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Folk Alliance Day 2: words and sounds

Westin and Sheraton Hotels, Kansas City, February 20, 2016

Reviewed by Henry L. Carrigan Jr.

What is folk music? How do we define it now, and how do all the kinds of musical styles you can find in the hotel lobbies, the showcase rooms - official and unofficial - contribute to the river we call folk music? Are there themes in the music that characterize it as distinct genre, and if so, can we hear those themes wafting from the tunes we hear at this year's Folk Alliance in Kansas City?

There are, of course, many answers to those questions, and many musicians who would line up on various sides of that question. Some would claim that music is fluid, always shifting shapes to adapt to the newest generation of folk artists; others might claim that folk music died when Dylan went electric at Newport in 1965.

In an entertaining panel called "The Original Folk Revival" -- which the moderator, Michael Kornfeld, turned into a moment of reminiscing when he asked panelists what they recalled about their days in Washington Square Park and Greenwich Village or Cambridge, Mass., as folk music flowed in new directions in the early 1960s - panelists including Eric Andersen, Happy Traum, David Amram, Dave Siglin, Betsy Siggins and Si Kahn, celebrated what they all agreed was not actually a "revival," for the foundations that underlay this music had always been there and musicians were playing it.

Kahn went straight to the heart of the matter, though, when he said that while it was nice that middle class and upper class musicians were making this music, folk had always been a music of the working classes - the people working in mines, laborers and union members; his fervent hope is that we can continue to make this music without losing the political impetus of the movement that drove folk music in the first place.

Judy Collin's keynote couldn't have been more different; the doyenne of folk music delivered a breezy, humorous, unreflective and rambling speech in which she told the story - or kept trying to tell the story, since she meandered off on tangents that took the story in different and unrelated directions through much of the speech - of her life in folk music. She would as often break into song as she would stay on track with her stories.

Collins admitted to what we all already know; she's not much a songwriter, and she came to it late in life; since she was young she's always had fun finding, collecting and selecting songs, and interpreting the songs. She recalled not thinking much of Bob Dylan when she first heard him at Gertie's Folk World in the Village; he wasn't good at choosing songs to sing, and he was ugly. Of course, she said, all that changed after Newport.

Collins regaled the overflow crowd with tales of her meeting up with songwriters Leonard Cohen and Andersen. Cohen came over one day, and she thought he would be bringing a song, or working on a song with her; at the end of the day, he left but without leaving a song behind. He asked if he could come back the next day; when he did he brought with him a song called "Suzanne," into which Collins broke as she ended the story. At the end of her keynote, she led the adoring crowd in a sing-along of "Amazing Grace."

While some of the most entertaining music can be found in the hotel lobbies, the showcases give label artists and struggling indies a chance to promote their latest albums. In her set, Heather Maloney opened with a haunting version of Joni Mitchell's "Woodstock," a song she sang with Darlingside when they toured together last year. Maloney is just at home in soul and R&B, and her soulful voice plumbs the depths of our hearts on her "Dirt and Stardust" when she sings: "I am made of dirt and stardust/my daddy's dream and my mama's heart.

Caitlin Canty continues to bring her powerful voice and her insightful songwriting to the stage in stomping folk tunes like "Reckless Skyline," and she's a singer/songwriter to keep an eye on, as her AMA showcase in September 2015 proved.

Jeffrey Foucault is a consummate storyteller who's as at home singing a burning folk blues like "You Are a Fool" or a Gram Parsons-like tale, complete with Burrito Brother's, Sneaky Pete-like steel guitar, in "Des Moines." Foucault continues his climb up the Americana ladder.

You never know what kind of music you'll hear as you stroll from room to room featuring the "unofficial" showcases of the conference. In one room, you'll find the soulful and sultry Corinne West singing tales of loss, hope and love. The music inhabits her as she delivers every note and phrase and it clearly takes her and us out of the room in which she's singing. Songwriter Michelle Lewis sings beautifully - think a young Collins with the more powerful vision of humanity of a Joni Mitchell - of love gone wrong, hope to get it right, and what might happen even if it doesn't work out, and the longing and disappointment that follows in either case.

Austin guitarist Jimmy LaFave delivered his down home licks to a room overflowing with fans. East Nashvillians David Olney and Tommy Womack joined bassist Daniel Seymour and Banana Levinger for an in-the round session that opened with a tour of the blues and moved through country, jazz and folk; Olney handed his guitar to Bill Kirchen for "Just Can't Quit the Blues." In the next hour, bassist Freebo, Kirchen and guitarist Paul Pigat succeeded Olney, Seymour and Womack for a tour of the world's music that kept the audience dancing and singing long after midnight.