Time to plunge in and start writing about NERFA. I do not know if I’ll finish. This might require more than one entry.
In the Torah god commanded the 12 tribes of Israel to gather together for three great feasts. Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot. The 12 tribes of Folk similarly gather for great feasts of music. This is a far larger country so we need more than three feasts; there are two that I never miss, Falcon Ridge and NERFA. There is a lot of overlap but they don’t attract exactly the same tribes. NERFA is the NorthEast Regional Folk Alliance, a chapter of FAI, Folk Alliance International. When I refer to NERFA I mean its annual conference. Who belongs at NERFA? That’s always a subject for debate; it’s usually referred to as a professional conference but most of the attendees aren’t professionals. The most obvious function of the conference is to act as a place where presenters can discover artists. After nine years of attending, I just this morning came up with the answer to who belongs; it’s presenters and performers and those whose presence would be useful to presenters and performers. That means DJs, promoters, photographers, writers, luthiers, publicists, and even people like me who don’t fit neatly into any of those categories, but are still useful. I love hearing how musicians describe what I do to people they are introducing me to. This year Joe Crookston called me “The philosopher of the Eastern United States folk community.” Who am I to second guess one of the greatest singer/songwriters on the planet?
I’m going to make my life more difficult and not give a day by day rundown of what I did. Instead I’m going to be useful to the folk community and write about the artists I discovered at showcases. There are four kinds of showcases at NERFA.
- The Suzi Wollenberg Folk DJ Showcase – This is held on Thursday night for the early attenders. The DJs who choose to sponsor one artist for a short set. There is nothing else going on at the conference so everyone attends. Unlike the other “official” showcases, these are not chosen by a jury, but each by one DJ’s idiosyncratic taste. They choose artists that they’ve discovered recently that they feel are not known by most attendees. It’s always one of my favorite places to discover new talent. It’s also where I’m most likely to see an artist I don’t like. Even that is educational, I see what other people look for in musicians, which is often very different from my criteria.
- Formal Showcases – The are 14 artists, 7 seven each on Friday and Saturday night, chosen by judges. Like the DJ Showcase, there is nothing else going on at the conference; these are the most highly attended events. The artists are better known so I have a smaller pool to make discoveries from. I can’t discover someone I already know, except when I can. I’ll get to that later.
- Semi-Formal Showcases – These follow the Formal. This year there were three, with five artists at each one. You have to scout out the talent and decide in each slot which one you will go to. I choose artists I don’t know, except when I do. These rules are not hard and fast. If I don’t see an artist often, or if I influenced the artists attending, I see them.
- Guerilla Showcases – This is where the chaos sets in. There are dozens going on late at night, starting after the Semi-Formals. They are held in hotel rooms. I often watch from a bed. I often watch, laying in a bed. I even dress for bed. I plan on catching some artists and others I discover by hearing them from the hallway. This is the heart of NERFA.
I’m going to arrange my recommendations by tiers. This is difficult for me as I make fine judgements, and I’m afraid of hurting artists’ feelings. There’s also a question of how much to trust me. At my first NERFA I put Jean Rohe in Tier 2. Now, there is no one I love more. I’m judging from a small body of work and artists grow. The order within the tiers is not meaningful. It has to do with the order I come across them in my notes.
- Tier 1: Unequivocal recommendations, the best of the best.
- Annie Sumi – Annie created a sensation on Thursday by not being at NERFA. She was supposed to be in the DJ showcase but had trouble crossing the border. She is not a terrorist or a drug dealer. She’s a sweet Canadian musician but there was a misunderstanding by the border guard of the nature of NERFA. There are rules about Canadian artists coming to the US for paid work. Want to reform NAFTA? Get rid of those restrictions. The Canada has them too. I talked to Canadians about Annie and every single one referred to her in glowing terms and said that she was the sweetest person. Every person literally said, “sweetest.” That doesn’t make her a great musician. In fact that lowered my expectation as people might be recommending her because they like her. I’m glad that I saw her perform before I met her so I could remain unbiased. The verdict? She’s a great singer/songwriter. One of my friends that wasn’t attending asked me for recommendations. Her words were: “Please keep your eye out for the next Dar Williams, Lucy Kaplansky, Cheryl Wheeler. I’m sorry that’s so narrow, but it’s what I LOVE!! A beautifully written story song sung by a female.” I unhesitatingly recommended Annie and only Annie. I saw her first at a Semi-Formal. She as so good I went to see her again at a guerilla. I got a few chances to talk to her. She’s the sweetest person, the Canadians were right. She’s also smart and talented. She is like Dar.
- B (Oliver Esposito) – Ollie is technically not a discovery. I saw them when they were 12 supporting Amy Speace. Ollie was known as a mandolin wunderkind. I knew they’d be great but I was thinking Sierra Hull, maybe even Chris Thile instrumental virtuosity. Now the ripe old age of 18, I heard was a brilliant singer/songwriter. We are talking totally blowing me away singer/songwriter. I heard them in a guerilla on Thursday night. I almost missed it as I accidentally deleted it from the conference app. Luckily I was there early to see the next performer. It was pure serendipity. It proved extra fortunate as Ollie had to leave in the morning and cancel their other showcases. They are coming to the Common Ground Coffeehouse on May 18. I know that’s a long way off but mark you calendars. You need to be there. I would love to see B, Ollie’s stage name, and Annie together except so much sunshine in a room might blind me. Ollie radiates joy even when the music is dark.
