March-April 2007

The Rancho Cordova Marriott hosted the third annual FAR-West conference on November 16 – 19. For three days and nights, almost four hundred folk musicians, dancers, presenters and music lovers schmoozed, listened to music, attended seminars and celebrated all things folk.

FAR-West is the western arm of Folk Alliance, the international organization that fosters and promotes traditional, contemporary, and multicultural folk music and dance in North America. FAR-West was formed in 2003, with one of the first and strongest goals being to provide an annual regional conference. The first two years the FAR-West regional conference was in Woodland Hills and moved to the Sacramento area this year. In 2007, the conference will be in Vancouver, WA, across the river from Portland, OR.

The first order of conference business on site is the annual Thursday night tote bag stuffing. This year a myriad of volunteers showed up, and in less than an hour the valuables were ensconced and ready. By Friday morning, a steady flow of folkers began filling the lobby to register. Paul Barker, a presenter from Austin, TX, hosted his “Make The Most of Your Conference” and then the seminars began. At any time, an attendee has at least four different workshops to choose from, and this year’s choices made for some very difficult decisions.

I certainly don’t regret my first choice, which was “After the Gold Rush, The History of Folk Music in the West.” Panelists included Bruce Hayden, Roz & Howard Larman, Rosalie Sorrels, and Dick Weissman. This was a riveting event, with a tremendous amount of history in this panel.

The Panelists

“Stairway to Heaven, Record Production” gathered Michael Boshears, Keith Greeninger, John Jacob, Eric Lowen and Wendy Waldman to discuss how to make a good record on a less than stellar budget.

Finally on Friday, I attended the Kyser Capo workshop with Randall Williams, and I learned even more about partial and “cut” capos.

Bright and early on Saturday I hit “We Got Rhythm, Arranging” panel that featured Joe Craven on fiddle and percussion; Freebo on bass; Arthur Lee Land on lead guitar; Jim Photoglo on vocals and guitar; Dan Navarro on the same; Phil Parlapiano on accordion; Joel Tepp on slide guitar, harmonica and clarinet; and Wendy Waldman “moderating.” This group took an audience suggestion from James Lee Stanley to tackle the Beatles Eight Days A Week. After a modicum of discussion on approach, this group did a very effective “sensitive folk-rock” version of the tune with delicious vocal harmonies, then Craven led a “de-construction” of the song with an almost Caribbean rhythmic sense, and less instrumentation. Both were brilliant.

“We Write the Songs, Songwriters on Songwriting” featured Eric Lowen, Dan Navarro, Jim Photoglo, Steve Seskin, the ubiquitous Waldman, and Jenny Yates discussing how to capture the muse and other creative aspects of songwriting.

Sunday morning’s Folk Alliance sponsored brunch was followed by “one on one” mentoring sessions, and I slipped in a songwriting critique with Severin Browne and then dashed to “The Wacky, Wonderful World of Joe Craven,” where he spent time talking about the nature of music and spontaneity. He created a “conference miracle” when he chose an audience member to play the fiddle. This audience member had never performed in public or played the fiddle, but did that morning.

The Saturday luncheon featured awards for Steve Baker of Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage in the non-artist category, and the redoubtable U Utah Phillips, who surprised most by the brevity of his acceptance speech. There was an exhibit hall (okay, I forgot to stop by during the hours it was open, but I did bounce off those doors twice) a cocktail reception and much more. The increased enrollment surprised many, with Saturday’s luncheon only able to accommodate 300, so that late registered had to do without. Too bad, the salmon was quite good…

Performance showcases are either the backbone or bane of any music conference. FAR-West hosted the formal, juried showcases in the main room with a (mostly) decent sound system, with the sound volunteers hampered by hotel construction and a lack of pre-event time to set up. Still, I caught some great performances, among them Chris Stuart & Backcountry, Freebo with Jim Photoglo, and the remarkable Arthur Lee Land. Various folk organizations ran showcases on the “main floor,” and the entire fourth floor was dedicated to “guerilla” showcases. Showcases tend to breed problems faster than solutions.

On Friday, the organization showcases were under attended as the focus seemed on the guerilla showcases. The usual problem of “music drift” meant that one had to focus very seriously to fully appreciate John Batdorf’s excellent set at the Folkscene showcase, or on Saturday night one had to ignore the music from the full band a couple of doors down to enjoy Severin Browne’s set in the Summersongs showcase. Sound drift was worse on the fourth floor, with the proximity of the rooms, loud hallway chatter and no sound systems. Closed doors helped with quieting the distractions, but shut out potential audience. House concert presenters often love the intimacy of the hotel room showcases because they provide an insight of how a performer does “up close and personal.” Other presenters eschew the hotel room showcase because they want to see a performer interacting with an audience from a stage with a sound system and lights, like the venues they promote. Some performers truly enjoy the close quarters, while others find stage fright for the first time in their careers when faced with the task of performing to a small audience with a bird’s eye view of the artist’s nose hair. Showcases will continue to be an important yet flawed part of FAR-West without some dramatic changes. Luckily, as a professional critic and career long government employee, I need only criticize without providing any semblance of a solution.

Happily, Sunday’s general membership meeting was filled to the rafters with folks of a different persuasion, where critique was followed by solution, followed by offering to volunteer. Ideas were batted about, and then at exactly 2:30 p.m. on November 19, 2006, nearly 400 folkies slipped out of the greater Sacramento area, most with goofy grins on their faces…


All Columns by Dennis Roger Reed