Day 3 of the Folk Alliance International Conference wasn’t only the best night of the festival (so far), it is also likely to be one of the best nights of music this year.
It started shortly after dinner time with a typically rousing set by Chuck Mead and his Grassy Knoll Boys and ended more than six hours later with a set by the Hillbenders, who delivered a spectacular rendition of “Tommy,” the rock opera by the Who. In between, there were stellar sets by Sam Baker, local heroes Madison Ward and the Mama Bear, a newcomer named Luke Bell and the Milk Carton Kids, who mesmerized a large crowd.
Here’s a rundown on just a slice of the music performed at the Westin and Sheraton hotels on Friday night.
Chuck Mead and his Grassy Knoll Boys: Mead is a Kansan (who admitted being born in Missouri) and former member of two beloved bands: the Lawrence-born Homestead Grays and BR5-49. During his short early set in the Westin, he and his Grassy Knoll Boys -- Mark Miller on bass, Martin Lynds on drums and Carco Clave on pedal steel -- Mead delivered with the usual goods with plenty of panache: a lively set of country and rockabilly tunes. His set list included “Neosho Valley Sue” and “Slow Train to Arkansas.”
He also performed the song about performing Hank Williams’ tunes for $25 a pop at the request (or dare) of a bar customer (it was John Michael Montgomery). After more than two dozen songs, the guy had rung up a $700 tab, of which he paid $675. Mead cut him the $25 slack, but years later, he laments needing that $25.
James Hill: He’s a classically trained musician from Canada who primarily plays the ukelele and writes poetic country-folk songs. In one of the smaller rooms at the Westin, he and his duet partner played a The best song of his set was the lament “If Wishes Were Horses,” which had a traditional-country/Alan Jackson vibe: “If wishes were horses we’d ride together / Chasing the wind ‘cross the plains / If longing was midsummer rain / I’d turn the canyons into deep rivers again.” Good song.
Luke Bell: He’s a true cowboy from Wyoming who now lives in Nashville and plays honky-tonk in the vein of Dwight Yoakam, whom he resembles vocally. He and his five-piece band played a rowdy short set at the Westin, leaving a spirited crowd wanting more.
The Howlin’ Brothers: This banjo-guitar-bass trio from Nashville played a whirlwind set that was a mix of bluegrass, old-time country and Appalachian blues, much of it high-speed and frenetic. The ballad “Troubled Waltz” was a mood-changer: “If I make you cry I don’t mean no harm / I’m a motherless child on my own.”
Sam Baker: The songwriter extraordinaire was his usual witty, deadpan, humorous self. His backing duo included Carrie Elkin, mostly on accordion. To a big, responsive crowd in one of the large Sheraton rooms, he delivered several of his favorites, including “Palestine Ii,” “White Heat,” “Cotton” and “Isn’t Love Great.”
The Ghost of Paul Revere: This quartet from Portland, Maine, plays a blend of roots music with lots of verve and personality, evoking a strong resemblance to Mumford and Sons.
Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear: Nine days after their triumphant performance on “Late Show with David Letterman,” this hometown son-mother duo (Madisen and Ruth Ward) drew a big crowd to the Westin, and one again they charmed the room. Loyal fans recognized much of the brief set, which included “Live By the Water” and the the song they sang on Letterman, “Silent Movies.” A debut full-length is due this spring. It can’t come soon enough.
The Milk Carton Kids: Their name is deceiving. Though it implies some kind of novelty act, this Grammy-nominated duo from Los Angeles is smart, funny, sophisticated and wickedly talented. Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale sing the kind of sparkling harmonies that evoke memories of young Simon and Garfunkel or the early Everly Brothers. In between songs, they jousted a bit, in the vein of the Smothers Brothers or Rowan and Martin. Ryan cracked wise several times and, tongue in cheek, delivered his hilarious defense of how childbirth and newborn parenting is as hard on the father as it is the mother. (For example: He had to cancel a gig because their baby came two weeks early.)
Throughout their too-short set, they silenced a room of more than 200 people, most of whom watched with reverential attention as the duo delivered gusts of vocal and instrumental bliss. Pattengale effortlessly played ornate guitar lines and riffs over Ryan’s rhythms as they sang perfect harmonies. It was mesmerizing at times and would have been the highlight of Friday night, if not for the Hillbenders.
The Hillbenders: They took on a gargantuan task. “Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry” is the Who’s classic and mighty rock opera cast solely in string instruments: mandolin, bass, guitar, banjo and dobro.
The Hillbenders are a quintet from Springfield, five superb musicians, especially Chad Graves, master of the dobro. If the thought of the Who via the Ozarks sounds like too much novelty and kitsch, reconsider. The execution, vocally and instrumentally, was incredible. They started the show at midnight, in a room filled with a crowd of 300-plus, many of them fellow musicians. When they finished about 80 minutes later, everyone stood a roared for more than a minute or so. They deserved it. They’re taking this show on the road. Don’t miss it, no matter how devoted a Who fan you are.