The sentimental thank you Facebook posts have all gone out. The Instagram pictures have all gotten their double tap hearts of approval. The videos of various raucous late night room parties have been shared. The hangovers have (mostly) subsided. Over the next 12 months, the hazy “remember that time at Folk Alliance when…” stories will joyously be told and retold. As most of us return to the wicked monotony of the work week, we must finally accept that the 2015 Folk Alliance International conference is over.
Simply put, it was an unparalleled celebration of music over the course of 6 days. For those who did not attend or are not familiar with the conference, it’s like a musical version of Disney Land AND Disney World combined into two hotels with a 4-minute skywalk in between. There was something going on most days in excess of 20 hours. You could rise early to partake in group yoga and meditation before spending the morning in seminars, classes, or the open exhibit hall. Catch a showcase or speaker in the afternoon. Head down to the lobby where a jam with musicians from 4 different continents has spontaneously busted out. As evening hits, the official showcases begin in the ballrooms. As night rolls in, one could argue the real fun begins as damn near every room on floors 5, 6, and 7 of the Westin hosts a showcase put on by organizations across the world. Partake in the various libations flowing freely throughout and wander in and out of rooms listening to hundreds of performers until the wee hours of the morn. Make a plethora of new friends from Australia, Canada, Japan, France, etc. Maybe catch a few zzz’s and then wake up and do it all over again. It is truly unbelievable the sheer amount of activity crammed into a relatively small amount of time and space. Therefore, it would be impossible to offer a full recap, but there were things that stuck out from the sensory overload. Here are some of the highlights.
Official KC Showcases/Local Representation
Wednesday night saw a slew of official showcases played solely by local artists. These musicians did a fine job representing the strength and variety in our music scene. Driving down to the conference, I was treated to Ruddy Swain being live broadcasted on KKFI 90.1 FM from their showcase. A stripped down version of The Latenight Callers (pictured above) offered a sultry set of noir pop tunes. Dollar Fox emerged from a somewhat lengthy hiatus with a slimmed down lineup and new musical focus towards pure rock ‘n roll. Some of the rooms featured “in the round”-style setups with 4 artists trading performances for hour-long blocks (memorable acts included Amy Farrand, Vi Tran, Cheri Woods, Jen Harris, Ben Byard, amongst many others). The Hardship Letters closed down their room with a fantastic set of emotional rock songs.
Upstairs, the KC Music Collective Tower Room showcases (put together by some of the fine folks from Midwest Music Foundation, Money Wolf Music, and others deeply involved in the Kansas City arts scene) further showed that our little slice of “flyover” country is not to be ignored. Some comments coming later on specific highlights from these rooms.
It’s an odd thing to wander into a random hotel room around midnight and hear a group that describes itself as “ a real dance-along turbo-Nordic-folk band which brings back the energy, purity, and sincerity of Estonian folk music.” Featuring a 12-string guitar, a cajon, a jaw harp and more sing-songy group vocals than you can shake a kepp at (thank you Google Translate), this trio was delightfully entertaining, also working the crowded room between each song with gusto.
(Photo by Tyler Bentson Jennings)
Another “I wonder what is going on in this room …” discovery, this duo from Los Angeles (real names Lee Ferris and Bianca Caruso) served up an impactful set of smartly written acoustic pop songs. The real draw here is the sensational natural blend of their vocals. Some voices just seem made for each other with the ability to weave into a singular force of vocal performance. Ferris and Caruso have found their respective vocal soulmates, the kind of perfect harmonies that send a gripping shiver down the backbone of the listener.
I caught a few minutes of their set on Wednesday night, but it was the performance on Friday that really stuck out. A little less “official,” a little more raucous, a little better sound, and a little more just all-around fun, the band took us through vast points of their catalog with the jangly precision that we’ve come to expect from the country rock sextet. Vocalists Jimmy Fitzner and Lauren Krum are another example of two voices that join forces so damn well as one. Krum also exhibits such exuberance on stage, bobbing and weaving to the groove with a warm childlike cackle that just makes you grin.
