Wednesday, February 15, 9:15pm – Thursday, February 16, 1:40am (CST)
There are two kinds of music performances here at the Folk Alliance Conference. There’s the “Official Showcase” and there’s the “Private Showcase.” Some musicians do one or the other. Some do both. Night one of Folk Alliance started with three Official Showcases: Ellis Paul, The Changing Room, and The Railsplitters. After that, I wandered up to the 5th floor of the Westin (where the conference is being held) and ventured into two Private Showcases: Amilia K. Spicer and The Jellyman’s Daughter.
Being slightly intimidated by the breadth and scope of this enormous music lovers’ conference, I decided I should start things off with an old favorite, Ellis Paul. As always, he was a consummate musician. He knows exactly what consonants to stress and which vowels to elongate, he shapes his lyrics gracefully, his guitar playing is technically flawless…in short, Ellis Paul is a delight to listen to. That said: part of me wishes he were performing in a smaller room, one where he didn’t need a microphone. The details of his voice get lost in a larger space, I think, and so I missed some of the warm intimacy that I was expecting.
There were three standouts in his performance: First, a tribute to Johnny Cash called “Kick Out the Lights.” It’s inspired by an experience Cash had at the Grand Ol Opry where he really did – you guessed it – kick out the stage lights. He was banned from the Opry for life after that performance. Ellis Paul got his audience to sing along – and enthusiastically, too! – during the chorus. It was fun. (Not that I sang along, of course. Being from Minnesota…singing in public isn’t something we generally feel comfortable doing.)
The second highlight was a new song called, I think, “Scarecrow in a Corn Maze.” THIS is where Ellis Paul shines. Moving over to a keyboard, he created a cast of characters who participate in what turned out to be a very compelling story. Classic Ellis Paul, for sure.
The last highlight wasn’t actually a musical one. As he was preparing to do one final song, he started doing what he does – telling a story. It was the story of the absolutely gorgeous guitar he was playing tonight, a guitar he calls “Guinness” because of its beautiful multi-toned wood. Ellis Paul had the whole audience laughing with him as he wrapped up his set.
Act two of tonight was a performance I’ve been looking forward to for a couple of weeks now. The Changing Room is a band from a seaside fishing town in Cornwall called Looe. It’s a five-piece ensemble featuring Celtic harp, accordion, guitar, banjo, and bodhran (in addition to vocals). While I wouldn’t say I was disappointed in the performance, I would say that it wasn’t quite as high energy as I was expecting/hoping for. This may well be because the band only arrived in Kansas City 2 hours before they took the stage…and that’s after traveling for something like 23 hours. No wonder they were tired!
I imagine it’s a real challenge to mic a band like this: two primary vocalists with very different ranges and two vocalists who provide harmony vocals, a Celtic harp, an accordion, a guitar, a banjo and a (so awesomely fantastic) bodhran. The band’s sound was muddy at times, which makes me think they might be better suited for a smaller venue. There were, however, moments of sheer beauty when the two musicians who lead the band (and who founded it, incidentally, a few years ago), Tanya Brittain and Sam Kelly, traded verses back and forth. If I had one wish, it would be to hear more of Tanya and to hear how the band sounds in a smaller space. Ok, here’s another wish: to figure out why they call themselves The Changing Room.
Act three. In a word: Whoa. The Railsplitters are a 5-piece bluegrass band from Boulder, Colorado and they blew me away. Now, when you hear someone describing a “hot young bluegrass band,” there’s a certain image that comes to your mind. And it’s not a bad image – not at all. But it’s a sort of “oh, haven’t we heard this kind of thing before” image. I wasn’t too terribly excited about the band initially, I admit. Their online videos are fine, the music I’ve heard from recordings is definitely interesting and technically well played. But where they really shine? Live in concert. That’s where they bring the kind of energy that makes the hairs on your arms stand straight up.
Headed by a woman with an absolute powerhouse of a voice, Lauren Stovall, this band takes incredible chances when it comes to harmonies and rhythms. They seem to delight in sudden changes that should seem jarring but somehow are not and there was not a weak moment in their 30 minute set. As of this moment, The Railsplitters are in the number one slot on my “Favorite Acts From Folk Alliance 2017” list.
Act 4 was the first of the two private showcases I attended tonight: Amilia K. Spicer. Her voice is compelling in a way that’s kind of hard to describe. Think Aimee Mann…but not as intense. It’s this strange mix of delicacy and husky grit – a sound that’s so different that it makes you want to hear more. She performed with a percussionist and a (most amazing) mandolin player tonight and all in all it was a decent performance. I will say it was hard to hear her; there was a lot of music making in the hallway and in the other rooms so it was a challenge to catch all the details of her songs.
What did come through, though, was the fact that Amilia K. Spicer is a master when it comes to creating vivid visuals for her audience. Lines like “vines around my ankles” and “chased by lions and dreaming of the Serengeti” make me want to hear more of her music.
The final act of the night, Act 5, was an absolute delight from start to finish. Tired, sleepy, hungry, and ready for some quiet, I almost blew off seeing The Jellyman’s Daughter. I am so glad I didn’t.
This is a duo from Edinburgh (which tonight was a trio, with the addition of a double bassist): two vocalists who play cello, mandolin and guitar. They started a few minutes late and so the audience was chit-chatting as audiences do. However, as soon as Emily Kelly opened her mouth and started to sing, every single person in the audience shut up. I’m not exaggerating – it really happened.
She and Graham Coe traded verses back and forth on their three songs and it was a delight to hear how comfortable they sound with each other. Interesting harmonies, interesting interplay between voice and various instruments, and this kind of cool old-yet-new feel (contemporary Celtic music with a torch song influence? Is that a thing?). This is a band that’s poised for something big and I can’t wait to hear more.