The Steam Powered News
It was a great night! Photo by Vigil
I began my third day at Folk Alliance with a simple question in mind – “What Would John Do?” This panel discussion featuring Bob Carlin, Chris Sharp, Matt Combs, Mike Compton and Rodney Dillard was a frank and insightful view of Hartford as both a man and an artist. There were a lot of funny and personal stories (including one involving a batman cape, which we’ll tell in our FAI wrapup) but there were also many important lessons to take home. Dillard explained how Hartford, in a wholly positive way, “Tried to fit in with the people of the music he was representing.” Very aware of the tensions between “the real deal” (people who had grown up in the culture of the rural poor South) and “the revisionists” (artists who simply borrowed pieces of that culture, often without understanding the context), Hartford made a conscious effort to immerse himself in the music he was playing. In this sense, he struggled with the fact he himself came from a fairly well-to-do, educated background, and one got the sense that his constant striving for authenticity was as personal as it was artistic. A well-considered example for any artist to follow, especially those working in traditional music.
It was also fascinating to hear about Hartford’s artistic process. He worked hard not only to refine his music, but also his image. For example, he would test out jokes on his bandmates, retelling them until the delivery was perfect. The panelists all had stories about the 3″x5″ cards he carried, organized in the many pockets of his vest. These cards containedeverything from contact information to song ideas, and, if he heard a remark he thought was witty or interesting from a bandmate, he would whip out a card and scribble it down with the date and time (and then of course ask, “Are you going to use that?”).
John Hartford String Band by Vigil
Compton shared a story which I thought was particularly sad. He described one time when he and Hartford walked into an old time jam, and several of the musicians walked out, not wanting to play with Hartford. Crestfallen, Hartford wondered how many of the musicians who rejected him would even be playing old time music if it wasn’t for the work he had done. It spoke to how, as much as many embrace Hartford now, he struggled with being an outsider, a trail blazer ahead of the game. Yet he always maintained that the best way to honor his musical forefathers was to add something original to the conversation. I couldn’t agree more. This was simply a fantastic panel that drove home how perhaps the most important legacy of Hartford’s is that you have to have the courage to be yourself.
Genuineness can be a tricky concept to pin down in words, but it’s something you can just sense when you are watching artists perform. In that spirit, it’s been amazing to see how many genuinely awesome bands we have had up in room 1903. Friday night proved to be no exception. Besides more killer sets from our host bands – Finnders and Youngberg, who played an awesome drinking and murder song called “Connie” that got the room amped up, and Lonesome Traveler, who, fresh off a fabulous official showcase came out swinging strong (and we’ve got two sets of Spring Creek tonight!), I was happy to add three new bands to my must-see list. Namely, The Steel Wheels, The HillBenders, and Two Man Gentlemen Band.
The Steel Wheels by Vigil
The Steel Wheels kicked off what would prove to be an emotional night in room 1903. They draw from obvious gospel influences, and have the pipes to thoroughly own that transcendent sound, especially in a hair-raisingly great version of “Working on a Building.” But what sets them apart is lead singer and primary songwriter Trent Wagler’s songwriting chops. A song entitled “Hymns for the Unsung” was inspired by his grandfather’s struggle with Alzheimer’s. As he lost the ability to recognize his own grandson, Wagler would still visit him and play him songs (because songs are often some of the only memories people with Alzheimer’s retain). With a chorus cry of, “Don’t take the music from me,” there was not a dry eye in the house (seriously, I’m getting all choked up even writing about it). It spoke to what we leave behind in this world, the art that survives long after we have faded into memory.
HillBenders simply rocked. They have one of the best and most exciting commands of the single mic style I’ve ever seen, and watching them weave in and out of each other, stomping with fury, was bloody thrilling. Guitarist Jim Rea especially was a firebrand, jumping off the ground and thrusting his guitar ceiling-ward while he picked. Unashamed to be children of the ’80s, their cover of The Romantic’s “Talking in Your Sleep” was totally stadium-worthy. Hot damn!
