Change is unavoidable. There's not a thing you can do to stop it and if you resist its pull, it takes an even greater toll on your spirit. If you can stand back and allow it to happen, though, you might be surprised by the results.
Amanda Anne Platt knows all about change - how scary it can feel and yet how exhilarating it can be at the same time. Recently, she decided it was time to put herself and her musical artistry front and center. Her bandmates agreed and so, starting with their new, self-titled album, The Honeycutters will now be known as Amanda Anne Platt and The Honeycutters. A small change, perhaps, but one that leaves no doubt about who the heart and soul of this remarkable band really is.
"Learning How To Love Him," a song you'll find on the new album, is a prime example of the new intimacy Platt shares with her audience. Her voice, rising and falling above a simple, spare guitar line, is on display in a way it never has been before.
Quietly, candidly, and without a trace of sentimentality, Platt examines how love changes over the years as circumstances dictate. Love, like life, experiences its fair share of ups and downs. It can be strong and steady one moment and wavering and fragile in the next. And, surprisingly, in the wake of tragedy, it can bloom anew to become more meaningful than ever before.
Platt says she wrote the song after hearing an acquaintance talk about learning that her husband of four-plus decades was terminally ill. "What really struck me was how she described the tenderness that the news brought back to their relationship," Platt says. "She said that the house was quiet and she had never realized how much they used to yell at one another. The topic is unavoidably sad but I meant to focus on the beauty of loving someone for that long rather than the loss."
You DO feel the loss in this song - it would be impossible not to. Yet, the journey this particular love takes is one any of us would be lucky to experience.
Amanda Anne Platt & The Honeycutters will be released on June 9th, and is available for pre-order now at iTunes and Amazon.com.
We join the folk music community in mourning the loss of our friend, singer/songwriter Jimmy LaFave who passed away yesterday (May 21) from a rare form of cancer, and extend our deepest condolences to Jimmy's family, friends and loved ones.
Jimmy will always hold a very special place in the larger folk music community, and in particular among his Austin, Texas tribe. He'll forever be remembered for his poignant songs and deeply moving vocals, and for his kindness, humor, grace and generosity.
As a tribute, we've put together a 20-song playlist of some of our favorite Jimmy LaFave songs. If you're not familiar with Jimmy's music, we especially hope you'll listen.
Life, just as with nature, is comprised of seasons. Infancy, youth, middle-age, and old-age are familiar milestones, but even within those phases, we each experience the metaphorical mountains, valleys, and deserts that make up a life well-lived. And though their journeys might be more public and artistic, creative folks' ebbs and flows are no different. Such is certainly the case with Chris Kasper.
For his new album, O, the Fool, Kasper found his muse in a tarot card of the same name that depicts a traveling jester (or vagabond, depending on the deck) with all his belongings bundled in a handkerchief and tied to a stick flung over his shoulder. "The Fool, in the tarot deck, usually represents a new beginning and end to something in your old life," Kasper explains. "It also signifies important decisions that involve an element of risk. For me, I felt this record was doing this, in a musical and lyrical sense. It also sounds a lot like my own personal and musical evolution."
Indeed, Kasper has made intentional artistic strides away from his last effort, Bagabones, which was chock full of minor keys and weird sounds, and toward a lighter lushness that represents and reflects the journey he, himself, made over the past few years. "These songs became small journeys in themselves, even lyrically, traveling from the east to the west," he notes, "through cycles of love, second guesses, car troubles, longing for lazy mornings, letting go, and starting over. "
The song titles, themselves - "City by the Sea," "Moving West," "State Trooper," and "Love Letter from Santa Fe," among others - trace his steps and tell his story across a musical landscape that is both soulful and playful.
"I learned a lot from arranging strings on the last record and I wanted to try more of that," Kasper adds. "My method was to keep the tunes fairly simple in structure, even abandoning choruses in some songs in favor of tag lines or dressing them up with strings, horns, and piano. It felt like a good and challenging road for me to explore."
O, the Fool is out on June 2. Pre-released singles from the album are available now at iTunes.
Subjective interpretation is one of the fundamental components of art. Where some see chaos, others see order. Where some sense rage, others sense passion. In Pieta Brown's "Street Tracker," some might experience tenderness and vulnerability in both purpose and practice. But the artist herself experiences something completely different.
"The spark for 'Street Tracker' was a photograph I saw of a motorcycle not long after getting home from being on the road touring," she says. "I saw a kind of openness, freedom, and power in the machine. I hear and feel this same mix in Mark Knopfler's guitar playing."
Of course, vulnerability and courage are inextricably linked, so perhaps this song (like most of Brown's music) lives in the space between the two, in the transformation of those qualities into the artwork that represents them. Like the power in even the gentlest of streams that slowly, gradually, defiantly wears down the stones that stand in its path, "Street Tracker" is both calming and clarion.
Translating those qualities into a visual piece would, necessarily, demand a certain sensitivity. "For the video, I wanted to continue the collaboration aspect of the Postcards project and invited the mesmerizing aerial silks performer Mimi Ke to work together," Brown notes. "She so gracefully manages to convey this same spirit of openness, freedom, and power that I first saw in that photograph. Making the video of her choreography and performance was extra fun, and I remain mesmerized."
Pieta Brown's latest album, Postcards, is out now and available at iTunes and Amazon.com
If you're lucky, it'll be one or two songs on an album that instantly grab you and draw you in. Maybe three songs, if you're really fortunate. If all the stars have aligned, Jupiter and Mars share a rising sun and moon phase, and the universe has (somehow, in its infinite wisdom) discerned that you need good music around you, you'll find an album where you connect with half the songs. That's as rare as a blue moon, though - I can count on one hand (ok, maybe two hands) how often that has happened.
That's why Transient Lullaby is such an extraordinary body of work: not one, not two, not even half, but each and every song on The Mastersons' newest release has something that's going to draw you in and keep you there, hanging on to every word, every phrase, every guitar lick or violin line.
And there are a lot of guitars and violins. Mandolins, too. Dobros. Organs. Harmonicas. Other string instruments and percussion instruments galore. In their infinite wisdom, Chris Masterson and Eleanor Whitmore explore a huge sound world, blowing it wide open with lush orchestration, gorgeous string arrangements, a mix of acoustic and electric sounds and spot-on vocal harmonies that, more often than not, don't resolve to the chord you think they're going to resolve to - one more reason to keep listening, as you think to yourself: "What will this duo think to do next?"
That's also a question you might ask them when it comes to their career trajectory - what will The Mastersons think to do next? If they're not touring as a duo, they're on the road with Steve Earle, as part of his band The Dukes. And it's that nonstop motion, exhausting for some, that energizes this husband and wife team. "When you travel like we do, if your antenna is up, there's always something going on around you," reflects guitarist/singer Chris Masterson. "Ideas can be found everywhere. The hardest thing to find is time."
The Mastersons did find the time, though, and used it wisely, creating an album that's filled with images and ideas of wanderlust ("Transient Lullaby"), relationships that come and go ("Highway 1"), devoted lovers (the Neil Young-esque "Fire Escape") and cautious optimism in an uncertain future ("Perfect").
The Mastersons' laid back groove brings to mind the best of 1960s and 70s folk pop while their unusual arrangements and surprising vocal harmonies place them firmly in the present. And it's the unique lens they use to look at the world around them (and us), not to mention their seemingly endless supply of energy, that ensures they'll be singing and playing long into the future.
