Folk Alliance 2019


In February I made my annual pilgrimage to the Folk Alliance International conference. In the past few years it was held in Kansas City, but this year, in order to be truly international, it moved north of the border to Montreal, where the city was buried in snow. Thankfully, the host hotel, the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth, was equally buried in music. (It was the hotel where John and Yoko staged their Bed-In for Peace in 1969, and as it turned out, our room was literally next door to where they stayed. A good omen, for sure!)

Coming back from my stroke last summer, I felt warmly welcomed by the folk community. The down side was that my stamina wasn’t what it used to be, so I had to pace myself and forego some of the late-night private showcases in hotel rooms. Even so, there was more than enough music to satisfy my musical curiosity.

I dubbed it the Couples Conference because of the number of spouses, including my wife, who tagged along for the weekend, drawn to the magic of Montreal. There were also plenty of married musical couples among the performers: Moonfruits (a quirky conceptual duo from Ottawa), Freddy and Francine (Nashville), Oliver the Crow (among the winners from last summer’s Falcon Ridge Emerging Artists showcase, from Nashville), Tragedy Ann (from Guelph, Ontario), The Young Novelists (Toronto), and last not least, David Wax Museum (complete with backing horns, from Charlottesville). 

Then there are duos who point out that they’re definitely not a couple, such as Big Little Lions (from Cincinnati and B.C.) and The Small Glories (On Your Radar alumni from Winnipeg). Same-sex duo Madison Violet (also OYR faves) now divide their time between Toronto and L.A. On the male side, Driftwood Soldier hails from Philadelphia, and The Alternate Routes are based in Bridgeport, CT.

Folk fans know I have a soft spot in my heart for female harmony trios, and Folk Alliance had a bumper crop: Canadian sweethearts The Good Lovelies (from Toronto), Lula Wiles (from Boston), Rosie & the Riveters (Saskatoon), the Rainbow Girls (California), Five Letter Word (Portland, OR), and The Pairs (sometimes a quartet, but a trio at FAI, from London, Ontario). Guys got harmony, too - The East Pointers (from PEI) caught my ear, as did The Sweet Remains, who did On Your Radar back in 2011.

The Stray Birds, who ruled the trio roost for several years, have split up, but Maya de Vitry now holds her own with her dulcet tones. Other female standouts included Kaia Kater, the banjo player from Toronto, Sofia Rey, a New Yorker singing in Spanish, and Ember Swift, a jazz-inflected singer and guitarist born in Canada, but living in Beijing for the past 13 years. Grade A vocals go to Annie Sumi (Guelph,ON), Anna Tivel (Portland, OR), and Ana Silvera (a Londoner with echoes of early Joni Mitchell). Speaking of Brits, I must mention John Smith, a vet from Somerset, England, with a beautiful voice and stage presence.

There were plenty of old favorites I ran into in showcases and hallways (Ellis Paul, Vance Gilbert, Eliza Gilkyson, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Eric Andersen, Willie Nile, Tom Paxton, et al.), but it’s the music discoveries that are my raison d’etre – and the ghost of John Lennon in the suite next door!

Cynthia Cochrane