Check out the tote bag, forget sleep for four days, and try to hear a thousand musicians.
Good luck, reports Richard Flohil
The first thing you do at a music conference is check out the tote bag. Much of it goes directly into the recycling bin, but this one, emblazoned with Sgt. Pepper-like collage of hundreds of musicians and folk music figures, is better than most.
Opening day at the Folk Alliance International event at Toronto’s Delta Chelsea hotel, checking it out. What have we got here?
Well, there’s the official programme. 186 pages, much of it in very small type. Oh, and a pocket guide, alas far too big to fit into anyone‘s pocket. There are magazines: Elmore, bizarrely featuring Santana on the cover, and Woody Guthrie (five pages inside), and Music and Musicians, featuring Alicia Keys (and Ben Harper). Oh, and an oversized magazine called Wood & Steel, the 2013 “Guitar Guide” from Taylor, a well-known manufacturer, full of giant four-colour photographs of the company’s products (“Guitar porn,” sniffed one unimpressed folkie).
Oh, and CDs? Of course. A compilation of some of the 1,000 musicians attending the affair; a sampler of Alberta artists (titled Toronto Bound), and a collection of tracks (including Tom Waits and Beth Orton) from Anti- Records. There’s a CD from an unknown artist called Mary Beth Cross, and one from The Coal Porters, a UK-based band from former Long Ryders leader Sid Griffin. And, of course, a whack of postcards, stickers, flyers, guitar picks, and posters, not to mention a hand sanitizer from Music Manufacturing Services.
Welcome to Terronna.
OK, here’s the disclaimer. This writer was involved up to his neck in this affair; he’d helped run a “guerilla showcase” room, which happened four nights in a row from 10.30 till 3 a.m. and featured more than 30 artists from Canada, Australia, France, and the U.S. He hosted a panel that covered house concerts and clubs, took part in one about the Mariposa Festival (old memories). And along with Sylvia Tyson, the reigning queen of Canadian folk and Mitch Podolak, who founded the Winnipeg Folk Festival, he was quizzed on a panel called Wisdom of the Elders, based on the dubious proposition that if you’re old you’re automatically wise.
Both Canadian Music Week and NXNE (and its senior cousin, SXSW) features dozens of artists in some 50 (often unsuitable) venues around town, but all the showcases at Folk Alliance are held in one building. The “official” early evening showcases feature more than 200 artists, and many of them and hundreds more, take part in after-hours events and informal showcases on three floors of the hotel, packing suites and tiny bedrooms.
During the day, there are panels, held simultaneously in ten different meeting rooms, and a trade show with more than 50 exhibitors.
It is, of course, completely hopeless to try to summarize such an event. Every one of the 2,000 delegates heard different panels from each other, checked out different artists from each other, met different people in the lobby, and made different contacts and friends. And everyone had their short list of “buzz acts” — which seems a dismissive way to describe fine artists.
Many of the delegates are now exhausted, tired, and probably have hangovers. Most never left the hotel, and flew back to Austin and New York and Nashville and Los Angeles and France and Australia without seeing any of the city at all. As a delegate from New Orleans said, “How do y’all deal with this weather? This’d freeze the hide off an alligator…”
Here’s who this writer sadly missed: Judy Collins, Dar Williams, Barney Bentall and at least 750 other artists. And here’s who I saw (and blew me away):
• Vancouver’s C.R. Avery, who combines spoken word poetry, rap, hip hop, Chicago blues harmonica, and deliciously pointed, sarcastic, and hilariously funny songs.
• The J.D. Edwards Band, out of Winnipeg, who closed four days of the Crossing Borders Suite with an over-the-top show that had more than 100 people dancing their heads off in a hotel suite.
• Hardin Burns, a duo with Andy Hardin, the Austin-based acoustic guitarist who spend 25 years with songwriter Tom Russell and Jeanne Burns, a soulful singer from upstate New York.
• Dave Gunning and Charlie A’Court, two distinctive (and very different) East Coast artists with terrific songs and a way with an audience.
• Melanie Brulée, who works as my assistant and delivered half a dozen confident, energetic pop-folk-cabaret showcases (sometimes for three people and sometimes for a packed room), singing in French and English. I think (and fear) she will become a touring artist very soon…
• Amelia Curran, a gifted songwriter from Newfoundland with whom you will fall in love. And she will break your heart.
• Gurf Morlix, who used to be known as Lucinda Williams’ producer, and how has a growing career as a edgy-singer songwriter.
But my friend and singing songwriter Jay Aymar, summed the whole four days on his blog (www.jayaymar.com) with an adaptation of a Bob Dylan classic:
I saw a guy with a top hat playing a flattop
I saw a girl with an accordion accompanying her sister
I saw a guy running around with a hockey stick banjo
I saw a million old friends made a million new ones
I went to some lectures and learned about touring
I wrote a good song at four in the morning
I had my first bottle of new coffee vodka
I learned to appreciate hard working assistants
I found a new Scottish friend living in south France
I broke down and ate some two-day-old pizza
And I landed some gigs outta this crazy weekend
And it's a hard, hard rain...
That says it all. As an annual event, Folk Alliance is hard, if not impossible, to match.