In Review: Guest DJ, Kim Ruehl from 'No Depression'
May 11, 2017
Kim Ruehl, editor-in-chief for the roots journal No Depression, joined Cindy Howes for a Guest DJ hour showcasing the music highlighted in the most recent in-print edition.
For summer of 2017, No Depression took a trip around the world (well, figuratively, even though Kim would have LOVED to travel to make this issue) to places like Honduras, Israel, Japan, Northern Ireland and more. The articles highlight and focus on International music, but not just "world music" in general. Much care has been taken to examine and present "folk music" from each of these countries. From stories about a 50-year-old Japanese bluegrass band (Bluegrass 45) to a traditional Scottish group who invents their own instruments including the "Sporkinator" (which is made of utensils, obviously).
Once again, No Depression collects unique and interesting stories that reflect folk and roots music. This time around, they expertly showcase the genre from a global perspective.
Find out more about No Depression and about becoming a subscriber HERE.
They'rrrrrrrrrrre bbbbbbaaaaaaacckk! Yep, it's true. With their tight vocal harmonies, technical virtuosity on fiddle and guitar, and a sense of intimacy borne out of years and years of making music (and a life) together, The Mammals are back and stronger than ever.
Since there are just a few things happening in the world right now, Ruthy Ungar and Mike Merenda, along with Ken Maiuri (piano), Konrad Meissner (drums), Jacob Silver (bass), and Andy Stack (harmony vocals), figured that 2017 was a good time to get the band back together. Music, after all, can help us figure out what's going on in the world and can help us figure out how to talk about what's going on in the world, too.
The band's first two singles ("Culture War" and "My Baby Drinks Water") take a strong political stance - they don't shy away from sharing very honest opinions about the state of the world. But The Mammals know the importance of taking a break every now and again, too. And that's what "Lilac Breeze" is - a sort of gentle, open the windows and let the fresh air in, soul cleanser of a song. And the vivid imagery in "Lilac Breeze" definitely touches your soul - and your nose, too.
"There's at least one week every spring when our purple and white lilac trees fill our little Catskill Mountain yard with the most glorious fragrance," Mike Merenda says. "Last year we were lucky enough to be home during May and I was swept away by springtime's magic. Whatever I was worried about that day seemed to fade into oblivion. This song attempts to bottle up a little of that contentment, when everything falls into place and you're happy just being where you are. Easier said than done. It helps to be surrounded by lilacs!"
Since the release of our last full-length album,Lost at Last, we have traveled thousands of miles and played hundreds of shows to a wide range of audiences. Every performance has been completely unique and we learn something new about ourselves, and our music at every show. Maybe Believe was written while touring, and we got a chance to road test many of the tunes and let them grow as music will over the course of many performances. Other tunes were purposely left in their most basic form to be completed in the studio with the guidance of our producer, Dave King (The Bad Plus).
This is our second album with Dave. The first time we worked with him, he helped us figure out our identity as a band, and he was a major influence on our overall sound. Two years later with Maybe Believe, he recognized that the trio had grown into a fully formed, road-tested, musical idea, and his goal in the studio was to capture the spontaneous energy of our live show... and we did!
In true Jon Stickley Trio fashion,Maybe Believe features original compositions that represent the band's next evolutionary step, as well as covers by Aphex Twin and Bill Monroe. From its crowd-funded beginnings, to the music, to the artwork, I am more proud of Maybe Believe than any project I have recorded to date. I hope people enjoy listening to it as much as we enjoyed making it!
'Maybe Believe' is out on May 12th and is available for pre-order HERE.
Few things recall an era as quickly and clearly as citing "wood panel walls and shag carpet," as Deb Talan does in "Joshua Tree in the Headphones." She does so to set the scene of a very specific memory of being at her best friend's house, stoned and immersed in U2's "Where the Streets Have No Name."
But that scene is only the starting point for a story that goes much deeper.
"I'm a survivor of childhood sexual abuse (incest), so revisiting any part of my growing up has serious minefields," Talan says. "This song is partly shaped around the sense of being trapped at the end of high school, nearly free, but still under the auspices of our parents. For me, those feelings are inseparable from those earlier ones of being trapped in my family because I was being abused."
The tune comes from Talan's new solo record, 'Lucky Girl,' which has helped her reclaim her role as an artist after spending years identifying as a mom, a wife, a bandmate (in the Weepies), and a cancer survivor. Part of that reclamation necessarily involved facing some old demons, as she does so bravely and beautifully in "Joshua Tree."
"Everyone leaves something behind when they pass from high school into the larger world," she offers. "There's a sense of grief, but also relief and anticipation of something bigger, maybe better. For me, this song weaves together those different narratives and feelings. I hope everyone can relate to something in here. At the very least, it felt amazingly cathartic to write."
'Lucky Girl' will be released May 19 via Nettwerk Music Group and is available for pre-order now at iTunes and Amazon.com.
On her seventh studio album in 15 years, 'Stitch of the World,' singer/songwriter Tift Merritt has churned out another solid set of roots-infused tunes that reach backward, forward, and side to side. You see, Merritt has a lot of musical ground to cover and she does just that, from the throwback folk-country of "Dusty Old Man" to the bluesy jangle of "Proclamation Bones" to the ambient Americana of the title track. With support from Sam Beam, Jay Bellerose, Marc Ribot, and Eric Heywood, Merritt works through numerous styles and explores myriad themes, all with the deft skill and artistic insouciance listeners have come to expect from her.
Kelly McCartney: You've enjoyed comparisons to a lot of legendary artists and "Dusty Old Man" certainly echoes elements of early Joni Mitchell. What do you do with those sorts of comments?
Tift Merritt: I reference Bonnie Raitt's first album as an inspiration of that track. It's a great, breezy acoustic record recorded with some blues legends at a summer camp in north Minnesota. One of my favorite records. When people compare me to artists I look up to -- it is lovely and I'm grateful. But I'm also careful to look the other way. I like being a working artist. I have my work cut out for me. I think, especially in the Internet age, there is a lot of premature referencing of people whose work has made a mark. Time tells the truth about that kind of thing, not Twitter.
You wrote and recorded this album in a several disparate locales. And you recently headed home to North Carolina. How do the different pulses of those places find their way into the songs?
Landscape had some direct influences. "Wait for Me" and "Icarus" were both inspired by the incredible high desert plains in Marfa, Texas. "Heartache Is an Uphill Climb" and "Stitch of the World" were saturated with impressions from hiking the California coast. "Eastern Light" and "Something Came Over Me" are taken from the streets of New York City. I like really strong environments -- nature returns me to the essentials, and the energy and people-watching in cities always gets me going, too.
Having collaborated with Andrew Bird and MC Taylor, how does stepping out of center stage feel after so many years in that spot? And, now, stepping back up front, is anything different for you?
Collaborating and being a supporting player is such a great way to learn. The spotlight is a certain kind of muscle; it is always healthy to leave it. I really love being in bands and cheering people on and witnessing how other people bring their vision to life. It returns me, always, with greater clarity to my own work and why I do what I do the way I do it! Playing with other people is also great for your chops, not just your heart.
Watching you perform recently, it struck me in very clear terms how, despite the pedestals we put them on, artists are just normal people with cool jobs. From the artist's perspective, what are the pros and cons of a culture that fetishizes fame in the way ours does?
