On Friday, Jan. 26, Ann Arbor locals and residents from the far corners of the mitten state alike flocked to the University’s own Hill Auditorium for the 41st Annual Ann Arbor Folk Festival. Being so close to the festival, in geographical terms, might make University of Michigan students write the event off as a minor happening, but the festival is, in reality, central to the Ann Arbor music scene. At its core, Folkfest, as it’s often amicably referred to, serves two express purposes. First, it is a fundraiser for (and by) The Ark, a local venue and hub for all things folk. Second, it draws people from all over the Midwest together to partake in an oft-underappreciated genre. A folk festival whose headliners include Jason Isbell and John Prine can only be expected to meet expectations, but Friday’s portion of the annual event far surpassed them. While the final act of the night was always sure to be a success, there was never a dull moment during the night’s earlier performances. Every set was musically compelling and honest, and a few artists managed to touch on the current state of affairs in a way that felt refreshing and candid.
At half past six, as the audience continued to fill the auditorium, Chastity Brown took to the stage. If the occasional usher’s light or the murmur of conversation were distracting, she didn’t show it, and soon after she began playing the room fell quiet. With sparse instrumentation — acoustic and electric guitar as well as a single bass pedal — she set the tone for the night: intimate, soulful, reflective. Before playing her last song, she offered her thoughts on the past year, recounting in specific an incident immediately before one of her shows when a white supremacist approached her, shouting insults and threatening violence. Though the story itself was disheartening, Brown’s tone during the following song was overwhelmingly hopeful. With the mood defined and a powerful set delivered, she exited the stage.
One thing that we absolutely can’t help but credit The Ark for is their efficiency. Every year, Folkfest is a demonstration not only of folk music and the culture that surrounds it, but also of entertainment at peak efficiency. Only moments after Brown exited and before her applause had subsided, emcee Joe Pug appeared stage right, guitar and harmonica at the ready. A talented musician in his own right, and even more impressive entertainer, Pug kept the audience’s attention between sets. While he played original songs and offered his tastefully subtle sense of humor, stage hands and audio engineers prepared the stage for the next set with a degree of coordination that could qualify as art in and of itself.
After Brown came the duo of Dead Horses, comprised of Sarah Vos on acoustic guitar and Daniel Wolff on double bass. Though an ostensibly odd pairing, the two managed to fill the room with their hymnal-like sound, Wolff’s fingers dexterous on the neck of his bass. Next was Lori McKenna, writer of “Humble and Kind,” which took the Grammy for Best Country Song in 2017. Her apparent comfort on stage was infectious, no doubt a product of her experience as a performer, and the songs she performed were influenced in part by her five children.
Also a proud parent — though to four rather than five — Massachusetts-based Stephen Kellogg played the final set before intermission, a rousing romp that consisted of just four or five songs, ones that made me wish he would play one or two or five more. What was beautiful about Kellogg’s performance was his sheer exuberance at being on stage. He beamed out at the audience with an eagerness and thankfulness that was reflected perfectly in the energy with which he delivered his uplifting folk-anthems. It was hard not to be excited both with him and for him.
Following intermission were JJ Grey & Mofro, a prolific group whose performance received an immediate standing ovation at its conclusion. The act featured not one but two trumpets, both of whom played huge solos, and John Higginbotham (aka JJ Grey) himself on harmonica. Afterward, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit took to the stage. Now, although 41st anniversaries don’t tend to be particularly notable in and of themselves, the Folk Festival’s 41st marked at least one significant change. During the final set of the night, several stadium-style lights came on, filling the hall with motion and colorful patterns. This was the first year for these features, and more than providing pretty visuals, they signify growth for the festival, and hopefully not a departure from what has made it so near and dear to Ann Arbor’s heart for the past two generations.
Isbell and company’s set made the lights feel appropriate, and guitar solos abounded. The most valuable parts of the performance, though, came between songs, when Isbell exhibited his charisma, making well-received jabs at the kind of people who leave the room when he plays “White Man’s World” and giving a nod, before his last song, to his struggles with alcoholism. It was the sort of honesty that wouldn’t necessarily be expected from a festival headliner, even if the festival were a folk festival in Ann Arbor, and that’s not even mentioning the counterintuitiveness of Isbell’s decision to write and perform a song that he knows challenges a significant portion of his listeners. At the end of the night, attendees had a choice: They could leave Hill with a splendid night of music behind them, memories of soaring vocals and subtle harmonies, harmonica solos played at a breakneck pace and softly sung acoustic-guitar ballads, or choose to see a community being fostered. Four bars of music can sound as pleasant as you want, but it’s seeing and knowing the human side of it that makes those melodies truly awe-inspiring and that brings the folk community together. It makes me excited for Folkfest 2019 — even just two days after 2018’s iteration.