The Folk Alliance International Conference wrapped up this weekend in Kansas City, MO, and, as always, there was a healthy Canadian contingent.
FAI is the place the folk festivals and folk clubs go to book a lot of their acts for the season, and it’s also a really good time.
Imagine a pub crawl contained within a single hotel with small concerts happening in every boardroom, meeting room and ballroom and several floors of individual hotel rooms too!
Record labels, booking agencies and publicity companies rent rooms and host showcases and do their best to attract guests with free snacks and booze.
But if you’re an artist, it can be tough to draw a crowd, and even tougher to make an impression in the minds of concert promoters and other industry professionals who are overdosing on music until the wee hours.
So if you make it onto somebody’s “stand out” list, you’re doing well.
Tom Coxworth is a veteran of the Canadian folk scene, the host of Folk Routes on CKUA, Alberta and a frequent board member of folk festivals and organizations.
I asked him who made his list this year. Here are his Top Five.
The son of Juno-winning singer-songwriter Connie Kaldor and ADISQ-nominated artist Paul Campagne of Hart-Rouge, it should surprise nobody that Aleksi Campagne is making a positive impression with his new record, Another Day, a collection of 10 songs recorded twice: once in English and once in French. His live set, according to Tom, fused traditional-style fiddling with an almost indie rock musical esthetic.
This Juno-nominated East coast band transported Tom back to the Newfoundland of the 1970s and the era of bands like Ryan’s Fancy, he said, but with a contemporary twist. “Songs of an old tradition with the energy of the new,” is how he described it. The ensemble combines bouzouki, fiddle, bodhran, banjo, guitar, and button accordion with some lovely harmonies. Their latest album, for which they earned the Juno nod, is endearingly titled The Thing About Fish.
“The Fretless were flawless,” Tom told me of the Juno-winning quartet, which has been together just over a decade now (with one change to the line-up). Their half-hour showcase featured guest vocalists Madeline Roger and Celeigh Cardinal, the latter a 2020 Juno winner in the Indigenous category. But they didn’t need the star power of their vocalists to get the crowd on its feet, Tom said. Their breathtaking instrumental work and consummate showmanship were what drove the set.
Grammy nominee Mary is by no means a new face on the North American folk scene, and she has an extraordinary story. Adopted into an alcoholic family in the early 1960s, she was a troubled child and queer teenage runaway who first found salvation as a chef and restauranteur before turning to music in her early 30s. She’s built a large and loyal following with her raw and honest songs, which pack an emotional punch. And while many artists boldly announce themselves on the scene with an album or three of impressive material before hitting a plateau, Tom said Mary was as good as she’s ever been in Kansas City. She knows exactly who she is, and she doesn’t care what anyone thinks, he said. And that maturity as an artist and a human being just makes her better with each performance.
The Black Feathers
The British husband-and-wife duo of Ray Hughes and Sian Chandler write songs they describe as both modern and ancient, the product of mixing traditional influences so thoroughly that they become new creations. “Great harmonies and very 70s-feeling Americana indie roots,” Tom said. “They would easily be able to play alongside Jason Isbell or Gram Parsons.”