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Concert Reviews:
Older folks shine brightest at Ann Arbor festival

of the Oakland Press

Posted: Sunday, January 30, 2011

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ANN ARBOR -- The Ark's 34th Ann Arbor Folk Festival showed that the broad musical genre was alive and well and has plenty of young talent to see it into the future.

But it was a couple of old folks that showed those aspirants how it's really done over the weekend at Hill Auditorium.

Veterans Judy Collins and Mavis Staples, both 71, fired the Saturday (Jan. 29) lineup with instructive and inspirational -- and, ultimately, too brief -- displays of enduring musical potency. Collins, her pristine voice still clear if a bit brittle at the very top end, did so in her quiet way, channeling the 60s with her big hit cover of Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now," and singalong renditions of Pete Seeger's "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" and the standard "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." But Collins also staked a place for herself in the contemporary folk scene, too, dipping into her 2010 album "Paradise" for her versions of Joan Baez's "Diamonds and Rust" and Amy Speace's moving anti-war rumination "Weight of the World."

Staples, meanwhile, brought a fierce blend of gospel and soul in her roof-raising half-hour set. Showing a bit of sass -- "We be wondering why it took 'em so long to call us" for the festival. Thirty-four years without us?" noted the Staples Singer frontwoman -- she and her six-piece group started on a spiritual tip with an a capella "I Am His and He Is Mine" and "Creep Along Moses," she also touched on civil rights with "Freedom Highway," her latest solo album with the title track of the Jeff Tweedy-produced "You Are Not Alone" and paid homage to the Staples Singers with their version of The Band's "The Weight" and a call-and-response treatment of "I'll Take You There" that whipped the Hill crowd into a funky frenzy.

The one-two punch was enough to throw Saturday's final act, the Swell Season, a bit off its game, which frontman Glen Hansard acknowledged before starting to alter the group's set list. The quartet was so taken with Collins' and Staples' performances that at one point Hansard realized he had forgotten to bring a guitar capo for partner Marketa Irglova on "If You Want Me." The tentativeness gave the Swell Season's set its own kind of charm, however, and the group succeeded with special moments such as "Say It To Me Now," which Hansard sang away from the microphone, a cover of Van Morrison's "Into the Mystic," an a capella treatment of the Irish traditional "The Parting Glass" and the Academy Award-winning "Falling Slowly" from their film "Once."

It also fell to the Swell Season to lead the festival's finale, conducting the two nights' performers through a shambolic but spirited romp through Bob Dylan's "Forever Young."

Other delights from the weekend included the Avett Brothers' pounding headline set on Friday (Jan. 28) -- highlighted by "Kick Drum Heart," "Bella Donna," "January Wedding" and "Heart Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise" -- and, on Saturday, the Doyle & Debbie Show's hilarious country parody and Eilen Jewell's premiere of a brand new song, "Only One." New Found Road's Saturday performance was bolstered by the addition of Mountain Heart Fiddler Jim Van Cleve and a fun cover of Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine," while Citizen Cope (aka Clarence Greenwood) laced his laid-back solo acoustic set with covers of Neil Young's "Out on the Weekend" and Randy Newman's "Wedding in Cherokee County" as well as a new song of his own, "One Lovely Day."

Asian-American pianist Vienna Teng, currently pursuing a master's degree at the University of Michigan's Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise, surely earned a brownie point or two by bringing one of her professors on stage to play cello during "Blue Caravan" on Friday. And Susan Werner was an affable emcee, mixing performances of her own songs with pithy commentary, including recurring jokes about dating and bedding the Ark's volunteers.

About the only one of the weekend's 14 acts that didn't benefit from the festival format was Red Horse, the all-star trio of Eliza Gilkyson, John Gorka and Lucy Kaplansky, a normally chatty bunch who seemed hurried and a bit harried by having time for a mere five songs. It barely made a dent in the overall scheme of things, however, and this year's event went down once again as what Scott Avett noted was "a festival where clearly music is the focus."

Send your thoughts and comments to Gary Graff


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