Folk Alliance 2007 - Memphis

by Steve Edge

Don McMinn, Blues tour guide
The Stovall Cotton Gin
Clarksdale Delta Blues Museum
Memphis Backbeat Tour Bus
A Memphis landmark
Red's Juke Joint
Beale Street
3 Forks Cafe,
Robert Johnson's last gig
I went down to the Crossroads
Crossroads attractions
Clarksdale MS
Buffy Ste-Marie
Diana Jones
The Wiyos
Pine Leaf Boys
Ed Poullard (Les Amis Creole)
Carolina Chocolate Drop
Another Chocolate Drop
Emily Smith
Fiona Hunter (Malinky)
2/3 of Vardos
Vardos with something slightly musical
Scots fiddlers Ross Couper (Bodega) & Charlie McKerron
Mark Stuart & Stacey Earle
The Quebe Sisters
Rory Block
Mamadou Diabate
Chris Smither
Ann Rabson
William Lee Ellis

I had a great time at Folk Alliance this year. In many ways it exceeded my expectations. However, I came away feeling both encouraged and rather sad. Encouraged by the sheer quality of the music - mostly featuring young musicians presenting music with strong roots in tradition. Saddened by the in-house bickering, but also by the way the demographics of the conference are changing. We are losing record labels to big business greed and apathy, we are losing agencies in the exhibit hall due to the lack of major presenters and festivals. It makes me wonder if the future attendance is going to be entirely made up of Folk DJs and musicians.

Anyhow, here are some of my highlights:

The Blues Tour to Clarksdale Blues Museum and "The Crossroads". An excellent tour guide and a Blues musician on the bus. Driving endlessly through the wide expanse of the Mississippi Delta, bare trees and stubble fields as far as the eye can see. The occasional disused Cotton Gin, rundown shack, or tell-tale signs of abandoned shacks' foundations. One can imagine the unforgiving relentless heat, the painful hard work, the feeling of loss and estrangement of the slaves and later the sharecroppers. What else could flourish here but The Blues? The museum was fascinating, if a little smaller than I expected. The photos are amazing, though. Such vivid portraits. In the back room they hold a Blues School. It costs $15 per year for school students to drop in from 3 to 5pm and learn how to play the Blues. What a fantastic program! We also visited a Juke Joint, which was pretty stark and memorable too.

The Backbeat Tour of Memphis was a lot shorter, but was also fascinating. A guitar-toting singer called Memphis Jones was our guide, and he sang songs and told tales of young Elvis and BB and Jerry Lee and The Man In Black. We didn't get to go into the studios, unfortunately, but the visits to Sun, Stax and Ardent were memorable nonetheless.

We took the circle tour on the trolley as well. Memphis is so full of history! I had no idea. We also saw the ducks at the Peabody Hotel, and ate some amazing soul food at Alcenia's. I developed a taste for turnip greens (who knew there was something edible in a turnip?) and catfish.

Musical memories, in no particular order:

Ollabelle - they only played one set, I am so glad I saw them! Wonderful soundscapes built around traditional music. I was weeping at the end of "Riverside". Five singers, all distinctive, and powerful songs. At the end of the show Fiona McBain gave me a copy of their latest CD, and I had a nice chat with Riley Baugus - who gave me his CD - Gary Paczosa, and Martha Scanlon (who promised me a copy of her new CD as well.) After such a high there was no point in me trying to listen to anything else that night!

The Wiyos - Vaudeville Jug Band from New York. I first saw them busking in a corridor in San Diego. Must have seen them in Austin as well. Hugely entertaining and very gifted.

Diana Jones - the Folk DJ charts were dominated by Chris Smither and Diana Jones last year. I had never heard (nor even heard of) Diana Jones until Memphis. Her manager soon put that right at the Folk DJ Reception, and I caught her next showcase as well. A lovely combo of Gillian Welch-style vocals and Iris Dement's appearance, and all original songs with very deep roots in Appalachian music. Totally enthralling.

Buille and Pine Leaf Boys at the Center for Southern Folklore - Irish instrumental music at its best from Niall Vallely (concertina) and his brother Caoimhin (Piano), with guitarist Donal Clancy. This was the third time I'd seen them, and they never cease to amaze me. It was my second view of Louisiana's Pine Leaf Boys. Another excellent young band playing traditional music with gusto and reverence and having a blast! This was Folklore Productions' 50th Anniversary show and the venue, food, music and company were very fine indeed. Congratulations to Folklore.

Les Amis Creole - young fiddler Cedric Watson also plays with the Pine Leaf Boys. This trio plays real Creole music, Zydeco's roots before Clifton Chenier rocked it up. Superb, understated and compelling roots music.

Carolina Chocolate Drops - I'd been hoping to see them for months and they did not disappoint. Great fun, searing old time fiddle music with a jug and percussion. These are three very gifted young players. The tradition is in good hands.

Emily Smith - glorious young Scots singer accompanied by her New Zealander husband Jamie on fiddle and Boston's Matt Heaton on guitar, Emily's voice is instantly memorable. It's not easy to tell which songs are her own and which are traditional. She's a fine accordion and piano player too.

Bodega - impossibly young supremely gifted quintet from Scotland, led by one of the most impressive fiddlers I've ever heard. Their eponymous debut on Greentrax is excellent. They are even better live.

