sure, and about half of the group decided to continue the conversation after the official end of the session. I’d say that’s a success.

Next up: an incredibly powerful conversation between Ann Powers and Ani DiFranco. DiFranco has recently published a memoir, No Walls and the Recurring Dream, and, appropriate to this year’s FAI Conference theme of “The Story of People and Place,” it’s really about how DiFranco found (and continues to find) her place in the world.

Out of the many nuggets of gold that I pulled away from this inversation (interview/conversation) was this: I walked away with the idea that truth lies in storytelling. Stories are fluid, DiFranco said, and the truth can be, too. She’s right, I think; too often, we (I) see the world in black and white. But really, cliched as it may be, the world is full of grey hues. It was a totally engaging hour and I’m glad I attended.

Later in the afternoon, I also attended the FAI Conference’s keynote interview between NPR’s Melissa Block and the great Mavis Staples. It was a candid and honest conversation, filled with lots of laughter (“I’m a ham, you know,” Staples said at one point) and I walked out of the jam-packed ballroom feeling grateful to have had the opportunity to hear this remarkable woman share just a tiny bit of her life story. By the way, she is never going to go away, she says: “I’ll never leave you alone and I’ll never stop singing.” You can imagine how the audience responded when they heard THAT sentence from Mavis Staples.

The official showcases started around 4:30pm and the first showcase on my list was a Finnish trio – Anne-Mari Kivimaki and Palomylly. They say they’re inspired by traditional folk tales and there definitely IS a story-telling element to their live show; the trio loops in recorded voice tracks with their live music making and, at one point, a man in a beautiful suit jumped onto the stage and started performing an interpretative dance. I *think* he was someone they knew…but I’m not sure.

I was impressed. It’s hard for me to write about this trio because, frankly, it’s a little outside of what I’m used to – electronic trance folk music from Finland isn’t on my personal playlist…but maybe it should be. The band is (necessarily?) totally focused on rhythm and the heavy, intense beat they’re able to create is incredible.

This isn’t to say that their music-making isn’t top notch, because it is. All three instrumentalists – fiddle(s), accordion, double bass – are talented. At times, as they worked together, they created an almost wild, elemental, no-holds-barred kind of a sound that was totally captivating. And, while all three also sang, it was Kivimaki’s voice that stood out the most. It’s strong, unadorned, clear and powerful. In fact, “powerful” might be the best word to describe the sounds this trio produced. Check them out.

Next up: Mariel Buckley. She is one of my standouts from the conference so far and, I admit, I was kind of surprised by that. Her recordings are solid, I think, but seeing her live? It took it to a whole new level. Not only is she a good guitarist and a strong and confident singer, she’s HILARIOUS. Her stage banter with the audience showcased her dry sense of humor and overall she came across as a truly genuine human being. I made a note to myself – “I want to be friends with her!” as I was listening and…yes, it’s still true. Mariel, let’s be friends?!?!?

Back to the music – this Calgary, Alberta Canada based musician has been described as a cross between Townes van Zandt and Joan Jett and I think that’s pretty apt. She’s a little bit country, a little bit rock, and a little bit inside-the-confessional and the music she creates will make you tap your toe and nod your head along. Plus, the way Buckley went back and forth between emphasizing the electric guitar line of the song and her smoky, deep voice was really engaging. And the lyrics that voice sings? They’ll break your heart and/or make you really, really angry. Check out “Jumping the Fence,” which starts with the line: “I don’t want to be your dirty little secret.”

I caught most of Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley’s official showcase, too. This pair, who you’ll often hear on Folk Alley, are talented – I don’t think anyone would argue. Seeing them perform live, however, made me fall.in.love with what they do. Hensley’s pitch-perfect voice, lightning fast hands, and incredibly clean and crisp guitar work match up beautifully with Ickes’ groove-fueled dobro playing. If you haven’t listened to this duo’s newest recording, World Full of Blues, go listen to it in its entirety right now. Please.

After a break for dinner (seafood gumbo and crawfish roulettes – yes please!), it was back to conference headquarters for another night of private music showcases. These are scattered throughout 5 floors in the hotel and it’s really like wandering down a tiny music city. Lots of people, lots of laughing, and, of course, lots of music.

