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Concert Reviews:
Politics lends edge to Ann Arbor Folk Festival

Digital First Media, @GraffonMusic

Posted: Sunday, January 29, 2017

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ANN ARBOR -- A week into the Trump presidency and after the Women's March protest around the world, the timing could not have been better for the Ark's 40th Ann Arbor Folk Festival.

The core of folk music is, after all, observation and commentary about the human condition and, when necessary, protest. So it was no surprise, and wholly expected, that the two-night festival on Friday and Saturday, Jan. 27-28, would take some stock of the events that have galvanized a new movement of resistance and fighting the power. Politics didn't necessarily dominate the show -- whose 14 diverse acts provided the usual exhibition of folk's wide stylistic umbrella -- but they certainly provided a theme and context for what transpired at Hill Auditorium.

Sometimes it was direct. Nimble emcee Susan Werner, for instance, effectively paired a biting and defiant new song called "My Strange Nation," which received a standing ovation, with an emotional, ballady rendition of the Beatles' "Help" on Saturday night. Indigo Girls tossed a timely reference to immigrants into their performance of "Shame On You." And Jenny Lewis dedicated her rendition of "Door" by her band NAF, with its refrain of "don't shut the door," to Donald Trump.

On the more subtle side, Margo Price noted that her song "4 Years of Chances" "has taken on new meaning lately," also pronouncing that "folk music is alive and well with the state of the world. We need folk musicians now more than ever." We Banjo 3 introduced "This Is Home" by noting, "if we were to all teach love and note hate, our world would be a way better place." And Native American singer-songwriter Nahko and Bear and his band Medicine For The People galvanized Friday's crowd with their charged anthem "Dear Brother" and its call for "Peace In America."

The festival, of course, drew a crowd of overwhelmingly kindred spirits, so there wasn't much protest about the protests to be heard over the two nights. And there was plenty of just plain old music to be heard, an inclusive aural travelogue that was filled with both highlights and discoveries. Nothing spoke to AAFF's range more than Saturday's opening triplet, which went from the old-time traditional Detroit trio Corn Potato String Band directly into the flamethrowing cabaret of Minnesota's Davina and the Vagabonds to the explosive Celtic attack of Ireland's We Banjo 3.

Country had a more pronounced place at the table this year via Price, Kacey Musgraves -- whose glittery silver shoes stayed on for all of two songs of a set that included a twangy cover of Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy" -- and much of actor Keifer Sutherland's drinking songs-dominated set. Zach Heckendorf brought a straightforward singer-songwriter element to bear, while Valerie June wove together a museum's worth of influences into her own indefinable sound.

Lewis, sporting a colorful, intricately embroidered suit, was accompanied just by a pianist as she delivered both favorites and brand new songs such as "Heads Gonna Roll" and "Party Clown." Indigo Girls, meanwhile, suffered technical problems -- including Amy Ray getting a nasty shock before "Share The Moon" and a meltdown of Emily Saliers' electronics during "Shame On You" that Ray filled with snippets of "Cumbaya" and the Violent Femmes' "Blister in the Sun" -- but rose above them with a fierce "Go" and a shimmering "Galileo" before bringing most of Saturday's other performers back onstage to close the festival with a buoyant "Closer To Fine."

The Ark shared some good news with attendees both nights. In September the organization paid off the mortgage on its current Main Street location, owning the space for the first time ever. A capital campaign raised more $2.8 million -- $300,000 more than its goal -- and renovations on the venue have already begun.

And there will be a 41st Ann Arbor Folk Festival, set for Jan. 26-27, back at Hill Auditorium.

Send your thoughts and comments to Gary Graff


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