Hearth Music and KITHFOLK are headed off to the 2015 Folk Alliance International Conference this week in Kansas City and we've got a whole suite of artists booked for our late night showcase room. I thought I'd take a moment to highlight a few artists we're not working with who we're really looking forward to discovering. We listened to a BUNCH of the Official Showcase Artists and here are five artists who really stood out and will likely be the buzz of the conference this year!
HEARTHPR / KITHFOLK are sponsoring The Mayor's Suite, Rm 537, Thurs-Sat late night!
Kristin Andreassen should be well known to real folk music heads through her work with the amazing stringband Uncle Earl. Each person in that band went on to some pretty amazing work: old-time fiddler Rayna Gellert put out one of the most intelligent roots albums of the past five years with Old Light, and Abigail Washburn has gone on to some great solo albums and now a wonderful duo album with Bela Fleck (they'll also both be at Folk Alliance!). Andreassen released her own solo album in 2007 and had a lovely single with "Crayola Doesn't Make A Color For Your Eyes," but hasn't released as much since then. So there's definite anticipation for her first full-length solo album seven or eight years! This album, Gondolier, was multiple years in the making and came out like a polished gem. The songs are beautifully written, carefully conceived, and full of a dizzying array of influences. This is what I'd imagine the Greenwich Village scene today at its best should sound like. Smart, mature music making from an artist who knows where she came from and where she's going. It's not strictly folk, but Andreassen will easily win you over with this beautiful album. Bonus: Kristin's full band at Folk Alliance will include Jefferson Hamer and Rosie Newton!
Kristin Andreassen Official Showcase: Saturday, February 21, 10:30pm, Pershing East
Kristin plays The Mayor's Suite (Rm 537): Friday, February 20, at 1:00am
Anne Janelle & James Hill
Canadian cellist and songwriter Anne Janelle is a bit of a dark horse in that I hadn't heard of her music at all before going trolling through the official showcases. But I was utterly captivated at her creative ingenuity in reworking the tired old chestnut "Black is the Colour." Adding French-Canadian foot percussion and complex vocal rounds, she takes the song to an entirely new place, the Canadian prairies, and builds it a new home. Go to her website and you can hear an interesting version of Joni Mitchell's "River", which was just released, and check out for sure her five part vocal round of the traditional song "Ah, Poor Bird". I'm not sure how Janelle's going to recreate the full band sound of her albums, but I'm curious to see what she can do at Folk Alliance. I have a hunch we'll be talking about her music in years to come, so catch this precociously talented Canadian songsmith at Folk Alliance this year!
Anne Janelle plays Folk Music Canada's room Wednesday night at 10pm and Midnight
Another interesting Canadian artist to watch is James Hill. He and Janelle frequently collaborate. I picked up his new album from the excellent Canadian record label Borealis, and have been enjoying it. The song "Village Belle" in particular brings me to mind of a young Tim O'Brien. Which is saying a lot! Catch James HIll at Folk Alliance too and pick up a copy of his new album!
James Hill Official Showcase: Friday, February 20, 7:30pm, Century C
And if you're looking for more Canadian content (the Canadian government, being the government of a civilized nation, provides grants to send their artists to events like Folk Alliance, which is why there are so many Canadian contacts), HIT UP THIS SOUNDCLOUD mixtape courtesy of our friends at Spincount.
J.D. Wilkes is one of the most interesting Southern characters in roots music today. Bandleader for Th' Legendary Shack Shakers, he's no stranger to dark bars and screaming folk music, but he's also a crazy cool folklorist in his own right. His recent book, Barn Dances and Jamborees Across Kentucky is full of amazing interviews and photos of the old barn dances and country square dances in Kentucky along with interviews from some crazy old characters. J.D.'s also the guy who picked up on old-time fiddler Charlie Stamper. The older (!) brother of the legendary bluegrass fiddler Art Stamper and heir to the intense Appalachian fiddling of Hiram Stamper, Charlie's a real find. J.D. helped produce Charlie's recent solo album, which was profiled in Rolling Stone Country, and in fact J.D. himself just released his own solo album, which is basically a long jam session with Charlie Stamper. This album, Cattle in the Cane, is totally straight-up old-time stringband music, but it's got such a fun, rough, punk edge to it that I can't stop listening to it. None of the 14 tracks clock in at more than 3 minutes and the whole thing is a blazing romp through a killer living room jam in Appalachia. J.D. Wilkes is one of the artists at Folk Alliance with the best handle on what Southern old-time music means today and he's someone you should be listening to!
