Last weekend, over a dozen musical acts graced the stage at Hill Auditorium as part of the 39th annual Ann Arbor Folk Festival. Not knowing much about folk music, I went in expecting songs praising the good ol’ US of A backed by banjos and harmonicas. But like many other genres of today, folk music is not defined by such specific parameters.
Friday night at the festival exposed me to a grandiose landscape of styles: from soft vocalists to rock ‘n’ roll guitar players and everything in between. A voice that particularly caught my attention was that of Dallas Green, City and Colour’s lead singer. Green began his music career as guitarist/lead singer of Helicon Blue in the early 2000s, co-founded hardcore band Alexisonfire after that, and released his first album as City and Colour in 2005. Since then, the project has earned him international attention, and he’s performed everywhere from his home city of Toronto to South America (along with pop-star-turned-country-singer Pink on their duo, You+Me).
Yet for all that big-time success, City and Colour’s performance felt as intimate as old friends sharing secrets and memories in the comfort of a living room. Green’s casual flannel and baseball cap lent an air of relaxation to the regal Hill Auditorium that perfectly matched the calmness of his voice, allowing him to establish instant familiarity with the audience regardless of whether or not they were already fans of his music.
The band kept the performance balanced with a good mix of recent work and old favorites, highlighting songs like “If I Should Go Before You,” a beautiful example of Green’s vocal and emotional range. A well-received throwback came in the form of “Grand Optimist” from the album Little Hell, as eerie “ooooh” ’s made walls vibrate and souls tingle — the kind of effect only a live performance can achieve. They ended the set with the rousing, pleading “Lover Come Back” that gave the audience just what they were in the mood for: something to sing along to, something to make them smile in spite of sadness and something that allowed them to find commonalities between Green’s story and their own.
The variety of styles presented at the festival were embodied best by two acts in particular that have lasted throughout the growth and development of the folk genre, growing with it and constantly contributing to it. Music veterans Yo La Tengo and Richard Thompson, with musical releases dating back to 1996 and 1974 respectively, were brilliantly distinct and representative of tried and true music. Singer Georgia Hubley of Yo La Tengo has an almost meditative quality to her voice that makes it simultaneously relaxing and attention-grabbing. With four other instrumentalists complementing her sound, the full effect of the band’s simplistic style was a joy to experience visually and audibly.
Thompson was like the cool fun uncle of the night, telling jokes between songs and getting everyone to participate by teaching them some lyrics. Rolling Stone has called him one of the best guitarists of all time, and if you’re inclined to compare his fame with that of the younger generation, it’s interesting to note that his most recent album, Still, reached number six on UK charts.
Earlier in the evening, the rocking Ben Daniels Band — who just released a new EP on iTunes — opened the show, followed by the angelic voices of Andy Baxter and Kyle Jahnke of Penny and Sparrow. Nora Jane Struthers & The Party Line contributed bluegrass vibes, and The Oh Hellos brought nine people on stage to create the biggest sounds of the evening. Originally a sibling duo, Maggie and Tyler Heath have certainly grown beyond bedroom recordings, releasing two full albums and an EP since 2011. Their appearance at the festival is just one stop on their current North American tour that will include sets at the Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival and Bonnaroo.