Notes from the International Folk Alliance

by John Platt
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Jake Jacobson, ASharpereye.com

I’m still trying to recover from the International Folk Alliance from February 20-24 in Toronto. So much music, so little sleep! I was pleased to see personal faves like The Stray Birds (above), Brother Sun, Red Molly, Spuyten Duyvill, Roosevelt Dime, and many others represented, but I always make it a priority to see as many new artists as I can. Perhaps because of Toronto, this one seemed even more international than usual. Not just tons of talented Canadians, but noteworthy artists from the U.K., Australia, even Sweden.

Speaking of which, one of the most exciting groups I saw was Baskery, a trio of young Swedish sisters who speak perfect English and play with a lot of energy – including an electric slide banjo, something you don’t see everyday. They were part of a veritable youth movement, which also included Parker Millsap from Oklahoma (creating a buzz similar to John Fullbright four years ago in Memphis), Ariana Gillis from Ontario, Old Man Luedecke from Nova Scotia, Micey and Star from Memphis, and Rachel Sermanni from Scotland. (Several folks I trust raved about Lucy Ward, a 22 year old from England, but by the time I heard about her, she had no more showcases,)

Scotland also gave us Karine Polwart, who’s not a newcomer, but was new to me. What a songwriter and what a voice! Not just her singing voice, either. I could listen to her brogue all day. Another woman who caught my ear was Jessica Stuart from Toronto, who plays a koto with a jazz-pop trio. And the koto also figured (who’d have guessed?) in the set by the Brit Sam Lee (a Mercury Prize finalist), whose music has more of a drone quality. I love to see folks expanding the borders of folk that way.

There were a lot of outstanding, harmony-endowed duos: female – Scarlett Jane from Winnipeg); male – The Milk Carton Kids (from L.A. and NYC); and mixed – The Barn Birds (Jonathan Byrd from NC and Chris Kokesh from OR), A.J. Roach and Nula Kennedy (Appalachia meets Ireland), and Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer (with riveting versions of Child ballads).

Among the men I particularly enjoyed the Canadians Aengus Finnan, Stephen Fearing, John Wort Hannam, Tim Chaisson, and Corin Raymond, as well as some American vets it was good to hear again – Jon Vezner, Darryl Purpose, and Joe Crookston – and an incomparable Welsh fave, Martyn Joseph. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

One final shout-out to Toronto homeboy Jory Nash, who took Mike Kornfeld and me on a trip through his neighborhood, including the St. Lawrence Market. It felt good to get out of the hotel a couple of times, however briefly, to see a great city. I’d love to come back, but maybe not in February next time!

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