We were lucky to have a second helping of John Hartford Stringband. Before the show started, Bob Carlin busted out a bottle of some mighty fine single malt, which he served up to the audience. We then raised a toast to Hartford before opener “Madison, Tennessee,” jump starting a set that contained both laughter and tears. Sharp’s vocals fit the sighing “Love Grown Cold” to a tee, while Carlin’s segue out of “Bring Your Clothes Back Home” into “Hey Babe, You Wanna Boogie?” inspired an audience sing-along. But the gorgeous “Delta Queen Waltz” which closed out the set, and saw Combs joined by Geoffrey Sykes on fiddle, had everyone biting their lips. Combs went over to twirl with Eileen Schatz while Compton played a shimmering mando solo, a sweet moment as the two obviously shared an unspoken memory of Hartford. We were truly fortunate to have JHSB in our room, celebrating the man who is the inspiration for our work at SPPS.
The Swells and friends by Vigil
Ryan Spearman and Kelly Wells treated us to a wonderful set of old time and country, pulling in Aaron Youngberg on steel, Silas Lowe on mando, Dango Rose on bass, and later Bonnie Paine on washboard and Hubby Jenkins on bones, both of whom made for a mean rhythm section. Spearman can play a badass saw as well as banjo, and watching him and Wells perform can’t help but put a huge grin on your face. Picking on some old time (“Walking in My Sleep”) and country classics (Hank William’s “Weary Blues,” which provided a prime chance to show off both Youngberg and Lowe’s skills), this was a joyful set of music.
Our showcases closed down with The Two Man Gentlemen Band. Andy Bean (tenor guitar) and The Councilman (bass and kazoo) play tight and fast, with an offbeat, at times awesomely loopy, sense of humor. After a night of so many moments of beautiful heartache, they were just the medicine we needed at 2:30am. For one thing, it’s so obvious that they are having a blast up there, that you can’t help but catch that buzz. With songs like “Me, I Get High on Reefer,” “Fancy Beer” (which seemed appropriate for our room stocked with Upslope, Avery and Fort Collins Brewing Company), and “Prescription Drugs,” they made me think this is what Ween may have sounded like if they took an old timey approach. They may keep their tongues in cheek, but their stellar musicianship ain’t fooling around. Big cheers!
Besides our showcases, other notable moments included sneaking across the hall to see Atomic Duo, performing a set of covers from various artists that have influenced them, including a buoyant arrangement of a Scott Joplin piece by Lowe, the heartbreaking “Mother’s Not Dead” (written by Lance Spencer, who recently passed away), and Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey On the Moon.” The Bob Wills tune, “Got a Letter From a Kid Today” is sadly still relevant today, as we remain entrenched in two absurd wars. Wills actually recorded it twice (during WWII and Korea), and both times it was banned from radio play. They ended their set on a personal favorite cover, “John Deere Tractor” by the late great (and not as well known as he should be) Don Walser. A wide range of influences, that all add up to timeless.
Two Man Gentlemen Band by Bergendorff
And finally, I’ve gotta give props to Taylor Sims, Dan Booth and Alex Johnstone of Spring Creek, plus HillBenders banjo player Mark Cassidy, for moving their jam session into the elevator when we were kicked out of the 19th floor at 5am. That’s the kind of elevator music I can get down to.
Well, our last night of showcases are about to kick off, so I should sign off for now dear readers. I’ll have our day four highlights when I’m back in Denver, but until then make sure to tune into our live stream for our last night of music at Folk Alliance 2011!
Big thanks to our FAI 2010 webcast and blog sponsors!
Bob Carlin, John Hartford Stringband by Bergendorff
Remembering John Hartford is a central theme at this year’s conference. The second day of Folk Alliance for me began with a Hartford Symposium, and ended with a welcome cry to end marijuana prohibition courtesy of The Atomic Duo (a sentiment Hartford would probably not disagree with). Innovator, iconoclast, and a man whose loss still hangs heavy for those that knew him and played with him, Hartford and his legacy trickled down to at least a few of the acts I saw. Any artist who heeds Hartford’s lessons is more than welcome in my eyes.
