Live Performances Roundup of the 25th Folk Alliance Conference

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Story: Lenny Stoute

The 25th Folk Alliance Conference swarmed all over Toronto’s Delta Chelsea Hotel between Feb.20-24. Both Conference and Hotel survived each other and even though they stuck out like hookers at a folk festival, the working girls in the lobby in their little black dresses were ok with the sweaters ’n’ jeans crew.

Which became more rock ’n’ roll raucous as the event wore on, culminating in Saturday’s boozy finale. Which, in the anarchic spirit of the earliest folk traditions, wasn’t one large event but rather a battle of the bands conducted in separate bedroom showcases all over the joint. Doesn’t get more up close and personal than that and gave the event an intimate feel as counterbalance to the slick surroundings.

It was all cozy in Mel Brulee’s bedroom where the Cornwall ON, chanteuse/guitarist did a set of intense, deeply personal material, drawn equally from the Sucré/Salé EP and unreleased songs that quietly but firmly shut out the ruckus in the hallway.

Steve PoltzSteve PoltzDown the hall was the inimitable Steve Poltz so the ruckus was guaranteed. The San Diego-based Poltz walks a woozy line between folk and punk with frenzied guitar and lyrics that can make you laugh and recoil at the same time, as was heard on ‘Stranger In A Strange Land’ and ‘Things You Should Know About Me’. A consummate showman, Poltz put the audience back together with a singalong inciting, hands-joining run at Dylan’s ‘Forever Young’.

Going with the enthusiastic flow of two dudes carrying bodhrans and speaking what sounded like Scottish run through a blender, squeezed into the Monarch Pub to catch Harry Manx, from the Isle of Man. Harry’s a mixmaster who whips up a blues-inflected, classical Indian music-infested brand of blues. Not to everyone’s taste which made room for those of us in on it. Drawing largely from current album Om Suite Ohm, the idiosyncratic vocals and equally unique guitar style put the set over the top and marked the Manxman as one to watch.

Russ KellyRuss KellyMontrealer Russ Kelly plays a reconfigured kinda blues folk that’s catching on. His bedroom set was jammed and the amiable Kelly cheerfully recruited a couple of bodies to play percussion on the more up-tempo numbers. Drawn from the current Crazy Shades of Blue album, the set showcased the man’s warm baritone and knowing way with a backbeat.

The Alberta Artists Showcase came with a roster of 20 artists and a promo team that worked tirelsessly to put bodies in the rooms. Heard making a good impression were 19 year old Braden Gates, who weaves traditional Canadian fiddle tunes with gorgeous modernistic melody lines on guitar. Another fine forward-looking guitar talent with the lyrics of a natural born storyteller. A little more seasoning and the boy’s gonna be a happening thing.

In a similar vein of blending folk traditions, narrative songwriter Maria Dunn combines North American folk and country tropes with those of her Celtic heritage. The Juno nominated singer also has a rich contralto that comes with spine-tingling possibilities.

On another floor much later Saturday night, stumbled into a room full of Irish fans having a folk-ing good time behind the work of Mike Donaghy. Straight outa Dublin, the handsome young man worked a vocal cross between folk troubadour and cabaret crooner, veering close to Michael Buble territory a time or two. Not that the Birkenstock babes minded.

Treasa LevasseurTreasa LevasseurBack in the land of boogie, Winnipeg to T.Dot transplant Treasa Levasseur was rocking the house with a set drawn mostly from her latest disc, Broad. Though small in stature, Levasseur has a big voice and the big attitude you’d expect from the writer of tunes like “Love Me Like A Man” and “Stop Me and My Big Fat Mouth.”  On the new stuff, she was at her brassy best on “No Holds Barred” and tried a little sultry tenderness on “We Should Dance”.

California’s Ranchers For Peace was the perfect act to come down with. The father/daughter duo of Chas and Ray Duncan create seriously entwined harmonies that, coupled with Ray’s melodica work, take folk into a world of California Gothic on such as “Favour From The Rain” and “Tell All The World”. The pair kept their current buzz tune, “Walkin’ Around Black” for the closer and it impacted solidly whether you’d heard it before or not.

Then it was down to the lobby, blow kisses to the little black dresses and hail a cab while recalling these observations. Standup basses outnumbered dulcimers three to one, the melodica was the breakout instrument with at least four acts using them and the harmonica appears to be making a comeback.