New Orleans Folk Alliance Makes the Connection Between Roots and Relevance

As any Folk Alliance confab clearly confirms, today’s folkies aren’t simply of the Birkenstock and patchouli variety. They’re a vibrant and varied bunch, one that can listen to music into the wee hours, join their voices in song, and still appreciate the intimacy of small late night sessions where the only thing separating artist from audience is a microphone… and sometimes, not even that.

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Consequently, the organization’s annual gathering — and its regional confabs as well — become a communal experience where all involved bond over their mutual joy of sharing music in its purest and most populist form. This year’s confab, held the third week in January in the fabled environs of New Orleans, lived up to that timely tradition. With vendor exhibits and afternoon showcases in the bigger conference rooms of the host Sheraton Hotel and individual late evening performances that lingered until the late hours — 3 am, as a general rule —there was no shortage of music, artists and industry professionals to provide interest and incentive. In fact, the most challenging thing about Folk Alliance was, as always, how to navigate the hallways of the hotel, given that five floors of guest rooms are given over to performances which typically run 20 to 25 minutes apiece and find a steady rotation of artists filtering in and out throughout the evening.

That means it takes a specific strategy to plan one’s schedule, given that the musicians are performing simultaneously and at conflicting times. It involves tough choices, and opting to see one artist may preclude catching another who may be playing at the same time. Fortunately, most of the artists perform at multiple times throughout the four full evenings of the conference. Yet even then, the sheer abundance of musical offerings can be overwhelming. With packed hotel hallways that bring back memories of one’s college dorm in full party mode, it’s a daunting experience getting from one room to another. The fact that the “pre-programmed” elevators often deterred mobility rather than enhance it didn’t help. Given a maximum load of 10 to 12 people, the inability to set one’s destination once inside, the fact that it was often necessary to change elevators to reach one’s desired destination, and the sheer length of time between transit from one floor to another became a source of constant consternation to anyone lacking the dexterity to walk the stairwells between floors. 

The sheer variety and vitality of the music made the audiences even more desperate for transport. Mingled in amongst the wealth of singer/songwriters with more or less established pedigrees — Tom Rush, Tim Easton, Wild Ponies, Rachel Sage, The Once, The Mammals, The Mastersons, The Steel Wheels, Ellis Paul, Susan Werner, Chuck McDermott, Freebo, Dan Navarro, Rose Cousins, Mary Bragg, Mary Gauthier and Jaimee Harris,, Steve Plotz, Maria Muldaur, Eliza Gilkyson, Dave Gunning, the Kennedys, Beppe Gambetta, Catherine MacLellan, and Cara Dillon, among the many — there was also any number of up-and-coming artists that brought their own distinctive sounds to the proceedings — the eclectic instrumental Celtic band Elephant Steps, the funk-infused Lowdown Brass Band, the explosive blues and country combination provided by Tami Neilson, the traditional prowess of Siobhan O’Brien, the playful duo consisting of Guy Forsyth and Jeska Bailey, the exquisite songwriting of Jordi Baizan, the hometown Cajun tones of Michael Doucet and The Revelers, and, in particular, the folk/jazz fusion of British singer/songwriter Sam Lee.

Indeed, one would be hard pressed to find a more impressive gathering of contemporary talent than that assembled for this past just-Folk Alliance in New Orleans.

Nevertheless, there was one person’s presence that was sadly missed but well remembered regardless. Singer/songwriter David Olney was scheduled to be on the bill when he suddenly passed away a week before in mid performance. His name was still etched in many of the showcase slots and program guides, making for a haunting scenario while furthering the lingering sadness felt at his loss. At the appointed time of his afternoon showcase, Mary Gauthier held court and shared memories of the indelible impression he had on the folk community. Others were freely encouraged to share their thoughts as well, and several people took the opportunity to express their admiration for the man and his music.

Mavis Staples also allowed for a memorable moment during a keynote speech in which she recounted the experiences she and her family faced in the segregated South’s when her father and siblings toured as the legendary gospel group, the Staple Singers. It was a moving tale of dedication ad determination that can serve as a lesson for those prone to forget the struggles and hardships endured by those who were at the forefront of the Civil Rights movement during the contentious and combative sixties. 

An award ceremony on the first night of the festivities gave additional opportunity to pay tribute to those who have had an influential role within the folk community.  A film aboutblues pioneer Mahalia Jackson, a Lifetime Achievement Award to NOLA’s famed hometown ensemble BeauSoleil, a keynote speech from Ani DiFranco, and various awards for song, artist, album and deejay of the year were dispersed throughout the evening. 

With such an incredible array of memorable moments, two songs seemed to stand out overall. Mary Gauthier’s “Mercy” seemed to sum up the sentiments of all those who were drawn by a  common bond:

“Yeah, we all could use a little mercy now

I know we don’t deserve it but we need it anyhow

We hang in the balance dangle ‘tween hell and hallowed ground

And every single one of us could use some mercy now”

So true. It’s a difficult world after all.

Likewise, one looking for an ideal coda to cap the festivities needn’t have looked any further than Tim Easton’s “Festival.” A song of celebration, it finds poignancy and purpose in the gathering of like-minded souls, expressing sadness when the event comes to an end but hope for the inevitable reconvening. The song makes a point about community, a reference that all those at this year’s Folk Alliance could relate to without hesitation.

It may not boast the tribal temperament of Woodstock or the marquee value of Monterrey, but 50 years on, its variety and its vibe makes any Folk Alliance conference a memorable encounter regardless.

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