The Folk Music Ontario conference: Friday evening showcase travelogue
6:37 p.m. – I arrive at the official showcase in time to catch a man bun-sporting, suspender-wearing artist named Mister K. singing a sweet-sounding downtempo tune of the kind Dallas Green fans might appreciate while accompanying himself on electric keyboard with backing from an electric guitarist and drummer. I confess that the name “Mister K.” evokes images of bad 80s rappers, but my preconceived stereotypes are completely obliterated by K.’s impressive set of songs, which ranged from the aforementioned melancholy downtempo number to some downright joyful and catchy folk pop. He spoke very little during the set, but he did introduce the closer, his theme song, also titled “Mister K,” a high-energy number of Beatlesque levels of catchyness. K, it turns out, is Kevin Roy Kratsch, a high school shop teacher by day whose nom de guerre is actually his students’ nickname for him – and not some pretentious, ironic hipster use of uncool 80s nomenclature. Now that is cool. Definitely watch for this guy.
8:15 p.m.: Suzie Vinnick is opening her showcase set with a song called “Happy as Hell,” proving that the blues … doesn’t always have to be blue. Deborah Holland recently reviewed one of Suzie’s live shows and painstakingly enumerated all of Suzie’s wonderful attributes as a performer, so I feel a little intimated trying to add to Deborah’s cannon. But here’s my somewhat briefer attempt: Suzie makes this whole blues performing thing look easy. She has an amazing voice that has only matured and become more full-bodied and expressive as time has passed. Her skills on guitar are formidable, as is evidenced by her kick-ass acoustic solo on “Walking by Myself.” And she’s as good a writer as anyone out there. Her co-write with Arlene Bishop, “Golden Rule,” is sounding especially awesome tonight. Suzie is on stage by herself with an acoustic guitar, but she needs no accompanist. She’s got the packed room in the palm of her hand.
8:30 p.m. – I was so excited to see Daniel Bellegarde’s name on the official showcase list, and now I’m sitting here in the York Ballroom listening to his band and tapping my feet to their joyful sounds. Daniel is a freelance percussionist who’s played with some of Quebec’s biggest names, but this project, Anba Tonel, sees him pursuing one of his own musical passions: the European influence on the music of the Caribbean. The music is made up of contra dances, quadrilles, and Congo-minuets. It’s captivating on record but even more so live. Daniel is seated at his percussion kit front and centre on the stage, his facial expressions reflecting the passion and emotion he’s playing with. He’s surrounded by a band consisting of fiddle, electric guitar, drums and banjo. He wraps up the set with a high-energy traditional quadrille from Guadaloupe called “Pantalons” that has the whole audience clapping along.
9:20 p.m. – I’m in the room known as Mavis checking out Louis Venne, a francophone singer-songwriter, who seems to draw inspiration from folk, jazz and chanson. He’s charming on stage, and by the end of the set, his songwriting has won me over. I’m looking forward to hearing more from him.
9:48 p.m. – Jordana is closing her set with a cover of Alannah Myles’ “Black Velvet” that is so insanely original that I can not only tolerate hearing this song again after the overkill it received in the 90s; I want to hear it again. Jordana blends folk music and electronica in ways far more interesting that your typical singer with a loop pedal. For one thing, I believe that’s a sampler of some kind she has up there and not simply a loop pedal. She’s looping her voice, yes, but she can shift the mix as the song progresses. She’s not just building layers. And she’s also mixing in percussion, keys, and even some radio static. The result sounds at times a little tribal. It’s definitely voice and percussion heavy. Oh, and she has a pretty kick ass electric guitarist up there too. Oh, and she incorporates both French and English in her work. File her up there with Mister K. as one of my best surprises of the weekend so far.
10:50 p.m.: After catching a couple of tunes by The Once, who reminded the crowd why they’re so beloved in this scene – lovely harmonies and hilarious stage banter that makes you feel like you’re hanging out with your Newfie neighbours in their living room – I headed up to my hotel room to fetch my recharged iPhone and then to the York Ballroom to catch the rest of Veranda’s set. Their cinematic take on old-time country was as enjoyable on stage as it is on record, and Léandre Joly-Pelletier is also a pretty funny guy – at one point suggesting to the crowd that they couldn’t yet call themselves a bluegrass band because they lacked two of the three songs you need in your repertoire to qualify: a really sad song about being lonely on a mountain top, a really fast song in G about a farm animal, and a murder ballad. They closed with the one they did have in their repertoire: the murder ballad.
11:00 p.m.: Sporting an outfit made largely out of sequins and pvc and dancing like a dancer from a Paula Abdul video, Mélisande Gélinas-Fauteux, lead singer of Mélisande [electrotrad], is bringing the house down with her powerful, energetic electronica-enhanced stage show. I’d never actually seen the project live before, and it’s every bit as powerful and fun as I imagined based on the recordings.
11:49 p.m.: I’m relaxing in the back of the Montreal Room while host Lucas Choi Zimbel is performing a varied set of old-time-tinged folk songs just as he did on his latest record – just him and his acoustic guitar. That said, there’s a performative quality to the way Lucas sings. It’s as though he’s literally embodying his characters. And that gives his work a freshness that’s easy to like. And man what a guitarist he is!
11:59 p.m.: The women of Lunar Bloom are performing their delicate three-part harmony folk music in the World of Music suite, having to contend at times with much louder sounds bleeding in from other rooms. The trio has a sophisticated sound that’s jazzier to my ear than a lot of the other female harmony groups out there – at times I was considering what young Joni Mitchell might’ve sounded like if she had harmonized with herself – and their lyrics are extremely impressionistic and metaphorical. Their “me too” song, for example, describes the aftermath of assault as a monster eating a woman alive in her technicolor dreams. See what I mean?
11:55 p.m.: Lately, a few artists have come up with a novel way to deal with the limitations of private showcase suites, where most acts play acoustic and unamplified. The solution: the headset concert. With more and more folk acts incorporating electronic elements into their music that simply don’t translate in an acoustic setting, a few have taken to handing out wireless headphones to audience members and sending a full mix to the headsets. Here at FMO, Mark Merilainen has adopted that strategy for his Merilainen Music suite. I’m watching him perform now, and it’s kind of cool. The only thing I see on stage in front of me is Mark and his electric guitar, but in my ears, I hear the full mix of the song. Just for fun, I take my headphones off for a second. Sure enough, all I hear is Mark singing. It’s kind of trippy looking around the room and seeing everyone in headphones. But it works great!
1:30 a.m.: I stayed up until 1:25 a.m. because I wanted to catch Madison Galloway‘s set, but it turns out, it appears it’s not a set at all, but rather an informal songwriter round. I catch one song by Madison before she gets off “stage” to make way for somebody else, who we’re told will do “a couple of songs.” I’m disappointed, as Madison’s one song – particularly the power in her voice – has left me wanting to hear more, but I’m fading, so I’m afraid it can’t be tonight.