I let out a soft, audible gasp during The Story. I’m referring, of course, not to the 2007 hit off Brandi Carlile’s album of the same name, but to “Vlad the Astrophysicist,” the picture book that Peter Mulvey read aloud to the audience during an intermission toward the end of the night.
It felt fitting to be read a story in the midst of a night like this, the first night of the 42nd Ann Arbor Festival. Folk music is all about stories — especially in the existential vein of “Vlad the Astrophysicist,” a story about examining the place of humanity as a blip against the infinite canvases of space and time. This was the only picture book read during the night, but Mulvey, as the MC, bookended every set with performances of his own music. It was clear that it was going to be a good night from the beginning, with his earnest humor and understated performance of songs like “D.I.A.,” a song about a morning spent leaving Gregory Alan Isakov’s house in Colorado that eclipses into Johnny Cash’s “Wayfaring Stranger” at the end.
The first act Mulvey introduced was The Michigan Rattlers, a folk-rock band from Petoskey. The Michigan Rattlers kickstarted the night with an enthusiastic set bolstered by the good-hearted chemistry that no doubt comes from being childhood friends. Advocating for Michigan’s country undercurrents, the band made sure that the folk fest began on a high note, delivering energy and a shared feeling of fun.
Haley Heynderickx took over next, an incredible standout. Mulvey introduced her as an empathetic storyteller, an assessment that her modest, charming stage presence only confirmed. She spoke softly and sang with a striking and room-resounding power. Every song reaffirmed one of the most important notions of the night, one that would echo again and again over the next few hours: The idea that folk is an ever-changing organism, buoyed along its way as much by tongue-in-cheek humor and emotional disaster as it is by love and togetherness. The best part of Heyndrickx’s performance was the entire audience at Hill Auditorium singing gently along to “Oom Sha La La” (although her introduction of “The Bug Collector,” when she remarked upon its subject matter that “everything else has been written,” is a close second).
Sam Lewis was next, a singer-songwriter from Nashville. Lewis’s music was striking for its earnest, country-informed sensibility and particularly his affected delivery of songs like “Accidental Harmony.” Even for a night filled with good cheer, Lewis’s sense of humor stood out, idiosyncratic and wholly unintimidated. Then Parsonsfield took the stage, bringing an inimitable energy that felt most actualized on songs like “Weeds or Wildflowers,” “Kick Out the Windows,” and “Let the Mermaids Flirt With Me.” Parsonsfield felt like everything one could want from a single band: Each of the four members was wired, engaged, and from the looks of it, having the time of their life. The set spanned a lot of genres, from old-styled folk to Americana to bluegrass, and the band had the instrumental and musical versatility to step up to each of these ambitions.
After a brief intermission, Gregory Alan Isakov took over — initially by himself, but quickly joined by a supporting band. Isakov’s set exemplified the quieter capabilities of folk music; he lulled us collectively further into the night, together in the warm concert hall while snow drifted down outside, unknown by us except as a kind of felt beauty. The singer-songwriter played a lot of tunes off of his new record from last year, Evening Machines, like the contemplative “Chemicals” and “San Luis.” He and his band were illuminated by lights that periodically washed them in a swell of red, as well as two small globes of the planet Earth that glowed on tabletops, casting everything even more with a feeling of suspension between the past and the future, the evening and the morning.
Finally, it was time for the headliner of the night: Brandi Carlile. During his introduction, Mulvey reminded us of Carlile’s beginnings over a decade ago as a busker, and how even today, she still pours her heart and soul into every performance. Carlile set about proving this from the very first song she played — “Follow,” off her self-titled debut. She told the audience after this that she often played “Follow” to “break the ice, because I get nervous,” but instantly afterward, she grinned, as if suddenly installed with confidence, and added, “Okay, here we go.” And there we went.
It’s no secret that Carlile is a superpower in a league all her own. Her recent album, By the Way, I Forgive You, garnered her six Grammy nominations — including several for “The Joke” — making her the most-nominated woman at the 2019 Grammys. On Friday night, she delivered an almost entirely solo set, rocking her heart out alone in the center of an empty stage and even telling us with a laugh that she’d keep going for hours longer if she could.
Carlile played a few songs from her new album, like her ode to new parenthood, “The Mother,” and the piano-propelled “Party Of One,” which she called “a song about redemptive love.” But she also used the set as a chance to explore older and less often visited material (but no less emotional) like “That Year” and “I Belong to You.” She even granted us a preview of a new, recently written song, criticizing the country music industry for its traditional focus on white, male identity and for its embrace of tired lyrics and images, prompting the listener instead to face the talent that other voices bring to the table.
“The Story” and “The Joke” came as a one-two sucker punch somewhere toward the end of her set. Carlile said she wrote “The Joke” as an “anthem” to anyone who has ever been made to feel less than. The song’s success, recently calcified in its many nominations, is no doubt due to its perfect storm of expert, piercingly timely lyricism and Carlile’s own delivery towering with monumental heart, all of which rose past the rafters on Friday night at the Folk Fest. Then she moved on to what she called “the song that got me here”: “The Story.” She encouraged us to sing along, and we did, although quietly, almost breathlessly: There was a near-tangible carefulness not to break the moment. Because then and there, in Carlile’s performance, was the crux of what the night felt like it had really been about all along: The embrace of different people, different folk, the risks of love and the giddiness of hope and the hard, breaking feeling of something loved gone. A hall of people, stunned and heard and captivated: “I was made for you.”