Saturday night was the final night of the 2016 Folk Alliance International Conference, and dozens of musicians made it a night to remember. Here is a look at several of the performances at the Westin Crown Center hotel.
The Grammy-winning band mixes the traditions of conjunto tejano with Tex-Mex, rock, blues, polka and elements of Chicano music into lively songs. The quartet is led by founder Max Baca, who plays the 12-string bajo sexto, and Josh Baca, who plays the button accordion. More than a few people submitted to the music’s irresistable dance grooves and music that has been aptly described as “jalepeno-spiced polka.”
Sutari is a trio of women who resurrect and reintepret the folk music of Poland, often giving it an unexpected twist -- like the song infused with bird-like yelps that used water drawn with fingers from a bowl as an accompanying instrument. The three women gave their performance a theatrical flavor, narrating tales about the songs they were about to perform, like one about the summer solstice, one about a dialogue between a girl and a tree and another about a universal theme: love and betrayal. Songs were performed a cappella and with a variety of instruments, including violin, cello, a glockenspiel, tambourine. Handclaps also provided percussion on a couple of songs. But the most arresting part of the performance were the vocals, which were appropriately somber, joyous and/or theatrical, depending on the song’s mood.
By applying modern technology to ancient music, Maarja Nuut forged something entirely new during her stunning solo showcase. The visionary Estonian used looping effects on her voice and violin to create evocative sonic landscapes. A traditional piece she introduced as the music devils like to listen to when they party gradually became a sprightly miniature symphony. Her narration of morbid children’s fables was accompanied by shadowy arrangements she crafted on the spot.
Ben Caplan & the Casual Smokers
Ben Caplan shouted the word folk as if it was an abhorrent profanity as his set began at the former site of Benton’s Prime Steakhouse. Although his accompanists included an upright bassist and a fiddler, the Canadian’s crazed blend of rock, jazz and Eastern European music sounds as if it belongs at a sketchy carnival rather than a respectable folk festival. The disruptive presence of Caplan and his cohorts served as a bracing tonic for an appreciative audience.
The Gentle Good
After Gareth Bonello, a man who creates music as the Gentle Good, explained that he had recorded an album based on the work of a Chinese poet that combines the folk traditions of China and his native Wales, his wife and background vocalist Jennifer Gallichan wryly quipped that the concept fills a niche. Although several selections were sung in Welsh, the Gentle Goods heartbreakingly beautiful music closely echoes the work of the British folk icon Nick Drake.
Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker
The crystalline voice of Josienne Clarke made the desolate songs she and guitarist Ben Walker performed at their 30-minute showcase almost unbearably poignant. The British musicians delectably miserable approach was recognized with Best Duo honors at last years BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards.
Sarah MacDougall and a four-piece backing band performed a soothing Canadian variation of Americana. MacDougall recalled that she was inspired to write “Permafrost,” a song about dehydration and heartbreak and cold after moving into a cabin in the Yukon. Convinced that bears and wolves were lurking in the darkness, she only dared to use the outhouse during the two hours of daylight at the northern outpost.
The Fretless is a four-piece string ensemble — three violins and a cello — that produces electrifying music without an amplifier in sight. The mix of originals and traditional folk themes is performed in utterly unique but always accessible arrangements. It’s tempting to describe them as the Kronos Quartet without the pretentions. The three Canadians — Karrnnel Sawitsky, Yvonne Hernandez and Trent Freeman — and one Vermonter — cellist Eric Wright — create mesmerizing music.
Jackson, a native of Canterbury in southeast England, is a phenomenal singer and riveting performer. As a solo artist, he brings a visceral style of guitar playing to the stage. He alternates between finger-picking or flat-picking, depending on the needs of the song. He’s a strong songwriter but his voice is the show. And his cover of “Georgia” was outstanding.
The Lowest Pair
This banjo duo is a rarity: one that produce originals that sound like authentic mountain music. Lendl Winter’s high-lonesome vocals paired with Palmer T. Lee’s soulful baritone proved to be an irresistible combination during a Saturday-afternoon private showcase.
A private showcase performance by Laney Jones and the Spirits was an eye-opening way to start an afternoon of music-listening. Performing in a cramped hotel room from which the twin beds had not been removed, Jones and her three unamplified bandmates filled the close quarters with energy and serious musicianship. Jones, an extrovert with a quirky sense of humor, was in motion at all times, sometimes standing on chairs and concluding the set by collapsing on a bed. She plays a mean banjo and a hellacious harmonica, by the way.
Last year, this a five-piece band from Japan was a hit at the alliance with its mix of bluegrass instruments and unusual covers. This year the founding members — guitarist and lead vocalist Elizabeth Etta and mandolinist Sara Kono — appeared as a duo. A short set included a lovely original by Etta, “Ballerina Meena Jane,” and a crowd-pleasing cover that got the audience’s attention last year, the B-52’s “Love Shack.”
The Soorleys are a family band from Newcastle, South Wales, and their showcase performance Saturday night was noisy affair, thanks to a muddy sound mix. Frequent signals to the sound engineer from various members of the band to turn up the volume didn’t help. An acoustic set by a smaller configuration of the Australian group the previous afternoon was lively and infectious. The full band sacrificed intimacy.