My first stop was in the Australia and New Zealand Showcase Room. I wanted to catch Alice Skye and Emily Wurramara, based in Melbourne and Tasmania, respectively. They were participating in an “in the round” showcase – two or three musicians with similar roots or backgrounds take turns quickly playing one song at a time.

I’m definitely interested in trying to hear more from Emily Wurramara; she’s got an interesting story to share and her voice is unique – high and sweet at one moment and dark and throaty the next. She knows how to use her instrument, that’s for sure. Singing in English and in her native language, Anindilyakwa, Wurramara shares stories about feeling alone, feeling out of place, and trying to figure out a way to make it through to the other side. Check out a song of hers called “Black Smoke.”

Another “in the round” next, this one featuring Norwegian duo Darling West and indigenous Oklahoma based singer Kalyn Fay. Darling West started their part of the set with “something soft and sad and melancholic, to prove we’re from Norway” (their words, not mine). Right away, I was blown away by the duo’s harmonies. They are…unusual, somehow. The harmonies you expect to hear are not the ones you DO hear but the ones you DO hear are the ones you want to hear. That’ll make sense once you check this duo out and listen to how their voices intertwine with each other.

Darling West has been around for a while now – they’ve won tons of awards, too. It’s not hard to hear why. Memorable lyrics, those harmonies, and the sense that these are songs that have been drafted and revised and workshopped and revised again and again and again until they are as perfect as they can be. I’m glad to have heard this pair perform; I look forward to learning more about them, too.

Kalyn Fay was joined by a cellist friend of hers and her voice is one that’ll grab you right away – it’s deep, rich, dark and full and it was a joy to hear. In addition to her voice, she’s a compelling storyteller too, sharing glimpses into a world you might not know. With lyrics that suggest she wants to be optimistic and hopeful about the future but isn’t sure how to get to that mental space, Fay is the kind of musician who’ll keep me coming back to hear more. I’m going to try to see her again tonight, I think.

Raina Rose was the next singer I got to hear and I knew nothing about her beforehand – my pal and colleague Linda Fahey suggested we go check her out. JT Nero, of Birds of Chicago, produced Rose’s newest album, Vesta, and Linda was keen to hear her. So I tagged along and I am so glad I did. She’s another stand out for me for the conference.

Joined by her husband on electric bass, Raina Rose sang in a clear voice about the “tenuous tether that keeps us in this place” and admitted that “when I was young, I didn’t think…” She’s got the gift of being able to look back on her own life experiences and then share her learned wisdom in a way that is meaningful to anyone listening. Plus, she’s a confident guitar player, which always impresses me, and her voice was pitch-perfect, easily sliding up and down and around the scale. She was a joy to hear. And I’m eager to hear more.

I’d wanted to catch the Irish Americana band JigJam at their official showcase earlier in the day but I missed it and so I bounced up a few floors to catch them during one of their private showcases.

I’ll be totally honest with you: I wasn’t expecting much from this quartet. I’ve heard a few other Irish bands so far here at FAI and…I’m not writing about them. This band intrigues me, though, because of their penchant for “I-Grass” (that’s how they describe their sound) – Irish influenced bluegrass. So, I figured, why not check them out?

And now I’m telling you – YOU check them out! Immediately! Right now! Do it! You won’t regret it. Virtuosity? Check. Energy? Check – in spades. Humor and solid stage presence? Check.

Jig Jam’s music is really, really fun; it’s bluegrass, yes, but with the sounds of traditional Irish jigs and reels mixed in and the result is jaw-droppingly spectacular. Plus, all four musicians, playing banjo, guitar, mandolin and bass, are INCREDIBLY talented. I kept saying, out loud, “Wow! Wow! Holy cats, wow!” They clearly love playing to a crowd and they clearly love making music together. Jig Jam! I heart you!

The last stop of the night was in the BreakOut West showcase room. I was interested in hearing from Jay Gilday, a musician from Edmonton, Alberta Canada.