- Taarka – Taarka is a band I discovered by walking around Thursday night. I heard beautiful fiddling, followed it, and found Emerald Rae, who I already know and love. I heard more beautiful fiddling, followed it, and found Gina Forsythe, who I know and love. Later I heard another fiddler and followed the sound and found nobody. I did see the band Taarka standing in the hallway. They have an interesting name which had led me to read their bio. I saw that one of them, Enion, was holding a fiddle. I asked if she had just been playing. She was. Then came a real NERFA encounter. We spent the next 15 minutes talking in the hallway. First I asked about the name, my theory was that it was Finnish. I was close, Estonian. They are not Estonian, they took the name from an Estonian musician from a century ago. It also has connections to quantum string theory. We went down the nerd rabbit hole. We also have friends in common including Jefferson Hamer and Lily Henley. They lived in Brooklyn for a while. They are my people I made sure to check out their next showcase. Their songs were as interesting as they are! For them, it’s a; high bar.Taarka is the married couple duo of David Tiller and Enion Pelter-Tiller. They moved from Brooklyn after 9/11 and went to join their friend Jefferson in Lyon Colorado. That was just when Jefferson left Colorado for Brooklyn. Enion plays fiddle and David mandolin and guitar. Their music is diverse. The first song I heard was somewhat avant-garde with classical sounding violin. The next was an Irish style instrumental. The third was a folk song. They play all sorts of great music. They even have a song in Galician, which neither of them speaks. They should be friends with Jean Rohe. I like fixing up my musician friends. They were my totally out of the blue discovery that I knew none of my friends was aware of. They had only one more showcase, at 2 AM on Saturday night. I told all my friends to be there. Three showed up, I’m not totally without influence. For the rest, it’s their loss. Taarka is special.
- Tier 2: The best of the rest. At the moment I like them a lot, maybe even love them; I’m just not shouting their names from the rooftops.
- Sam Steffen – Sam was in the DJ showcase, my note for him was, “We have a winner!” He writes the kind of songs Woody Guthrie would be writing if he were alive today. I have to get a copy of his CD to Bob Sherman, the host of Woody’s Children at WFUV.
- Marion Halliday – Marion Halliday is not quite a discovery, She was tier 3, last year. Now I’ve heard more and know she’s great. My notes tell me I found her a revelation and that her music has soul.
- Screaming Orphans – The name is certainly familiar, I asked the band if we had met. We hadn’t. Perhaps I heard them on the radio. They are a great Irish band, right in my wheelhouse. I’ll check to see if the Irish Show hosts are aware of them. If not, that’s another CD to deliver.
- Ronny Cox – Ronny had a formal. I have seen Ronny before but my opinion of him shot up during his set. He’s great even if he played a total bastard on Stargate: SG 1
- Willa Mamet – I found Willa in the New Meet Room for NERFA first timers. Jay and Catherine aka Miles and Mafale are the hosts. They asked me to come in and I did as a favor to them. As I hoped, it turned out that they did me a great favor. Willa did a song that we think is traditional. I say “we” as she wasn’t sure but it’s what I had heard too. It is not by Judy Collins even though some source said it was. It’s a fisherman’s song. That’s all I heard from her and it was enough to win me over. I had to leave to catch someone else but I asked Jay what her name was. He told me and said, “I’ll remember her as Mamet like David Mamet. I ran into her the last day and told her that. Good mnemonic, she’s David Mamet’s daughter. One song was enough for me to know she’s great. I hope she still likes me after she reads that in my mind she’ll always be “Wooly Mammoth.” I know that’s what childhood me would have thought and he’s still in there. My sister Alison was “Alisonsaurus.”
- Tier 3: Artists that intrigue me but need to hear more from to pass judgement. This can sometimes simply be because I was sleepy when I heard them. I’ll point out the one where I know it was a factor.
- Plywood Cowboy – They were the last performers in the DJ Showcase. My note is “Pretty good, need to hear more.” That’s the definition of Tier 3
- Next Generation Leahy – The Irish Van Trapp Family. Lots of kids singing and dancing and making everyone happy. Enough to support a full set? That’s what needs to be seen.
- Quentin Callewaert – Might very well belong in Tier 2. I’m being conservative as he was my NERFA stalker, the person I kept running into. We had dinner one night. He’s a great 18-year-old kid and I want him to be great. So I’ll be conservative and put him here. He performed “Classical Gas,” Hard to not like a kid who plays that.
- Moonfruits – The duo of Alex Millaire & Kaitlin Milroy. I met Alex waiting online to get earplugs. They have perhaps the best artist bio at the conference. They created their own fictional French town that all their songs are set in. I was so sleepy during their set that I can’t be sure they belong in Tier 2. They shouldn’t have finished with a lullaby, worked too well on me.
- Fiora Laina – She’s a 15-year-old protégé of Alan Rowoth. I heard one song by her in the BOT room. It was good enough for me to want to hear more. Right now I have Quentin and Fiora penciled in as the leadoff performers at the Budgiedome next year. We have to nourish the young artists.
- Jess Clinton – I head heard Jess do one song on a bill with Emerald Rae. Now I heard more and I know I still have to hear more. Once again I’m prejudiced as she’s a delightful person so I’m being conservative.
- Kirsten Manville – I had met her briefly at last year’s NERFA and knew her as NOT Kirsten Maxwell. Not only are their names just one letter off, but both have the same middle name, Elizabeth. Just remember it’s Kerr-sten MaNville and Keersten MaXwell. Like Quentin she as a boon dinner companion and I’m afraid I’m prejudiced. She’s certainly really good.
- Tier 1: Unequivocal recommendations, the best of the best.
I was too ambitious. This took me hours to write. It’s early evening and I have to run to the pharmacy before I eat. There will be more on NERFA tomorrow.