Home Feature Friday night showcases at the Folk Music Ontario conference: Richard Barry’s...

Friday night showcases at the Folk Music Ontario conference: Richard Barry’s take

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Adrian Sutherland. Photo by Heather Kitching.

The music is absolutely everywhere at the annual Folk Music Ontario conference. After a full day of performer showcases and a couple of hours for dinner, the evening showcases, followed by the late night showcases, are on the agenda. These go from about 7:00 p.m. until one in the morning. At any given time four or five acts are playing at the same time in any one of the venues at the DoubleTree Hilton in London, the home of this year’s event.

Conference-goers no doubt will have their own method for choosing which showcases they attend. And while there is no shame in catching an old favourite or two, I find using the conference to hear new stuff is perhaps the best way to spend the weekend.

In no particular order, here is some of great music that I happened to catch last night.

Okay, first up I will, as they say, make a liar out of myself by starting with the Lonesome Ace String Band. I love these guys, as would anyone who loves the Americana, bluegrass and folk tradition. I try to catch them wherever and whenever I can. John Showman on fiddle, Chris Coole on clawhammer banjo, and Max Heineman on upright base are known for high energy, great playing and a great show.

And, once again, a performer we all know so well. What can we say about folk icon Connie Kaldor? She is celebrating 45 years in show business with her 18th album. She is a three-time Juno Award winner and has been a part of the folk community for as long as many of us can remember. If there is one thing that can and should be noted about Connie it is that, in addition to being a fabulous singer and song-writer, she is an entertainer, a story-teller, and someone who is just incredibly enjoyable to watch on stage. Not to be controversial, but some performers can at times forget that they are there in great part to engage the audience. Connie never forgets that.

An act new to me was Jessie T out of Kitchener – a really fine singer-songwriter. Her FACTOR-funded debut album, Reckless Heart, was released in 2016 and produced by Richard Hutt (Northern Pikes, Tom Cochrane). She then released Burning Back in the spring of 2023. She is a very emotionally engaging and enjoyable performer.

Leaf Rapids, a band out of Winnipeg, really impressed. Keri and Devin Latimer won a Juno with their previous band, Nathan, and it is not hard to figure out why. Their bio says they combine gritty guitar with angelic vocals, bass and drum and the eerie sound of a theremin to create a Canadiana soundscape. Speaking of a Canadian soundscape, my ears heard influences like Blue Rodeo, Cowboy Junkies, and Bruce Cockburn. Could be wrong, but I enjoyed them greatly.

There is a lot to be said for staying in the seat you’re in at a music conference just because you don’t know what might come up next. In one venue room, Erica Dee Mah came up next, and it was amazing and fascinating and quite beautiful. She is a singer-songwriter, storyteller, and contemporary guzheng player based in Whitehorse. She writes lyrically rich songs on the traditional 21-stringed Chinese zither that explore themes of Chinese-Canadian identity across generations. Her latest release, Sargasso Season, has early national media attention. How unexpected, and how wonderful.

Adrian Sutherland is a roots-rock recording artist from the Attawapiskat First Nation on James Bay. He is a singer, songwriter, speaker, author, advocate, and entrepreneur. His album, When the Magic Hits, earned him nominations at the 2022 Juno awards and the 2023 Canadian Folk Music Awards. Terrific voice, great songwriting, and powerful presence.

Brook Blackburn is a force. He is a singer, songwriter, and guitarist for the Juno nominated band the Blackburn Brothers. As a songwriter and a descendent from enslaved peoples who came to the north in search of freedom, he focuses on these historical events in many of his compositions. Backed up by a fabulous band at FMO, he delivered a terrific short set of funk, and blues, and rock full of energy.

It was late in the night, and I was getting tired, but I’m glad I stayed up to hear 22-year-old Leah Holtom. Born and raised in Brampton, Leah has a lovely voice and an obvious passion for the music she makes. I didn’t catch the specifics, though she mentioned she had benefited from an emerging artist program. That should be a reminder that music conferences like FMO are a great place for new performers to learn and meet others who can offer valuable advice and guidance. It might be the single most important thing that happens here.

So, that’s what I caught on Friday night. I’m sure there is so much that I missed. But today is Saturday and there is more music all day and into the evening to discover.

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