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Concert Reviews:
Ann Arbor festival shows again how diverse folk music can be

Digital First Media, @GraffonMusic

Posted: Sunday, January 31, 2016

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ANN ARBOR -- "We heard this was a folk festival," Tyler Heath of the Oh Hellos told the crowd Friday night, Jan. 29, at Hill Auditorium during the first night of the 39th Annual Ann Arbor Folk Festival. "And we're folks."

Some might have wondered if the nine-piece group really fit the bill after the hard-rocking first two songs of its set -- "We come out swinging a little bit," Heath acknowledged -- but that's been the point of the festival since it's inception. Folk is a big umbrella, and as usual the AAFF, a fundraiser for The Ark, used its eclectic lineup to demonstrate just how much music can fit under the banner.

So this year's edition ran the gamut from the established and iconic (Joan Baez, Richard Thompson and a jaw-dropping gospel-roots set by Ry Cooder, Sharon White and her husband Ricky Skaggs) to young traditionalists (Penny and Sparrow, Darlingside), acts from the rock side of the divide (City and Colour, Nora Jane Struthers & the Party Line, Joshua Davis) and artists ambitious enough to be difficult to define (the Accidentals, Alan Doyle & the Beautiful Gypsies). Though Saturday's show was more consistently strong than Friday's, the melange still worked and left any fan at the fest feeling like folk is in fine hands for the future.

Baez, of course, was provided a key link to folk's rich legacy with her rich history lesson of a set that closed the festival on Saturday. Dressed in flannel, jeans and sneakers -- and just three days removed from an all-star concert in New York celebrating her 75th birthday earlier in the month -- Baez sampled her catalog of original favorites such as "Silver Dagger" and "Diamonds & Rust" as well as covers of Chas McDevitt`s "Freight Train," "Bob Dylan's "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," Woody Guthrie's "Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)" Kris Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee" (sung with her personal assistant Emma Vasseur), the Fisk Jubilee Singers' "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and "The House of the Rising Sun." Her voice still a pristine clarion despite her comment that she'd been "sucking on throat lozenges" back at her hotel, Baez introduced Richard Thompson's "She Never Could Resist a Winding Road" as a song she's planning for her next album, lead singalongs on several songs and offers some of the festival's surprisingly rare political comments, noting in particular that should Donald Trump be elected president that Australia might want to brace for a wave of immigrants from these shores.

Baez encored with John Lennon's "Imagine" and led the festival's traditional all-star finale, with most of Saturday's other acts joining for The Band's "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down."

The Cooder White Skaggs trio, a dream collaboration of kindred spirits and a too-rare chance to hear Cooder's sublime guitar stylings, preceded Baez with its own 12-song course in a wing of folk music's past. The troupe and its four accompanists (including White's sister Cheryl on vocals and Cooder's son Joachim on drums) focused on gospel-flavored country and bluegrass material of the mid-20th century, staring with the Louvin Brothers' "The Family Who Prays" and taking it to down-home church with the likes of the Stanley Brothers' "Cold Georgia," Blind Willie Johnson's "The Soul of a Man," Jimmy Work's "Making Believe," the 40s traditional "The Tennessee Waltz," the Delmore Brothers' "Pan-American Boogie," Ferlin Husky "There's a Big Wheel" and more." Cooder highlighted nearly ever song with his tasteful solos (and impressive arsenal of vintage guitars), though Skaggs was a nearly equal force, switching from mandolin to fiddle to guitar himself.

Thompson was the weekend's other guitar hero on Friday. He may be celebrated for his electric work, but the British-born veteran proved equally dazzling on acoustic as well as an engaging troubadour during his 10-song solo set and looking the part dressed all in black and sporting a beret. He tailored his song choices to the situation, of course, playing acoustic-minded material such as "Josephine" and "Dimming of the Day," but he still raised a ruckus at times, particularly with the singalong sea chanty "Johnny's Far Away."

Thompson also had the best one-liner of the weeekend, noting that he opened at the original Ark -- "for a guy named Noah." Ar, ar, ar...

Canadian singer-songwriter Dallas Green and his City and Colour, meanwhile, closed Friday with a characteristically solemn nine-song set that drew from all four of his albums and played particularly well to the student sector of the crowd, while Yo La Tengo's gentle and intriguing performance featured the Lovin' Spoonful's "Butchie's Tune," the Cure's "Friday I'm in Love" and Devo's "Bottled Up" among its covers.

The AAFF "undercard," as usual, was filled with discoveries that surely sold a few CDs and the lobby and will bring festival attendees back for the various acts' own upcoming Ark shows. The Michigan entries -- the Ben Daniels Band, "The Voice" finalist Joshua Davis of Steppin' In It and Shout Sister Shout and the Traverse City trio the Accidentals -- acquitted themselves well in front of a partisan audience, while the festival's likely breakthroughs included Boston quartet Darlingside and its sublime vocal harmonies, soulful Nova Scotia singer-songwriter Rose Cousins, the Oh Hellos and energetic country-tinged rocker Nora Jane Struthers.

Singer-songwriter David Mayfield handled the weekend's emcee chores with droll, self-deprecating humor, more comfortable on Saturday when he filled in for an ailing John McCutcheon and clearly benefited from having a night behind him. Mayfield mixed music and physical comedy, and when he spoke about his crush on Cheryl White -- purportedly dressing up in a faux Superman costume and invading her dressing room on Saturday -- she returned to the stage to embrace him.

Ark director Marianne James announced on both nights that the festival was a sell-out thanks to a last-minute rush on Friday. With the festival closing the Ark's 50th anniversary year, James said the venue has raised $2.1 million of the $2.5 million for its capital campaign and announced a $220,000 matching grant program that will help achieve the goal. The Ark has purchased the building it's housed in on Ann Arbor's Main Street as well and plans to begin renovations on its concessions and concourse areas soon.

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