I don't think I am famous, but I do think fame can be destructive, as can performing for strangers each night. Traveling too much can be very lonely. I don't think being the center of attention is as deeply satisfying as people think it is. Doing good work is satisfying, giving of yourself is satisfying. I try not to think about the froth of what's of the moment; I try to think about how to be a working artist throughout a lifetime. What people don't realize is that it is very difficult to make any money as a musician these days and that is a complicated thing when you are a parent.
You aren't overtly political in your music, but anything can be a statement, really, as in "My Boat" or "Love Soldiers On." Do you see your role as a songwriter shifting at all to reflect the times we find ourselves in?
I did not write "My Boat" (which is based on a Raymond Carver poem) or "Love Soldiers On" for political purposes, but I certainly sing them that way now. The world has taken such a strange direction lately. I think my role as a songwriter is to remind people -- myself included -- of the beauty, compassion, and hope that remains in the world and help to grow that piece of ourselves in whatever way I can.
'Stitch of the World' is out now on Yep Roc Records and is available at iTunes and Amazon.com
Sean Rowe has spent the last few years on the road playing all sorts of venues: clubs, house concerts, barns, chicken coops, churches and more. His new album 'New Lore' was born from the strong connection Rowe has cultivated with his passionate fans. Rowe put out the call to his base via a Kickstarter campaign that made its goal in two weeks. The results delightfully surprised the Troy, NY native. "It was wild! I was really shocked and nervous, too. It's always a risky thing to do. With Kickstarter you have as specified amount of time, in our case it was 30 days. Otherwise, you don't get it. We were working off the fumes of being excited about the material and the hopes that we created a bond with the fans enough that they would wanna put their money down to make this record happen."
The record itself is a masterpiece with Rowe's dazzling songwriting leading the charge. His writing is strong enough to turn heads with lines like "But every time we fight/It's like a Newton's Cradle/We can't be the flame forever/Forever's not where it's at." If I'm honest, the line's song title had me Googling "What is a Newton's Cradle?" After the results popped up, I sheepishly thought "OH, THAT IS WHAT THAT IS." Wow! To compare fighting with your partner to a little metal desk toy that demonstrates conservation of momentum and energy and which was named after Sir Issac Newton is just beyond brilliant. Well done!
On this album, there are 100 more examples of gems like the one described above, but let's move on to what Rowe has accomplished sonically. He's been known to experiment with different styles and dynamics, but this time around he is reaching a new level. The usage of background vocalists, vocal reverb, horns, woodwinds, strings, etc. is a triumphant accomplishment. For a vocalist who's range is so deep (although Sean sings some sweet falsetto on "The Salmon!"), the instrumentation around him easily dances along. This album is riddled with intricate, interesting surprises that'll reel you deeper into Sean Rowe's fascinating world.
Late April is a little late for New Year's resolutions -- and we've blown right past Lent -- but there's never a wrong time to seek out new ways to improve your life and approach to the world. So if you're looking for a path to betterment, try this one: Every time you find yourself marinating in Internet grievances, or fuming in traffic, or otherwise tapping into your own personal Strategic Outrage Reserve, resolve to take a moment, don a pair of headphones, situate yourself in a quiet room, and soak up the music of Joan Shelley.
Each of the Kentucky singer, songwriter and guitarist's albums qualifies as a headache remedy, nerve tonic and comfort food rolled into one. Backed beautifully by guitarist Nathan Salsburg -- whose own solo acoustic instrumentals are peacefully enveloping in their own right -- Shelley's music mixes the sound and feel of down-to-earth Appalachian folk music, airier U.K. folksingers like Sandy Denny, and soothing conversations with an understanding friend.
Shelley's eponymous fourth solo album follows in the calming, tender tradition of its predecessors, in which precious little motion is wasted. It's her first project to be produced by Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, who brings in a pair of his own favorite collaborators -- his son Spencer Tweedy on drums, as well as guitarist James Elkington -- while sticking with a production aesthetic in which he helps artists strip their sound down to little more than the essentials.
For Joan Shelley, that means bathing her warm and inviting voice in gentle, intricately played acoustic guitars while otherwise framing her squarely in the spotlight. As on 2015's sublime Over And Even, the songs here are consistently gorgeous, from the album-opening tone-setter "We'd Be Home" through the ominous "I Got What I Wanted," the insistent "I Didn't Know," the dreamily piano-infused "Pull Me Up One More Time," the simultaneously sunny and wistful "Wild Indifference," and beyond. As befitting its title, Joan Shelley is the sound of an artist who knows exactly who she is -- buoyed by top-of-the-line collaborators, and still perfectly suited to songs that seep empathy and grace out of every impeccable note.
Joan Shelley eponymous album will be released on May 5th and is available for pre-order now at iTunes and Amazon.com
Some musicians churn out music as fast as possible - they're in the studio almost the day after they've released a new album, working on their next greatest hit. Amilia K Spicer is not one of those musicians.
Case in point: after decades spent in the music biz, as a producer and backup singer and instrumentalist (specializing in keys...of all sorts), she has only just released her third solo studio album. 'Wow and Flutter' is her best work, she says, both as an artist and as a producer.
'Wow and Flutter' is also a body of work several years in the making. Besides being in demand as a studio musician, Spicer also set herself a new challenge before this album: she stepped away from the keyboard bench to learn all sorts of new instruments (guitars, lap steel, banjo) and those new instruments kept inspiring new songs - a blessing and a curse, she admits.
And "inspiring" is not a bad way to describe the album. Sliding from note to note, letting the piano or organ or guitar or choose-your-favorite-instrument-here shine through in each track, Spicer's fearless, mellow alto shares intimate stories of characters who approach life with a hopeful, almost naïve optimism. The roadblocks of bad relationships and challenging environments ("Train Wreck," "Shotgun"), though numerous, aren't permanent, and Spicer's characters wade through with a gritty resolve, determined to make it through, to come out on top, and (as she sings in my favorite track), to "Shine."
'Wow and Flutter' is a compendium of influences; Spicer's "red dirt noir" sound comes from a childhood spent in rural Pennsylvania and an adult life split between the dichotomy of the bustling and tightly packed environs of Los Angeles and the more wide-open spaces of Austin, Texas. But whatever influences a particular song (rural life, for example, in "Harlan," or the hopeful fortitude in "What I'm Saying"), it's Spicer's writing that makes these songs come alive.
On my second or third trip through 'Wow and Flutter,' it finally hit me: yeah, Spicer's creating a catchy sound. Yeah, she uses interesting harmonies and instrumentation. And, yeah, her voice is compelling, in a laid-back kind of way. But the words she chooses, the tiny images - the tiny movies - she creates, with unexpected turns of phrase and the kind of poetry that tells a story you want to be a part of - that's where she really shines. And that is why 'Wow and Flutter' (and Amilia K Spicer) is an album (and a musician) you want to hear.
Whether we care to admit it or not, addiction afflicts everyone, in some way or another, because it comes in many guises. Even pursuing good health can turn can be addictive. To be sure, not being personally caught up in chasing a high, lightening a dark, or numbing a pain doesn't mean we are immune. And those who miraculously escape addiction's grasp no doubt know someone held by it.
With "My Portion,"I Draw Slow addresses the issue head on, begging love to hold the storyteller's hand. "With the rising sun, there's a hunger born again. Put out the flame," Dave Holden gently begs, offering his daily prayer for strength. He recognizes his challenges, sketches them in metaphorical visions. "The shortest road to the sunset doesn't turn," he sings, adding, "That's what I gotta learn. Every day."
