Musicians charm as Folk Fest invades Ann Arbor

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By Hannah Weiner, Daily Arts Writer
Published February 3, 2014

The festival had every type of folk a good folk festival should have. It had bluesy folk and romantic folk, country folk and funny folk, big-smiled energetic folk and mellow folk. Men and women folk. And, of course, the 3,500-some folks of all kinds in the audience.

Friday and Saturday were nights full of gorgeous harmonies, bizarre stage get-ups, multi-instrumentalists and remarks from musicians like “what a nice place, this folk festival.” The sold-out Ann Arbor Folk Festival, totaling nine and a half hours, featured fourteen incredible musicians, more than a few Pete Seeger tributes, and one generally pleasant emcee, Seth Walker, who helped cleanse the palette between sets. The Ark, for its 37th year in a row, brought together a refreshing mix of musicians: from the young and obscure to the old and Grammy award-winning.

Friday night’s line-up focused on the obscure and the edgy, starting with a local band, Appleseed Collective. Between a fierce mandolin solo and Katie Lee’s seriously mystifying stage charisma and vocals, the band properly introduced the audience to the folk festival mentality with a high-energy performance.

The night also included Thao & The Get Down Stay Down, a dissonant, spunky, electric indie-pop group infused with blues, folk and rock. Pearl and the Beard, a folk-pop trio with passionate synergy, was also featured — their music consists of a brilliant roaring cello played by Emily Hope Price, and a fantastic beard (bearded guitarist, Jeremy Styles, walked on stage and the man behind me exclaimed, “Oh … I get it!”).

Willie Nile came on stage looking like Lou Reed from his Transformer days, dutifully and unexpectedly playing an astonishing cover of “Sweet Jane” dedicated to Lou. Nile revived the crowd, bringing a serious and genuine energy to an audience that was quickly deflating.

Neko Case brought her sweet and thin vocals (and skeleton pants and wild red hair), enchanting the crowd with backup singer Kelly Hogan and a mix of hit songs and lesser known ones. Justin Townes Earle, the tall, lanky, country-influenced musician who had spastic moments of excitement, followed after, playing easygoing acoustic music — a sharp contrast to Neko Case.

Even Hogan remarked on her “theater crush” on Hill Auditorium, adding, “we’ll play a make out song dedicated to the theater.” That was a common theme among musicians. So as Neko Case played, Thao Nguyen, from Thao & The Get Down Stay Down, watched dreamily from backstage while musicians lined the wall. For as big as Hill Auditorium really is, for the night, it felt that much smaller.

As Justin Townes Earle wrapped up and the clock came close to 10:15, the audience felt the grind of being a passionate folkie; the festival is truly a test of endurance, where only the extremely devoted and passionate thrive. But, that’s part of the fun.

Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam came on stage with a full band and quickly declared his love for Ann Arbor and his “belly full of Zingerman’s,” which sounded poetic in a way only Beam can make happen. While the audience may have been searching for Iron & Wine’s typical acoustic sound from their 2010 appearance at the festival, Beam could serve the audience anything in his crisp, gentle, whispering voice, and like hungry animals, they’d devour it. His songs sounded fuller with a band and retained their beauty and poeticism.

As the audience poured out of Hill on Friday night, their exhaustion spoke volumes of their satisfaction, because the next night, Hill Auditorium was full once more.

The crowd on Saturday night was radiating. Headliners Patty Griffin, Ingrid Michaelson and Jeff Daniels played spectacularly entertaining sets, while The Crane Wives, Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys, PigPen Theatre Company, and Johnnyswim stole the audience’s hearts.

PigPen Theatre Company, a band made up of seven young men who met at Carnegie Mellon University, came on stage with a particular energy that only theatre students can convey. When they all sang, they sounded like a small choir, and when they interspersed witty banter between songs, laughs erupted from the audience.

Similarly, Johnnyswim charmed Hill Auditorium, making everyone wish they were part of a musically talented, happily married folk duo. With their seamless vocals and touching lyrics (“the carpet still holds the shape of your feet / from the last time I saw you when you walked away from me”), the crowd unabashedly offered a standing ovation.

Keeping the audience excited, Jeff Daniels put a gold trophy on the chair next to him and launched into “I Got an Emmy,” immediately making the room laugh wholeheartedly. Eventually, Daniels also made the whole room sing, “How ‘bout we take our pants off?” over and over.

Not too long after, Ingrid Michaelson led the 3,500-strong crowd in “We Shall Overcome” to honor Pete Seeger — a feat that brought chills (and tears) to some in the audience. Michaelson had prefaced the tribute with “Be OK,” “The Way I Am,” self-deprecating humor and memories of previous Ann Arbor shows, proving herself a crowd favorite.

Finishing the festival, Griffin kept the balance of weirdness and expected traditional songs, hypnotizing the crowd with her small frame, huge guitar, and incredible liveliness. But it wasn’t only her hour-long set that reminded the crowd of the uniqueness of the Ann Arbor Folk Festival — for her encore, she came on stage with the other musicians from the night (and some from Friday, as well) to sing “On Top of Old Smokey” with the audience.

Only in Ann Arbor would 3,500 folks feel so passionately about music that they spend close to ten hours in Hill Auditorium over the course of 48 hours. Only in Ann Arbor would musicians walk on stage and immediately remark on the greatness of the city (and on Zingerman’s). And, only in Ann Arbor would an event like the Folk Festival happen, where more than 3,500 voices sing both spiritual and silly songs without shame, where people trudge through snow and sleet to arrive, and where a whole auditorium lingers on the sound of a sole guitar.