Friday’s showcases at the Folk Alliance International Conference included a keynote address and live performance from a folk legend, plus several performances that pushed and breached the boundaries of traditional and mainstream folk.
Here’s a look at several showcases at the Westin Crown Center hotel.
At 4 p.m., Collins delivered the conference’s keynote address. Speaking extemporaneously, she gave a full room in the large Century C Ballroom plenty of funny one-liners, like “I never did drugs; I was afraid they’d interfere with my drinking,” and a tide of memories, like growing up in a dysfunctional household where the reverence for alcohol was second only to music and like meeting Leonard Cohen for the first time.
She talked about her well-known cover versions and how she found those songs (or how they arrived to her). And she led the crowd in sing-alongs to many of them, like “Both Sides Now,” “Amazing Grace,” “Turn, Turn, Turn” and and Cohen’s “Suzanne.” Ominously, her voice cracked a few times, and Collins admitted she was feeling less than well, but she invited all to attend her showcase in the same room about five hours later.
She rebounded nicely, at least vocally. During her 30-minute set, she performed a series of duets with Ari Hest and pianist Russell Walden. Instead of reprising her gold-record catalog of hits, however, Collins chose to showcase her work with Hest, mostly an album that is due this spring. Their voices meshed well — think of Neil Diamond and Barbara Streisand doing “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” — but the lack of connection to the new music left enough people cold or disinterested that by the time the set was over, a once full room was half empty. — T.F.
The Irish singer/songwriter performed a solo duet in one of the smallest showcase rooms at the festival, but he made it one of the most memorable. He’s a humorist and a raconteur and he leaned on those skills. He can also stir a crowd in to a hearty singalong, which he did a few times. The highlights: his cover of Steve Earle’s “Galway Girl,” which became a huge hit in his own country, and “To You I Bestow,” his contribution to the “Romeo + Juliet” soundtrack. — T.F.
We Banjo 3
This Irish band likes to joke that it’s neither a trio nor a band with three banjoists. Instead, it’s a quartet that fuses Celtic music with modern bluegrass, employing no more than two banjos plus guitar, mandolin, fiddle and percussion, including the bodhran. Their set included songs and instrumentals, each performed with plenty of vigor and rendered with a keen, relentless precision that recalls bluegrass titans like the Del McCoury Band or Alison Krauss and Union Station. Toward the end of the set, they gave the tradition Irish reel “A Bunch of Green Rushes” a bluegrass treatment, then turned around and gave the bluegrass classic “Salt Creek” a Celtic flair. — T.F.
Womack is a supreme lyricist, a songwriter brimming with insight and wit who can turn phrases with the best of them. Performing with a standup bassist, he performed songs about people doing their best to find grace in their life despite all its tribulations. “Nice Day” was one of those, a song about a summer day spent swimming at a friend’s house with his family, who may not have all they want but mostly have what they need: “Our beds are unmade / Our bills are half paid / But we’ve got booze up on the shelves.”
The highlight of the set was “Alpha Male & the Canine Mystery Blood,” a rambling, humorous and sardonic screed about the times we live in built around a fictitious band. It recalls the days when “there was music on MTV” and “planes hadn’t flown into towers yet / we hadn’t had a loose-cannon president yet” and includes lines like “Can’t be a has been when you never was” and “We get to be the poor saps who greet the dawn / Of this new age of fear, surveillance and sleaze / Bombs in your underwear and way too many enemies.” — T.F.
Polvere is a singer/songwriter from Australia who has collaborated with Ryan Adams and Jason Isbell. She writes thoughtful and melodic indie-folk ballads and anthems and sings them with a voice that snares attention, one that deserves comparisons to Hope Sandoval of Mazzy Star. Polvere performed about half of her set with a second guitarist, who also delivered some nice harmonies. During one song they recalled felllow Aussies Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson. She wrapped up her set solo, like the busker she once was. She can render pretty ballads, like “Tennessee,” or plumb matters of the heart, like in “The Ruse,” a song about her divorce that turned into an evocative bloodletting. — T.F.