Holden's sister Louise comes in to lift the choruses with harmonies that feel rather like his better angel tapping on his shoulder to remind him not to let the destructive devil drag him down: "Oh, love, you give me what you need. You take like a one-armed bandit. Oh, be my strength. Be my portion." We're all in this together, after all.
"My Portion" is the first single from I Draw Slow's new release, 'Turn Your Face To the Sun' due out on April 21 via Compass Records, available for pre-order at iTunes and Amazon.com.
April 19: Chestnut House Concerts, Lancaster, PA
April 20: Philadelphia Folksong Society, Philadelphia PA
April 21: Rockwood Music Hall Stage 3, New York, NY
April 22: Winter Village and La Tourelle, Ithaca, NY
April 23: Nelson Odeon, Cazenovia, NY
April 25: Davidson College, Davidson, NC
April 26: ISIS Restaurant & Music Hall, Asheville, NC
April 27: City Winery Nashville Nashville, TN
April 29: MerleFest, Wilkesboro, NC
April 30: Hill Center's American Roots Music Series, Washington, DC
Singer/songwriter John Craigie grew up in Southern California, which easily explains his breezy, bright folk-rock sensibilities. After graduating with a degree in mathematics from UC Santa Cruz, Craigie took to the road and the recording studio, which readily explains his existential musical explorations. Craigie's latest release -- 'No Rain, No Rose' -- finds him folding both of those components into one wonderful set of songs which he recorded in the old Victorian house he now calls home in Portland, Oregon.
Kelly McCartney: You're a California native, and a Portland resident. And your sense of place is all over this record. As a traveling musician, how important is having a set home base? Or does the road fill that role, to a certain extent?
John Craigie: For me, the road is home. Or, more specifically, the stage. When you are touring, the show is the one moment of the day that you feel at home. You are singing your songs, telling your stories, and playing your guitar. Having a home base was something that I avoided for years. That's what makes this record so special. I think my move to Portland was significant in the sense that it brought me out of my comfort zone, in the same way that traveling does for others. This record is the sound of a traveler dealing with a home base and using his time at home wisely. Bringing together the community that he found there and having them add to the songs that he wrote in that same house.
How did you decide to write a tribute song to Michael Collins, the Apollo 11 astronaut who didn't get to moon walk?
My father went to school with Buzz Aldrin and was also friends with Neil Armstrong. I met both growing up and my father used to always talk about the space program. We talked about Apollo 11 a lot and about how most people don't know about the third guy, Michael Collins. I always thought about him and how fame sometimes comes so close to you but slips past. It stuck with me for a long time, until I finally let it out in song last year.
Is the secret to a throwback sound all about the production and performance or is there something in the songwriting and arranging that helps out?
It's in all of those things, for sure. It's all about what you're listening to when you write the albums and who you pick for your engineer. Who you tell them that you want to sound similar to. Mostly, it's in how you play the songs while you record them. Lots of people these days like to play it safe and multi-track so they can get the cleanest sound. One instrument at a time. But that's not how the people who I listen to did it. They played it all together in the same room. And that's what we did.
You play in all kinds of venues and situations. How do you shift what you do in order to win over whatever audience you're in front of?
I tend to feel out the audience during the opener, or as they are walking in. See how they are responding. Sometimes, it takes me a few songs and stories before I can get a read on them. But, in general, I just do my thing. It is what it is and it seems that, if you are honest up there and genuine, people will pick up on that. People have seen so much in entertainment, at this point. They don't need anything flashy or crazy. They just want the truth, someone to be honest with them.
Since your debut in 2003, you've released a record damn near every year, save 2006 and 2014. Is that a product of being super-prolific or of needing an excuse to stay on the road?
It's hard to say where the inspiration comes from. The songs are there, and I feel like getting them out while they are relevant to me, while they make sense. There's nothing worse than writing a song and then having to wait a couple years to record it and then maybe it's not how you feel anymore. Or sometimes I think it's like a shark. People say that, if a shark stops swimming, it dies. Maybe the shark doesn't even know that. Maybe he just really likes swimming. He's in a big ass ocean. What else is he gonna do?
John Craigie's latest album, 'No Rain, No Rose' is available at iTunes and CD Baby.
Sean Rowe joins Cindy Howes for a Guest DJ set on Folk Alley to mark the release of his new EP, New Lore. His fifth album was inspired and supported by a passionate community of fans cultivated through years and years of touring and playing house concerts. House concerts especially made it possible for Rowe to build authentic connections with his fans who generously funded the new album via Kickstarter. Rowe reached his Kickstarter goal within two weeks of the campaign's launch.
In his Folk Alley set, Sean shares some of his favorite songs by artists who have clearly inspired his writing and his performance style from Leonard Cohen to Nina Simone to John Lee Hooker. Listen for his selections and commentary in his hour-long Guest DJ set.
Audio for this Guest DJ hour is no longer available.
One of the best things about modern roots music is its conflation and innovation, of traditions and of visions. And many of the artists making the greatest strides in that regard are Black artists, including Alabama Shakes, Rhiannon Giddens, Son Little, and Valerie June. Each brings an inimitable style and an indelible spirit to their work, offering listeners a ticket to ride along on their artistic adventure. That's surely what June has done with her utterly captivating new release, 'The Order of Time.'
As the title suggests, there's a somewhat structured disposition to the set that comes courtesy of its blues and folk artistic ancestors. But there's also something otherworldly about it that is pure June. This study of contrasts is made evident in the push-pull of her phrasing, the lull of her lilt. It's also there in the way she uses the instruments, her voice included. She alternately bends them to her will and bows herself to theirs. On "If And," horns and harmonium patiently drone underneath her melodic exploration, while on "Man Done Wrong," she eagerly follows her banjo's mystical lead.
From the swagger and sway of "Shake Down" to the lush love of "With You," 'The Order of Time' proves that Valerie June is in command of her craft in a way very few artists are.
'The Order of Time' is out now on Concord Records and is available at iTunes and Amazon.com.
Milwaukee singer-songwriter Peter Mulvey joined Cindy Howes on Folk Alley to talk about his new album 'Are You Listening?' on Righteous Babe Records and play guest DJ for the hour. Mulvey's new LP was produced in New Orleans by folk giant Ani DiFranco, of which he has been a fan for years. The two became friends after Mulvey opened some of her shows years back. They grew to become collaborators in 2015 when, in the wake of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church massacre in Charleston, South Carolina, Ani covered and helped spread the word of Peter's protest song "Take Down Your Flag."
Mulvey spoke of his 25 years as a professional musician in addition to commenting on what it was like to make the new record with DiFranco.
Audio for this Guest DJ hour is no longer available.
Posted by Linda Fahey at 8:02 PM
Folk Alley Sponsors 'September 12th' at CIFF 41
Folk Alley presents three screenings of September 12th at the Cleveland International Film Festival. Folk Alley listeners can use the code "FOLK" to receive a $2 ticket discount for screenings on April 1 and April 3 at Tower City Cinemas in Cleveland and on April 2 at the Beachland Ballroom (this is a small venue and this screening will quickly sell out). Director David Heinz will be at screenings to answer questions and Joe Purdy will perform (Amber Rubarth joins on April 3).
