A mighty wind blows through Montreal

We were sitting around Schwartz’s deli on our last day in Montreal, enjoying the smoked meat and catching up on events of the previous evening. Two young guys from Toronto sharing our table couldn’t help but overhear our conversation and figured we were attending some sort of folk music event in the city. “Is it anything like that movie A Mighty Wind?” the bald guy who was into jam bands asked.

The North American Folk Music and Dance Alliance was set up close to 20 years ago by a group in the folk music industry (yes, there is one) to “foster and promote traditional, contemporary and multicultural folk music, dance and related performing arts in North America.” Their main claim to fame is the annual conference, which takes place in February and has become the gathering of the folk tribes in North America. A motley crew of musicians, artist reps, record label reps, radio DJs, promoters, and fans of roots music attend—close to 2000 this year. And yes, many are from the “we lived through the 60s folk scare” demographic. I noticed a lot of reading-over-the-bifocals à la Bob Balaban’s character in A Mighty Wind.

This year’s Annual International Folk Alliance conference (the 17th) was paired with Strictly Mundial, a presentation of the European Forum of Worldwide Music Festivals. This combination injected a much-welcomed European ambience and world music element to the proceedings. Trad and not-so-trad Québécois music was also at the forefront. I noticed that the aging WMF (white male folkie) uniform is fairly universal: long grey hair tied back in ponytail, loose clothing to conceal paunch and sensible shoes. The Québec contingent looked similar, but smoked, drank, and leered at young women more than their counterparts.

While this character may be the prototype of the folk music conference attendee, it is not the sole character represented in the folk music scene any more. As the popularity of the Folk Alliance conferences grows, so does the contingent of under-30s. It’s a symbiotic relationship: the young folks need the old folks to do the organizing and find funding while the old folks need the young folks’ energy and talent. And the old folks hope that one day the young folks will take up the torch. What is actually happening is that the young folks have helped create one of the best music parties around. Although some go through the motions of checking out exhibit booths and attending a seminar or two, it’s more about the chance to make music long into the wee hours with friends, hoping that someone might stumble upon them and offer them gigs or a record deal. Outside of official showcases in hotel ballrooms, several floors of the host hotel (the Montréal Hyatt) are dedicated “music floors” where rooms and suites are converted into mini house concerts for the weekend. One can wander the halls sampling music late into the night.

Trish Klein (Po’ Girl, Be Good Tanyas) missed this year’s Folk Alliance, but explained the concept of their “Little Red Hen Room” which first appeared at Folk Alliance 2001 in Vancouver and helped the Be Goods get a lot of festival work that year. “The Little Red Hen thing was a really great collaboration in terms of artists trying to support each other, trying not to be competitive, just coming together to make something bigger than the sum of the parts. Every year we’ve showcased amazing talent, and we really brought a lot of people in. Our jams would basically go all day and all night. I think we made it a lot of fun for visitors as well, because we made an effort to decorate, and make the room not a hotel room, but like you were entering into another zone. You feel like you’re in a freaky little club or bordello in New Orleans, and there’s all these stunning women standing around, just hanging out with each other.”

This year there were no candles to be seen, thanks to a suspicious fire in one of the suites last year. Efforts by Folk Alliance organizers to water down this “guerrilla showcase” element (and potential liability issues) resulted in even more officially-sanctioned music in the two levels of Hyatt meeting rooms dubbed “Performance Alley.” On top of this were the usual official venue events taking place in nearby clubs such as Medley and Club Soda. The unofficial music-making in hotel suites didn’t go away, it just competed with all the other music. There was a tad too much choice and too much area to cover everything thoroughly, so I stuck mostly to the hotel happenings.

There was a fantastic mix of performers at this year’s conference. There were lots of important American acts—longtime favourites like Emmylou Harris, whose performance I unfortunately missed, and newer groups like The Mammals (Pete Seeger’s grandson is a member) who are gaining fans of all ages with a high-energy, genre-crossing roots sound that’s very au courant. However, there were also a surprising amount of Canadian groups which I hadn’t expected, despite the conference being held in Montréal. I got a good dose of Québécois bands like Vent du Nord, Yves Lambert (formerly of La Bottine Souriante) and his new band, and many of the younger bands playing in the Folquébec room, handily located beside the lounge bar. But there were also groups from all across Canada, such as D. Rangers, The Bills, The Duhks, Wailin’ Jennys, and Clumsy Lovers, and they were inciting an impressive buzz among the American delegates. As one dude I encountered in the exhibit hall told me, “I had no idea there was so much talent up here!”

I was happy to see that young women are also increasingly making their presence known and I especially enjoyed Eivor (from the Faroe Islands) and Uncle Earl (five American gals playing bluegrass). On the Strictly Mundial side there was a good representation of women as well: Mary Jane Lamond, Lhasa and Kiran Ahluwalia from our country, Dobet Gnahore from the Ivory Coast, Sandra Luna from Argentina and many more.

While the whole scene seemed like a folk festival with elevators, most people were there to forge new connections and get gigs. I benefitted from the opportunity to score new material for my roots music show (“Folk Oasis,” Wed. 9 pm on CiTR) and hang out with other folk music DJs and musicians. After the conference, I checked in with Mitch Cantor owner of eclectic indie label Gadfly Records who I’d first met at SXSW five years ago [see DiSCORDER, May 2000] (It was dinner with him that caused me to miss Emmylou’s performance, just as dinner with him had also caused us to miss Steve Earle’s keynote address at SXSW. Note to self.) “Folk Alliance is always a challenge for me,” he said. “There’s a lot to be gotten out of it, though sometimes, due to bad planning or circumstance, it’s possible to miss much of the benefit of the event. Still, as I have found with most conferences, the best things-—performances seen and meetings­—are the ones you come across by accident or that you wouldn’t have been able to predict in advance. And that is what has kept me coming all these years.”

Mitch has only missed one Folk Alliance conference since 1993, so I asked if he has seen the conference change. “I haven’t seen the event change dramatically since the beginning, except for the growth. But the core of what it is hasn’t changed: seminar sessions, exhibitors, and a small city of performers that descends on the chosen host venue. As long as you can filter out what is unnecessary or unappealing to you as an individual, it’s a good conference.”

On occasion I managed to escape the vortex of the Hyatt and soak up some of Montréal’s wonderful ambience. I polished up my French sufficiently so les Montréalais wouldn’t laugh too hard. I indulged my inner architectural geek around Vieux-Montréal and the McGill campus. It sure is hard to turn guide book pages with gloves on. I enjoyed wonderful meals with friends at Schwartz’s, Chu Chai (veggie Thai to die for), and some new joint in Vieux-Montréal with impressive vindaloo. We happened upon the very funky boutique/performance space Eva B and greatly enjoyed their special coffees, aptly named Comfort and Insight. We checked out the outdoor winter festival Montréal En Lumière. On s’est bien amusé.

Next year’s Folk Alliance conference will be in Austin, Texas. This will likely translate into stronger emphasis on country-flavoured folk, “Americana,” and Tex-Mex styles. For sure it will mean leaving my parka and winter boots at home. It will certainly be interesting to watch how the older, hard-core folkies react to Austin, and vice-versa. If anything, it’ll be almost as good as SXSW, but slightly less nutty. I can’t wait.