The Folk Alliance International Conference was in full-swing on Thursday night, featuring a full evening of live performances in ballrooms and other venues at the Westin Crown Center hotel.
The conference, which moved to Kansas City in 2014, showcases bands and songwriters from nearly two dozen countries. Here’s a look at some of what Thursday had to offer.
The Show Ponies
The Show Ponies are a five-piece from Los Angeles that plumbs the traditions of old-time country, bluegrass and country-folk. It features two main vocalists, including Andi Carder, a Houston native with a sassy Southern voice, but during a couple of songs, like “Folks Back Home,” they broke into three-part harmonies. The rollicking country-blues anthem “Whiskey and Wine,” which closed the set, was a highlight of a set that felt too brief.
The former frontman for the ’90s alt-rock band Grant Lee Buffalo drew a big crowd to his one-man show in the Shawnee Mission Ballroom. As a solo artist, Phillips performs as an old-school troubadour who sings narratives about love and life’s tribulations, mostly in an old-school folk style. The sparse “Smoke and Sparks” cast a mood similar to several songs on Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska” album. Phillips indulged the many Grant Lee Buffalo fans in the room with “Mighty Joe Moon,” the title track to the band’s second studio album.
Cormier is a burly, barrel-chested singer/songwriter from Nova Scotia. He complements his burly tenor with some well-executed flat picking on his acoustic guitar. Between songs he told some amusing anecdotes and a crass but funny joke about his wife drowning off the shores of Nova Scotia. “The Stranger” was a ballad about a defiant loner in search of his long-lost roots. Fellow Canadian singer/songwriter Dave Gunning joined Cormier for a number in which they laid down some Crosby/Nash style harmonies.
A day after it was named the artist of the year at the Folk Alliance International awards show, the quartet from Cambridge, Mass., filled the Century C Ballroom, and the several hundred fans in attendance were rewarded with a 30-minute set that showcased Darlingside’s instrumental prowess and transcendent harmonies.
The band features former Kansas Citian Auyon Mukharji, who plays violin and mandolin and whose family was in attendance. The set list drew from the band’s latest full-length album, “Birds Say,” songs like “Go Back” and “Whippoorwill,” which typify Darlingside’s music: lush melodies and rich three- and four-part harmonies accompanied by guitars, bass, cello, violin and mandolin.
There was plenty of witty banter between songs and a confident stage presence you’d expect from a band deserving of an artist-of-the-year award.
Mike Stinson told a series of jokes about the unusual nature of Folk Alliance showcases when he wasn’t delivering colorful songs like “Late for My Funeral.” Of the conversion of hotel conference rooms into makeshift performance venues, the journeyman troubadour from Houston quipped that “it’s a little clinical in here — I wasn’t sure when I walked in if I was here for a musical performance or a prostate exam.” Noting the proximity of scores of his colleagues, Stinson suggested that “playing with all these musicians is like fishing with the game warden.”
Perla Batalla told the members of a capacity audience in a small conference room that “folk music is about getting everyone to sing along and feel united.” The artist best known for her work as a backing vocalist for Leonard Cohen had no trouble convincing everyone to stand as they sang along to a hymn-like version of the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.”
The startling music of the Scottish duo of harpist Esther Swift and violinist Catriona Price often sounded as if two 18th century bards had magically been exposed to the work of the contemporary experimental musician Björk. Twelfth Day’s outing included an eerie version of the traditional “Didn't Leave Nobody but the Baby” and an angelic arrangement of Franz Schubert’s “Romanze.”
About 75 fortunate people witnessed Chris Bathgate and his outstanding five-piece backing band perform an emotionally perilous and musically complex set of chamber rock in the vein of Bon Iver and Sufjan Stevens. Only one element of the dramatic effort wasn’t perfect. No adjustment was made after the Michigan based Bathgate asked if there was “any way we could get the stage lights as dark as my persona?”
Penny and Sparrow
The minimalist setting of Penny and Sparrow’s fragile sound casts a powerful spell. With just two voices and a guitar, the Austin based duo’s hushed music captivated about 100 attentive listeners. Andy Baxter’s stunning range — he regularly switched from a clear falsetto to a gruff baritone — is beguiling.
Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas
The renowned Scottish fiddler Alasdair Fraser explained that the duo format employed by him and cellist Natalie Haas was once considered to be “the dance band of choice” in his native land. He added that his instrument leads to “wild places where the fiddle gets you into trouble” for “instigating great acts of promiscuity.” Appreciative members of the well-behaved audience responded to the duo’s effort with a genteel standing ovation.
Birds of Chicago
Birds of Chicago rejuvenates the original meaning of the faded genre category Americana. The band’s sound encompasses vintage soul, redemptive gospel, winsome folk and barroom rock. Birds of Chicago’s jubilant set emphasized material from its second studio album “Real Midnight.“ With production by the acclaimed Joe Henry, the project released on Friday is likely to generate a great deal of interest in the exciting group.