September 12th will be screened at these times at Tower City in Cleveland:
Saturday, April 01, 2017 at 7:05 PM
Monday, April 03, 2017 at 8:30 PM
Neighborhood Screening at the Beachland Ballroom & Tavern:
Sunday, April 02, 2017 at 6:00 PM (includes a performance by Joe Purdy)
American folk singers Joe Purdy and Amber Rubarth star as Elliott and Joni, two lost souls trying to make it across the country during one of our nation's most trying times. Filmed over 3,500 miles in 14 states, SEPTEMBER 12TH is an intimate look into our nation's heart. The story is told from the perspective of two people unknowingly holding the key to unlocking the love we needed after 9/11: the gift of music. Driving a beat-up touring van filled with instruments, Elliott and Joni--strangers who met on a plane diverted on its way to NYC--meet a cavalcade of Americans hurting, looking for answers, and wanting to help each other out. Bonding through their love of folk music, Elliott and Joni's road trip becomes a back roads tour of the U.S., visiting the small towns that dot our country from coast to coast. At times SEPTEMBER 12TH is a sobering look into dark times, while also serving as a reminder of the power of art and love to shine a light and unite us--it's a love story of music and compassion.
Regular ticket prices are $14 for CIFF members and $16 for non-members. By using the code "FOLK," you can receive a $2 discount on their CIFF tickets good for any Festival Film (unless otherwise specified). Members can purchase tickets online at www.clevelandfilm.org, through the Ulmer & Berne Film Festival Box Office in the lobby of Tower City Cinemas, or by phone at 877-304-FILM (3456).
Sometimes, a voice comes along at the exact moment in history that it very much needs to be heard. Though Rhiannon Giddens first stepped up to the mic as part of the Sankofa Strings and Carolina Chocolate Drops in 2005, it's on her truly stunning new album, 'Freedom Highway,' that she truly finds her voice and offers it to the voiceless so that we may, perhaps, finally hear them.
Throughout the song cycle, Giddens inhabits and interpolates various characters from across Black history. There's the young slave girl in "At the Purchaser's Option" who clings to herself and the child born from, presumably, a master's rape. There are the four young victims immortalized in Richard Fariña's "Birmingham Sunday" about the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church by the Ku Klux Klan. There's the man who represents far too many shot by police for [insert action here] while Black in "Better Get It Right the First Time."
While many of the threads Giddens weaves together here represent victims, there is a palpable defiance in each strand. The fists of these characters aren't clinched for revenge; they are raised in power and in solidarity. Their gaze is focused not on their oppressors, but on the justice that looms out on the distant horizon, just barely in sight, but in sight, nonetheless. And, by keeping these stories alive, Giddens is doing her part to make sure that justice is not a mirage. In a year offering an embarrassment of roots music riches, Rhiannon Giddens' glorious 'Freedom Highway' is set to be one of the most important and, indeed, one of the most potent.
'Freedom Highway' is out now on Nonesuch Records and is available at iTunes and Amazon.com.
In Review: Guest DJ Kelly McCartney from The Bluegrass Situation
March 22, 2017
Kelly McCartney, Editorial Director at The Bluegrass Situation, joined Cindy Howes on Folk Alley for a new music preview for the month of March. McCartney shared new songs from familiar favorites like Hurray for The Riff Raff, Sera Cahoone and Aimee Mann and a lot of great newer acts like Juile Byrne and Mipso.
Audio for this Guest DJ hour is no longer available.
Posted by Linda Fahey at 6:38 PM
Video Premiere: The Steel Wheels, "Scrape Me Off The Ceiling"
Can getting bad news be...a good thing? Well, no. Of course not. But it can help to shine the spotlight on the things in our lives that need work, that need to be changed. And shining the light on things that need to be changed is what The Steel Wheels' new song and video, "Scrape Me Off the Ceiling," is all about.
Hailing from the Blue Ridge Mountains region in Virginia, the four band members first branded themselves as The Steel Wheels in 2010, though they've been making music since three of them first met at Eastern Mennonite University in 2004. In the seven years since they officially became The Steel Wheels, Trent Wagler, Eric Brubaker, Brian Dickel, and Jay Lapp have developed an easy, comfortable rapport that lends itself to the kind of intimate recording environment that worked so well for their new recording 'Wild As We Came Here.'
Working with an outside producer for the first time, the band recorded in Maine at producer Sam Kassirer's rural farmhouse/recording studio. Band member Trent Wagler (banjo, guitar) says making the album was, more than anything else, just "like a bunch of friends hanging out making some hits and having fun."
And, boy, do these musicians have fun. Whether they're mixing martinis, editing lyrics, or playing for a crowd of music lovers, the band talks, laughs and makes music with an intense kind of joy.
That intense joy comes to life in the video for "Scrape Me Off the Ceiling"- the bandmates and friends look like they're having a blast in between shots of chickens wandering around and the kind of technicolor leaves you only ever see in the Northeast. Trent Wagler, who wrote the song and presented it to the band, says it's "a celebration of bad news and how it clarifies what we need to work on...I'm a little suspicious of success and more able to get my bearings when there's a problem to work on."
"The video," Wagler continues, "is a mix of studio moments in Maine and a lot of candid shots on and off stage - a lot of which comes from our festival, Red Wing Roots Music Festival in Mt. Solon, Virginia. I think this video gives you a chance to see the real musician doing really real things with other very real people. It has an authentic feel."
'Wild As We Came Here' is due out May 5th and is available for pre-order, HERE.
If ever there were a "Hardest Working Band" award,Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors might well be nominated to take it home: in 2015, after more than a decade of making music together, this hard working, East Nashville based band released Medicine, an album that made several "best of the year" lists and an album that was, according to front man Drew Holcomb, their "arrival record."
And now that they've "arrived," Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors don't plan on leaving anytime soon, as they prove with their brand new release, out March 24, Souvenir. Produced by Joe Pisapia and Ian Fitchuk, the same team that helped bring Medicine to life, Souvenir is, Holcomb says, "probably my favorite album I've ever made."
And with a song like "Rowdy Heart, Broken Wing" it's not hard to understand why he feels that way.
It's a deceptively simple song, only about two and a half minutes long, with a single voice and a few nicely reverbed instruments (banjo, guitar, pedal steel) that gradually build up to a lush swell of sound.
There are no complicated harmonies here, no virtuosic guitar riffs. Instead, interspersed with short sentences about loss and desire, Holcomb's rough and rumbly voice repeats a single plaintive phrase over and over again: "Got a rowdy heart and a broken wing."
A catchy phrase, for sure. But think about it more closely: a rowdy heart and a broken wing. You want to do so much, to feel so much, to experience so much - that's your nature. And yet...you can't. You are unable to fulfill your own heart's desires and there's not a thing you can do about it.
Drew Holcomb & The Neighbors, 'Souvenir' is out on March 24 on Magnolia Music and is available for pre-order at iTunes and Amazon.com
Admit it: when you're home alone and your favorite song comes on the radio (or pops up on your playlist), you start singing and dancing around the kitchen, maybe playing a little air guitar or drums, and just generally having a great time. Sometimes, when you hear the right song, you just have to move.
Well, you're in good company:Phoebe Hunt feels that way, too.
Fiddler, singer-songwriter, and Texas swing chanteuse Phoebe Hunt started making waves as a member of The Belleville Outfit about 7 years ago and has since gone on to pursue a solo career. (She also works with a band she calls The Gatherers.) She loves music with her whole body - you can see it for yourself when you watch the video for one of her new songs, "Lint Head Gal."
