North American Folk Alliance Conference 2004
By: Jessica Papkoff
Photos By: M. L. Naden
The 16th annual North American Folk Alliance Conference was held this past February 26th -- 29th, 2004 in San Diego, California. The conference attracts acoustic musicians of all folk-related genres and people from the various business aspects of the music world such as radio show hosts, concert producers, festival booking agents, etc. There is also a trade show at the conference where one can find representatives from many of the management agencies, instrument and string companies, CD mastering, and other musician-related services. The conference serves as a networking and educational event for musicians and those associated with the music business.
During the morning hours of the conference there are various seminars offered on a variety of topics ranging from music promotion to festival organization. The music showcases are scheduled from about 3pm to 3am with each showcase lasting 30-45 minutes, often with several musicians performing in the round. At any given time there are 20-30 performances going on in the various hotel rooms, conference rooms and the main ballroom stage. With so much happening, it can seem a bit overwhelming to first time attendees. Fortunately, there is a printed schedule of all the showcases and conference events so one can pick and choose their musical adventure route each day. The first challenge after arriving was just finding the showcase rooms since things were spread out between several buildings. After figuring out where things are, one can wander around from room to room and sample the vast variety of music and performers.
Many of the showcases are sponsored by various organizations such as ASCAP, Rose Street House of Music, Taytrix, Taylor Guitars, CD Baby, etc. This year's CD Baby.com showcase featured several dozen CD Baby artists ranging from traditional folk to contemporary acoustic pop.
Sherry Austin started things off at the CD Baby showcase with some political folk commentary accompanied by guitar, upright bass and three part voice harmonies for a nice bluegrass-folk sound. Next up was Ian Charles who drew the audience in with his seasoned voice, accompanying himself on harmonica and guitar with original songs from his new CD, "Minutes from Midnight". Later in the afternoon we caught a few songs from the humorous and edgy Jenn Lindsay. Her satirical take on her visit to New York and another song called "Jill and Jill" had the audience grinning throughout. Following Jenn were The Weepies, a duo featuring the evocative songs from award winning songwriters Deb Talan and Steve Tannen. Their style is hallmarked by Deb's distinctive voice, unusual melodies and an often dark, dreamy texture. Other CD Baby performers were the charmingly funny Zoe Lewis who amused us with her bag of musical tricks and toys which included guitar, ukulele, penny whistle, wooden spoons and a moo cow toy as accompaniments to her witty songs delivered with a lovely English accent.
Friday night brought out some excellent performers and a packed audience for several great CD Baby showcases. New York jazz guitarist and songwriter, Leni Stern, began the evening with some offbeat jazz and Latin influenced songs that were sometimes dark and hypnotic to the ear. One of the highlight performers of the conference, Rachel Sage, enchanted the audience with her lovely voice and keyboard-based songs. Accompanied by the very wonderful Stephanie Winters on cello, Rachel's powerful, introspective songs and catchy, yearning melodies easily won me over as a new fan. I caught up again later with Rachel at her MPress Records showcase where she was performing in a room festooned with vividly colored feather boas and strewn with chocolate kisses and custom made candies with her purple logo on them. I highly recommend you go see her the next chance you get. As for the candies, I haven't tried them yet, they were just too pretty to consume and I didn't want to eat my most intriguing souvenir.
Edie Carey followed up with her own brand of intimate and complex contemporary folk style. Edie's new CD, "When I Was Made", has been garnering rave reviews. The highly energetic and intense Melissa Ferrick bounded into her set and promptly broke a guitar string but forged ahead after quickly borrowing another guitar and wowed the enthusiastic crowd with a few new songs and some former favorites. Melissa has a new CD coming out soon and word has it that she played all the instruments on it herself which is an amazing achievement. I'm looking forward to hearing that one myself.
Two other CD Baby artists that I caught later at other showcases were Seattle's Kym Tuvim and Rachel Garlin from Berkeley. Kym Tuvim has an amazing voice that fills the room and surrounds you with its velvety fullness and warmth. Her guitar playing, using various open string tunings, provides a beautiful framework for her songs to dance and mingle with. Kym's recent CD, "On The Mend", is highly recommended. Rachel Garlin writes smart, clever, observant, energetic and intimate songs with a catchy contemporary folk-pop style to them. Her songs are like short stories that draw the listener into them, often dipping back to childhood experiences that we can all remember such as playing with a tin can phone. (Ok, well I remember playing with tin can phones----and walkie-talkies made from chunks of 2x4 with a nail for the antenna.) Rachel has an immediately friendly and easy connection with her audiences and has a knack for making a good song out of what might seem like an ordinary topic such as currency exchange rates or alternative automobile fuels. Ask her about the Veggie Van next time you see her play.
From the rockin' guitar girl world of California, I had a chance to hear Janet Robin from Los Angeles and Shelley Doty from Oakland. Janet spun out some passionate folk-rock songs and captivated the audience with her musical and rhythmic energy. I enjoyed the contrasts she utilizes in her songs along with some nice guitar licks and a most excellent solo guitar jam at the end of her set. Shelley Doty, who often plays electric with her band, performed several of her originals on acoustic guitar. Her blend of soulful folk-funk led us through several personal songs, one of which she wrote when she was only 14 years old. Getting to know Shelly through her songs and personal experiences was a fun way to spend part of the evening.