- John Hartford Stringband by Bergendorff
The Symposium focused on the recording of Aereo-plain, and featured panelists Bob Carlin, Garry West, David Bromberg, George Gruhn and Alison Brown. The discussion contained some fun and fascinating nuggets of information, such as Carlin sharing that Hartford used to keep a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in his instrument case during jam sessions so he could keep going, and Gruhn reflecting on how Hartford was once offered a role in a TV series as a detective (no fooling). Bromberg fondly recalled how, “We would smoke a lot of dope and play for hours,” which evoked some chuckles in the crowd, but when the conversation turned to missing Hartford and Vassar Clements, Bromberg got a bit choked up.
Roots and bluegrass are still a bit underrepresented at the conference, although it’s obvious that there is a desire there by the organizers to branch out more. That being said, pretty much all of my highlights from day two came from our own SPPS showcases. I have to say, it was one of the more happening rooms on the crowded, and at times rowdy, 19th floor, despite the A/C problems. Before I get into those, it’s worth mentioning the official showcase I caught by The Watchman. Hailing from the Netherlands, this duo had a truly haunting sound, both lovely and full of darkness, but what set them apart was singer and guitarist Ad van Meurs. His gruff voice projected a genuine sensibility of having not just lived, but also survived. One had a sense that if you pulled up a bar stool next to van Meurs, he’d have some stories to tell.
- Red Molly by Bergendorff
The quiet of the downstairs conference room where I saw The Watchman was only an elevator ride away from the top floor of the hotel, but the atmosphere could not have been more different. Every room on the 19th floor was holding guerrilla showcases, the hallways packed with eager attendees and musicians shuttling cases and equipment back and forth. In addition to our host bands Finnders & Youngberg, Spring Creek and Lonesome Traveler – who all carried the proud, joyful Colorado bluegrass torch in their sets – we attracted quite the crowd for Red Molly, a Jersey City-based trio who packed some strong three party harmonies, as well as slinky dobro work courtesy of Abbie Gardner. For Abigail Washburn‘s set, the room was packed out well into the hall, where folks were craning heads to see Washburn and her lastest group, City of Refuge, the drawn curtains revealing the lights of Memphis twinkling below, as Washburn led her band through some compelling material.
- The 23 String Band by Bergendorff
But my three favorite sets of the night were by John Hartford Stringband, The 23 String Band and The Atomic Duo. JHSB is doing Hartford’s memory proud, and their Grammy-nominated album Memories of John is proof positive of that. They braved the sweaty air to play some Hartford classics, such as the graceful “Delta Queen Waltz,” where fiddle player Matt Combs positively shined, and “Miss Ferris,” Hartford’s joyous tribute to the teacher who inspired his love of steamboats, where Bob Carlin led the audience in some call-and-response lyrics. At the risk of sounding hippie dippy, this set was infused with real love, and that couldn’t help but spread to the audience. When Combs broke a string on his fiddle, a friend in the front row to give him his fiddle to play. It was truly an honor to have them at our showcase.
The 23 String Band were new to me going into Folk Alliance, but I was thoroughly won over by the end of their firey set. Opening with a damning song about pollution in eastern Kentucky waterways marked them as a band with a conscious bent to their songwriting, although they can groove with a grin on a lighter number like the swing-inspired “Bees Knees.” I could see them as brothers-in-arms with groups like The Hackensaw Boys. Showing off an impressive range and a charging, commanding presence, I think I will definitely be checking out more of The 23 String Band.