With a twang in her voice and some energetic air fiddling to accompany her, Hunt tells the story of a woman who is absolutely determined to make her own way in the world. Does she need education? Nope. How about a man? Nah, she had one and ran off because she got bored. Love isn't necessary to survival, either, and family members and friends are overrated.
Hunt says, "'Lint Head Gal' is the story of a revolutionary woman. During the time of industrialization in American history, many women moved from the country into the cities to create an independent life for themselves, free from the shackles of the patriarchal paradigm they had been raised within. Often times these women ended up in factory jobs, barely skimming by. This quest meant being rough and tough and ready to do almost anything for freedom. 'Lint Head Gal' embodies that woman and her quest for personal liberty."
Hunt punctuates these statements of power and determination with her hands and feet, spinning around the room with a feeling of wild abandon. At moments, there's such exuberance in her movements, she looks like she might actually take flight. Like the character she's singing about, Phoebe Hunt is clearly going to do things her own way - and she's clearly going to have a fabulous time while she does it.
You'll find "Lint Head Gal" on Phoebe Hunt & The Gatherers' new recording, Shanti's Shadow, due out this spring. The single is available now at iTunes and Amazon.com.
Kim Ruehl, editor-in-chief for the roots music quarterly journal 'No Depression,' joined me for a guest DJ hour showcasing the music highlighted in the most recent "Heartland" edition. For Spring of 2017, 'No Depression' focuses on music from the middle of the country as opposed to New York, Los Angeles, Nashville and other stereotypical music towns. There are musicians from Milwaukee, Cleveland, Chicago and beyond featured in the issue, and Ruehl's selections reflect 'No Depression's theme with tunes from Lissie, Conor Oberst, Peter Mulvey, The Jayhawks and Over The Rhine, and more.
Audio for this Guest DJ hour is no longer available.
For her 14th album, 'While We're Here,' singer/songwriter Catie Curtis does a whole bunch of beautiful processing, tilling the soil of life into song. In the 25 years of doing just that, Curtis has planted her musical seeds across the land through fairly persistent touring. She'll do so again this year, but that may well be it for "Catie Curtis Coming Soon to a Town Near You." Post-2017, she has her sights set on staying put and pursuing other creative explorations. So, if you've never seen her live, get thee to a show this year! You won't regret it. (You also won't regret diving deep into her lovely new album.)
Kelly McCartney: What have you learned over the past 25 years? And what have you had to re-learn or re-commit to as things have shifted and evolved?
Catie Curtis: I've learned that songs always get written, if I show up with my instrument (I write on guitar and piano). I believe that what we call being "creative" is actually being receptive. And if I want to receive, I have to invite, and then sit there and welcome the muse. It takes time and patience, and a discerning ear.
I always have to remember (re-learn, perhaps) that, with every song, I'm a beginner with that song. While I have lots of tools to use, I have to let each song be what it will, and not impose my past writing experience on the new song.
A lot has even shifted since you made the record. How do the songs resonate for you now, post-election?
My song "Please Explain," about tumultuous changes, seems now related to things going on politically. But mostly this recording is personal/universal, not so much political.
What person, experience, or other something has been the greatest teacher for you as you learn to live in the present and not in fear, as these songs describe?
One person who has had a huge impact on me is Jimmy Ryan, the mandolin player I refer to in 'While We're Here.' (He plays on the track, as well.) We toured as a duo for seven years straight at the beginning of my career. His subversive humor and passionate playing style helped transform me from a shy girl to one taking up space without as much concern for how people react. In terms of experiences, I've known a few people who died before their time, unexpectedly. Getting a close-up view of mortality is always a wake-up call. We never know how much time we'll have here.
You're pairing this release with what you're calling your Final Outing tour, after which you won't be out on the road. How'd you make that decision? And what was your first emotional response after making it?
My first emotional response was relief. I've been orienting my life around travel, around touring for 25 years, and I'm really ready for another way to focus my priorities. I'll still be working as a musician, just not on the road. I'll probably be somewhat heart-achey and nostalgic after this bit of touring in 2017 is over.
That being said... How dug in are you on this no more touring stance? Because Barbra Streisand has had quite a few farewell performances.
Never say never... but my intention is to dive into other creative commitments that will take touring off the table for quite a while, if not for good!
While We're Here is out now and available at iTunes or HERE.
Friday, February 17, 11:45am - Friday, February 17, 11:30pm
I admit it, I failed. Badly. I'm back in my hotel room and it's not even midnight. It's 11:30pm. I could make all sorts of excuses (and that is exactly what I am doing, in my head) but instead, I'll just be honest and tell you the truth: I'm tired. So, without further ado, let's get to the good stuff.
It was another amazing day at the 2017 Folk Alliance International Conference. Things started off strongly with a special presentation by Ani DiFranco. Before she even opened her mouth to speak, the audience was on its feet, cheering and clapping. It's praise that's well deserved, as she has spent her entire life fighting to get people to realize that staying back and not standing up against greed, hatred and intolerance is wrong. Today's presentation focused on resistance and persistence: resist what you know is wrong and persist in the fight against it, even when you don't think it's worthwhile. It was a message that resonated with a lot of people, I think.
After the presentation, I spent some time this afternoon at a couple of different panel discussions, including one called "Take Me to Your Leader." Executive directors and other higher ups from the IBMA, the Blues Foundation, FAI, and the Americana Association sat together on a panel and talked about the challenges and opportunities each of their genres face in 2017. What struck me most? The absolutely genuine love each panelist seems to have for the music. These are people not in it for money or fame but because they genuinely believe in the power of music. It was the kind of conversation that makes you feel really happy with your choice of career, that's for sure.
Before the "A New Look at Radio" panel started, I trotted up to the 6th floor to catch an afternoon showcase with an Irish musician who performs as Gallie. (Born in Ireland, he now lives and works mostly in Melbourne, Australia.) He had bronchitis, poor guy, but, in spite of that and in spite of the fact that I was the only one in the room for the first half of his performance, he put on one helluva show. Sometimes the simplest songs and sounds are the most affective, the most compelling and Gallie proved it as he shared musical stories about his little boys and about the trials and tribulations that come with trying to stay in love in the face of the real-world realities. One thing I wish he would have done? Given the names of the songs he played. But, seeing as how he was pushing through an illness, I suppose I'll let it slide. Seriously, his performance was tender, charming, and heartfelt and I'm glad I got to hear it and meet him.
After the "A New Look at Radio" panel, it was down to the hotel bar for some networking with old and new friends. And it was there that I had my first geek/nerd/I-am-13-years-old moment of the day (yeah, there was more than one moment today). As I was talking with Folk Alley's Linda Fahey and the Minnesota Music Coalition's Ellen Stanley (aka Mother Banjo), the guy next to us turned around to ask Linda if she was having a good time and OMDOUBLEG it was Ellis Paul. Ellis Paul. I was cool, though. I swear I was. I did not tell him I was a fan, I did not blush furiously when he shook my hand.
Can I say the same when Linda waved Jeff Black over? I cannot. I've met him before and he's delightful - if you haven't listened to the exclusive session he did for us awhile back, you should. He was also the first showcase of the evening and I was, once again, blown away by how the simple things are the most compelling. After all, he's just a guy with a guitar (and sometimes a banjo and sometimes a keyboard) but there is magic in how he's able to put words and phrases together to create a story. The rest of the audience seemed to agree: there was a standing ovation when he finished his set and the applause was very, very loud when he announced that he's "allegedly" working on a new album. Fingers crossed.
