There was a moment watching Vancouver raised singer-songwriter Jenny Ritter's set when I felt, "This is it." This is what the folk alliance is about; this is what music is about, and this is what much of my strange life has been about....
It was a gorgeous set. Ritter's back up, three members of the Victoria, British Columbia band Fish & Bird along with a Boston stand-up bassist recruited days before, all crowded in front of a window revealing one of the most beautiful views possible of the KC night skyline. They faced several rows of strangers caught up in Ritter's searching lilt which soared high over this fine band's jumping, splashing and improbably rich and layered watercolors. Ritter's mix of memoir and magic took me back to earlier that evening, Kim Richey's yearning set, which included great moments like the heartbreaking "Don't Let Me Down Easy" but particularly the haunting memories rooted in a late night walk she talked of before singing "London Town."
And that collapsing of time and geographical and personal distance told me I was going to respond as musickers--even those who don't play a damn thing that makes music--will do. And though I promised myself I wouldn't (I have a big deadline looming for months yet) I knew I'd be writing about this whole business, one way or another.
After all, as it all but has to be in American music, call and response was the order of the weekend. I arrived Friday night to Amy Speace's duet with John Fullbright, "The Sea and the Shore," which was its own kind of call and response. But another came soon after, Speace saying, "What an honor to play on the same stage as Graham Nash (who had given a keynote interview to Joel Rafael earlier in the conference)! That lit a fire under my ass! Make music that matters!" she said before launching into her harrowing war story, "Weight of the World."
That was a great night, served particularly well by musicians I closely associate with one of my favorite live venues in the world, Oklahoma City's The Blue Door. Jimmy LaFave found that way he has of turning an all-too-familiar song into something I feel I've never heard before, even when I have....particularly noteworthy was his closing cover of Dylan's "Just Like a Woman." I turned to my friend, CJ, and said, "I just want to hand Jimmy songs and ask him, how would you do that?" He reinvents the best--things others might be afraid to touch, for good reason.
When I got to her showcase, I was a little worried she was in a large empty banquet room tucked away from most of the traffic....people would not stumble upon her.
And talk about making something old new again! Though I've heard her wickedly smart and moving hillbilly take on the Clash's "Straight to Hell" a number of times, she made every second count. At times, you had to remind yourself to breathe.
In some sense, my night ended just across the Niagara from Gillis's home, with Buffalo, New York raised rocker, Willie Nile. He played the most political set I saw from anyone, opening with the powerful "Seeds Of Revolution," and following with the social justice minded anthems "Holy War" and "The Innocent Ones" as well as, for a man who happily admits his life was saved by rock and roll, the musical anthems "House of a 1000 Guitars" and his most recent title track "American Ride." He paid tribute to Levon Helm and Jeff Buckley in the set, but he dedicated his song, "One Guitar" to Pete Seeger, getting the house to sing a long to a wordless refrain, voicing the sound of a guitar--"na, na, na, na,na,na,na, na, na"....
In that half-play, half-dare refrain, the original call for so many of us--a defiant cry for freedom. Every word I write wants to be an amen and an onward.