Every now and then you run across a performer who is a force of nature.
So when I slipped into the Roanoke Room at the Westin Crown Center hotel on Wednesday night — the first evening of official showcases at the Folk Alliance International gathering — it only took me a few seconds to realize I had entered something like an alternate reality.
Konrad Wert, who performs as Possessed by Paul James, is a Florida native who now lives in Texas, is a folk singer who doesn’t understand the concept of down-shifting. Whether playing fiddle, banjo or guitar, he gives every tune enough energy to launch it into orbit. He pounds out rhythms on what looks like a slender plywood box (held together at the corners with duct tape) so violently that Wednesday night he triggered feedback from an amplifier. Dressed in a monotone ensemble of work cap, T-shirt and jeans, he looked like he might have just finished a shift at car repair shop.
His songs are utterly original. He invites comparison to nobody. In performance he often seems possessed by the music itself with spontaneous shouts of “Hey! Hey! Hey!” It’s not an affectation. It’s a response to the power of music as an elemental force — which is exactly what it should be.
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Earlier I caught the Railsplitters of Boulder, Colo., a tight ensemble that uses bluegrass instruments but on Wednesday just played originals that bore little relationship to traditional bluegrass. Their 30-minute set revealed plenty of adventurous creativity. Lead singer and guitarist Lauren Stovall is a powerhouse. And she’s supported by an outstanding ensemble: Dusty Rider (banjo), Christine King (fiddle), Peter Sharpe (mandolin) and Leslie Ziegler (upright bass). Rider is the band’s chief songwriter and apparently feels unrestrained by idioms, genres or tradition. Clearly they can play real bluegrass — during the sound check they performed part of “There is a Time,” the haunting classic originally recorded by Dillards, a Missouri-based band. It sounded sweet. Very sweet.
Aoife O’Donovan, visually the classic blonde female folksinger with a guitar, writes interesting, delicate songs and possesses the delicate, nuanced voice the tunes demand. On Wednesday she was backed by Anthony Da Costa (electric guitar) and Steve Nistor (drums). Nistor’s drumming was inventive and added some remarkable rhythmic dynamics to the set. Da Costa’s guitar solos at times threatened to overwhelm the vocals.
But at their best this trio achieved an absorbing balance that occasionally reflected a jazz influence and at times brought to mind classic Joni Mitchell recordings. No, I’m not saying O’Donovan’s vocals are like Mitchell’s. But there’s a certain aesthetic, a spare but seductive approach to the music that can be mesmerizing.
O’Donovan told the audience this was her first Folk Alliance conference in 11 years, but she gave a shout-out to the organization’s value. Her first Alliance gathering was in San Diego, she said, and from that came two festival gigs and the confidence to record an album. None of that would have happened if she had not attended that conference and stayed up all night jamming with fellow musicians.
Danny Schmidt is a superb guitarist whose lyrics can be a bit too sentimental.. But he’s fun to watch. His loosey-goosey set with his wife, singer Carrie Elkin, was a free-form exercise mainly because Elkin hadn’t yet memorized the lyrics to most of the songs in Schmidt’s set. But he’s an expressive singer and I could watch him finger-pick all day.
Later I headed upstairs — that’s where the unofficial showcases happen in the hotel rooms — and caught a nice performance by Rachel Ries. Full disclosure: Ries has been an acquaintance for almost 10 years and she provided some harmonies on one of my obscure CDs in a previous decade. But her music still affects me the way it did before I met her.
Ries writes songs like nobody else. She tells vivid stories grounded in physical details. At her best, she offers mystical explorations of the human heart. Bottom line: Her lyrics are never predictable. And then there’s the voice — a soprano at once fragile and authoritative. It was the closet thing to a living-room concert I encountered all night.
Folk Alliance International continues through Sunday at Crown Center. For public events, go to www.folk.org/?page=PublicEvents.