After Jeff Black, it was time to head upstairs to catch Caitlin Canty's showcase. She made my best of 2015 list with her album Reckless Skyline and I was really curious to hear what she has been up to in the past two years. She made the move to Nashville and I think there definitely is a more country-rock esque sound and vibe to her music. That's not to say it's not good music - it is, most definitely. She's a good performer with a strong voice and a charming stage presence. I loved hearing her "hit" - "Get Up" - and the two new songs she played (for an album to be released in August) were fun to hear, too.
Next up - OSOG. That's On the Shoulders of Giants, an 8-piece Israeli folk and roots band from Tel Aviv. They've got a heavy blues vibe, one that got the whole room cheering out loud from the very beginning of their set. They're a young band; I want to hear what they sound like in a year or two. Right now, they're a band absolutely brimming with potential. Frankly, the music mix for their performance wasn't great - there was too much percussion and not enough volume on the vocal microphones. Plus, the harmonica, fiddle and even the guitar got a little lost. Still, I loved getting to hear something different and unexpected. That's what Folk Alliance is all about, really - getting to hear music you might not have heard otherwise.
The party moved right along to the official showcase for Laura Cortese and the Dance Cards. I kept thinking to myself: "this band is all about strings and harmonies." Front woman Laura Cortese plays a mean fiddle and she was more than adequately backed up by another violin, a double bass and a cello. This is a high energy quartet, one that takes the traditional string band feel and amps it up with interesting arrangements. The band played a few tracks off of their soon-to-be-released new album California Calling (it'll be out this fall, they said).
Keeping the jam band mood alive, it was on to Phoebe Hunt and the Gatherers. If you were a fan of The Belleville Outfit, then you are familiar with this powerhouse singer and fiddler. This performance was easily one of my favorites of the conference: high energy, perfectly crafted musicianship, a charming stage presence and the fact that each of the 6 musicians seemed to be having a great time on stage. The 5 band members provide a gorgeous cradle for Hunt's intricate fiddling and strong vocals and I was glad to hear that they've got a new album coming out in early June.
I'd planned on heading up to the 7th floor to see and hear Portland, Oregon based singer/songwriter John Craigie but unfortunately (for me, not for him), his showcase room was absolutely packed with people. So, sadly, I didn't get to hear him tonight.
Other bands I wanted to hear but did not? Harrow Fair; Trout Steak Revival; Front Country, and Max Hatt and Edda Glass. I could share a more extensive list of bands/musicians I wanted to hear but didn't (if you want that list, just let me know), too. All in all, though, I was impressed with the level of talent that waited for me at the 2017 FAI Conference in Kansas City, Missouri. What a trip!
Thursday, February 16, 9:15pm - Friday, February 17 1:45am
The great thing about an event like Folk Alliance is that it gives you a chance to connect with people you might not normally connect with. For example: I got to speak with the talented team from Bluegrass Situation, I introduced myself to musicians Sam Lee and Sam Gleaves, I was introduced to Lindsay Lou of Lindsay Lou and the Flatbellys (and made an idiot of myself, too - "Did you do something different with your hair? You look different than you do on your website." Oh Elena), I shook hands with Kaia Kater and stared longingly after Jimmy LaFave as he wandered through the hotel lobby.
Plus, I saw a great shirt. And sometimes a great shirt can just make your day.
Besides that, I heard brand spanking new music from the very talented Suzie Ungerleider, aka Oh Susanna. She's working on a new album, one inspired by her childhood in Vancouver and the songs she played tonight were, indeed, absolutely filled with the longing, lust, heartbreak and heartache that only a teenager can feel. Her voice is strong and clear, the kind of voice you hear and the kind of voice that makes you think to yourself, "This woman absolutely OWNS this room." She did - she had the audience singing along with her off and on throughout her set and it was clear that she could have played for much longer than she did and kept our rapt attention.
It was a tough act to follow, but I jumped headlong into the Thursday night fray and went to hear a band called Hermitage Green. This 5-piece band from Limerick bills itself as a group playing "Irish acoustic folk rock." Take out the "acoustic" and the "folk" and you've got what I heard tonight. "It's going to be loud," I said to myself as they finished up their sound check. They were fun - and clearly talented, playing lots of different kinds of guitars and percussion instruments - but since I did not bring earplugs and wasn't at a bar with 200 of my closest friends, I wasn't too keen on the vibrations I could feel rumbling through my chest when they started. I left halfway through their set.
For a complete change of pace after my Irish rockers, I climbed the stairs to the 5th floor - one of the designated "music floors" - and went to hear William Prince. Swoon, hearts, flowers, sighs. From Winnipeg, Manitoba, this guy has a sound that will destroy you if you let it. Not only does Prince has an absolutely gorgeous, pitch perfect, baritone-bass voice, a voice that sounds like fine-grit sandpaper coated in velvet, he sings about the harsh realities of life in such a way that your heart longs to reach out to comfort his. Singing songs from his most recent recording, Earthly Day, he encouraged his audience to eat out of his hand...I mean sing along with him. Does he want us to participate, to feel connected to him and his music, to be moved? If so, he succeeds.
Banjoist and singer/songwriterKaia Kater played tonight, too. Here's what I kept thinking during her entire set: "How in the world can someone this young have the kind of life experience and knowledge that she has? How does she KNOW about these things?" She's utterly convincing in everything she does - the phrase "older than her years" is definitely appropriate when it comes to Kaia Kater and the incredibly mature view she has of the world. I did notice that she either wasn't mic'ed properly or maybe isn't quite sure exactly how to use the mic to her best advantage but, frankly, who cares? She's awesome, in every sense of the word and if you HAVEN'T checked out Folk Alley's exclusive session with her - do it right now. Immediately. Don't waste another moment NOT knowing about Kaia Kater.
Other acts of note that I heard and saw tonight: the sister act Annie Oakley, a band that has a very interesting back story (check out the video - HERE) and a band that I'll be curious to hear again in a couple of years and Portland, Maine based singer Caroline Cotter, who has a voice that doesn't sound like anyone else's, a voice that makes you want to lean in real close to hear what she has to say.
Staying up until 2:45 in the morning? Not something this folk dj does on a regular basis. So therefore, we got off to a rather later than anticipated start this morning.
I did make it to one of the panels I wanted to attend - "Radio and Folk Brand Awareness." It was a fascinating discussion headed by four very engaging presenters: Mike Pengra from Radio Heartland/Minnesota Public Radio; Linda Fahey from (yay!) Folk Alley/WKSU; Joe Swank from Swank Promotions and Michael Park from The International Americana Music Show.
The questions from the moderator came fast and furious - what makes folk music folk music? How do we market or sell ourselves to other stations and listeners? How do we program, how do we choose what to play, how can we combat the perception of the word "folk" with the reality of what it is? Single versus full album, what does "international really mean"? It was an interesting conversation with some very perceptive questions from the audience, too.
