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Concert Reviews:
Folk rules on second night of Ann Arbor festival

By Gary Graff
ggraff@digitalfirstmedia.com, @GraffonMusic on Twi

Posted: Sunday, January 27, 2019

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ANN ARBOR -- Struggling to tune a guitar borrowed from Joan Osborne after breaking a strong on his own, Rufus Wainwright shrugged and declared "It's a folk festival!"

And that was indeed the cast on Saturday night, Jan. 26, on the closing night of the 42nd Annual Ann Arbor Folk Festival. The event, an annual highlight on the Michigan (and national) music calendar, has created a wide net for the genre, but Saturday's show hewed closer to what most would consider standard issue for a folk festival.

Only one of the night's seven acts (Canada's AHI) used drums, for instance. Three were one-man performances. Acoustic instruments far outnumbered electric (though amplification, verboten to a true folk purist, was necessary), and there was a sense of occasion and reverence for the past throughout the five-hour show that honored the jamboree and troubadouring traditions of the form.

Nobody checked off the folk boxes quite like Osborne and her captivating Dylanology set, eight songs drawn mostly from her "Songs of Bob Dylan" album that combined musicianship and scholarly insight -- along with some hot duets and electric guitar solos from journeyman Jackie Greene as well as album co-producers Jack Petruzzelli on acoustic guitar and Keith Colton on piano. Osborne's soulful and occasionally husky tones (there was some discreet use of throat spray) brought fresh flavors to Dylan's work, including a bluesy reworking of "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35," and the quartet's treatment of "Tangled Up in Blue" and a funky "Gotta Serve Somebody" were as definitive as the originals.

Wainwright's hour-long headlining set started on a heartfelt note with "Beauty Mark," as he invoked his mother, the late folk singer Kate McGarrigle, "who spent a lot of time in this city" -- even name-checking the Ark's Siglin family. His voice booming with operatic power, Wainwright also paid tribute to his father and fellow singer Loudon Wainwright with "Dinner at Eight" and joked about how producer Mark Ronson was supposed to make him a big star with his last album, "Out of the Game."

Wainwright, who played mostly on piano, previewed a couple of songs from his next album, "Unfollow the Rules," including "Montauk," about his daughter Viva, and "Peaceful Afternoon," about his husband Jorn Weisbrodt.

The rest of Saturday's AAFF bill was filled with highlights as well. The venerable bluegrass troupe the RFD Boys used the night to both celebrate its 50th anniversary and the release of "The RFD Boys at 50," the quintet's first new studio album in 42 years, and a set-closing "Turkey in the Straw." AHI won fans with a short but powerful and abundantly soulful performance, while Pokey LaFarge prepared for the recording of his next album -- starting Sunday, Jan. 27, in Chicago -- with a spirited romp that had his right leg swaying like a loose-limbed metronome as he played a selection that included the brand-new "Even Bums Get Lucky Sometime."

Emcee Peter Mulvey kept the show moving smoothly with his own songs, including the brand-new "Who's Gonna Love You Now." And I'm With Her -- the all-star trio of Sara Watkins, Aoife O'Donovan and Sarah Jarosz -- made jaws drop with their soaring harmonies and multi-instrument virtuosity on covers of Joni Mitchell's "Carey" and John Hiatt's "Crossing Muddy Waters" as well as the group's just-released single "Call My Name."

The full-case finale of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," lyric sheets in hand or on the stage floor, was a classic folk festival "moment," too -- a nod to the heritage by artists who are busy insuring the genre's future in a their own distinct ways.

Web Site: www.theark.org

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