This was my first Carswell and Hope show, surprising since they are based in Lawrence and it is musically right in my wheelhouse. Songwriter and lead vocalist Nick Carswell clearly knows how to write intelligent, poignant pop songs. Dreamy and textured in all the right ways, the band behind him (especially keyboardist Austin Keys) provided the perfect complement of additional instrumentation without getting in the way of the raw beauty of the material. It ends up sounding something akin to the more recent mature work of Nada Surf or the poppier moments of the Sigur Ros catalogue. Safe to say, I will be checking them out much more moving forward.
(Photo by Michael Byars)
Another local artist I am kicking myself for not being more familiar with before this event, Arsenia played a very entertaining set of tunes, both while strumming a harp and a cappella. He has such an impressive appearance and performance, like folk vaudeville with a voice that is just unbelievably strong.
In an event with this sheer amount of activity, there is a good chance no two reviews will read the same. Everyone will see a different batch of performances. Everyone will look for their favorite attributes. That is the inherent beauty of an event of this magnitude.
That said, The HillBenders should and will end up on most Best of FAI2015 lists. It’s the age old story of bluegrass band does Tommy by the Who (my tongue firmly planted in my cheek, if you could not tell). Not selections from Tommy. The whole damn thing. Beginning to end.
Now, I will admit that I don’t have an avid knowledge of Tommy. I have heard the record a few times, but I would never describe it as important to me; it’s not even my favorite The Who album. The HillBenders are already fantastic in their own right, but the treatment the Springfield quintet gave Tommy was inspirational and transcendent. The musicality was there, the harmonies were brilliant, the stage presence was vigorous. They took an album featuring arguably one of the most powerful percussionists in rock ‘n roll history and blew the cover off it with no percussion whatsoever.
If I saw anything at the conference that I would label as “about to break,” it would be this.
God love this man, I won’t soon forget his late night showcase in one of the KC Music Collective rooms. If ever a public event was suited to one individual, it would be Folk Alliance 2015 for Cody Wyoming. It was far from a perfect performance, but more importantly it was a perfect example of the power and purpose of our community as Wyoming invited several random musicians in the room to join his set minutes before he started. This sentiment was shown time and time again throughout the event, but it was his showcase that sticks out in that regard.
(Photo by Michael Byars)
Rivaling the aforementioned Wyoming for the “Who is Folk Alliance Conference 2015 best suited for?” award, what I will call the Dollar Fox Room Party Collective rolled through the various private showcase floors like bearded ball lightning, leaving a trail of empty whiskey bottles, knocked over furniture, and amazed faces in their wake. It’s hard to encapsulate (or remember) who all was involved at what points. Mostly consisting of members of various Money Wolf Music artists, it’s probably a shorter list of who wasn’t involved in the horde (hell, even I sat in with them for a set late Saturday night). In an event where it is very easy to be forgotten as “just another dude playing an acoustic guitar and singing sad songs,” this group took great care to make sure their show was special, brash and, above all else, damn entertaining. Whiskey, oh whiskey indeed…
I really could write for days about everything I saw, but those are just a few that stuck out. I am sure there were countless other wonderful performances I missed. Folk Alliance 2015 was an amazing event to experience, both as a performer and member of the media. My overall suggestion: do whatever you have to do to attend next year (and any other year you can).
The countdown begins. Only 357 shopping days until Folk Alliance 2016.
-- Zach Hodson
Zach Hodson is a monster. He once stole a grilled cheese sandwich from a 4-year-old girl at her birthday party. He will only juggle if you pay him. I hear he punched Slimer right in his fat, green face. He knows the secrets to free energy, but refuses to release them until Saved by the Bell: Fortysomethings begins production. He is also in Dolls on Fire and Drew Black & Dirty Electric , as well as contributing to various other Kansas City-based music, comedy, and art projects.