Folk Alliance Conference

Live shot

Judy Collins
Judy Collins (Photo By Mary Sledd)

Folk Alliance Conference

Austin Hilton Hotel, Feb. 10-14

It wasn't until Sunday night that the Folk Alliance felt like the musical feast that had been predicted. Entering downtown's Hilton Hotel, for instance, you'd have been accosted by a young band of Cajuns stomping out a rhythm in front of an elevator bank, while in an upstairs hallway, a group of twentysomethings had gathered for an impromptu picking party. Local fiddler Elena James, meanwhile, was spotted at the top of an escalator tuning up and giving a band member a quick run-through of a tune just before her scheduled showcase. That's not to say that anything was missing before Sunday. There had been an abundance of good music of all stripes throughout the weekend; it just never seemed to reach any kind of frenzy.

Arlo Guthrie
Arlo Guthrie (Photo By Mary Sledd)

It was unintentional, but there was a real contrast in the ages of the top performances over the long weekend – the over-60 crowd met the under-30 set and they both shined. The keynote addresses by Peter Yarrow, Kinky Friedman, and Arlo Guthrie were inspiring, touching, and full of good humor. As expected, Friedman's appearance was a gubernatorial campaign stop, but he read a thoughtful story about hummingbirds and his parents from one of his books that demonstrated his tremendous skills as an author. Judy Collins' much anticipated appearance on Saturday evening proved she remains the pre-eminent folk diva. Her voice remains impeccably clear and her stories engaging. Another old timer, Danny O'Keefe, making a comeback after a long spell out of the spotlight, was intoxicating late Sunday in front of an overflowing crowd.

Among the younger set, performances by two bands from Lafayette, La., the Lost Bayou Ramblers and Feufollet, revealed that Cajun music is being passed to the next generation with remarkable spirit. Local mandolin phenom Sarah Jarosz displayed her remarkable talents, which included picking up a newfound banjo. Whit Smith's Hot Jazz Caravan put on one of the weekend's best local sets, the quintet eagerly sporting more musical talent than seemed imaginable. One great surprise was Alaska's Barefoot Bluegrass, another youthful act featuring handsome vocals and striking ensemble play.

One thing that makes Folk Alliance special is the guerrilla showcases held almost around the clock, away from the main floors. But three floors of music, while intimidating, were filled with singer-songwriters with nothing new, just plain bad songs. A couple of exceptions were Nashville's Jeff Black, who was surprisingly tender beneath his gruff appearance, and Baltimore's Disappear Fear, a lesbian trio who added a trumpet to their funky folk.

The conference wound up Monday night with Arlo Guthrie's Ridin' on the City of New Orleans benefit for victims of Katrina. It highlighted the talents of the Guthrie family; daughter Sarah Lee and her husband Johnny Irion's brand of country rock was captivating, while another of Arlo's offspring, Cathy, and Willie Nelson's daughter Amy performed as Folk Uke, whose pure harmonies contrasted with unbelievably bawdy lyrics. Cyril Neville's Tribe 13 brought some much needed life, and funk, to the proceedings, which, at three hours, dragged more than a little bit. Arlo's set ending the night was full of surprises – a distinctive cover of Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man" – and his renowned wit.

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