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Concert Reviews:
Variety is key Ann Arbor Folk Festival's first night

Digital First Media, @GraffonMusic

Posted: Saturday, January 31, 2015

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ANN ARBOR -- You can list on one hand, and perhaps on one finger, how often a pop-minded trio of Swedish sisters, a guitar and mandolin duo from Traverse City and singer-songwriters who hew towards the rock end of the music spectrum make perfect sense on the same bill.

But as Jason Isbell -- one of the latter -- said on Friday, Jan. 30, at U-M's Hill Auditorium, "It's all folk music, I think, at the end of the day -- if you're doing it right."

Isbell and the other six acts certainly did it right on Friday during the first of the Ark's 38th Ann Arbor Folk Festival's two nights, displaying yet again the wide spectrum that the folk tag covers and how the genre is much more than a guy (or girl) with an acoustic guitar and a harmonica. Of course, the Ark has been a vehicle for that message for a long time -- 50 years, in fact, and this year's Folk Festival launched a year-long celebration with a short film exuberantly narrated by honorary anniversary chairman Jeff Daniels and a tastefully short pitch for The Ark's 50 Years More Capital Campaign.

The music provided all that needed to be said, nearly five hours of sharp playing and harmonic singer that started with a fleet-fingered display from Traverse City's Billy Strings & Don Julin and a set of set of "a lot of quiet, sad songs" by Mandolin Orange. Canada's Bahamas, meanwhile, was well aware that its atonal ambience made it "the odd duck at this festival," according to frontman Afie Jurvanen, but the group's gracious manner and a small but vocal contingent of college-aged supporters insured that it was "not the black sheep" of the night.

The "discovery" of the evening, however, was Baskery, the three Swedish sisters who now reside in Detroit. Blending pop, rock and even some R&B flavors and velvety harmonies that made it sound as fit to open for Taylor Swift as it did for the Folk Festival, the trio ripped through its four songs -- including a cover of Neil Young's "Old Man" -- with a playful and energetic spirit that made its March 24 return to The Ark a must-see.

Friday's heavy hitters, meanwhile, all delivered as expected. The Younger Mountain String band wrapped its five songs into a seamless 28 minutes that gave each of the instrumentalists plenty of opportunities to shine. Former Drive-By Truckers member Isbell and his wife, singer-violinist Amanda Shires, were characteristically sublime as they floated through restrained renditions of favorites such as "Stockholm," "Alabama Pines," the "allegorical murder ballad" "Live Oak" and a cover of Warren Zevon's "Mutineer," among others -- accompanied by, in fine folk tradition, droll and entertaining between-song stories.

Brandi Carlile closed the night with some favorites -- "Again Today," "That Wasn't Me," "Raise Hell" -- but was also keen the promote her upcoming album "The Firewatcher's Daughter" with tracks such as "Wherever Is Your Heart," "The Things I Regret" and "The Eye," a stunning showcase of three-part harmonies with her regular bandmates, twins Phil and Tim Hanseroth. Carlile also performed "What Can I Say" sans microphone, taking advantage of the Hill's natural acoustics, and the trio also delivered a charged version of Fleetwood Mac's "The Chain."

Knitting it all together was first-night emcee Steve Poltz, whose quick, extemporaneous wit was tested during the long changeover between Isbell and Carlile's sets -- during which he invoked the late Ernie Harwell with a recording of the late Detroit Tigers broadcaster's season-opening signature poem "Song of the Turtle." Poltz also scored points with his tongue-in-cheek -- but appropros -- song about his folk singing experiences and by turning a spiel for DTE Green Currents into a song using a sequencer and a dancing audience member who held the script for him.

The Folk Festival closes Saturday, Jan. 31, at Hill with performances by Amos Lee, Ani DiFranco, Buffy Sainte-Marie and more, and Cheryl Wheeler serving as emcee. The show is sold out.

Send your thoughts and comments to Gary Graff


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