- The Atomic Duo
Closing down our showcase for the evening was Austin, Texas’ The Atomic Duo. Racing to the mic as Washburn and her band broke down (since their set ran over and they took their time clearing out), Mark Rubin and Silas Lowe played a furious set that definitively proved they are playing music for the people. A lot of what passes under the banner of folk these days is nothing more than singer/songwriters who travel in self-congratulatory circles. It’s no doubt a comfortable place to be, but the question of intention always bothers me when I encounter artists like this. What makes Atomic Duo a flat-out great band – besides their sharp wit, whip-smart, ballsy songwriting and an unapologetically aggressive playing style (you’ve got to love that LOUD National guitar and mandolin) - is that they ultimately aren’t interested in a self-serving mission. They are interested in speaking truth to power, and, in a time when anyone even vaguely left-of-center is being shouted down by the right wing media machine that serves money as it’s master first and foremost, I’ll be damned if that’s not some necessary oxygen. As I watched this set, which featured condemnations of Reaganomics (Lowe’s “Trickle Down”), first-person narratives on foreclosures (Rubin’s “Talking Key Chain Blues”) and ended with “Prohibition is a Failure” about our reprehensible drug policies, I couldn’t help but think, if The Atomic Duo aren’t careful, they might just make folk music relevant again.
Big thanks to our FAI 2010 webcast and blog sponsors!
View from the 19th floor
With a beautiful view of the mighty Mississippi river from our room on the 19th floor, the Steam Powered showcases kicked off FAI11 in a mighty fine fashion last night for this writer. Here’s some snapshots from last night’s festivities.
The Atomic Duo kicked things off with a two song surprise opening mini-set, that featured Silas Lowe’s powerful “Texas City” – a song about the 1947 Texas City disaster – and an apropos cover of Jimmie Rodgers “Mississippi Delta Blues.” Danny Barnes says of this group, “Dude that shit is badass.” High praise indeed, and I couldn’t agree more.
- Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen
Next up was Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen. Solivan is a naturally charismatic performer, equally adroit on mando and fiddle. Backed by a crack band grounded in Mike Munford’s banjo picking and Lincoln Meyer’s guitar work, he ended the set on a kinetic song called “The Runaway Ramp” which compared the folly of love to an 18-Wheeler going off the road and out of control.
One of our host bands, Fort Collin’s Lonesome Traveler could be in the running for best song title ever with “All I Need’s a Sandwich and Something to Do.” Flat picking guitarist Rick Scott really shined on this number, which was my personal favorite in a truly winning set.
- Evie Ladin
An old-time in the round session with Bill Powers (Honey Don’t), Evie Ladin and Ryan Spearman was positively moving. Spearman’s quiet intensity, Ladin’s infectious joy and energy, especially when clogging on her portable stage (really, a piece of cardboard, but under her feet it became a true instrument) and Powers’ matter-of-fact and genuinely sweet songwriting all received their moments in the spotlight in this session. The three then closed down their set together with a rousing “Cripple Creek.”
Spring Creek is simply a bluegrass band with real gusto. They have a genuine diesel engine purring under the hood, which was especially evident during their signature song, the soaring “High Up in the Mountains.”A knock-your-socks-off potent cover of John Hartford’s “Natural to Be Gone” featured some ranging banjo work by Chris “C-Bob Elliot, while their take on Bill Monroe’s “Body and Soul” gave me goosebumps.
Finnders and Youngberg inspired some genuine joy and cathartic heartache during their set, especially during a long and lazy honky tonk slow dance number, complete with a weeping pedal steel. Spring Creek’s Alex Johnstone summed it up pretty well, crying “That was like going to church!” after the number, hitting the transcendent nail on the head.
- Elephant Revival
There’s probably no higher compliment one can pay a band then saying they are crafting their own sound. In that spirit, there simply isn’t a band that sounds like Nederland, Colorado’s Elephant Revival. At first, one is simply smacked over the head by their beauty. But there are so many layers to unravel in their sound, that you quickly find yourself plunging into darker depths, only to be breathlessly snatched back upwards towards the light. Sometimes, music just leaves you at a loss for words. So I think in this case, it will be best to let the tapes do this set justice. Just make sure you listen to Bonnie Paine’s a cappella set closer, “Box of Words.”