Now, just looking at the setup last night as I settled into my folding chair, I thought, “This is folk music at its most basic: a guy and a guitar, telling stories in front of a small crowd.” But turns out, Jay Gilday isn’t JUST a guy with a guitar. He’s had an interesting life, growing up in the Yellowknife NW Territories in Canada where his musical choices were somewhat limited (his words), before moving to Alberta and discovering bluegrass. THAT discovery made him want to play the guitar and boy can he ever do that.

Add in a voice that sounds angry and passionate and also incredibly sad, all at the same time, and what you’ve got is something interesting and, I think, something potentially pretty powerful. I don’t honestly feel like I got a great sense of who Gilday is as a musician but I DO believe I want to hear more from him and so I’ll keep listening.

And that’s a wrap – day two of the FAI Conference done. Tomorrow brings a keynote address from the marvelous Rhiannon Giddens, more official and private showcases, and a stroll down the Exhibitor Hall to see if I can’t find a few CDs to take home with me. Plus, there might just have to be a quick run to Bourbon Street. I should see it, right? Right.

Day 3

In case you’re keeping track, it’s the third night of the 2020 FAI Conference in New Orleans. What does that mean? It means three nights, in a row, where I’m up way past my bedtime. So, let’s dive in.

The day was spent wandering the exhibitor hall, getting some CDs and download codes from bands I’ve seen and enjoyed so far, talking with other djs and industry folks about that age old question – what does “folk” really mean, anyway? – and walking around a bit outside in the glorious sunshine. A high today of 65. 65! It’s been MONTHS since I’ve been in temperatures like that.

After a quick stop at the famed Sazerac Bar in the Roosevelt Hotel for a traditional New Orleans cocktail (yep, a Sazerac), it was time for a late dinner at a French Quarter staple, Mr. B’s, and then back to the hotel for a few private showcases.

First up, Prince Edward Island native Catherine MacLellan. She’s got a new recording out – an album that (and I’m quoting from her bio here) “is a travelogue through heartbreak, loss, and the joy of life.” If you haven’t heard anything from Coyote yet on Folk Alley, keep listening. It’s not a record you want to miss, that’s for sure, and MacLellan shared a couple of the new songs during her showcase tonight.

Now, MacLellan is known for her voice and for her lyrics. The voice: it’s clear and pure and doesn’t require much amplification or tweaking with technology. Go ahead and scoff about the importance of diction and enunciation all you want; it truly does make a difference to an audience member whether or not s/he/they can hear the words you are singing. Catherine MacLellan has that figured out.

The lyrics: they’re strong and, often, simple. Not simplistic by any means…but simple. She’s a direct writer, one who doesn’t spend too much time on things like metaphors or similes. Instead, like a truly talented storyteller, she gets to the point and manages to spin something magical out of something seemingly ordinary. One of the standouts tonight was a song called “Waiting On My Love”; MacLellan says she absolutely loved making the video for it and it’s something you can easily find online if you’re so inclined.

Next tonight, it was up four flights of stairs to a tiny room in the corner of the floor – the FAI First Timers showcase room. I wandered in to hear the Toronto-based Turkish electro-folk band Minor Empire share an acoustic set – their first non-electric performance of the conference, they informed the room.

Shakers, brush, percussion box, zither and voice, all working together to create a hodge-podge of miscellaneous sounds. Did I like it? I’m not sure. The vocalist and the zither player seemed to be at odds with each other occasionally, and the whole vibe of the group seemed to be a casual “let’s sit down and just start improvising” rather than a more polished and professional set. By the end of the set, however, everyone seemed to settle in to a comfortable groove with each other and the room was rolling along to the steady beat the musicians created; a couple people even got up and started dancing which, while a little awkward for the casual Midwestern (read: reserved and reticent) observer, seemed to prove that the crowd was digging the Turkish electro-folk-trance scene.

Jeffrey Martin is a musician based near Portland, Oregon. I came across his music a couple of years ago and I wasn’t planning on seeing him at FAI. However, I’m glad I made time to find him tonight because it was just what I needed. His spare guitar playing and gravelly voice reminded me just how important good lyrics are to a song and his performance also reminded me just how much I like him and his music. You know this, I bet: you hear so much good music, sometimes, that you forget about the musicians you really do enjoy.