After the panel, more coffee of course. (Maybe too much today. Will consider this tomorrow.) I wandered through the merchandise area and drooled over some guitars. Then I decided it was time for more music so up to the British Underground room I went to try and catch another performance from The Changing Room, a band from Cornwall. I saw them last night and mused that perhaps they'd be more impressive and affective in a smaller room. Guess what. I was right. In this space, you could really hear how well their voices mesh together. AND - they answered the question I had about their name. Why are they called The Changing Room? Because they envisioned a sort of rotating cast of musicians joining them on tour and in the recording studio, leading to different instrumentation and different vocal harmonies that would back up the two lead voices of Tanya Brittain and Sam Kelly. Answer!
After that satisfying discovery, I wandered down to room #529, the "Break Out West" room. And, once again, magic happened.
It was sort of a Canadian round robin this afternoon - several talented musicians from Canada taking turns performing for a very appreciative crowd. There were two standouts for me:
JP Hoe. He's a youngish guy from Winnipeg and he played a song called "Run Away From Me." The whole time, I just kept thinking: "What a beautiful voice this guy has." It's clear but not thin, rich and warm, but not muddy. It was a joy to listen to him...plus, the song was a sort of kiss off/heartbreak song which always drags me in.
Belle Plaine is a musician from Saskatchewan and she's got a voice that's filled with blues and soul. When she sings, she sounds absolutely effortless - and that's a real treat for a listener. Playing guitar with a double bassist friend of hers (I didn't catch her name, unfortunately), she had the audience swaying along to one of her songs called "Good Heart." I snagged one of her CDs on the way out and cannot wait to listen to it when I get home.
Oh, as a postscript:
You want to know why the Edinburgh duo The Jellyman's Daughter is called The Jellyman's Daughter? I asked them. You can hear what they said.
And I got to nerd it out a little and chat with a musician I've admired for a very long time - since I first heard her at my last Folk Alliance International Conference, as a matter of fact. Corrine West. I'm going to try and catch her performance tonight!
Wednesday, February 15, 9:15pm - Thursday, February 16, 1:40am (CST)
There are two kinds of music performances here at the Folk Alliance Conference. There's the "Official Showcase" and there's the "Private Showcase." Some musicians do one or the other. Some do both. Night one of Folk Alliance started with three Official Showcases: Ellis Paul, The Changing Room, and The Railsplitters. After that, I wandered up to the 5th floor of the Westin (where the conference is being held) and ventured into two Private Showcases: Amilia K. Spicer and The Jellyman's Daughter.
Being slightly intimidated by the breadth and scope of this enormous music lovers' conference, I decided I should start things off with an old favorite, Ellis Paul. As always, he was a consummate musician. He knows exactly what consonants to stress and which vowels to elongate, he shapes his lyrics gracefully, his guitar playing is technically flawless...in short, Ellis Paul is a delight to listen to. That said: part of me wishes he were performing in a smaller room, one where he didn't need a microphone. The details of his voice get lost in a larger space, I think, and so I missed some of the warm intimacy that I was expecting.
There were three standouts in his performance: First, a tribute to Johnny Cash called "Kick Out the Lights." It's inspired by an experience Cash had at the Grand Ol Opry where he really did - you guessed it - kick out the stage lights. He was banned from the Opry for life after that performance. Ellis Paul got his audience to sing along - and enthusiastically, too! - during the chorus. It was fun. (Not that I sang along, of course. Being from Minnesota...singing in public isn't something we generally feel comfortable doing.)
The second highlight was a new song called, I think, "Scarecrow in a Corn Maze." THIS is where Ellis Paul shines. Moving over to a keyboard, he created a cast of characters who participate in what turned out to be a very compelling story. Classic Ellis Paul, for sure.
The last highlight wasn't actually a musical one. As he was preparing to do one final song, he started doing what he does - telling a story. It was the story of the absolutely gorgeous guitar he was playing tonight, a guitar he calls "Guinness" because of its beautiful multi-toned wood. Ellis Paul had the whole audience laughing with him as he wrapped up his set.
Act two of tonight was a performance I've been looking forward to for a couple of weeks now. The Changing Room is a band from a seaside fishing town in Cornwall called Looe. It's a five-piece ensemble featuring Celtic harp, accordion, guitar, banjo, and bodhran (in addition to vocals). While I wouldn't say I was disappointed in the performance, I would say that it wasn't quite as high energy as I was expecting/hoping for. This may well be because the band only arrived in Kansas City 2 hours before they took the stage...and that's after traveling for something like 23 hours. No wonder they were tired!
I imagine it's a real challenge to mic a band like this: two primary vocalists with very different ranges and two vocalists who provide harmony vocals, a Celtic harp, an accordion, a guitar, a banjo and a (so awesomely fantastic) bodhran. The band's sound was muddy at times, which makes me think they might be better suited for a smaller venue. There were, however, moments of sheer beauty when the two musicians who lead the band (and who founded it, incidentally, a few years ago), Tanya Brittain and Sam Kelly, traded verses back and forth. If I had one wish, it would be to hear more of Tanya and to hear how the band sounds in a smaller space. Ok, here's another wish: to figure out why they call themselves The Changing Room.
Act three. In a word: Whoa. The Railsplitters are a 5-piece bluegrass band from Boulder, Colorado and they blew me away. Now, when you hear someone describing a "hot young bluegrass band," there's a certain image that comes to your mind. And it's not a bad image - not at all. But it's a sort of "oh, haven't we heard this kind of thing before" image. I wasn't too terribly excited about the band initially, I admit. Their online videos are fine, the music I've heard from recordings is definitely interesting and technically well played. But where they really shine? Live in concert. That's where they bring the kind of energy that makes the hairs on your arms stand straight up.
Headed by a woman with an absolute powerhouse of a voice, Lauren Stovall, this band takes incredible chances when it comes to harmonies and rhythms. They seem to delight in sudden changes that should seem jarring but somehow are not and there was not a weak moment in their 30 minute set. As of this moment, The Railsplitters are in the number one slot on my "Favorite Acts From Folk Alliance 2017" list.
Act 4 was the first of the two private showcases I attended tonight: Amilia K. Spicer. Her voice is compelling in a way that's kind of hard to describe. Think Aimee Mann...but not as intense. It's this strange mix of delicacy and husky grit - a sound that's so different that it makes you want to hear more. She performed with a percussionist and a (most amazing) mandolin player tonight and all in all it was a decent performance. I will say it was hard to hear her; there was a lot of music making in the hallway and in the other rooms so it was a challenge to catch all the details of her songs.
What did come through, though, was the fact that Amilia K. Spicer is a master when it comes to creating vivid visuals for her audience. Lines like "vines around my ankles" and "chased by lions and dreaming of the Serengeti" make me want to hear more of her music.
The final act of the night, Act 5, was an absolute delight from start to finish. Tired, sleepy, hungry, and ready for some quiet, I almost blew off seeing The Jellyman's Daughter. I am so glad I didn't.
This is a duo from Edinburgh (which tonight was a trio, with the addition of a double bassist): two vocalists who play cello, mandolin and guitar. They started a few minutes late and so the audience was chit-chatting as audiences do. However, as soon as Emily Kelly opened her mouth and started to sing, every single person in the audience shut up. I'm not exaggerating - it really happened.
She and Graham Coe traded verses back and forth on their three songs and it was a delight to hear how comfortable they sound with each other. Interesting harmonies, interesting interplay between voice and various instruments, and this kind of cool old-yet-new feel (contemporary Celtic music with a torch song influence? Is that a thing?). This is a band that's poised for something big and I can't wait to hear more.