From Austin, TX, Stephanie Fix roared onto the stage with some gritty Americana and old West themed songs. Her wrenching tale of "Mrs. Devil Man", played on a large turquoise colored Guild guitar, was her tour de force. Stephanie has a surprisingly huge and expressive voice for such a petite woman that proves my long held belief that good things come in small packages. In a similar vein, Abi Tapia, also from Austin, delivered the goods on guitar and harmonica with several well-crafted country influenced contemporary folk songs. Her very clever song, "Hand Over Your Heart", about a gun-slinging gal at the Double Horseshoe Bar was a big crowd pleaser. Abi's style and sound reminds me a little of Kris Delmhorst and Catie Curtis but with a little more Americana in the mix.
From Toronto, Ember Swift and her highly tattooed electric bass player, Lyndell Montgomery, launched into a set of political commentary songs that had a quirky, poppy, jazzy groove to them and often a humorous edge in the lyrics. From Winnipeg, The Duhks band livened up the conference music scene with their own blend of contemporary folk music influenced by waves of Celtic, bluegrass and Appalachian traditions mingled in to the mix. The Duhks are an amazingly talented, fun and energetic group that features some very young and fine players in their early twenties if even that. They had quite a following at the conference and are no doubt very popular wherever they go.
Right on cue, the audience queued up for Anne McCue. Originally from Australia and now based in Los Angeles, Anne has built up a strong following in North America and was the opening performer for Lucinda William's tour not too long ago. Anne's style spans from interestingly dark pop songs to country and blues influenced ones. Anne is also a very good guitarist, if happen to see her in an amplified venue with her electric guitar you might be treated to some very nicely played Jimi Hendrix pieces. No electric guitars at Folk Alliance but Anne did bring along a 6-string banjo for a song about her dad called "Milkman's Daughter". Apparently the banjo police gave Anne stern warning that a 6-string banjo (tuned like a guitar) is considered a "cheatin' banjo". Hopefully the ticket on that was dismissed. Anne has a new CD out called "Roll" that is receiving very good reviews.
Despite the fact that the conference center was inland and away from the beaches, we had the opportunity to hear some authentic southern California surf music by the guys who invented it. In a special performance by the Duo-Tones, Paul Johnson and Gary Orr played a blazing set of surfing safari favorites on acoustic guitars. Johnson originally of the Bel Aires and Orr of the Chantays perform in the San Diego area and have two CDs available.
The Taytrix showcase provided a very nice environment for listeners and hosted some excellent performers such as Ellis, Erika Luckett, Vicki Genfan, and Kym Tuvim (reviewed earlier in this article). Based in Minneapolis, the ever-engaging Ellis brought some thoughtful and honest personal tales to the stage. Accompanied by some interesting chord voicings on the guitar, Ellis writes songs about love, letting go, grace and honesty, and getting through the difficult emotional times in life. In a slight departure from the typical Ellis song, a delightful ditty called "I Have Thing For You" was made doubly amusing when she sang the opposite version of the song immediately afterwards.
Erika Luckett is a fabulous musician, songwriter, performer and guitarist. Her jazzy funk-infused folk with luscious chord progressions and colorful South American influences are part of what makes her music so interesting to listen to. Whether it's a folk-pop song, a smoky jazz number or a traditionally based South American tune, each one is captivating to the listener. It's always a joy to watch and listen to someone who makes everything look so easy and leaves you wanting to hear it all again. Erika has several CDs available and also has many performer and producer credits on recording projects by other musicians.
Vicki Genfan is the wiz of two-handed, string tapping, harmonic slapping guitar grooves. Seeing Vicki play is like watching a magic show on the guitar with many in the audience wondering out loud afterwards, "How'd she do that?" Vicki is also a darn good singer-songwriter and the positive energy and messages in her songs are an uplifting experience.
In a room lit by many votive candles and small twinkly lights, the all woman old-time string band, Uncle Earl, put on quite an amazing show of bluegrass, Americana and old-time styles. Collectively engaged and focused on the songs, their wonderful timbre, blend of instruments and harmonies captured the subtleties of this music, which is what makes it interesting and meaningful. Their tight harmonies on several of the songs really sparkled and made this a very special showcase.
Another unusual band, the Black Irish, enticed the audience with some fine whiskey shots and put on a convincing show of sea chanties, civil war tunes and traditional Irish songs while decked out in period garb.
Tracy Grammer made several showcase appearances and is continuing her mission of bringing the music of her late music partner, Dave Carter, to the rest of the world. Tracy will be releasing a new CD in early summer of 2004.
Dressed in cargo fatigues, big buckle biker boots, a fluorescent green hooded fashion sweatshirt and purple hair wraps, SONiA (with a little "i"), performed some songs from her new smartly titled CD, "No Bomb is Smart". Her style is a mix of folk, rock, Americana and blues with a range of topics from political commentary to some with a humorous bite.
Other performers of note were American roots folkster Jen Cass who was a recent finalist several major songwriting contests and Trina Hamlin who played a mean harmonica and some sturdy mid-west blues songs.
The very last showcase I listened to was by an Australian band called Fruit. Fronted by three women, with the fellows on bass and drums, this group brought an amazing energy to the crowded showcase room with their folk-rock sound and beautiful, dramatic, tight harmonies. Lead singer and colorful multi-instrumentalist, Mel Watson, is one of the most focused and charismatic performers I have seen in a long time. Her ability to channel the positive energy of their music to the audience was an awesome experience and a great way to finish up my Folk Alliance listening adventure this year.
For more information, visit the Folk Alliance website at http://www.folk.org.