Folk festival showcases its diversity

The folk-music tent is large, diverse and inclusive.

That was evident Thursday night inside the Westin Crown Center Hotel, where the International Folk Alliance is holding its 26th annual conference.

A four-day mix of performances and panel discussions, the conference promotes the heritage of folk music and legends like Tom Rush while showcasing its up-and-coming performers -- artists such as Sarah Jarosz and SHEL.

Jarosz will turn 23 in May, but she has already asserted herself as a heralded performer who is none to comfortable with the status quo. Backed by fiddler Alex Hargreaves and cellist Nathaniel Smith, she gave her audience an ample sample of her impressive skills on several instruments and her diverse repertoire, which includes a few covers.

The best of those were her jazz-soul take on Bob Dylan’s “Simple Twist of Fate,” rendered only in her voice and the plucked strings of Smith’s cello, and her re-arranged version of Joanna Newsom’s “Book of Right On.”

While Jarosz was performing her distinct flavor of contemporary bluegrass and country (think Alison Krauss or Nickel Creek), Gangstagrass, the rap-bluegrass ensemble from Brooklyn, was throwing down its blend of hip-hop and bluegrass a few doors away. Their approach is novel but hardly new. They are part of the country-rap movement, nicknamed hick-hop, which goes back to ensembles like the Nappy Roots and includes collaborations like Tim McGraw and Nelly.

SHEL is a quartet of sisters, the Holbrooks from Fort Collins, Colo., who give folk and bluegrass a brash, modern twist, including the several minutes of beat-boxing from Liza Holbrook, the band’s percussionist.

They weren’t the only band of siblings who made a deep impression. In a small conference room, the Blasting Company, a Los Angeles troupe founded by brothers Josh and Justin Petrojvic, unleashed their horn-fed take on instrumental gypsy folk via tuba, trombone, trumpet, accordion and percussion.

But there was plenty for the traditionalists: Rush delivered an early no-frills solo-acoustic set that included “Drift Away” and a medley of train songs he dedicated to Bukka White. Troubadour David Olney and his impressive guitarist Sergio Webb played several electric-folk tunes, including “Red Guitar,” a song Olney said he’d written that evening.

And the trio Brother Sun performed a set of folk ballads that included some stellar three-part harmonies.