The night closed down with a long bluegrass jam that stretched well into the wee hours. Having caught a 6am flight, I was exhausted and quite frankly, a bit worse for wear, so I retired after an hour or so of the jam to catch some much needed sleep and get primed for the intense schedule that kicks off on Thursday. And as I write this, the sweet sounds of someone playing John Hartford’s “Natchez Whistle” are floating through the lobby of the Marriott, calling me onwards.
Big thanks to our FAI 2010 webcast and blog sponsors!
This article originally appeared in the February 2011 edition of Pow’r Pickin’, the official publication of the Colorado Bluegrass Music Society. For subscription information, click here.
Finnders & Youngberg
Words: Sarah Hagerman
This February, thousands of musicians and music professionals will descend upon Memphis, Tennessee, for the 23rd annual International Folk Alliance Conference. Kicking off on February 16th, notable events at the conference include speakers, the 2nd annual Sacred Steel Summit, an awards ceremony and a special tribute to John Hartford. Attendees can also take in a large three-day trade show, as well as numerous panel discussions, workshops and instrument clinics.
But, ideally, music conferences are ultimately about offering networking opportunities to up-and-coming artists. With over 200 official showcases, as well as countless unofficial private showcases, a wide spectrum of acts such as singer-songwriters, traditional musicians and roots bands will be spotlighted at Folk Alliance. Among those bands showcasing are three CBMS members: Lonesome Traveler, Finnders & Youngberg and Spring Creek.
“A conference like this takes a lot more planning and strategizing than a regular show,” says Erin Youngberg, bass player for Finnders & Youngberg. “At Folk Alliance there are thousands of bands, venue owners, record label executives, promoters, media representatives and other industry professionals, all trying to get noticed, get their product seen or heard or looking to hire. It’s like the difference between shopping at a K-Mart and the Mall of America. This is our first time going to Folk Alliance, so we are trying to be strategic about where and when we play.”
That strategy involves printing out hundreds of postcards, buying advertising space and scheduling as many showcases as you can play over those four days. It also means preparing to put in a lot of face time with industry folks. It’s a big investment for a band, both financially and energy-wise, but the connections made at conferences like this could lead to significant opportunities.
“At a conference you are paying to participate in hopes that it will get you the gigs that put the money in your pocket down the road,” Youngberg says. “It’s more of an investment and a long-term commitment to the band’s future. We go with goals in mind and try to do good business.”
Jodi Boyce, mandolin player from Lonesome Traveler, agrees. “It’s all about promoting, 100 percent,” she explains. “We get a really short time when we’re doing our showcases, it’s not like a real set. You have to go in there and—wham!—hit ‘em with your best stuff.”
A side bonus of the conference is the chance to meet up with far-flung musical friends that you haven’t seen for a while. As Lonesome Traveler bassist Evan Neal describes, “These gatherings are fun because they’re a reunion of sorts. All the bands that go different directions during the year, this is the chance we all get to play under the same roof. That’s one of the things I really enjoy.”
This sense of musical camaraderie will certainly be on display at the nightly hotel room showcases sponsored by the Steam Powered Preservation Society, where all three CBMS bands will be featured as host artists. This is the third time the non-profit organization, which archives and preserves acoustic Americana and bluegrass music, will be sponsoring a showcase.
The lineup also includes Elephant Revival, Dehlia Low, John Hartford Stringband, The Farewell Drifters, Red Molly, Lake Folk, The Honey Dewdrops, The HillBenders, Abigail Washburn, The 23 String Band, The Atomic Duo, Two Man Gentlemen Band, Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen and Ryan Spearman, with more to be announced. The showcases will be streaming live online for all four nights of the conference. Make sure to check the SPPS website at www.thespps.org in the upcoming weeks for details and a full schedule.
One of the artists who played solo at the SPPS showcases last year was Chris “C-Bob” Elliott, banjo player for Spring Creek. This year, he will be attending with his full band. Speaking highly of his experience at Folk Alliance, Elliott was especially impressed by the wide variety of music featured at the conference.
“I liked Folk Alliance because it was a melting pot of different music,” he recalls. “It’s not just bluegrass, as IBMA is. I thought it was really neat that a lot of diverse musicians were there. The fact they let bluegrass musicians play there is pretty cool, but bluegrass is in the folk family.”
