Ann Arbor Folk fest you say? Yes indeed! Last weekend’s festival celebrated the 35th year of A2 institution and even though it was colder than a gravedigger’s ass it was well worth braving the elements for some great music.
These days anyone who can throw up a stage and stick a musician on it is putting on a festival and it’s it is hard to keep up with all. But it can be made sense of a bit with the FestiGoGo app which lists and gives info from the largest festivals to more unique gatherings such as this.
In my travels around the country, I am always looking for who’s playing where and as I had a teaching gig in Detroit Rock City, I found my dates coincided with this event. Once again, technology is your friend with www.pollstar.com. Enter your city (even small ones) or any area where music might be played and Pollstar will tell you everything in all types of music that is happening in the area.
“Festival” is a bit of a misnomer as it is really just 2 nights of good concerts with 7 acts on each night. It is further so in that the words “Folk Festival” do not encompass the range of artists that play. While EMMYLOU HARRIS and NANCI GRIFFITH could have the folk/(insert other musical style) moniker placed on them, the word “folk” is stretched here to a much wider definition than say that of Pete Seeger. Folk music of other countries such as Mexico and Russia were represented as well as genre bending artists like RYAN ADAMS that may very well be redefining the definition of “folk”.
This is a benefit for a music venue in Ann Arbor, Mi. known as The Ark and given that it is January in Michigan, it is obviously held indoors in quite a large venue on the Univ. of Michigan campus.
A festival in the more familiar sense of the word maybe this is not but on a cold evening in Michigan, it provided me the chance to see some artists I love, some that I have never seen live and some completely unknown to me. It was two nights of great music in what is one of if not America’s best college town.
Certainly the emotional highlight of this festival for me was seeing one of the farewell appearances of Glen Campbell…so much so that I feel I should devote a whole piece to his performance and his amazing career so look for that soon.
DAWES is a band that just I love more and more every time I see them live or listen to their last fantastic album Nothing Is Wrong. They sing great, they play great and they hearken back to a time period of music that puts me in such a nostalgic head space. The Jackson Brown runs strong in the veins of these devotees of the 70s Laurel Canyon sound. They made much of the festival circuit last year and the latest album still has a lot of legs. They manage to find a way to rock while being completely mellow at the same time. I’m also a big fan of their lyrics. Below is a verse and chorus hit me on night 1 (It’s track 11 on Nothing Is Wrong)…
A Little Bit Of Everything
Somewhere a pretty girl is writing invitations…To a wedding she has scheduled for the fall
Her Man says “Baby can I make an observation…You don’t seem to be having any fun at all.”
She said “You just worry about your groomsmen and your shirt size…And rest assured that this is making me feel good.
I think that love is SO much easier than you realize…If you can give yourself to someone then you should.
‘Cause it’s a little bit of everything…the way you choke the way you ache
It is getting up before you so I can watch you as you wake.
So in the day in late September…It’s not some stupid little ring
I’m gettin’ a little bit of everything.
The words “true artist” get tossed around at folks WAY too easily these days (with the worst offender being She Who Shall Not Be Named). Of course it is all subjective but in my hopefully objective mind, alt country rocker/singer-songwriter RYAN ADAMS is TRULY deserving of these words. It was a masterful and mesmerizing solo set that could have gone on for hours. The former Whiskeytown front man has been prone to a bit of scrutiny since going solo for the sheer amount of product he has unleashed on the musical world. Since leaving Whiskeytown RYAN ADAMS has released over a dozen solo albums or albums with his backing band The Cardinals…at least one per year. Sure, not all of it is classic but much of it is. I just think dude has a lot to say evidenced in the sheer amount of recorded work he puts out there and now add his two collections of poetry. The two Buck Owens styled red, white and blue guitars Adams plays, I am sure, are somewhat tongue-in-cheek but when those guitars bring forth the mastery of his playing and he brings some of the most passionate, heartfelt singing I have heard…well, those guitars could be day glow green and no one would notice. As El Chad of our Weeping Elvis family recently published a great in depth retrospective and review of a recent Ryan Adams appearance Ryan Adams Southern Men Do Tell Better Jokes, I will defer to that well-written piece for more on someone who I believe to be one of our great singer songwriters and at this point. Especially given the amount he has to say, one can only hope that this great voice will continue to be heard.
Gypsy punk, Mexican norteno ballads, the sounds of Eastern European wedding bands, influences from mother Russia and solid alt/pop are all words and styles that could be used to describe the musical dichotomy that is DEVOTCHKA. It’s all-over-the-world-music by way of Denver. I have heard this band before and my thought at the start of this set was that a little bit of Gypsy punk somewhat a la Gogol Bordello goes a long way with me. But on this night they encompassed SO much more…one could even say at times that they rocked out…well as much as you can rock out with a sousaphone player and obviously classically trained violinist on stage but somehow they managed it. DEVOTCHKA’S music impressed the producers the movie Little Miss Sunshine so much that their completely unique sound became a part of the movie’s soundtrack. The musicologist within me was continually puzzled (in a good and challenging way) by this set. So much so that I think I will continue to check them out just to see if I can wrap my head around what they are doing a bit more and to grow my library of musical adjectives as I think, quite possibly, the list of these that apply to this “be what you are and make no apologies” band could be endless.
