Sunday, February 23, 2014

Folk Alliance Calling, "Na Na Na Nananana Na Na"

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.

John Fullbright has made each of the half dozen times I've seen him something distinctive and new, and he did that again--surprisingly with an ad hoc band that helped him make the most of his vamp-filled cover of "Ain't Nobody's Business," as well as some of my favorite new songs, for which I'll make up titles--"Going Home," "When You're Here," "What's So Bad About Happy." And, yes, he did the great "Gawd Above" (penned with Kevin Welch's son, Dustin) as well as "Jericho," both reminding me why I won't ever see another quite like him, at this moment, in this lifetime.

Spontaneous jams are, of course, call and response at its most elemental, and a huge part of the giddy fun of the alliance. Danish guitarist Jens Lysdal did a wonderful job enhancing Michael Fracasso's set seemingly learning the songs as he went--Fracasso's soaring voice stinging with the threat of "Back to Oklahoma" or making concrete the hard edges of the beautiful "Saint Monday." Everywhere I looked, I seemed to see Mark Smeltzer carrying one of his many instruments or Kasey Rausch with her guitar or Erin McGrane and Jeff Freeling (known together best for their act Victor and Penny) just off of or about to jump into a set. Not a full conference participant, I missed almost all of the local sets, but I fortunately caught a little of the wonderful Victor & Penny before I had to get myself downstairs for a woman I've wanted to see for several years now, Hamilton, Ontario's Ariana Gillis.

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.

By the time she started, though, the place was 3/4 full, and the house filled a little more. Those who were there were enraptured.

I've known she's something special for a while now, but live I found myself more than a little in awe of her power, her electricity. She's so unassuming, in one respect, girlish and playful, but she's a giant on stage because she uses all of that creative energy to go absolutely wherever she wants to go. She's as close to fearless as I can imagine--the way her whole being seems to twist and turn and jump and dance around each line, and her sound....exquisite.

She and her crack band--David Gillis on guitar and Ben Rollo on drums--got 7 songs off in a half hour set, without ever seeming rushed (in fact, she kept asking if she was out of time, finding she had plenty left). She played a song I didn't recognize at first--"Too Much" or "Feeling of Empty" maybe--which nevertheless served as a defining statement for her abandon.

Then she played a dynamic and color-filled set of "Jeremy Woodstock" (about a man's conversation with his disembodied heart); "Cannonball Sam," getting the crowd to cry out for her to save him before delivering the righteously happy ending....; "Simon Brooke," one of her finest sing-a-longs; another quiet simmer I hadn't heard, maybe called "Camouflage Back"; and a screamer about a murderous pyromaniac, "Dynamite Ferryweather." She ended with "Sam Starr."

I found myself thinking about how deep "Sam Starr" strikes me. For those who don't know it, it's a giddy and mischievous song about two corpses who strike up a relationship in a graveyard. My own heart scare as well as the recent loss of a trio of best friends made "Sam Starr" a favorite the moment I heard it. With a blatantly absurd vision of death, it speaks very deeply to me about my own need to make something out of that pain. It makes wonders for me, every time, and ignites my imagination to further the response.

I caught a little of a beautiful set by Howard Iceberg, who was accompanied by Betse Ellis. Ellis then received more than one standing ovation for her following set--leading the house in Ozark folk song sing-a-longs, talking of Pete and Mike Seeger and their influence on her, but also paying tribute to Joe Strummer.

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.