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Americana Highways took on Folk Alliance International 2019 in Montreal, Quebec. Events of this nature are often pulsed with a humming tension. An airtight anxiety. You don’t go outside! It’s like being on a ship; a journey with captain and crew that goes nowhere, but transcends everything.
Flying in to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award (posthumously) on behalf of Leonard Cohen’s family, Julie Christensen—a vocalist and songwriter now living in Nashville — stepped in just in time from the right end of a blizzard, to be among several who were acknowledged for their contributions to the folk archive.
I was fortunate enough to be able to sit with Christensen between flights en route to Montreal. Over the only meal we would each have that day, she was warm and reminiscent, sharing green room memories of touring with Leonard Cohen, meeting Sonny Rollins, and herself humming and scatting a private warmup just downwind from their practice rooms. She told me about her friends in the 70’s punk ‘rockicana scene in Austin and L.A—Chris D., The Gun Club, members of X, and The Knitters. She even shared a playlist that she had curated which archives the time nicely, that you can follow here.
Like a sweet, little, rat-hippie, I shared a room at the hotel with more folks than there were beds to accommodate us all. Nervous, and not knowing how the next four days would go, I met my crew in the lobby after registration, and was received immediately by a warm group of writers, artist, industry folk—all who had made it to the other side of travel, and into the close quarters of the folk ship that we would fare together.
The first night of FAI showcases was intimate, casual. You set down your bags and began the process of settling in. Though travel weary, you are glad to be among your people.
First stop was a pop-up showcase for the ambassador of all disparate, regional folk alliances, miscreant of many a dusty festival, and THE song mistress of my heart—my conference wife—Heather Styka. She trembled the first lyrics of the conference into my silia perked earholes.
Styka had been asked to pick up the showcase for one of the several conference travellers who had been trapped in someplace not the conference. Ms. Styka was gracious, reminding the audience that she was not the great Rebecca Loebe, though was fortunate to catch their attention for the moment. She sang about knowing full and well what she is capable of in a vintage dress, whilst wearing one, and we all fell in love with the shy tremble of her voice, and then shimmered into the night.
Wednesday’s welcome continued with two intimate summits in the conference halls the following morning. Side by each were two rooms—both filled to capacity—each discussing how as a people we might move forward in creating more equinanimous spaces for people of color. Specifically indigenous groups.
One room was a closed door session for indigenous folkies, officiated by Buffy Sainte-Marie. This was a summit to be among one another in solidarity to discuss life in the music industry and their individual experience within it. An intentional, and safe-space for open discussion, indigenous artists and industry professionals forumed artistic aspirations for their community.
The adjacent room was another thing entirely. Positive in its scope, this summit room was teamed with scholars, ethnomusicologists, music writers and purveyors of ‘traditional’ musics. They discussed the term “World Music” as a category, and the lessor and greater evils of its use to describe music performed largely by people of color.
The umbrella genre of Folk has long been a vehicle for empowered voices to resist. So when the musicians whose art is shaded under this particular parasol of human expression gathered together in one space, it was not just that their discussions about civil unrest, love, inclusion, and community become louder, but that their dialogue became more articulate, and resonate. The messaging didn’t just crescendo, but vibrated in a tremorous, beehive sort of a way.
I can’t say that in this case that there were any specific or coherent calls to action, though I will say that I am glad Montreal’s Folk Alliance programming included these hours of discussion. Like going to the gym, or drinking clean water, the body is rarely disappointed after being exercised or nourished.
Highlight Performances from FAI 2019 Montreal
Smithsonian Folkways Recording’s entire program of showcases—Dom Flemons, Kia Kater, Lula Wiles, Los Texamaniacs, Alash, and The Bright Siders—displayed an expert assemblage of folk identity.
Emily Wurramara performing the Indigenous Voices Official Showcase room from Australia, was cool, with an easy jazz-dance-pop aire, and an honest message. Wurramara “shines like her grandmother,” and is not “too pretty for an Aboriginal girl.” Because, you can’t be too pretty, amiright? With golden tones and empowered, fun lyricism she belongs in your playlists among India Aire, and Erykah Badu.
The keynote interview with Buffy Sainte-Marie, where the whole room was encouraged, gently, to always be making themselves more educated. Sainte-Marie glowed as she spoke, and the air was somehow ionized by the energy of the room. It seemed that everyone breathed a little easier afterwards.
Emily Scott Robinson with her forthcoming album “Traveling Mercies” out this week, cut deep with a southern-gothic, lyrical jaw that ripped to the core with her pristine crystalline voice.
Māmā Mihirangi & the Māreikura from New Zealand were touring a Haka ‘war dance’ among their repertoire. When I saw them, it was in a room that really needed to hear this cry and dance. Gracious, even though packed into a tight and overbooked private showcase, their wide-open, piercing, and unflinching gaze spoke volumes, and I left the room feeling more womanly and confident in response to their expression of ancient power.
Vox Sambou, traveling with his full band out of Haiti, arrived with a brilliance behind his smiling eyes that sunk the soul deep into the hips. His were joyful expressions of peace and unity, which called on the ancestors to give enough spirit to combat colonialism and its effects through dance and shared joy.
Campbell Woods, Winona Wilde, Erik Bleich & Nick Sherman all separately play sets in The Campsite room – a Canadian refuge and art space that was, even in the cramptness of the hotel, a representative sanctuary of artistic peace. Each of these performances were so different, but shared the voice of an inspired, youthful, Canadian community. Check out the links to their music—because I said so.
Willi Carlisle, Nick Nace, and Megan Palmer shared a House of Songs extended set. Nashville performers, Palmer and Nace paired on each other’s songs to add the special somthin’ somthin’ that is the breezy companionship of guitar and fiddle. Willi Carlile, out of Arkansas flipped his banjo, warbled a latin accordionist ditty, and spoke truth about the inherent problematic aspects of Cowboys songs without detracting from the value of the folk-hillbilly tradition.
Kyshona, Mary Bragg, and Hannah Miller shared a set in the round at The Green Room Music Source showcase room. This was like a supergroup of women supporting each other’s original works. The three-part harmonizing jumbled the insides and warmed our ‘Same Blood’.
Li’l Andy, a local from Montreal, played baritone ballads from the heart, which side-smiled the lonesome blues of a cold weather cowboy.
Leland Sundries finished off the final night of showcases with an acoustic set of glassy-sharp, punk tunes that left us all wishing that the party would go on forever, despite any and all likely apocalypses.
FAI Montreal, 2019 made a call on how to program inclusion as a main value of the folk tradition, and the outcome exceeded expectation. The diversity allowed that the truest intentioned and strongest talents were represented. We faired intimately together and found that where there were definitions drawn there were also equal, opposite smears of brilliant watercolor bleeding essence beyond the boundaries of genre.
This was a Folk Alliance to mark the times. Thank you to all those who support this yearly conference. Next year, we will meet again in New Orleans. Until then, au revoir!