As a bluegrass band, groups like Spring Creek are in a position to stand out at Folk Alliance instead of getting lost in the shuffle. The conference also provides opportunities for them to book in markets outside of the bluegrass circuit, and to play for an audience with a less traditionalist mindset.
“I think it’s going to be a really good thing for our band to get some exposure in that scene,” Elliott says. “It’s going to open up a lot of new doors for us, to be seen by these folkies. It will work better for our brand of bluegrass. We do original songs that aren’t really bluegrass-y. I think those will be well-received, maybe even more so at Folk Alliance than at IBMA.”
Colorado is certainly known for its open-minded approach to bluegrass music, and Folk Alliance will be a chance for these three bands to represent their home state’s unique music scene to a national audience.
“We’re a soulful bunch out here in Colorado, and we’re all great friends,” Youngberg reflects. “I think we are adventurous with our songwriting, with our arrangements, with our band personalities, and our stage shows. I want the FAI attendees to see Colorado as the hotbed of original music that it is. I want people to trust that any band coming out of Colorado will be worth hearing, and that we can create and play some seriously good music.”
Guitarist Mike Finders, of Finnders & Youngberg, echoes that sentiment. “In Colorado, maybe it’s the mountains, maybe it’s the air and the sun, but bluegrass flourishes out here. It was a big part of why I moved here two and a half years ago. I think having such great bluegrass bands show up at Folk Alliance from Colorado will help make a statement, not only about what we’re doing out here, but also about how big a role in America’s Folk Story bluegrass really plays.”
You can listen to all these fine CBMS host bands for the SPPS showcases, as well as fabulous CBMS member band Honey Don’t, who will be closing down our showcases, on our live webcast brought to you by Colorado Case Company and The Walnut Room! Details to be released soon! In the meantime, check out our exclusive feature with Honey Don’t here and check out our showcase schedule here.
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We can hardly sleep over at SPPS virtual headquarters we’re so excited about Folk Alliance 2011! Below you’ll find our guerrilla showcase schedule. We are psyched to have so many amazing musicians playing our showcases!
If you can’t make it to Memphis, don’t worry, we’ll be doing a live webcast (more information forthcoming) and daily blog updates sponsored by Colorado Case Company and The Walnut Room, of all of our showcase performances! And in the weeks following, we’ll have all of the recordings available to download from our archives.
Stay tuned for more announcements, and make sure to join our Facebook group and follow us on Twitter as we’ll be bringing you all the news from Memphis!
Allison Williams and her band at the SPPS FA showcase 2010 by Bergendorff
Steam Powered Preservation Society: Room #1903 Showcases
9:00 pm The Whitetop Mountaineers
9:30 Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen
10:00 Lonesome Traveler
10:30 Old Time in the Round with Ryan Spearman, Evie Ladin & Bill Powers
11:00 The Kruger Brothers
11:30 Spring Creek
12:00 Finnders & Youngberg
12:30 am Elephant Revival
1:00 Open Bluegrass Jam
10:30 pm Finnders & Youngberg
11:00 Dehlia Low
11:30 Lonesome Traveler
12:00 The John Hartford String Band
12:30 am Spring Creek
1:00 The 23 String Band
1:30 Red Molly
2:00 Abigail Washburn
2:30 The Atomic Duo
10:30 pm The Steel Wheels
11:00 Finnders & Youngberg
11:30 The HillBenders
12:00 The John Hartford String Band
12:30 am Lonesome Traveler
1:00 The Honey Dewdrops
1:30 Lake Folk
2:00 The Swells
2:30 The Two Man Gentlemen Band
10:30 pm Dehlia Low
11:00 Spring Creek
11:30 The Steel Wheels
12:00 Finnders & Youngberg
12:30 am The Farewell Drifters
1:00 Spring Creek
1:30 Lonesome Traveler
2:00 The Nadas
2:30 Honey Don’t