The three women of Lady Maisery revived traditional European folk songs with youthful vigor. After opening their set with ravishing a cappella readings of Estonian and Swedish selections, the British trio demonstrated their instrumental prowess on a stunning psychedelic treatment of Nuttamun Fair. / B.B.
Nadin, an Iraqi refugee and the front person of the Swedish band Tarabband, explained that her group’s moniker means ecstasy through music. The sextet lived up to its name during its first performance in the United States. An intoxicating blend of Arabic pop, Nordic folk and modal jazz, Tarabband’s passionate outing was one of only a few showcases to incite spontaneous dancing. Tarabband’s spellbinding set included a song that was written many thousands of years ago and an original composition about an ill-fated Yazidi couple separated during a recent ISIS siege. — B.B.
Leyla McCalla won’t be categorized anytime soon. Accompanied by a violinist and a guitarist, the former member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops played a Cajun dance tune, folk songs that reflected her Haitian heritage, a dissonant avant-folk piece and two selections featuring poems by Langston Hughes. While the diversity of styles might have confounded booking agents, festival promoters and disc jockeys attending the showcase, even the most flummoxed member of the audience had to be impressed by McCallas’ audacious talent. / B.B.
Maria Pomianowska demonstrated two instruments she has resuscitated in her native Poland during her showcase. Working with a luthier, Pomianowska reconstructed a vanished string instrument known as a suka based on a drawing made in the 19th century. She conducted a similar act of musical excavation with the Pock fiddle. Her playing on both instruments reflected her expertise in Indian classical music. — B.B.
The Suitcase Junket
Matt Lorenz, the Massachusetts man who calls his one-man band the Suitcase Junket, sounds like an art school version of the late bluesman Lightnin’ Hopkins. He explained that his instrumentation includes a box of bones and silverware, a baby shoe hitting a gas can and an amplified guitar that he pulled out of a Dumpster. He’s also a fearsome yodeler and a master of polyphonic overtone singing. Lorenz’s robust songs made his presentation more than just a novelty. — B.B.
Children of people who fled Chile in the 1970s after Augusto Pinochet came to power, the three members of Andino Suns who traveled from Saskatchewan to Kansas City filled a small conference room with smiles and excited howls. Far from traditionalists, Andino Suns occasionally sounded more like pop star Jason Mraz than Chilean folk icons like Violeta Parra. — B.B.
Welsh songwriter Jack Harris writes exceptionally literate songs and plays his acoustic guitar with fluid, inventive finger-picking. He plays with an intensity you rarely see in solo artists. Harris also happens to be a quick-witted storyteller who amuses his listeners with acerbic, sometimes caustic humor. His 20-minute set ended too soon. — R.T.
Maloney, who sometimes collaborates with the band Darlingside, delivered an impressive Friday-night performance that truly was a showcase for her amazing vocal abilities. She opened the set with Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock,” which gave her a chance to demonstrate a vocal range that included throaty low notes and ringing falsettos. But it turns out she does that on almost every song, whether originals or covers. — R.T.
The Mae Trio
The Mae Trio from Australia performed at least twice Friday — at an afternoon private showcase in the Australia Room with a circle of other gifted artists from Down Under — and later at an official showcase in an upstairs ballroom. Maggie Rigby (banjo, ukulele) and Anita Hillman (cello, bass) produce powerful, intricate three-part harmonies in originals and covers. They are among, other things, formidable songwriters. — R.T.
Formed in Traverse City, Mich., the Accidentals at times sound like a rock trio performing folk and at others like a folk trio performing rock. Whatever. They’re a high-energy band and their members are not yet 21. Savannah Buist and Katie Larson, the lead vocalists, are multi-instrumentalists. During a short showcase set they incorporated violin, viola, ukulele, acoustic guitar, electric guitar and electric bass. Drummer Michael Dause also provides vocals and, in the set’s final number Friday, played guitar. Tight, focused and original. — R.T.