The majority of Martin’s music (at least the music I know) is melancholy. It’s sorrowful and plaintive and often seems to suggest that this musical poet isn’t a terribly happy person. And yet – it’s honest. Martin doesn’t try to be anyone other than who he is and that authenticity is truly infectious. I’ll go see him anytime I can and, should you get the chance, I think you should make it a point to catch one of his shows, too.

Finally, I followed a couple of friends into one of the larger showcase rooms and came across the quartet Hawktail. You’ve heard them before on Folk Alley, I bet, and let me tell you: they sound EXACTLY the same live as they do on their recordings – if not better. The words that come to mind when these talented young musicians perform are: “tight”; “solid”; “quality,” and, frankly, “wow.”

When Hawktail wrapped their set, I knew it was time to call it a night. It’s hard to follow a perfect performance, I think, and after so much good music, these ears needed a bit of a rest.

Day 4

Home again, home again, jiggity jig. The 32nd Folk Alliance International Conference is over for 2020; what a great experience! Not only did I get the chance to connect with some old friends, I made some new ones, too. Plus, I tasted the famed Sazerac, had the best seafood gumbo I’ve ever eaten, and got to wander around outside in the sunshine – without a coat – for the first time in months.

My last official responsibility at this year’s conference was to participate, for the first time ever, on a panel called “On the Griddle.” I sat up on stage with 4 other folk programmers and djs and we spent an hour and a half listening to 60 seconds of a randomly selected song. Then, we were “on the griddle” and had to quickly respond with our first impressions of the music. It was a great exercise in listening carefully, that’s for sure. And it reminded me of how vulnerable and how brave musicians are – they’re putting themselves on the line, putting their hopes and dreams into this music that anyone can listen to – and judge. I don’t think I’d be strong enough to do that (even if I DID have the talent).

Once the panel was complete, it was time to grab my bags and head to the airport. I was glad to get home last night, I admit; my house seemed so quiet! It was just the thing after three nights and four days of non-stop music and talking.

All in all, I was really impressed with the music I heard this year. As a reminder, here’s a list of the bands/musicians I’d hoped to see and hear:

Darling West; Anne-Mari Kivimaki; David Davis and the Warrior River Boys; Emily Mae Winters; Emily Wurramara; Nefresh Mountain; Minor Empire; Kalyn Fay; Iona Frye; Jig Jam; Alice Skye; Oshima Brothers; Rahim Alhaj; Dwayne Dopsie; Mariel Buckley; Rainbow Girls; Jay Gilday; Hat Fitz and Cara; Skye Consort; The Revelers; Crys Matthews; Catherine MacLellan; Ray Bonneville; Mary Bragg; The Mastersons; Rose Cousins, and Mary Gauthier.

I did NOT get the chance to hear these musicians – largely because I just couldn’t stay up as late as I probably needed to: David Davis and the Warrior River Boys; Iona Frye; Rahim Alhaj; Dwayne Dopsie; Rainbow Girls; Hat Fitz and Cara; Skye Consort; Crys Matthews; Ray Bonneville; Mary Bragg; Rose Cousins and Mary Gauthier. I didn’t hear The Mastersons, but I DID see them in Starbucks; does that count?

Additionally, I got to hear lots of musicians I wasn’t planning on hearing – that’s always fun. Standouts include: Jeffrey Martin, Bill and the Belles, Raina Rose, Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley, The Bookshop Band, and Hawktail. Plus, the short snippets of sound from the “On the Griddle” panel on Saturday morning. I heard from and briefly met Reverend TJ McGlinchey, a musician from Philadelphia, and chatted with a duo from Vancouver Island called Heartwood. And I heard great things about a musician named Ali McGuirk, too.

My favorite band or act at this year’s FAI Conference in New Orleans? That’s a tough call, but I’ll say I was most delighted by the following:

Mariel Buckley
Jig Jam
Emily Mae Winters

Another great FAI Conference in the books!

Enjoy my playlist!

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