For the second straight year, the Folk Alliance International annual music conference at Crown Center delivered an impressive array of performances, panel discussions, keynote speeches, instrumental instruction and other music attractions.
Thousands of people attended the conference, including hundreds of musicians from the United States, Canada and other countries. This year’s music performances were booked in both Crown Center hotels, the Westin and the Sheraton, unlike last year, when the music was booked only in the Westin.
The Sheraton shows were open to the public, for a $25 per day or night admission. Conference registrants with badges were eligible to attend performances in both hotels.
That meant more music performances and more choices. Here are a few highlights:
“Unbound Presents Hemispheres: Sound Photographs From Madagascar”: This was one of the first performances on Wednesday evening, the first night of the conference, which was a showcase of Kansas City music.
“Madagascar” featured live performances from the quartet of Barclay Martin, Giuliano Mingucci, Lindsey Jones and Rick Willoughby. They re-created music recorded by musicians from Madagascar in July, during a 24-day visit by Martin and Mingucci.
As they played and sang in Malagasy, images of the recording sessions in Madagascar were projected onto a scrim dropped in front of the band. It was a rapturous audio-visual experience.
Gawd: This extravaganza took over a Westin ballroom for more than three hours. The music was a mashup of free-form jazz, rock and other genres, all written and composed by bassist Johnny Hamil. It featured more than two dozen of Kansas City’s finest musicians, and it was a wild, captivating ride.
Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn: The husband-wife banjo duo, one of the festival’s marquee acts, drew a full house to a large ballroom in the Westin on Thursday night. Their music, rendered only on two banjos, blended their diverse styles and influences.
Kevn Kinney: The former lead singer of Drivin N Cryin sang a set of songs with sociopolitical, working-class themes. He also reprised the title track to his first solo album, “MacDougal Blues,” released in 1990.
Sylvia Tyson: Half of the former Canadian duo Ian and Sylvia, who were folk heroes in the late 1960s and early 1970s, she played accordion and guitar as she sang ballads in old-school folk style. She drew one of the bigger crowds to the Westin on Thursday night.
Sam Baker: He’s another Texas troubadour who writes great songs and performs them with a showman’s panache and humor. His Friday night set was one of the weekend’s best.
Ten Strings and a Goat Skin: This Canadian trio — fiddle, guitar and bodhran — plays high-energy folk songs, some with heavy Celtic and Cajun flavors.
The Hillbenders: Friday night was the best of four really good nights, and the Hillbenders played the best set of the evening. The band, a five-piece from Springfield, drew a few hundred people to a big room in the Sheraton, where it unleashed “Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry,” its remodeling of the Who’s classic rock opera. It was spectacular. Highly recommended, even to the most skeptical of Who fans.
The Milk Carton Kids: If you love the kind of idyllic harmonies that the Everlys or Simon and Garfunkel used to deliver, check out this duo. The vocals are so blissful you almost don’t notice Kenneth Pattengale’s ornate guitar lines that float beneath each song.
Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear: Their first hometown appearance since their “David Letterman” performance drew a big, appreciative crowd, including some out-of-towners who seemed duly impressed. They played a new song from the upcoming debut album, which is due this spring.
The private showcases: After the showcases in the hotel ballrooms were over each night, the music resumed upstairs, in three floors of the Westin. Saturday night’s late-night feast included another performance by the Milk Carton Kids, who filled a room beyond capacity.
Harpeth Rising, a cello-violin-banjo trio of classically trained musicians, drew a few dozen to its set, which included two instrumentals: “House of the Rising Sun” and “Stairway to Heaven.” The music went on well into the early morning in the Oklahoma room, which started its final jamboree past 3 a.m.
Epilogue: There were some late cancellations by performers, but the evening music portions of the conference went off without a major hitch. There were some lighting issues, but those were minor, and the sound was good in nearly every venue I attended.
Thursday night, the vibe in the Sheraton, which was open to the public, was more energetic than at the Westin, where the sets were shorter and there were more solo singer/songwriters. More high-energy acts like the Hillbenders, the Ghost of Paul Revere, Chuck Mead and His Grassy Knoll Boys and the Howlin’ Brothers would relieve some of that.
The $25 daily admission into the public shows at the Sheraton is a great bargain. And it looked like Kansas City responded. Crowds were good at those shows every night.
Next year will be the third of five years scheduled in Kansas City. If you haven’t yet attended, trust all the rave reactions you may be hearing. It has become one of the year’s music highlights and a major-league attraction.