Friday night at the Folk Alliance International conference featured dozens of official music showcases, and, as usual, performers delivered a variety of styles and nationalities. Here’s a look a dozen performances:
Authentic Light Orchestra: They’re a quartet from Russia led by Veronika Stalder, a songbird vocalist who sings primarily in Armenian. Their music is modern bluegrass with hints of pop, jazz and classical, arranged with guitar, bass, violin, keyboards, light percussion and melodica.
Tift Merritt: She’s a Grammy nominee (country album of the year in 2004), and during her 30-minute set at Benton’s 20th Floor, she showed why. Backed by Eric Heywood on pedal steel and acoustic guitar, Merritt serenaded the full room with rootsy/country-ish ballads like “Wait For Me” and “Dusty Old Man,” both from her new album, “Stitch of the World,” released in January. She also performed “My Boat,” a Raymond Carver poem she set to music, a poem about escaping turmoil and trouble, which, she said, can be applied to refugee crises.
Jonathan Byrd and the Pickup Cowboy: Byrd is from North Carolina, and in an old-timey drawl, he sang songs about his native state and country living. “Chicken Wire” was a Hank Williams-like ditty about the barnyard life. “Wild Ponies” was a song about a woman who had “legs like daggers and eyes like oceans” and an island in Pamlico Sound inhabited by wild ponies. “Poor Johnny” was a tragic tale of a boy who gets drunk and drowns while fishing, performed a cappella, with hearty handclaps and foot-stomps. “Temporary Tattoo” was a light-hearted song about the fleeting nature of relationships that featured some splendid peals of musical saw from Byrd’s sidekick, multi-instrumentalist Johnny Waken.
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Robyn Hitchcock: The singer/songwriter from London and former member of the Soft Boys and leader of the Egyptians is known for his often surreal and subversive lyrics and poppy melodies, and his solo-acoustic set at Benton’s featured plenty of both, like “The Devil’s Coachman,” which included lines like “Yesterday I saw the devil in the nude / It was embarrassing; I turned away” and “Everything you say you won’t is what you will, eventually.” On a few songs, like “Linctus House,” Emma Swift delivered vocal harmonies. His between-songs stories and banter were as entertaining as his music.
Laura Cortese and the Dance Cards: They’re a string quartet led by violinist Cortese, whose lovely, liquid voice will remind you strongly of Norah Jones’. The Dance Cards include cellist Valerie Thompson, a Kansas City native. Their music is a mix of folk, jazz and roots with occasional forays into bluegrass, but at its foundation are the vocals, especially when the ladies break into stunning, spot-on four-part harmonies, as they did on “California Calling.” The highlight of their set was the closer, the jaunty “Heel to Toe,” which Cortese aptly described as a “dance party sing-along.”
Ramy Essam: He performed one of the hundreds of sets that go on all night in several floors of the Westin Crown Center. Essam, who has an official showcase Saturday, is an Egyptian songwriter and political activist who became famous as the voice of the Arab Spring in Egypt. In the very intimate confines of a hotel room, in front of a rapt audience of about a dozen, he performed a few songs, accompanied by two Kansas Citians: Calvin Arsenia on folk harp and Kristina Ning on standup bass.
Saltarello: The sextet from northwestern Quebec, would make an ideal house band for a “Games of Thrones”-themed bar. The group’s grandiose folk-rock evokes the desolate tundras and dramatic storylines associated with the television fantasy series. A frenetic rendition of “Sacred Woman” featured a disquieting spate of throat singing and three percussionists.
Jeff Black: Noting that “I’m really more a social romantic than a political singer-songwriter,” Jeff Black pointed out the folly of performing protest songs to attendees of the Folk Alliance conference: “I’m singing all these songs to the wrong damn people.” The Kansas City native primarily stuck to contemplative new material and powerful interpretations of his best known compositions like “Gold Heart Locket.”
Luke Daniels: His ill-fated showcase started late and was repeatedly marred by technical bungles. He confessed to the people who hadn’t already bailed on his appearance that “I seem like the most disorganized person in the world.” Perhaps. Yet his flawed effort couldn’t disguise the fact that the British man was one of the most adventurous artists at the conference. He accompanied his stellar voice, accordion and guitar playing with a computer-enabled Polyphon, an antique Rube Goldberg machine that’s a visually delightful variation on a music box.
Bill Miller: Before he closed his set with a transcendent version of Jim Pepper’s “Witchi Tai-To,” Bill Miller recalled that an unimpressed audience member once responded to a performance by telling him “you’re pretty good for an Indian.” No qualifications were necessary on Friday. Miller was great. Accompanied by a percussionist, the three-time Grammy Award winner displayed his spine-tingling voice and told several enlivening stories about overcoming adversity.
Bruce Sudano: The husband of the late disco queen Donna Summer and a successful songwriter for Summer and other pop stars, Bruce Sudano could have regaled his audience with salacious gossip in a gaudy display of name-dropping. Instead, Sudano and his four-piece backing band played recent compositions in a sepia-toned recasting of the 1970s sound of Southern California singer-songwriters like Warren Zevon and Jackson Browne.
John Fullbright: Playing guitar, piano and harmonica, John Fullbright admirably honored the traditions of his fellow Oklahomans Woody Guthrie and Leon Russell even though he admitted to being anguished by recent political developments. Noting that he’s not able to “write love songs and breakup songs right now,” Fullbright closed his set with a new composition that he said he was tempted to characterize as “an epitaph for our nation.” The hundreds of people in the Century C ballroom listened rapturously as Fullbright sang “our hearts are not made of darkness and fear.”
Kansas City Folk Festival
More than two dozen performances by musicians from Kansas City and around the globe will take place on six stages during the seven-hour celebration that concludes the annual Folk Alliance International conference. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 19. Westin Crown Center. kansascityfolkfestival.org. $30 in advance.