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Concert Reviews:
Ann Arbor Folk Festival gets an infusion of Pete Seeger spirit

Digital First Media, @GraffonMusic

Posted: Sunday, February 2, 2014

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ANN ARBOR -- The passing of Pete Seeger earlier in the week loomed appropriately large at the 37th Ann Arbor Folk Festival.

Seeger, who last played at the festival in 2009, was the world's best-known folk singer and an evangelist for the genre, so his specter has loomed large, alive or now in death, any time a musician picks up a guitar and leads a singlalong. And there were certainly plenty of those Friday and Saturday, Jan. 31 and Feb. 1, at Hill Auditorium .

The mourning for Seeger took on a musical form, however, uplfiting rather than casting a pall on the proceedings. New York rocker Willie Nile got the tributes rolling, dedicating his blistering four-song set, as well as the closing song "One Guitar," to the folk icon. Festival emcee Seth Walker and some of the staff and crew led the audience through a post-intermission version of "If I Had a Hammer (The Hammer Song)" on Friday, while Ingrid Michaelson and her trio worked up "We Shall Overcome" in the green room on Saturday in order to close her set with it.

And the Seeger spirit permeated other moments of the festival, whether it was Jeff Daniels leading an exuberant crowd through "How 'Bout We Take Our Pants Off and Relax?" or the Patty Griffin-led festival finale of "On Top of Old Smoky" flanked by most of Saturday's other performers.

But while Seeger's death gave the festival a bit of thematic unity, the business at hand remained the impressively wide array of styles fitting under the folk umbrella that festival producer The Ark does so well, an occasionally curious mix that was always interesting and often elevating.

This year's headliners certainly delivered. Griffin, whose lone accompanist Craig Ross triggered an array of extra sounds, offered a wide-ranging hour that ranged from the upbeat ("Truth #2") to the ambient ("Ohio," "Little God"), with touches of Celtic folk ("Get Ready Marie") and gospel blues ("Standing"). Her powerful solo rendition of "No Bad News" was a highlight, while her set-closing version of Billy Hill's "The Glory of Love," done Jimmy Durante-style, was a welcome surprise.

Michaelson's stripped-down presentation worked well for songs such as "Blood Brothers," "Lady in Spain" and her hit "The Way I Am," while Daniels brought his recent Emmy Award for "The Newsroom" onstage, introducing a humorous new song about the experience to start a set that was both wry ("Old Folk Singer Blues") and resonant with "Road Signs," which he built from a poem by playwright and mentor Langford Wilson and featured Brad Phillips on mandolin.

Iron & Wine closed Friday's late-running show with a stately but casual set that included "Tree By the River," "Grace For Saints and Ramblers," "Fever Dream," "Belated Promise" and, being so close to Detroit, an appropriate "God Made the Automobile." Justin Townes Earle's own casual charm added levity to a duo set that included a solo performance of a brand new song called "White Gardenias," and Neko Case made good after an extra-long set-up with a powerful set featuring "This Tornado Loves You," "City Swans," a charged "Hold On, Hold On" and "Ragtime" -- as well as plenty of dry asides with backup singer Kelly Hogan.

Nile, meanwhile, peeled back a few heads on Friday with the sheer ferocity of his performance, which also paid tribute to the late Lou Reed with a version of "Sweet Jane." And Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys delighted on Saturday with a quieter but still high-tempoed romp through tunes such as "Love That Man," "This Ain't a Good Time" and his solo rendering of "You Mean So Much to Me."

The festival has also been a breeding ground for new discoveries, of course, and this year offered memorable introductions for the husband-wife duo Johnnyswim and seven-piece collective Pigpen Theatre Co., while Friday's tandem of Pearl & the Beard and Thao & the Get Down Stay Down helped establish that night's more rocking flavor. Michigan groups the Appleseed Collective and the Crane Wives acquitted themselves well in opening each night to arriving crowds, and Austin, Texas singer-songwriter Walker was a standout emcee who had plenty of time to strut his musical stuff between acts, a blues-steeped blend accented by sharp guitar work and culminating with the declaration that he wants to have more "Days Like This" -- a sentiment anyone attending the festival would surely second.

Send your thoughts and comments to Gary Graff


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