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Concert Reviews:
Ann Arbor fest showcases the many shades of folk

For Journal Register Newspapers

Posted: Sunday, January 27, 2013

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ANN ARBOR -- If nothing else during its 36 years, the Ann Arbor Folk Festival has firmly and sometimes defiantly established that there's much more to the genre than a bunch of people playing acoustic guitars and wondering where all the flowers have gone.

That certainly held true at this year's two-day event, a characteristically eclectic show that illustrated just how large the folk (or Americana, in more contemporary vernacular) tent has become. The 15 acts that strummed, picked, bowed, riffed, rocked and vamped their way across the Hill Auditorium stage on Friday and Saturday, Jan. 25 and 26, offered music that was both sincere and sincerely irreverent but was only rarely anything less than exciting.

Some of the lasting impressions:

The Rock Star: Detroit singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez, milking the buzz around the Academy Award-winning documentary "Searching For Sugar Man," was ushered on stage Friday as family members threw T-shirts into the sold-out crowd (as they did at the end of his show, too). The 70-year-old and his backing trio, including Detroit rock stalwarts Matthew Smith and Troy Gregory, were genially loose over the course of the nine-song set, navigating their way through the likes of "Sugar Man," "I Wonder," "This is Not a Song, It's an Outburst..." and more. Rodriguez was equally random in his between-song comments, mixing political rhetoric with a kind of charmingly adolescent joke about Mickey and Minnie Mouse, but the effect was, as emcee Colin Hay noted afterwards, "special."

Rock Stars To Be: The Head And The Heart felt a tad awkward about closing the festival on Saturday; frontman Jonathan Russell even commented that "My girlfriend's parents are taking me a lot more seriously now that I've played on the same set as Lucinda Williams," who THATH actually followed. But the Seattle six-piece, added after the Civil Wards dropped out, proved itself worthy of the spot with eight sharply rendered songs that featured not only songs from its self-titled 2011 debut but also previewed material slated for its sophomore set, including one inspired by the December shootings in Newtown, Conn. THATH can probably expect a strong sales spike in southeastern Michigan when the album comes out later this year -- and it did a fine job of leading the fest's all-star finale, a spirited, if yodel-free, past-curfew romp through Jimmie Rodgers' "T For Texas."

Grace Under Pressure: Williams, who turned 59 on Saturday (and was serenaded with "Happy Birthday" by the Hill audience), had to face down not only a less-established act headlining over her but also technical problems that rendered her acoustic guitar unplayable. The famously temperamental troubadour took it gracefully in stride, however, turning in a strong seven-song set. Accompanied only by guitarist Doug Pettibone, Williams delivered spare renditions of favorites such as "Pineola," "Drunken Angel," "Copenhagen," "Blue," "Change the Locks" and a ferocious "Joy," and she also unveiled a rocking new tune, "Something Wicked This Way Comes," that she said was slated for the ABC TV series "Nashville."

The Polarizer: City and Colour (aka Canadian singer-songwriter Dallas Green) brought Friday's show to a low-key, buzz-killing close that pleased the college-aged fans -- who seemed to be mostly in the Hill balcony -- but suffered in following Trampled By Turtles' energetic romp and sent a steady stream of the festival's older patrons to the exits throughout his performance. Green, who identified himself as a former Detroit Pistons fan, hurt his own momentum by talking and tuning nearly as much as playing, and renditions of "The Grand Optimist," "Waiting," "Body in a Box" and "Sleeping Sickness" played well to the faithful but probably didn't win many fresh converts.

The Party Crashers: A brassy and rocking 10-piece from Brooklyn is exactly the kind of parameter-pushing this festival excels at, and Brother Joscephus and the Love Revolution certainly brought a bit of the loud 'n' rowdy to Saturday's show. The troupe opened the night's second-half by parading through the aisle to the stage to start an exuberant "love revival" that served as a great commercial for the group's April 19 return to The Ark.

What's The Buzz: The sibling-led North Carolina group Delta Rae wowed Friday's crowd with its intense vocal harmonies and rock 'n' roll energy, as well as an unexpected cover of Fleetwood Mac's "The Chain"...Michigan's Drew Nelson's topical, heartland country-rock was a valuable reminder of folk's roots in social commentary at the start of Saturday's show...The quiet Frank Fairfield spoke loudly with his instruments during a dazzling Saturday's set, displaying plenty of old tyme flash -- particularly during a pair of fiddle medleys...and Virginia's Steel Wheels followed Fairfield with a display of equally sharp instrumental chops and tight harmonies.

From a Land Down Under: Ark favorite Colin Hay, formerly frontman of Men At Work, was an affable emcee over the two nights, sticking to his strength -- songs -- but cracking enough jokes and spinning a few yarns to keep things moving. (The one about the lawn-moving goat sounded dubious but was certainly entertaining.) Hay, who returns to play Sept. 6 at the Power Center, gave Saturday's crowd a taste of his old band as well, performing "Overkill" and "Who Can It Be Now?," the latter preceded with an emotional dedication to Men At Work's late reeds player Greg Ham.

Send your thoughts and comments to Gary Graff


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