She has been called one of most important folk artists of our generation and one could make the argument that NANCI GRIFFITH is indeed just that. While her style would be ultimately classified as folk she has had great influence in the country music world as well evidenced by the cavalcade of country stars that have recorded her songs (my personal favorite being Suzy Bogguss‘ Outbound Plane). Her singing is not perfect but it really doesn’t matter as her sound is wonderfully plaintive, the melodies and accompanying music beautiful and her lyrics are of a not often seen simplistic brilliance. Her compositions are so heartfelt and have such a purity and importance about them that they refuse to not be heard. She writes songs from from a perspective that points to very unique facets of the human condition. While not un-universal, her songs encourage us to see our human plight in ways we may not have considered and that to me is what makes them important. I am never a fan of musicians using their performances for promotion of political agenda but NANCI GRIFFITH manages to do so without hitting us over the head with her guitar too harshly. While introducing her possibly most politically-charged song, The Loving Kind, she told the story of an interracial couple (Richard and Mildred Loving) living in Virgina in the 50s and their landmark case that served as the basis for the song. At that time, it was illegal for a white man and a black woman (or any interracial couple for that matter) to get married in the state. The couple was arrested after marrying as they defied the law. Their case became a firestarter that eventually led to the striking down of the laws forbidding interracial marriage in the U.S. In introducing the song Ms. Griffith remarked that “Virginia was not always the state for lovers” and went on to quote Mildred Loving as saying…”if nothing more, I hope our case points out that the government should stay out of the “loving” business.“ A powerful truth that serves as the basis for just another wonderfully typical song in the great and important song catalog that is NANCI GRIFFITH’S.
She has appeared at The Bonnaroo, Telluride and Newport festivals, signed a record deal with that gem of a record label Sugar Hill (as a senior in high school no less), studied at the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music , caught the attention of those in the know with American/acoustic music, has been praised by Rolling Stone and named as a Top 100 album of 2011 by NPR. Did I mention that Texas native SARAH JAROSZ is only 20 years old? The multi-instrumentalist managed to hit the claw hammer banjo, guitar and mandolin and sing like a bird in her short 1/2 hour set. This is fare for folks who love Allison Krauss and Nickel Creek and enjoy this style of music when it’s envelope is pushed. The insiders already have her on the radar… so should you. SARAH JAROSZ is on tour now throughout the country so catch her if you can.
Why can’t all country music be like that of EMMYLOU HARRIS? Maybe it wouldn’t increase sales any but it sure would make people respect the style more. There is a certain being-in-Church like reverence that that seems to take over a room when Emmylou steps on the stage and takes us on her special kind of ride thru all of the genres she has touched over her over 35 year career. From her work with mentor Gram Parsons to her her two albums with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt, Trio and Trio II , to her own special solo work, she has had influence on everything from bluegrass to country rock. Yet something feels vital, eminently relevant and even important about what she is doing. Her flowing mane of prematurely silver hair matches perfectly with the beautiful sounds that flow from her voice, guitar and band. The gospel influenced vocal harmonies were as tight as ever on this night and you get the sense that this is just the way it should be done…you really have no choice but to listen as it all feels eminently special. She has influenced several generations of artists but is in no way content sitting on the side lines. As she forges ahead with her own new work, one can only hope that current and future generations will take a moment as they craft their work and think…how would Emmylou do it. A wonderful ending to two nights of great music.
Also watch out for hot new 22 year old singer/songwriter and 2011 Grammy Nominee SETH GLIER. He posses a wonderfully unique voice, engrossing in-depth musical compositions and lyrics wise beyond his years. Maybe the find of this festival for me.
There were several other interesting acts but I had the most fun trying to decide which was the most diverse, odd and unique instrumentation used by several of them. Was it the washboard, Fleckesque electric banjo and melodica (that little keyboard you blow into that sounds like a bit like a harmonica) of ELEPHANT REVIVAL, the ukelele, baritone sax and ass jawbone (yup that’s a legit percussion instrument that is exactly what the name says) of DAVID WAX MUSEUM or DEVOTCHKA’s classical violin, mariachi trumpet, electric guitar, Sousaphone and Theremin (an instrument very popular in 70s rock bands) grouping of instruments.
While this is on no one’s list (outside the good folks of southern Michigan) of great festivals that they MUST see this or any other year (being held in January in Michigan might have something to do with that), it was still two great evenings of music which included one of the most emotional musical hours of my life with Glen Campbell (look for my in-depth thoughts on this performance and Campbell’s career in the next few days). So if you find yourself in Ann Arbor next year this time…give it a try. The quite sizable venue was sold out both nights so do buy early.
Also, visit the venue that this festival benefited, The Ark, whenever you get to A2…most of the artists of this festival and many others will be playing there throughout the year.
Next up festival wise is the GREAT South by Southwest festival March 13-18. Your man here will be on the ground bringing as much of it to you as musically and humanly possible. With over 400 bands and numerous venues scattered throughout Austin, this may be my biggest festival challenge to date but I will fight the crowds, listen until my brain explodes and stand until my legs give out for you for you…the readers of Weeping Elvis.