The second day of the 2015 Folk Alliance International Conference was twice as big as the first. Maybe bigger. Thursday night’s performances were scheduled in both hotels at Crown Center: the Westin, which was the “industry” side open only to those who had officially registered with the conference, and the Sheraton, which was open to the public for a $25 ticket. Here’s a look at some of what transpired at each.
At the Westin Crown Center
There was no official theme for the first evening of the official showcases at the Westin, but there was a consistency to many of the performances. The schedule included many singer-songwriters performing solo, which gave the night a traditional-folk flavor. Attendance was relatively light at some of the performances, but all were spirited.
One of the earliest sets was a last-minute surprise. Texas singer-songwriter Tish Hinojosa had to cancel her performance in the Century A ballroom but she enlisted fellow Austinite BettySoo to fill in for her. Accompanied by guitar wizard Bill Kirchen, BettySoo treated a small audience to about 20 minutes of Hinojosa’s songs, some of which were in Spanish. She made light of that: a Korean-American singing songs in Spanish, but she did so admirably. “”Add some rock ‘n’ roll and a Telecaster, and between us we look a little like her,” she wisecracked.
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Kevn Kinney, former lead singer of the rock band Drivin N Cryin, performed a set of folk tunes, several of which were political and social commentary. One lamented the plight of the working class: “I work two weeks just to pay the rent / I work three days just to keep the lights on / I work two days just to get to work.” He also performed “MacDougal Blues,” the title track to his first solo album, released in 1990, which was produced by Peter Buck of R.E.M.
Backed by the three-piece Beulah Band, Kent Whitley, a native of Toronto, performed a set of pleasant folk songs, some with titles that implied their disposition: “The Moment We’ve Been Waiting For” and “How Fast Flies Time.”
Fellow Canadian Sylvia Tyson drew a large audience to her set. She is best-known as half of Ian and Sylvia, a husband-wife duo that was popular in the 1960s and early 1970s. She and Ian Tyson divorced in the mid 1970s, but both have continued to write songs and perform. She played accordion and guitar during a set that included “Marie Antoinette,” a song about a hotel maid who exacts revenge on her noble clientele.
Irish Mythen continued the socio-political theme with a fiery set of solo-acoustic songs. A native of Ireland living in Canada, Mythen vocally bears a strong resemblance to Melissa Etheridge. She told humorous stories about her songs, including one about being gay that she sang at a church in Sweden for a bishop who had requested her performance.
Quiles and Cloud, an acoustic folk duo from San Francisco, performed to a couple dozen fans in the Roanoke Room. Maria Quiles has a lovely songbird voice that resembles Shawn Colvin’s. On songs like “Cali,” an ode to their home state, she and her partner, Rory Cloud, strongly evoked the sounds of ‘60s folk.
The wildest set of the night in the Westin was courtesy of another act from Canada: Ten Strings and a Goat Skin. They’re a trio who play high-energy songs on fiddle, guitar and the bodhran, thus the name. Their set list included two instrumentals, one called “Shoot the Moon,” and another, performed in French that had a sharp Cajun flavor. It was about “failed marriage and alcohol,” they explained before tearing into it. They’d be an ideal band for the Kansas City Irish Fest.
-- Timothy Finn, The Star
At the Sheraton Crown Center
The unmistakable blues shouting of the late Joe Turner provided incidental accompaniment for singer-songwriter Tim Easton at the Folk Alliance Music Fair at the Sheraton Hotel on Thursday.
The festivities provided many similarly unexpected confluences of sounds and styles. The portion of the Folk Alliance International Conference that’s open to the public included impressive outings by locally based musicians and an appearance by the groundbreaking musician Béla Fleck and his wife Abigail Washburn.
As a handful of people viewed Turner in a screening of the 1979 Kansas City jazz documentary “The Last of the Blue Devils” in a nearby room, several dozen spectators watched Easton’s scrappy set.
Accompanied by fiddler Megan Palmer, Easton performed songs inspired by an overheard domestic dispute and an imagined conversation with Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones. The Tennessee based Easton has long resembled a hard-knock version of the more commercially successful Ryan Adams, but Easton was among several showcasing musicians clearly deserving of wider recognition.
Singer-songwriter Una Walkenhorst played three forlorn love songs in a solo set that preceded her father’s performance. Occasionally shaky, the young artist exhibited considerable promise.
Bob Walkenhorst and Jeff Porter were greeted as hometown heroes by substantially more fans than could fit into the RecordBar, the Westport venue that’s hosted a longtime weekly residency for the duo.
Walkenhorst made it clear that while he was proud to play at the conference, he’s a bit uncomfortable with the folk label.
“We have a terrible confession to make,” he said. “Jeff and I are rock ‘n’ rollers.”
Walkenhorst’s output with the rock bands Steve, Bob & Rich and the Rainmakers remains popular with longtime fans. Even so, Thursday’ excellent acoustic outing indicated that Walkenhorst and Porter’s mature new material is the artistic equal of the work of stars like Bob Seger.
Backed by a versatile four-piece band, the Kansas City singer-songwriter Mikal Shapiro performed noir-ish new selections that seemed to transform an antiseptic conference room into a smoky dive bar. Shapiro performed songs from her latest album, “The Musical,” with a band that included Chad Brothers on guitar, Johnny Hamil on bass, Matt Richey on drums and Kyle Dalhquist on keyboards and pedal steel guitar. Known for a far more conventional sound, Shapiro’s presentation compared favorably to a few national acts that performed Thursday.
No one, however, compares to Béla Fleck. The most celebrated artist at this year’s edition of the conference, Fleck is a brilliant innovator who ranks alongside artists like Herbie Hancock as one of the most creative musicians of our time.
Several hundred admirers filled a ballroom to hear Fleck and Washburn demonstrate their astounding skills as banjo virtuosos. Fleck, the winner of more than a dozen Grammy Awards, has played in a myriad of formats including funk, classical, jazz and rock. In addition to being an exceptional old-timey musician, Washburn is a scholar of Chinese folk music.
The duo’s set included at least one Chinese folk song, Appalachian folk, a song characterized as “apocalyptic gospel” and a Fleck solo that Washburn suggested ventured into an “intergalactic banjo realm.”
Although the genial couple frequently traded smiles, much of their set conjured the grim travails of countless generations of working people in the Americas, the British Isles and China.
Banjo players are often mocked as purveyors of grating sounds, but Fleck and Washburn were anything but annoying. Fleck joked that “people get really uncomfortable when they realize all they’re going to hear is banjo.”
On Thursday, Fleck and Washburn were among appreciative friends.
-- Bill Brownlee, Special to The Star