Highlights from the 30th Annual Folk Alliance International Conference

Iowa City-raised Radoslav Lorković wowed audiences at the Folk Alliance International conference. — video still

The 30th Annual Folk Alliance International Conference recently wrapped up in Kansas City, Missouri. The five-day event boasted 180 nightly official showcase performances and over 3,000 private showcase listening room sessions.

From its humble beginnings in Malibu in 1989 with 130 people, to this year’s record-breaking 2,750 attendees from 25 countries, the organization each year shows just how seriously it takes its mission to “nurture, engage and empower the folk music community.”

The slightly misnamed private showcases are what make the Folk Alliance event exceptional, though. These intimate 30-or-so-minute performances take place simultaneously in three floors of hotel rooms with shows that can blow your mind or keep you feeling trapped for the length of a good shower (the bathrooms are off-limits, but you’re welcome to curl up on a bed). Many of the rooms are sponsored by labels, booking agencies or products (Anna McCue’s was sponsored by Shubb capos, for example); free food and drink range from coolers of craft beer to gummy worm sushi.

Though Iowa City has been lucky enough to host the Folk Alliance Region Midwest Conference for the past few years, Iowa acts, or even citizens, were few and far between. We counted four Iowa acts: Dan Peart (Clinton), Dave Smith (Blue Grass), Robert Matter (Council Bluffs) and the Savage Hearts (North Liberty).

Chicago’s Radoslav Lorković, who was raised in Iowa City, was endearingly ubiquitous, showcasing as well as providing accordion and keyboard back-up for a cast of musical friends (his tender musical touches during the Jimmy LaFave tribute were especially memorable).

This writer gave it the old SXSW try and all, sprinting the hotel hallways and stairwells to get a good representation of what hit and what missed. Here are some other highlights:

Nashville-based the Stray Birds have been growing in stature since 2010 when they launched out of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. The trio exhibits the kind of chemistry and pure ingenuity of, say, the Beatles. Their 2016 Yep Rock release, Magic Fire, managed to get the magic on record with songs ranging from the full-blown new Appalachian gospel of “Shining in The Distance” (written in collaboration with Lindsay Lou of Lindsay Lou and the Flatbellys) to poppier excursions helmed by guitarist Oliver Craven.

The Birds hosted their own room this year, dubbed “The Nest.” Wandering in to a jam-packed room with the toe-tapping, fiddle-led “Sabrina” raging was a real “Upper Room” immersion. The Stray Birds truck in bringing a small-room experience to larger stages, so seeing them in their element is like finding yourself in the Big Pink basement or the Abbey Road closet where John recorded his vocals for “Yer Blues.” The trio, hepped up by a full drum kit, also raced through some numbers from their upcoming release. One called “The Long Table” was an exuberant, all-come call that felt like the perfect antidote to all this poison politics.

Cork, Ireland’s Mick Flannery is one man and a guitar who somehow manages to keep you hanging on with songs darker and more unrelenting than 10 Leonard Cohens.

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Nova Scotia’s Rose Cousins had one of 2017’s most sorely overlooked releases, the Joe Henry-produced Natural Conclusion. Live, Cousins’ songs are as piercing as her voice, fretwork and visage. She’s like a Canadian Patty Griffin, all the red and detail bled away.

Kansas City’s own Making Movies got things moving with an uncanny mix of Afro-Latino rhythms and psychedelic riffs.

Brooklyn’s the Martha Redbone Roots Project was mesmerizing in its sole showcase.

Thirteen-year-old bluegrass prodigy Emi Sunshine belted out an original murder ballad in the first person for a hair-raisingly creepy set with her family band the Rain. A tear-streaked tribute to an autistic friend was the showstopper of the conference.

Canada’s Leaf Rapids features husband and wife Keri and Devin Latimer for music inspired by the wildly isolated nature of Manitoba with lyrics exploring the inner workings of people left too long inside their winter cabins, until, well, spring explodes. Keri’s theremin is all frosting.