Live Review

Global Sharing: Music Heals in Kansas City

Richard Thompson on February 25, 2018

The War and Treaty overflows the hall at AFI 30th Anniversary Conference in Kansas City. (Photo by Ron Wray)

This was the 30th year of the Folk Alliance International Conference, held in recent years in Kansas City, possibly to return. However, Montreal will host next year’s conference. The conference is very much like a festival and is comprised of three parts. The largest is the conference itself, with its many performances (the so-called “showcases”), exhibit hall, panels, symposiums, health fair, massages, recording sessions, and other opportunities. Also in the Westin is the International Folk Festival on the final Sunday and, in the Sheraton, the Louis Jay Meyers Music Camp.

As written about in another recent No Depression article, the showcases include “official” ones, in the numerous conference and performance halls of the Westin, and the “private” or “guerilla” showcases in the hotel rooms on three lower floors that run to 3:30 a.m. and beyond. There are hundreds of “official” and thousands of “guerilla” performances.

Bang, let’s start with a shoot-out, one of the hottest of the indie cowboys, with an Americana/folky spin at times and a voice out of Waylon and Johnny, but coming from Swift Current, Saskatchewan. As I ask artists whom they’re listening to on their long bus and van rides from gig-to-gig, Blackberry Smoke and Gov't Mule, among others, noted Colter Wall, who gave a fine performance. A discovery for me, Rachel Kigour, was one of these, with one of the best CDs I’ve heard in a long time; and hear a lot of them. Rabbit in the Road, a record that almost made me cry at times but also made me feel good about my humanness. I caught Rachel in private/guerilla showcase.

The legendary English singer-songwriter Richard Thompson spoke on musical issues and directions of the day, but didn’t do a showcase. He has been focusing a good bit in his own work on the acoustic side and, in particular, looking at the rawness of folk tradition, like Acoustic Classics, Vol. 2, a stunning work. Thompson was an original member of Fairport Convention, whose solo hits include “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.”  “I like the intimacy of playing acoustic to an audience,” he shared, “there’s a real sense of camaraderie or communication in the room.” Before the Isbell tour, he’ll return briefly to England, then work  on a film score he’s doing for a documentary about the World War II bomber, the Memphis Belle.

One of our American legends from out of the '60s, but still strong into the 2010s, Jorma Kaukonen brings his Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna credentials into a smolderingly hot, bluesy performance world with a voice seemingly not gone thin and powerful guitar cadences. He’s lived many years now in Ohio, having left San Francisco long ago, and started a guitar camp, performance space, and “psychedelic gallery” in the country near the Ohio River and Ohio University. “We’ve been there 21 years. I got this large number of acres for $32,000, and we moved from San Francisco. My wife thought I was crazy,” he told me. "But, my wife got on board. She’s a civil engineer, and she built our buildings, and we’re still alive and kicking. We called it FurPeace Ranch because it’s a fur peace from anywhere.”  

Also there was the Wild Ponies, who went back to their home in the Blue Ridge to explore their roots on their fine album, Galax. They expressed to me their desire to do nothing else than spend the entirety of their life creating and performing together and gave a burning performance in official showcase.

Ordinary Elephant won the FAI Artist of the Year Award and gave a powerful private showcase performance. Mike Aiken, with his wife and bandmate, Amy Aiken, live on a sailboat part and the rest of the year in Nashville, where they are working on their new album.

Another discovery was Ed Romanoff. Ed’s new album, The Orphan King, was produced by his Woodstock-area neighbor Simone Felice and features all-star support from the likes of the Milk Carton Kids' Kenneth Pattengale and country/folk great Larry Campbell. His friend Mary Gauthier co-wrote the title tune. I caught a fine, intimate showcase of his. Romanoff said he likes to think of his lyrics as poetry. “I work hard at the music, but I work even harder at the words,” he said. He described his process with Gauthier: “We did 80 to 100 drafts, then we stopped and took out the weakest lines, and then we got the weakest words.” He also described the recording process, in the same old barn that Ian Felice recorded his recent solo album. 

One of the best attended and strongest performances was The War and Treaty. As with their performance at the Bristol R & R, they were extraordinary. They drew the largest crowd I saw.  They play into the chemistry between them as well as the power, movement, and dynamism at their core.