The final day of the Folk Alliance International conference was as lively and spirited as any. Many of the performers played to full rooms and enthusiastic audiences as they brought to a close the four-day conference at the Westin Crown Center hotel. Saturday’s bill included a seven-piece Chicano band from East Los Angeles, a preteen brother/sister duo from Nashville, and an 11-piece “gypsy party punk super band” out of Toronto. Here’s a look at some of the evening’s best showcases.
Las Cafeteras: The seven-piece band from East Los Angeles infused their joyous 30-minute set with dancing, some of it traditional zapateado style, some of it gleeful, uninhibited choreography, as they delivered a mix of rock, folk and traditional Afro-Mexican music.
Lead vocals were shared among four singers, and everyone was in motion for nearly the entire set. Their cover of “This Land Is Your Land” was one of the more exhilarating moments of the showcases.
Ramy Essam: He’s a folksinger and a political activist who became the face of the Arab Spring, the revolution in Egypt, and was jailed and punished for it. Essam now lives in Sweden, but he’s taking his music and message around the world. He brought with him a three-piece rock band that showed some of its influences, particularly Rage Against the Machine and several grunge bands, especially Pearl Jam.
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Essam sang in Arabic, but he introduced each song and its message in English, and the language barrier didn’t diminish the fury and passion of his message. His closer, a song about workers rights, started a rousing singalong among his attentive crowd.
Giri and Uma Peters: They’re a brother-sister duet from Nashville. Giri is a 12-year-old mandolin and fiddle player; Uma is a 9-year-old banjo and fiddle player. They delivered a lively and charming set filled with covers of old-time, Appalachian songs, like “Lazy John,” and a few original tunes, like “Zoey’s Reel,” written for their dog, who howls at their fiddle playing.
They have gone far in a short time. As they introduced their songs, they mentioned some of the artists they have performed or collaborated with: Bela Fleck, Abigail Washburn and Rhiannon Giddens.
The Lemon Bucket Orkestra: They’re from Toronto, but their roots are in Ukraine, and their party-vibe wedding-dance music is relentlessly percussive and engaging. The lineup comprised a four-piece brass section, tuba included, two fiddlers, an accordionist, a drummer, a percussionist, a flutist and a dancer. They overflowed the stage at Benton’s and filled the room with heavy gusts of revelry and joy.
Barbara Dane: She appeared on a 1959 television broadcast with Louis Armstrong. On Saturday, she, pianist Tammy Hall and multi-instrumentalist David Amram played for a few dozen reverential admirers in a hotel conference room. Dane, 89, forfeited a career as a jazz crooner for a life dedicated to social activism. Her 1973 album is titled “I Hate the Capitalist System.” Dane reworked the lyrics of several blues, folk and pop selections to take aim at Donald Trump.
Gaelynn Lea: Her showcase was an artistic and technical tour de force. Born with brittle bones disease that prevents a conventional approach to playing violin, Lea developed an unorthodox style that has resulted in deeply affecting music.
She had no trouble convincing the audience to sing along during “Bird Song,” a composition Lea said is “the only thing I ever wrote about disability.” Tears of appreciative joy streamed down the faces of many fans during a rendition of “Someday We’ll Linger in the Sun,” the otherworldly song that Lea submitted in her winning entry last year to National Public Radio’s online talent competition Tiny Desk Contest.
Alex Wong: Flanked by cellists Mai Bloomfield and Sarah Clanton, Alex Wong played a persuasive set of alternative folk in the vein of Sufjan Stevens. The Nashville-based singer/songwriter’s original material justified the gorgeous sounds.
“Are You Listening,” a stirring ode to our shared humanity, and a peculiar song he described as “a lullaby to an alien baby” were among the impressive selections.
Madison Violet: The folk-rock duo of Brenley MacEachern and Lisa MacIsaac possesses a flair for strong melodies and ingratiating hooks. Although MacEachern has an appealingly scratchy voice, the Toronto duo’s primary strength lies in its songs. The new composition “We Are Famous” sounded like a potential hit for a mainstream country act like Florida Georgia Line.
Jimmy LaFave: Nora Guthrie, daughter of folk icon Woody Guthrie, introduced Jimmy LaFave as “a close part of our family.” LaFave repaid the honor by performing the gospel standard “This Train Is Bound for Glory” and Arlo Guthrie’s “Highway in the Wind.”
The Texan is also one of the world’s foremost interpreters of Bob Dylan. Abetted by a three-piece band, LaFave’s readings of “You’re Going to Make Me Lonesome When You Go” and “My Back Pages” were intensely poignant.
Wink Burcham: As a couple danced to “Cowboy Heroes and Old Folk Songs,” Wink Burcham shouted “we need a dance floor with some sawdust.” The sly singer/songwriter from Tulsa and his five rowdy accompanists echoed the Western swing of Bob Wills and the bluesy shuffles of J.J. Cale. During the cheerless “For the Ones We Leave Behind,” Burcham sounded like an Okie version of Tom Waits.