The evening opened with a lavish presentation of sights and sounds from a continent on the other side of the planet. It ended with an impromptu choir, backed by a free-form jazz band, singing the free-wheeling finale to a three-hour opus.
That was Day 1 of the Folk Alliance International Conference on Wednesday, an evening devoted to music from Kansas City and Lawrence.
Three dozen performances were staged in 10 venues in the Westin Crown Center hotel. Among them: a repeat performance of “Unbound Presents Hemispheres: Sound Photographs from Madagascar.”
The show featured live music from a quartet of singers and musicians: Barclay Martin, Giuliano Mingucci, Lindsey Jones and Rick Willoughby. In Malagasy, the language of Madagascar, the quartet performed its version of music that Mingucci and Martin had recorded with musicians in Madagascar during a 24-day trip in July. The music was bright, melodic and percussive. Some was performed on instruments native to Madagascar; one number was performed on percussion instruments only.
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As they played the music live to a crowd of about 100 in one of the Westin’s ballrooms, images of the recording sessions in Madagascar were projected onto a scrim dropped in front of the band. Song titles and some lyrics, in Malagasy and the English translations, were also projected onto the screen. One song was titled “Orphan Song.” Another included the lyric, “Those who often visit love their relatives.”
Down the hall from the “Madgascar” showcase, Johnny Hamil was unleashing his project “Gawd.” For more than three hours, a parade of musicians and singers took the stage in the very intimate Penn Valley Ballroom, capacity about 50.
All the music was composed, arranged (and deranged) by Hamil, who played bass the entire three hours. It was a wild, invigorating blend primarily of free-form jazz and rock plus other genres. He was joined by some of the city’s best musicians, including Mark Southerland, Beau Bledsoe, Kent Burnham, Mike Stover, Kyle Dahlquist, Clarke Wyatt, Jeff Freling and Nick Howell.
The finale was, in Hamil’s words, like a “We Are The World” anthem. Anna Cole and Steven Tulipana took lead vocals, with Tulipana doing a dead-on Tom Waits impression. For the big chorus, they were joined buy a choir that included Erin McGrane, Kasey Rausch, Elaine McMillian and Betse Ellis.
The evening showcased the diversity of the local music scene and the charm of this festival. In one room you could listen to a band like Maria the Mexican, featuring sisters Maria and Tess Cuevas, singing original and traditional Mexican folk songs, then walk down the hall and hear Ruddy Swain – the duo of Lauren Krum and David Regnier – cover Bruce Springsteen (“I’m on Fire”), Buddy Holly (“Soft Place In My Heart”) and Ryan Adams (“Mining Town”).
Other highlights: Calvin Arsenia, an up-and-coming singer-songwriter who has a powerful, agile voice; Carswell & Hope, a Lawrence quartet that issues a sunny blend of pop, soul and folk; John Velghe & the Prodigal Sons, a eight-piece pop orchestra (including a horn section) that performs hooky tunes lathered in harmonies, like “Heaven’s Waitress,” a song about a 6-year-old who waits tables at her parent’s truck-stop diner; and the Grisly Hand, who treated several dozen fans to its usual top-shelf blend of country, rock and soul.
The hotel rooms proved to be more than adequate venues for live music. The lighting wasn’t always ideal, but the sound was at least clean in most rooms, surprisingly good in a few.
The festival resumes Thursday night, when the national and international acts will join the Kansas City bands in the Westin and the Sheraton hotels. Shows at the Sheraton are open to the pubic. Admission is $25. Performers include Bela Fleck with Abigail Washburn, who will follow Jeff Porter and Bob Walkenhorst in the Atlanta Room at the Sheraton, starting at 8 p.m.