We live in an age where it’s hard to find the soul of America. Much of American society is disheartened by the current administration, and if not that, the general state of the world as it is. There seems to be a new headline every day that could easily make one lose faith in his or her country — but even with all this, its heart is still there, hidden beneath layers of history and tradition. That deep American tradition can be easily found where folk music plays, these layers peel back to show the core which lies beneath.
On night two of the Ann Arbor Folk Festival, hosted by local folk venue The Ark in Hill Auditorium, this core was celebrated by a sold-out crowd of folk lovers and music aficionados alike. Saturday night’s host of acts fused the traditions of blues, country and rock into one massive celebration of music itself, of community and the act of singing with friends and family late into the night. Headlined by the legendary folk songwriter John Prine, the show was a masterful set of acts that varied in influence and genre, but all had one thing in common — a whole lotta soul.
The Festival’s emcee, Joe Pug, brought it all together seamlessly, playing his own songs acoustically to string one act to the next in a smooth line of guitar and harmonica. The first act, Michigan-based blues duo The War and Treaty, brought the house down with songs including “Hi Ho” and “Til the Morning,” Tanya Blount and Michael Trotter Jr.’s voices blending into each other as if they were always meant to do so. The level of vocal skill and soul in their music is seemingly endless, as each line of harmony ducks into the other and back, a woven textile of grit and beauty that could make anyone feel limitless. The War and Treaty finished their set to a standing ovation of whoops and hollers, and for good reason.
Next to grace Hill’s stage were brothers Page Burkum and Jack Torrey of The Cactus Blossoms and their band. Similar to The War and Treaty, Burkum and Torrey’s voices merged into one for their set of traditional country-inspired songs, one of which, “Mississippi,” was featured on last year’s reboot of David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks.” The group switched easily between high-tempo and slow songs, both brothers playing guitar to create a big sound, in volume and emotional effect.
After The Cactus Blossoms was folk group Birds of Chicago, based out of — you guessed it — Chicago, fronted by couple JT Nero and Allison Russell, who travel the country playing music with their daughter Ida in tow. This familial spirit made its mark on Hill, with the first half of haunting ballad “Barley” sung a cappella into the auditorium by Russell, making the musical kick-in even more powerful. The combined efforts of Nero and his wife spun a rich American tradition of storytelling together with modern themes, bringing folk into the new age with tunes like “American Flowers,” which emphasize classic song structure while beautifully sending a message of togetherness. In the words of Nero, “I’ve found traveling the country that most people are good people; that common decency should be a jumping off point for arguing.”
Mountain Heart took the stage after Birds of Chicago, immediately beginning an extensive instrumental intro that showed off the crazy technical skill of each member of the folk group. With several of Heart’s musicians playing more than one instrument, the electric energy of their set was unmistakable, a truly polished example of bluegrass and folk music that brought the audience to their feet. The sounds of mandolin, double bass and the smooth voice of singer Josh Shilling echoed into Hill with joy and harmony; their set was a huge success, ending in a standing ovation.
Succeeding Mountain Heart was a secondary headliner and rock mainstay Aimee Mann, who played songs off her new record Mental Illness, in addition to old favorites “Save Me” and “Labrador.” Though different than many of the night’s acts, Mann’s stage presence as a performer and folk-inspired acoustic songs made her an unignorable force. The singer’s trademark voice rang clear into the venue song after song, creating a round, warm sound with the help of a skilled, small band. Mann brought collaborator and performer in his own right Jonathan Coulton on for a few songs off of Mental Illness, of which he co-wrote several songs with the performer, and they brought the show back to its roots, singing slow, acoustic tunes inspired by classic folk. To quote Mann, “I wanted it to sound like John Denver, but a little less edgy.” The bellowing warmth of bass and dreadnought guitar closed her set with power, the audience erupting into applause as she jaunted off stage.
Though the talent and emotional poignancy of all of the festival’s performers made a strong mark on the night, no one can do folk quite like headliner and legendary songwriter John Prine. At the ripe age of 71, Prine still performs like a young man, cracking jokes in between lyrics woven into acoustic and electric guitar. Accompanied by a band of incredibly skilled musicians, the sounds of the lap steel and upright bass supported Prine’s masterful storytelling on classic songs like “Sam Stone” and “Angel From Montgomery.” As folk reverberated against the ornate auditorium’s walls, the songwriter brought thousands of people together to celebrate the music that raised, saved, or even just found them accidentally. In Prine’s experience, he said, “Being loved is much better than the other thing — let’s do more of that.” The songwriter closed the festival on a note of hope and unity with folk standard “Paradise,” bringing all of the show’s performers on stage for a triumphant finish that inspired a feeling of hope and happiness in the audience. No matter what your background or musical taste, it was clear what a community folk has built in Ann Arbor — America’s soul was in Hill Saturday night, the sound of voices joined in joyful noise.