2008 Folk Alliance Conference
Marriot/Cook Convention Center
February 20-24. 2008
The 20th Annual Folk Alliance Conference convened in Memphis at the end of February, attracting a throng of music industry types—record label execs, distributors, promoters, lawyers, agents, artists, wanna-be artists, hangers-on, and Janet Reno. Yes, that Janet Reno, former Attorney General of the United States.
While Mrs. Reno nearly dozed off on stage during her own panel, she was instrumental in the development of the 3-disc compilation Songs of America, a compendium of American history told through song that was released last September and featured the likes of the Black Crowes, Devendra Banhart, and Old Crow Medicine Show.
2008 marked the 20th Anniversary of the Folk Alliance. The conference itself, returning to Memphis for the second year, is a massive, yet somewhat hidden event. Much like the AMA conference and SXSW, it is part industry conference, part trade show, part workshop. There’s an award show, too; Mavis Staples, Tommy Jarell, and Rounder Records were honored with Lifetime Achievement Awards.
In addition to the official showcases that took place in convention center ball rooms and meeting areas, several floors of the downtown Marriott were populated by folk singers. Beds were removed from hotel rooms and replaced by chairs, turning each room into a music venue. Guitars were passed, songs were shared.
In the industry panel discussions, topics ranged from how to develop professional relationships to concerns about the struggling record industry. And while most were engaging, as a group the members of the Folk Alliance seem to be an insular sort, hell-bent on defending and preserving a narrow definition of folk music. After all, these are some of the people who booed Dylan for plugging in at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965.
But on the whole, the conference was a boon for Memphis and a success for musicians and other industry folks working to find their way in the ever-expanding musical universe.
The official showcases kicked off on Thursday night, and over the course of the weekend, literally hundreds of sets would be played all across the Memphis Downtown Marriot – in the conference rooms, hotel rooms, hallways, and in the lobby bar….the rule was that anything goes. If a musician could find a group of people who want to sit down on a couch in the lobby and jam a little while, that was fine as long as they weren’t interrupting a scheduled showcase in another room. However, the compete saturation of music makes a conference like this nearly impossible to cover; Honest Tune did its best, though, and here are some highlights:
Barynya: Complete with a traditional dancer, this Russian group delivered a solid set of folk music that spanned many backgrounds, from Ukrainian to Cossack. They were great story-tellers as well, and explained their style of music to the crowd, whom it’s safe to assume had never seen or heard anything like these guys.
The Belleville Outfit: Definitely an act to keep an eye on. From Austin, TX, they mesh jazz, swing, and bluegrass into one super-sweet sound. Fiddle player Phoebe Hunt and guitarist Rob Teter’s vocals are a great match, and the set-closing "Caroline" was really great.
Blue Moose & the Unbuttoned Zippers: A group of students from Boston’s Berklee College of Music – they took the stage with an arsenal of instruments, most of which would be new to nearly any experienced music fan. They incorporate so many string music influences (Swedish , anyone?) that it’s absurd, and have been a band for less than two years but play like they’ve been doing this for years.
Deering and Down: A Memphis-based duo, comprised of Lahna Deering and Neil Down. They’re exactly what traditional folk is NOT. They’re much more blues-based than folk is "supposed" to be. Deering has a great voice – it’s midly baby-soft yet strangely powerful…it’s very unique.
The Dempseys : Another Memphis band, the Dempseys have long been a local staple. They’re essentially a cover band, but their damn good rockabilly musicians who put on a great show. At one point, the bass player climbed atop his stand-up, grabbed a guitar, and went to work. They’re entertaining as hell.
Tony Furtado: "Being a folk singer, the pretty songs are usually about the most disturbing things," said the two-time national banjo champion midway through his set. He was in the midst of putting on a pickin’ clinic, and by the time his showcase was over, the room was more or less filled to capacity. His fingerpicking and slide guitar were just spellbinding as he offered up older tunes and songs from his (relatively) new album Thirteen. He opened up with a great version of "Swayback Jim," and followed it with a gut-wrenching version of the title track from the new release. He grabbed his banjo once he saw old friend Ross Martin, and they alternated great solos on "Bolinas." Furtado closed his too-short set with a cover of Tom Petty’s "Running Down A Dream." An amazing musician, it’s a small wonder this guy is not more well-known.
Homemade Jamz’ Blues Band: Honest Tune didn’t catch the set from these kids from Tupelo, MS, but it’s worth noting that they generated quite a stir. The blues trio, comprised of the Perry siblings (Ryan, 15, guitar; Kyle, 13, bass; Taya, 9, drums) had the conference buzzing
Hoots & Hellmouth: There aren’t more acts touring that put on a more energetic show than these guys from Philadelphia. Atop their tambourine-adorned stomp boards, they put on a phenomenal show that was downright rowdy.
The Maybelles: With bluegrass instrumentation, these girls from Brooklyn have pheonemenal harmony, and by the time bass player Melissa Carper announced that the crowd "may know this one" and the band broke into a spot-on rendition of Gillian Welch’s "Caleb Meyer," they were playing to a nearly-full room.