By Tom Ineck
Feb. 24. 2018

John Oates and his band perform at the Blues Foundation’s official showcase during Folk Alliance International on Feb. 15, 2018 in Kansas City. Photo by Tom Ineck/KZUM.

Official showcase performances at the 2018 Folk Alliance International conference were presented in 10 Westin Crown Center venues, from small meeting rooms and a stage on the open mezzanine to ballrooms and Benton’s, the 20th floor event space that provides a stunning panoramic view of the Kansas City skyline.

The Blues Foundation sponsored a stage in a large ballroom where I spent much of my Thursday evening soaking in the sounds of Guy Davis, John Oates and Ruthie Foster.

Davis, a country blues troubadour who was born 65 years ago in New York City, exhibited his dedication to the singing and songwriting tradition of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Blind Willie McTell, Son House, Sleepy John Estes and Leadbelly. He deftly displayed his talent for finger-picking the 12-string guitar on the John Estes tune “Whatcha Doin’?” before launching into several original tunes in the same tradition — “Sugar Belly,” “Taking Just a Little Bit of Time,” “Wish I Hadn’t Stayed Away So Long,” and “(I’m Going to Shake It) Like Sonny Did,” which featured Davis on harmonica and hip-shaking. In the great folk music tradition, he also offered his unflattering and unvarnished opinion of our current president in a new song.

Oates and his Nashville-based Good Road Band put a new electric spin on old acoustic tunes from the 1920s and 1930s, including “Anytime,” the lead-off track from the new release Arkansas. From the same record, they also performed Mississippi John Hurt’s “Stack O Lee,” Blind Blake’s “That’ll Never Happen No More,” the waltz-time “I Miss the Mississippi and You,” and an original tune based on Hurt’s “Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor,” performed as an ominous rocker.

Ruthie Foster performs during the Blues Foundation’s official showcase at the Folk Alliance International Conference in Kansas City on Feb. 15, 2018. Photo by Deb Andersen/KZUM.

In her solo acoustic set, Austin’s Ruthie Foster closed the evening Blues Foundation concerts in her usual joyous and good-natured style. She began with an a cappella “devotion,” a spiritually uplifting introduction, and continued the mood with her gospel-tinged composition “Brand New Day,” the Bobby “Blue” Bland-style “Singing the Blues” and Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Up Above My Head.” Another original tune that seemed appropriate for the times was “Phenomenal Woman,” inspired by the poetry of Maya Angelou. Foster reminisced about the “sisters in the amen corner” before launching into a spine-tingling rendition of Son House’s “Don’t You Mind People Grinning in Your Face” a devotional tune about gratefulness and inner strength against all odds. She closed with “I Woke up This Morning,” another song of hope that had the audience singing along.

Here are a few thoughts on other official showcase performances that I witnessed at the FAI conference:

Grant-Lee Phillips previewed stellar tunes from his latest recording Widdershins, which was just released on Feb. 23. His solo acoustic set in Benton’s featured his incisive lyrics of social and political commentary on such new originals as “Walk in Circles,” “The Wilderness,” “King of Catastrophes” and “Something’s Gotta Give.” Asking the audience, “can I double-park in the ’90s for a minute and a half?” he launched into “Mighty Joe Moon,” the title track from the 1994 release by his band Grant Lee Buffalo. He then returned to the present with “Another, Another, then Boom,” a song addressing this country’s growing sense of anxiety and despair and ways to combat it.

Denver's Trout Steak Revival, Official Showcase #fai30 #kzumfai @troutsteakrevival

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Trout Steak Revival, a five-piece acoustic string band from Denver wowed the audience with their tight playing and singing in a closing set on Friday evening. Like any polished bluegrass outfit, they followed each others melody lines and seemed to finish each other’s thoughts with soaring vocal harmonies on tunes like the title track of their CD “Brighter Every Day.”

A series of Friday showcase performances illustrated the broad ethnic scope of the FAI conference, with music by international artists from Australia, Ireland and Scotland.

Singer-songwriter Liz Stringer of Melbourne, Australia, tapped into her Irish, Scottish and German ancestry for her beautiful, minor-key and often-melancholy songs. Yirrmal, an Aborigine from Australia’s Northern Territory, soul-shouted his songs about freedom, including “The Bridge,” a message of unity and the gap between black and white in his homeland. Daoiri Farrell of Dublin, Ireland, accompanied himself on the eight-string bouzouki while belting out traditional drinking songs with his piercing Irish tenor voice. Breabach, a quintet of Highland Scots, wielded bagpipes, fiddles, flutes, guitars and upright bass in a rousing set of up-tempo dance numbers and the lovely ballad, “Outlaws and Dreamers.”

Tom Ineck is a native, longtime resident of Lincoln, Neb., who has written about music for more than 30 years. He has hosted the KZUM jazz program “Night Town” since 1993 and NET Radio’s “Jazz Currents” since 2012.