Like the evenings before it, music at the Folk Alliance International Conference on Saturday officially started not long after the dinner hour and went on deep into the next morning in hotel rooms at the Westin Crown Center. Late-night shows and jam sessions went on past 3 a.m.
And like the evenings before it, Saturday featured an array of local bands and songwriters, all of whom reaffirmed a truth about the best of our music scene: It stands up to any.
The Chouteau room in the Sheraton was a Kansas City showcase. Kasey Rausch was one of five local acts who performed there (Sara Swenson and Victor & Penny were among the others). Rausch was with a tight five-person band that included her sister Kim Rausch McLaws on harmonies (sibling harmonies are the best), Rob Nold on fiddle, Chad Brothers on guitar, Chris DeVictor on upright bass and Caleb Gardner on mandolin.
They played several songs from the stellar “Guitar in Hand,” her most recent album, including “103” (a tribute to her late great-grandmother), “Crazy Heart,” “Moonshiner’s Dream” and “An East Texas Day.” They also covered “Just an Old Man,” a Johnny Mullins song, and played a new one, “This Little Crow.” Fellow songwriter (and her co-host on KKFI’s “River Trade Radio”) Mikal Shapiro joined Rausch on “Sweet Missouri,” a serene waltz that pays homage to the state’s rural landscapes.
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There were some repeat performances on Saturday: For the second night in a row, Sam Baker drew a big crowd, this time to a smaller room, at his shorter official showcase at the Westin. Twenty-plus minutes is hardly enough time to adequately plumb his large catalog, but it was enough to give first-time listeners a sample of his genius.
The Elders put on their usual rousing show in what must be considered a small venue for them: the Chicago room at the Sheraton. Their midnight set closed the festival’s Music Camp, the shows that were open to the public. It was a fitting end. A large audience danced and indulged in favorites like “Appalachian Paddy” and ballads like “Men of Erin.” It was a treat to see them in such an intimate space.
For many attendees, the late-night private showcases are the festival’s main attraction. Rooms in three floors of the Westin are fashioned into makeshift performance spaces, some with the beds in them, others without. A Kansas City contingent reserved a room on each floor, each above or beneath the other, and called it the Kansas City Tower.
These showcases are technically only for attendees with badges, but security was loose and there were plenty of folks upstairs without them. The halls of each floor were crowded with fans and musicians, some lugging hefty instruments (like a standup bass) through the narrow hallways. Music poured and wafted from open doors.
Saturday’s late-night showcases provided a few opportunities. One was a chance to see the Milk Carton Kids in a standard-sized hotel room. It was packed beyond capacity, as expected, so for those of us way in the back, there was not much to see. But there was plenty to hear. Even in those conditions, the duo’s harmonies were sparkling on songs like “Hope of a Lifetime.” And despite the claustrophobic conditions, the crowd gave them mostly silent attention.
There are also opportunities for discovery — to pop into a room and get a close-up look at an act you’ve not heard of. Harpeth Rising (named for the river in Tennessee) was one of those. A cello-violin-banjo trio of classically trained musicians based in Louisville, Ky., they give folk and roots music a classical and progressive twist — chambergrass, they call it. Their 1 a.m. set in a seventh-floor room (with the bed still in it) included two instrumentals: “House of the Rising Sun” and “Stairway to Heaven.” Each was remodeled significantly but not so much that the melody could not be discerned.
Lauren Anderson played a 1:30 a.m. set in one of the Kansas City showcase rooms. Barefoot with guitar, she busked through several high-energy rock-soul tunes. She has a powerful voice, one that bears some resemblances to Melissa Etheridge or Janis Joplin. According to her Facebook page, she is in a four-piece band that includes drummer Kristopher Schnebelen, formerly of Trampled Under Foot. She bears watching.
Kat Healy, a songwriter from Edinburgh, Scotland, was another performer who made some new friends and fans. She has a songbird voice, which she employs well in her folk songs. Her album “Be Still Gentle Kind” is worth exploring.
The Crane Wives, from Grand Rapids, Mich., were also part of the private showcases. I talked with one of the members, who gave me their self-released CD, “The Fool in Her Wedding Gown,” a fetching mix of indie-rock and folk. Like so many bands making worthwhile music, they’re trying hard to get noticed amid everyone else. These hotel-room showcases are kind of a metaphor for the music world in general: so many voices trying to get heard.
The Oklahoma Room, corner suite with a couch and kitchen, became legendary at last year’s festival. It was busy and well-attended Saturday night, when the walls around the makeshift stage were lined with guitars, lap steels and other stringed instruments. Backed by a drummer on a snare, Lance Canales played a set around 2:30 a.m. A native of Fresno, Calif., he plays rootsy-blues numbers, often decorated with some gritty bottleneck slide. Some of it had an early Tom Waits vibe.
About 3 a.m., that room was filling up with people who had come to witness the closing jamboree, a long jam session open to all. To contain the noise, it was acoustic only and the doors were closed, but you could still hear the festivities from down the hall. The music never completely stops at this festival.