By Mark Kemp
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — During a brief set of songs with funny titles like “Pictures on My Phone” and “I Almost Stole Some Weed from Todd Snider,” the Los Angeles troubadour John Craigie somehow managed to name-check not only Snider, but also Bob Dylan and John Prine on the second day of the 28th Annual Folk Alliance International.
“I met this guy in New Orleans who said he wrote ‘Mr. Tambourine Man,’” Craigie said, before launching into the hilarious “I Wrote Mr. Tambourine Man.”
Keep an eye out for Craigie, who may be the next great spinner of tall tales.
Craigie’s set was among many Thursday Folk Alliance highlights, which also included a sterling performance from Grant-Lee Phillips, the former front man for ’90s alt-rock band Grant Lee Buffalo; Mexican-American singer Perla Batalla’s gorgeous, nuanced cover of her friend Leonard Cohen’s classic song “Suzanne”; a downhome set of bluegrassy jamming from the Ragpicker String Band, featuring award-winning finger-style guitarist Mary Flower; and performances by newcomers including Birds of Chicago and Darlingside.
When Phillips arrived onstage for his 7:15 set, Shawnee Mission Hall was filled with veterans from the 1990s hoping to catch some stripped-down versions of familiar Grant Lee Buffalo songs. Phillips did not disappoint them. He dusted off the title song of the band’s 1994 classic Mighty Joe Moon, but also played a few solid numbers from his latest solo album, The Narrows, including “Cry, Cry” and the exquisite “Holy Irons.” (Watch last night’s FAI performance of “Holy Irons” here.)
“This is my first Folk Alliance,” said Phillips, and it was a bit of a surprise. Of all the alt-rock acts to come in the wake of Nirvana, GLB’s music was among the most folk-based, and Phillips has released a string of quality acoustic singer-songwriter albums since then, including Virginia Creeper, in 2004, and Walking in the Green Corn, in 2012.
Music on other stages ranged from old-time bluegrass and blues with a twist to Spanish-language balladeering and more, and at the Music Camp, guitarist Corey Harris taught sessions on African-style blues and fingetstyle picking, and Irish multi-instrumentalist Fergal Scahill offered tips on DADGAD tuning. Friday promises even more diversity — and a special appearance by folk legend Judy Collins.
As for the panel discussions, I was the token magazine editor along with several high-profile folk-music publicists for a popular, standing-room-only talk earlier in the day on what musicians should — and should not — put in their press releases. (Hint: Don’t ever, ever, under any circumstances, call yourself “the next” Bob Dylan, Odetta, or Joan Baez!)
Of course, some of the most exciting events at Folk Alliance happen not just at the official panel discussions, showcases and music camp instructional sessions, but casually in the lobby of the Westin Hotel, and in rooms high on the upper floors.
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Pictured at top of story: Young Guitar Love. Yes, you can even fall in love at a very young age at Folk Alliance International, as these two acoustic guitar-wielding love birds showed when they shared songs with each other in the Westin lobby. (All photos by Mark Kemp)