Our merry bus of songwriters pulled into Kansas City around 9 on a tuesday evening, where I met up with my wife Jen, who had flown in ealrier that day. Jen and I have been singing together for years, usually in Wales and more often than not, around the kitchen table. Every now and then we get to do something a bit special and Kansas City was one such occasion.
We were there for Folk Alliance International 2016, the world’s largest folk music industry conference. It was our first time at the conference and it was quite an experience!
Wednesday was the first day and it took a while to get our heads around the sheer scale of it. FAI basically takes over the entire Hotel. It looks like a Giant has scooped up every folkie in the United States and released them into the Westin. Bands are playing everywhere; in the lobby, the halls, on the stairs and even in the lifts. Floors 5, 6 and 7 have been transformed into rows of tiny nightclubs, each bedroom hosting a night of music that lasts into the small hours. Wandering through all the madness are bookers, agents, labels, venue owners and all sorts of other industry people looking for acts to work with. These people are hard to spot however, as they are outnumbered by musicians by a ratio of at least 5 to 1.
In the daytime there’s a trade fair, seminars, music masterclasses, meetings and general mingling. By 6pm the official showcases begin in various conference and ball rooms in the hotel. By 10:30pm the official showcases are over and it’s time for the unofficial showcases and general musical chaos on floors 5, 6 and 7. The idea seems to be to meet as many people as you can and invite them to one of your showcases.
It struck me that many of the UK contingent (myself included) found that this kind of unfiltered salesmanship didn’t come naturally and it took a bit of time to get into the swing of things. I think the festival is both brilliant and utterly absurd but it clearly works for the army of musicians that flock to the conferece every February.
There was a small Welsh contingent with myself, Plu, Lleuwen and Calan all invited to play official showcases this year. We were well looked after by Trac, which promotes the development of folk traditions in Wales. We were part of a larger crew from the rest of the UK working with British Underground and the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS) under the banner of ‘Horizons’. There was a Horizons suite where you could catch UK acts performing all evening and a stand at the trade fair where delegates could find out more about UK music.
Over the course of the week we played in rooms run by the House of Songs, Folk Canada and Horizons and shared the stage with many great artists. These included wonderful UK musicians Jack Harris and Luke Jackson, amazing Candaian songwriters Lydia Hol and Jenny Berkel, Danish sensation Ida Wenøe and magic Austin musicians Shawnee Kilgore, Daniel Thomas Phipps and Graham Weber. Some of the late night showcases turned into very enjoyable jam sessions, particularly in the House of Songs room, which happened to be sponsored by Tito’s Vodka.
We got to see loads of great music of course. In addition to the aforementioned artists some of my highlights included Lady Maisery, Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker, Matthew Byrne, Raina Rose, the Yves Lambert Trio, Miss Tess and the Talkbacks, and Cris Derksen and Plu
By the time our official showcase arrived on the Saturday, myself and Jen had invited half the conference to come see us play. It was the first time all week we’d had a 30 minute slot to ourselves so we were really looking forward. It was great to bring some Welsh music to the conference and we both enjoyed the experience. We had a great audience and lots of very positive feedback after the show. We even made it into the Kansas City Star the next day. We made a lot of new friends at FAI and I now have a large list of all the people I need to get back in touch with. I’m very hopeful that we’ll be back gigging in North America very soon.
Things at FAI tend to be winding down by the Sunday but the House of Songs crew had one more gig to do. The marvelous Troy Campbell had been awarded a Spirit of Folk Award earlier in the week and we had an hour slot to celebrate. It was great to hear everyone performing the songs they had written in Austin the week before. I got to play the songs I’d written with Shawnee Kilgore and Ida Wenøe one last time. There was a very special moment where all the performers came on stage and sang beautiful harmonies to mine and Ida’s song to end the set. I had shivers running up and down my spine and I’m pretty sure that the others and the audience had them too.
With the final show done there was nothing for it but to experience some proper Kansas City Barbecue. We all headed out to Jack Stack for the evening. It was a great way to end the American experience with the House of Songs gang and new friends from FAI all together. It was the first time I’d ever tried ‘Burnt Ends’, the juicy off-cuts from a brisket which came on a huge plate along with a steak. As Matt the Electrician pointed out, it’s basically steak with meat on the side. And a jacket potato drowning in cheese.
The next day myself and Jen had some time to kill so went to the Sea Life Aquarium to chill out a bit. Having been locked in our own folk music fishtank for a week I kind of felt a kinship with the fish. That’s what too much folk music conferencing can do to you!
I’d like to take this opportunity to say a huge thanks to Wales Arts International for supporting the whole project. Diolch o galon i chi!
Thanks also to trac, British Underground and the EFDSS for looking after us all so well and to FAI for inviting us out to showcase. I hope we’ll be back soon!
And finally, thanks to The House of Songs for being so damn brilliant. I feel like I’ve made friends for life and am very much looking forward to continuing the journey.