The Folk Alliance International Music Fair and Conference is flat out overwhelming. Split between two major Kansas City hotels (the Westin and the Sheraton) there is more to digest than any one appetite could take in. The lobby is instantly filled with basking musicians at every turn. Each lobby table is covered with an overabundance of promotional material from bands and labels including handbills, links to websites and posters. Some vaguely familiar faces are roaming with an air of importance about them but with the excess of talent centrally located at the conference, it is difficult to tell who it could be.
Solo musicians quietly strum on the loveseats in lobby as each corner potentially has a band playing and hoping to get the attention of some ears. Young bluegrass bands like the dread laden jam band Way Down Wanderers would play in the lobby while an elderly group named The Blue Moon Trio would take a break from their normal nursing home gigs to pluck away on the mezzanine. Further exploration of the halls of the hotel find more bands playing in dark corners and walkways as seminars and exhibits go on in the main rooms. A panel with legendary folk singers such as Tom Paxton and Peggy Seeger talking about their roughly 50 years as performers would happen while people wandered in and out of the room. Other exhibits like media presentations, seminars about booking and running labels would all be happening throughout the day.
After the dinner hour the events shift to official showcases in the large rooms of both hotels. This is where you would find such major named acts as bluegrass trio Red Molly, guitar virtuoso Andy McKee and the impressive harmonies of The Howlin’ Brothers. The western swing of Kansas City’s own Victor & Penny is playing to a packed room around the corner and each subsequent room has the sound of talent blasting out of its doors. It is important to have a schedule at this point but not stick to it. It is always great to know where you want to go but the journey there will ultimately get altered. Walking into a room not knowing what band is playing and hearing the loose, passionate voice of Possessed By Paul James will stop you in your tracks. It will make you cross things off your schedule and bask in what you are seeing. Two doors down the hall the room is so packed people are gathered in hallway tying to get a peek in at Samantha Martin & Delta Sugar who are venting southern gospel soul by way of Canada with people standing, clapping along and dancing.
At 10:30 the showcase rooms empty out and a 20-minute line at the elevators forms. The massive crowd is headed up to the 5th, 6th and 7th floors of the hotel for private showcases that will last until 3 and 4 in the morning. Stepping off the elevator is a surreal experience as you are transported into an expensive hotel floor in the guise of a college dorm. Band and room posters are plastered all over the walls leaving little open space to see what color the paint actually is. The halls are lined with instrument cases and people and each poster promotes a band or showcase in a room with times listed. This is the point when the Folk Alliance International conference really takes shape.
As you walk the hallways the open doors reveal a musician or band in nearly every room busting through 30-minute sets as people scramble back and forth among them. The best thing about these shows is that it offers and intimate environment where you can see bands with only about 20 other people. Among these bands are the acts that might have been missed at official showcases like Possessed By Paul James and Victor & Penny. Even if you did see them earlier in the day, you could now see them again if you chose to do so. Samantha Martin & Delta Sugar would also be performing but instead of a packed room of a couple hundred people they would be playing to a small audience because of the fierce competition between rooms. Some up and coming acts would struggle for an audience outside of their friends and fellow musicians while other accomplished acts like Iowa banjo slinger William Elliott Whitmore would (rightfully so) play to a packed small room with people struggling to get in the door.
Overindulgence is necessary in a situation like this. The extremely refined talent on display is awe-inspiring. The downside is there is simply no way to avoid missing something great. This collection of some of the finest folk acts in world really couldn’t disappoint, you just have to soak it in.