As Ken Waldman will tell you, getting an audience at APAP (the annual Association of Performing Arts Presenters conference in New York) isn’t easy.
There are some 1,500 artist showcases at the Hilton Hotel and at outside venues throughout Manhattan and even Brooklyn, all competing for the attention of the thousands of agents, managers and especially talent buyers in town from all over the world, and while the bigger talent agencies can take over a big club for a night of wining and dining of prospective purchasers of their bigger clients, everyone else is largely subjugated to 15-minute sets in the hotel meeting rooms and suites before discerning audiences that turn over more rapidly than the acts themselves.
Yet Ken Waldman, a.k.a. “Alaska’s Fiddling Poet,” has borrowed from the big boys in making his annual evening showcase of some of the smallest music acts–himself included–into what is always one of the biggest nights of the conference, both quantitatively and qualitatively. This year he called his nine-set extravaganza, which played Thursday night at Jalopy in Brooklyn and Friday night within walking distance of the Hilton at cabaret space Don’t Tell Mama, “From Manhattan to Moose Pass.”
The Friday night show kicked off with Ken’s Class Party, a veritable showcase-within-a-showcase in which Waldman was joined by his seven other curated acts—each steeped in old-timey traditional acoustic music–in essentially an introductory half-hour set offering a taste of the 15-minute individual sets to follow. At one point Waldman led eight fiddlers (also including himself) on the traditional “Sandy Boys.” Switching to mandolin, he played his original “Fairbanks Cabin Waltz,” during which he recited his poem “Fairbanks Cabin” to additional acoustic guitar accompaniment from the Aching Hearts’ Ryan Spearman.
Also starring guitarist/vocalist Kelly Wells, the Aching Hearts did their own set, with Spearman also singing and playing other strings. Evie Ladin & Keith Terry’s set mixed clawhammer banjo picking and Terry’s body percussion, while Anna (Roberts-Gevalt) & Elizabeth (LaPrelle) added crankie moving scrolls to illustrate their acoustic folk song storytelling.
Performing, too, were acclaimed banjo/guitar/fiddle player Riley Baugus, whose singing has graced 2003’s Cold Mountain; Richie (Stearns) & Rosie (Newton), with influential banjo player Stearns also of the Horse Flies and Newton a touring player with The Duhks; the Corn Potato String Band of multi-instrumentalists Aaron Jonah Lewis, Lindsay McCaw and Ben Belcher; and Akron zydeco band Mo’ Mojo.
Ken Waldman & the Secret Visitors ended the night much as it had begun, and it will hardly be surprising if the SRO event again spreads at least a bit of success to all involved.
“Last year everybody got somethoug out of the showcase,” Waldman said the next day, at his APAP booth. “But getting these people together—or others that are just as good and play this kind of music—is hit-or-miss and prohibitively expensive, especially for just one night.”
So Waldman pitches his multiple-act concept as a festival weekend.
“We had eight groups here and three hours of music, or I can do shows with four groups,” he said, citing in particular a “Ken Waldman’s Roots Music Variety Show” he curated a few years ago at the Academy for the Visual & Performing Arts at Texas A&M after Dr. Kirsten Pullen, associate professor of the Department of Performance Studies, met him at an APAP conference in Miami.
“I quickly realized he wasn’t just a nice guy, but a terrific musician and poet with a reputation for generosity and hard work,” Pullen wrote in the program for the show, in which she also mentioned later seeing Waldman’s New York APAP showcase in 2013: “It was the best live music evening I’ve ever had, and I knew I had to bring him to Texas A&M.”
Waldman took the long way to his Alaska’s Fiddling Poet desgination. An admitted “late bloomer” who grew up outside Philadelphia, he was a business major in North Carolina, then moved to Alaska in 1985 to pursue creative writing in grad school. He eventually landed a teaching job at the University of Alaska in Nome—and survived a plane crash on a flight between there and Brevig Mission.
He’s since released nine CDs of old-time Appalachian-style string-band music, including two for kids. He’s also published six poetry collections, a memoir about his life as a touring artist and a volume of acrostic poems for kids.
The former college professor has been a visiting writer at over 80 colleges and universities and a visiting artist at over 200 schools in 32 states, and has led workshops from Alaska to Maine. And since 1995 he’s toured full-time, performing at universities, festivals, art centers, clubs and other venues ranging from the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage to Berkeley’s Freight and Salvage, sometimes as a soloist, but usually, as at APAP, fronting his ever-changing troupes of nationally recognized musicians for performing arts series shows.
It all stems from learning to play the fiddle. As he relates in his poem “Old-Time Fiddle Lesson,” “to learn, lock yourself and your fiddle in a room all winter, and practice until you play with a twisty heartfelt rhythmic punch that approaches trance: Fiddling is not technical repetition anyone can master—it’s the sound you make once you know in the blood you clog with your fingers while that old devil music dances inside the box.”
He performed the poem early during Friday night’s show. Later, accompanied by Mo’ Mojo’s Jen Maurer on accordion and Leigh Ann Wise on rubboard, he recited his moving memorial, “In Memory of Jillian Johnson and for former LSUE student, Mayci Breaux”; Johnson was a member of Lafayette, La. female roots band The Figs, who was killed, along with Breaux, in the Lafayette movie theater shooting last July.
Waldman spends a lot of time in French Louisiana. The last time he saw Johnson, he related via his poem, “you ladled me a full bowl of gumbo, poured me a beer, and smiled…a party for a few hundred friends plus odd folks you didn’t know…you always liked making big things better…Oh death. Our strange world is getting stranger.”
But he also had five of the showcasing bands’ females surrounding him on stage to stomp along on one of his fiddle tunes.
“I hope the work is cumulative, and that people who missed it feel guilt and then come out next time,” he said at his heavily trafficked booth. “And if I put together a whole evening, people get to see me in different settings—with different groups and a high caliber of musicians.”
Indeed, Waldman reported that he’s got a gig next week in New Jersey thanks to his APAP showcasing.
“It’s a fool’s errand in some ways, I guess, but it’s my errand—and it makes sense,” he concluded. “I used to showcase in the more traditional way, but there are too many variables that you can’t control, whereas here, everyone is in the same genre–and equally good. It doesn’t matter who goes on first, and we all play the same amount of time for an appreciative audience. And we’re all friends!”