J.D. Wilkes Official Showcase: Thursday, February 19, Roanoke Room, 9:00pm
J.D. Wilkes plays The Mayor's Suite: Thursday and Friday at 11:30pm
Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker
We’ve been watching British folk singer Josienne Clarke for a while now, ever since her superb 2011 album of traditional songs, The Seas Are Deep. She’s an acclaimed songwriter and singer in the UK, known for her work with her musical partner Ben Walker, who handles most of the arrangements to her music. She’s not so well known in the US, unfortunately, though here’s hoping that her upcoming visit to the 2015 Folk Alliance International Conference will help change that. There’s certainly a lot to love in her music: rich, beautiful vocals, and strong sensibility for crafting songs that sounds as old as the hills, and masterful arrangements by Walker. With her new album, Nothing Can Bring Back the Hour, she’s mastered her true potential as an artist. It’s her best work to date and the kind of album that has the potential to turn a lot of heads. Each song is original, but you’d be hard pressed to say that “It Would Not Be A Rose” sounds like anything other than an old British ballad. With lyrics that play the kind of riddle game so beloved in old songs, this could easily pass for a Child ballad of yore, except for the fact that music sounds deeply modern. Shimmering classical strings, arranged in dense, surging rhythms, blend into East Indian-sounding drumbeats and John Renburn-esque guitar fingerpicking. At times, I’m tempted to bring up modern architecture when talking about Clarke’s new music. There’s something so precise and planned about what she’s doing, that it brings to mind the aspects of modern architecture that manage to be warm and cold at the same time. It’s as if somehow she’s crafted an austere album in terms of her vocals and lyricism, while also giving in to the sumptuousness of the album’s huge stringed arrangements.
Throughout Clarke’s voice rings with the kind of intimacy and careful thought that might be the hallmark of British folk singers, especially the great female folk singers in the UK. Her voice is fragile, yet powerful, and at times even playful. It’s not easy to bridge the gap between the cold detachment of old ballads and the warm intimacy of modern folk songwriting, but Clarke is a master at flipping between the two and a lot of that comes from the ease of her vocals, which operate so well in either realm. Together with other artists like Sam Lee, Emily Portman, Alasdair Roberts, and Rachel Sermanni, Josienne Clarke is at the front of the pack of a new generation of traditional British folk singers remaking the molds. It’s an incredibly exciting time right now for these traditions, and Clarke is already running herd with so many new and fresh ideas, as well as her ability to write original songs that mesh so well with the tradition.
Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker Official Showcase: Friday, Feb 20, Pershing North, 6:30pm
Mark Rubin is another uncompromising voice in American roots music. An endessly curious musical explorer, it would be impossible to catalogue all the bands he's been a part of and all the American musical traditions he can basically call his own. He's well known for his work in The Bad Livers, an early punk-grass band that paved the way for a lot of underground roots music to this day. He's also well known now for his brutally honest voice on the scene, calling bullshit on hypocrisy in the folk scene. At Folk Alliance, he'll be running their extensive music camp, so I don't think he'll actually be performing that much, which is why he gets bonus mention here. Mark's releasing a new solo album in 2015, Southern Discomfort, and it is a brutal and unflinching, but ultimately fascinating and deserved, look at American culture today through the prism of American roots music. A few songs come over from Mark's fabulous and under-rated earlier band The Atomic Duo (a bitter ode to rental warfare and classism with "Key Chain Blues" and a pure genius cover of Gil Scott Heron's "Whitey's On the Moon" as a jugband song), but the rest are new.
The most brutal song is "The Murder of Leo Frank", a murder ballad written in the old broadside style that chronicles the horrific mob lynching in 1915 of Northern Jewish factory superintendent Leo Frank in Georgia. You can read the details on Wikipedia, but the gist is that Frank's murder casts a light on the bitter reality of anti-semitism in the 20th century. Aside from the topical nature of much of Mark's songwriting, there are songs here that are just great fun. "Seriously (Too Much Weed)" is a ridiculously big band jass romp through weed lovin' and kudos for the sweet and charming "Don't Wake Up Jesse Lege" about touring with great older masters like Cajun accordionist Lege. Mark's a great writer aside from his songwriting, and I recommend his blog for interesting asides and opinions. Any way you cut it, Mark's voice cuts deep but is necessary in a roots music industry that's become increasingly complacent and self-congratulatory. Ignore him at your peril.