Malinky - with new singer Fiona Hunter they are a very good trad Scots band indeed. I liked them with Karine Polwart on vocals. They don't miss her at all.

Vardos - Romanian / Hungarian music from three young Australian women. Vivacious, and sometimes silly, they put on an excellent show. They certainly know their traditions, too. Too bad there were only 5 people at the showcase we saw.

Stacey Earle & Mark Stuart are well known, of course, but I was curious to see how they would fare in a small hotel room. They were excellent, but what also impressed me was that they hand-picked several other duos to share the spotlight with them, and they spent as much time promoting the others as trumpeting their own cause. Mark is such a fabulous guitarist. Stacey tells me they will have some more edgy songs on their next CD (I do like edgy!)

Realworld Records - Cheryl McInaney had a booth in the Exhibit Hall. She has just been laid off, along with all the other Realworld employees. EMI have decided that the label is not worth the effort any more. Peter Gabriel was so appalled that he wrote to EMI to plead Cheryl's case, saying that without her the label would not be worth anything at all. I agree. Anyhow, she invited me to take my pick of new titles and I immediately went for the latest by Tibetan singer Yungchen Lhamo, Africa Calling from the Live 8 concerts, and new CDs by Thomas Mapfumo, John Hammond, Carrie Rodrigues, Chip Taylor, Alejandro Escovedo, and Juan Carlos Formell.

Mariachi Las Altenas - all girl Mariachi band from San Antonio. They dressed in all their finery and busked in the hotel lobby, and also donned "civvies" and showcased and jammed elsewhere. Very appealing.

The Quebe Sisters - also from Texas, pronounced kway-be, they are three teenage girls who play swing fiddle tunes and harmonize like the Andrews Sisters. Very smiley and fun and exceptionally talented.

Kleztory - 5 piece group from Montreal playing klezmer and gypsy music. The fiddler is astounding! The clarinettist - also Russian - is pretty good too. The accordionist is from France. The guitar and bass players come from Quebec. Wonderful stuff! They have a brand new CD, which I haven't heard yet.

The Scandinavians - no Folk DJ with an interest in World Music should have come away from Memphis without copies of the latest samplers from Sweden and Denmark. Folk Acts Sweden 2007 and the double CD Danish Roots / Folk & Roots Music. There are some real hotbeds of traditional music played in a modern style. I venture that there are few countries with as much exciting and varied new roots music than the Scandinavian countries. I was especially pleased to find new CDs by Sweden's Ranarim, Nara, Baza Bla, and Eillika & Solo this year.

Millish - Celtic music from Michigan, with a lot of jazz blended in seamlessly. Very tight band with a wonderful piper. I loved their Brubeck stuff, but could have done without the extended Michael Jackson medley!

Alexcuba - Canadian-based Cuban singer with hot band. This is some of the best Cuban music around. Used to share the stage with his brother Adonis (The Puentes Brothers showcased at Vancouver 2001) and now both brothers are doing very well with their own projects. Alexis has a fine new CD, Agua del Pozo.

Rory Block - had the thankless task of trying to attract attention on the Martin Stage at the end of the hallway entrance to the Exhibit Hall and ballrooms. She is an incredible guitarist and one of the most soulful blues singers I've ever heard. Must try to get my hands - and ears - on the Robert Johnson Project CD.

The Roches - were in fine voice and humour in the closing concert. Hadn't seen them before, but I've been playing their music for a long time.

Mamadou Diabate played some masterful kora at the Folk Alliance Awards show. Would have liked to have heard more. His CDs are stellar.

Chris Smither won lots of awards and played a song on that same Awards show. Thoroughly deserved his awards. An amazing guitar player and singer / songwriter.

Blues workshop with Ann Rabson, William Lee Ellis and co. Some really excellent guitar work and fascinating stories to go with the songs.

Sonia & Disappear Fear - in stunning, rollicking, rocking form. That drummer is incredible.

Houston Jones - stunning band played the last showcase we saw on Saturday night. A fitting finale. Very powerful playing and fun songs. Amazing musicianship.

Honourable mentions to Canadians Twilight Hotel (duo from Winnipeg: Tom Waits meets the Be Good Tanyas), Red Molly (lovely harmonies and trad songs from New York), John Wort Hannam (excellent songs of working people in Alberta. He really evokes loneliness very well), Misty River (sweet bluegrass and more from 4 Portland gals)

Would have liked to hear more from: Martha Scanlon (just heard two sublime songs at the end of her showcase), Vishten (acadian music from Canada), Erika & Cecilia (fiddle and nyckelharpa from Sweden - saw them jamming in hallways), Terrance Simien & Zydeco Experience.

Missed - and regret it deeply - Antje Duvekot (German songwriter who works with Solas), Kara Grainger (superb blues guitarist / songwriter from Australia), Luminescent Orchestri (found a CD in a washroom, though!), Anais Mitchell, Gretchen Peters - did have lunch with her at Alcenia's though, Corinne West & The Posse (so disappointed that the mini CD she gave me only has samples on it. I just love her voice and songs so much.)

I think I had a really good time. Now that my luggage has arrived - 24 hours after our plane touched down in Vancouver - I've got more than 60 new CDs to wade through. A very pleasurable "swamp"!