It’s been two years since I last set foot in the lobby of the venerable Westin Hotel in Kansas City, Missouri.
The time has come to return to the land of barbecue and the Royals, a baseball team I have actually heard of. They won’t factor into this much, but the barbecue will. The Folk Alliance International Music Conference is returning to KC from Feb. 14 to 18 for the fifth and final time.
It’s with mixed feelings that the conference will be moving up north to Montreal.
A convergence of talent from around the world, featuring a staggering collection of music in a very confined space, the spaces in the Westin have almost become synonymous with the magic of previous events. Walking into the hotel’s common area during the conference challenges the senses. You’re immediately surrounded by music from everywhere and anywhere, old songs, new songs, new songs that sound like old songs… also free beer, lots of it. It makes the music better.
Picking out some acts to watch is an intimidating challenge due to the sheer enormity of the festival. Part of the charm is wandering into a random hotel room at 3am to be met by new, compelling music that you didn’t plan for. However, there are definitely a few things you should plan for:
Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear
This one is an obvious choice. Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear are a bluesy, rootsy mom-and-son duo from the host city. Normally, if you’re a lucky kid, when you tell your parents you want to be a professional musician they let you live in their basement and eat their food for the next decade. Not often does your mom come along and help you out by playing badass guitar and nailing harmonies. Also, I’m hoping to trick these two into showing us all the top secret barbecue hotspots.
Next on the list is Sask-a-boy Colter Wall, who has carved out a space in the music world with his gravelly voice and songwriting that conjures fond memories dusty grid roads in the middle-of-nowhere. Though often compared to Johnny Cash or Townes Van Zandt, Colter has his own unique style that has drawn in audiences across North America. I suspect his boots and low riding cowboy hat will fit right in with the FAI crowd, and his command of old school country is sure to impress at his showcase.
Sarah Jane Scouten
I first heard Sarah Jane Scouten perform two years ago at FAI and she’s continued to push her own envelope since then. An intriguing performer and talented songwriter, she pays tribute to honky tonk and bluegrass, spinning energetic Americana and thoughtful ballads with an ease that is both admirable and enviable.
The only way I can describe the power duo of Cara Luft and JD Edwards is this: get ready for the storm! They are a match made in folk music heaven with powerhouse vocals, the tightest of harmonies and a live show that fools you into thinking you’re watching a stampede of glorious wildebeest rather than just two prairie people. Songs that start as soft lulls quickly transform into foot stomping hurricanes as the two command the stage, giving live music a much-needed shot in the arm.
Anna and Elizabeth
Duos are apparently my jam this year. I’ll finish off my list with the Brooklyn-based Anna and Elizabeth. Hailing from Kentucky and Virginia respectively, Anna and Elizabeth are breathing life into Appalachian folk songs that formed the deep roots of folk music in America. The two mix film projections and visual storytelling in with their simplistic mastery of the music to draw you deep into the tales they tell.
There is a great group of Saskatchewan artists heading south this year to showcase along with Colter Wall. Jack Semple and Rosie and the Riveters will also be performing official showcases, while Gunner & Smith, Kara Golemba and Eli Barsi will be presenting at unofficial showcases.
It’s great to see so many strong Canadian acts alongside the talent from around the world. Mostly I’ll just be happy to get somewhere less disgustingly cold.