Just returned from Toronto, where I attended the Folk Alliance conference/festival, which is unlike any other conference I’ve attended, although each of the best music conferences and festivals do have their own unique identity.
I had been looking forward to attending a Folk Alliance conference for years, but somehow this was my first. After experiencing FA, I learned what other colleagues and musicians were raving about all these years.
First, like with all the best events, the culture mirrors the leaders, or vice-versa. While the organization is now a quarter century old, the Executive Director, Louis Meyers, who, about a quarter century ago, co-founded SXSW, has brought his own caring, entrepreneurial, zen and music loving, (he plays banjo, too), to the party and, by all reports, added a curatorial and wonderful live, hotel room, acoustic showcases, internationalism and personal professionalism.
That is to say the music and panels I saw were inspiring, especially the standard bearers; Judy Collins and Jim Kweskin, among other younger hit song writers, like David Halley and Russell deCarle, ex-Prairie Oyster but also the successful “singer-songwriter stars”, like Dar Williams, Catie Curtis, and also the new-comers, like the Milk Carton Kids, Karine Polwart, Joe Pug, The Stray Birds, Sultans of String, Jordi Lane, Les Hay Babies, Sam Lee, Sam Carter, Kate Ried and the two artists I enjoyed the most of the ones I had never even heard of, (95%+), were Ellis and T-Bone Shtax and The Latchikos.
The reason I list all these musicians is that this conference, unlike some, is extremely selective for their showcases. Due to this, many labels, managers, country export organizations, (especially Scotland, England and Australia), as well as regional Canadian export offices, bring their best musicians to play in hotel rooms. These are just next to and across the hall from each other, so at the Delta Chelsea Hotel, where the entire conference and festival was held, there were three almost entire floors, (10,11+12), about 25-30 rooms on each floor, so more than 75 showcase “venues”. Some of these had full on sound systems, some only acoustic presentations. They were very tightly scheduled, too, about 45 minutes was the maximum set, most more like 25 minutes, so the artists were all up and down the floors, playing more than one showcase, (one group had 7 shows in a day/night), with some jamming among friends and “related” artists. While there, the hosts were serving guests in their hotel rooms, and it was still polite to catch a song, or two and move to the next room. What a great way to hear a tremendous quantity and quality of artists without moving club to club and meeting them, before, after and even during their “sets”.
There were singers singing in other languages, besides the Quebecois, or other accented Francophone Canadians; Welsh, Gaillic and I’m sure some Spanish, not sure about Portuguese, but I’m positive many Brazilian songs would be considered folk songs by the audience, organizers, participants. I did raise my favorite subject (legal lyric translations), at my favorite panel; Music & Social Justice. It was abeautiful panel, with the panelists Dar Williams, Catie Curtis, other progressive and activist artists, as well as Barry Lynn, the Director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, who works with Folk musicians and house concerts to raise funds and awareness for their vital US cause. Lots of personal connections and all the artist panelists were extremely enthusiastic about having their songs understood in all languages. Singing If I Had a Hammer, with all the panelists and audience was a moving experience, remembering again why I’m (and all those there) were in the music life. The co-writer of that song, Pete Seeger, was the first artist I saw live in concert about a half century ago. JImi Hendrix a few years later; ’69. There were a lot of “grey hairs” there, probably about 10 year old demographic average than most music conferences I attend, but that extra decade gave it an extra level of history, wisdom, storytelling, practice and humanity. Certainly, there were youth, aplenty, too, especially now with the recent expansion, if not explosion of Folk musicians becoming stars, like Mumford + Sons and cross-over hits. I think it’s also as the folks, or people, are actually more connected now, at least on the internet and songs and artists with a passionate following can be followed more easily, worldwide.
There are many music professionals, academics, (like my friend, Professor Jon Kertzer), companies, music organizations, instrument manufacturers, journalists, radio dj’s, festival and club programmers, even many new media companies, like Marcato Digital, who have an organizational software for musicians and the leading back-end software for festivals, like Coachella and CMJ. Folks I know from Canadian Music Week, ASCAP, Bandzoogle, Musicians Atlas/Independent Music Awards, Green Copper , BMG Rights Management, SOCAN, Outside Music, Birchmere , British Underground, and other execs were loving the event, music, while doing very good business. The panels I participated in were on legal lyric translations and selling music in China; (for Glocalvocal, LyricFind, 88tc88 and Music Matters), and on building an international team, with other well informed panelists from the US, UK, Scotland and Canada.
A “strange co-incidence” was that Rob Stegman recognized me, not from the music business, but from growing up, 4 years younger than me, in my hometown. He wasn’t in the music business, but was a commercial filmmaker, who had made afilm, For The Love of Music with a friend of his about Passim, a legendary Boston folk coffeehouse and venue. The documentary captured the free, open, engaged spirit of young people in the late 50′s and 60′s, now much older people in the ’10′s, who lived their lives, at least partly, if not mostly, for the love of music. It was the place that Joan Baez first performed in, who, along with Judy Collins and Joni Mitchell, made every cool young girl long to sing, play guitar and, also, to stand up and work for what they believed in. Joan was a student then, but her singing and performing completely took over the Boston students and, not only a club, but amovement, was forwarded. Of course, there were many others, before, during and after, like Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, The Weavers, Peter, Paul + Mary, Bob Dylan and the legendary Blues artists, like Leadbelly, Lightning Hopkins, Taj Mahal and the locals, who became internationally known artists, like Jim Kweskin. Geoff and Maria Muldaur and others. I had a wonderful “meeting” with Betsy Siggins, who founded the New England Folk Music Archives and worked on (and in) the film.
Folk Alliance, like this film, is all about, and for, the love of music. I highly recommend that Brazilian “folk” music, even the Coco music I was very lucky to see and hear in Olinda a few years back while attending Porto Musical or any authentic music that sings to and with and for the people, become a part of the musical palette at the next Folk Alliance, scheduled to be in Kansas City, Kansas in 2014. Please check out this organization and festival/conference, it might make more sense to come here than to Womex, or maybe attend both events, if possible, depending upon your music, resources and audience. For this audience, like for Womex, CMJ, CMW, Music Matters , ASCAP EXPO, or any music conference or festival outside Brazil or Portugal, remember that your lyric translations can assist tremendously in enabling the audience to understand, remember, possibly sing, and to fully appreciate the Brazilian folk and new original songs and the meanings of the songs; communication! It’s the first time I had the great pleasure to experience this festival, thanks Louis!, but it won’t be the last.