On a breezy Friday night, as downtown Ann Arbor dazzled with neon signs and newly-installed winter lights, I made my way to The Ark. This was my first time at the folk venue, so I wasn’t entirely sure what I was in for. When I ventured into the Ford Listening Room, I was kind of surprised. While I didn’t expect a stadium, it was smaller than the small(ish) venues I’ve frequented. But I immediately felt welcomed, as the dim lighting and eatery-like seating offered a haven from the onslaught of wind I’d just experienced minutes before.
I was here to see Ann Arbor folk legend Dick Siegel and bassist Dave Roof, a duo that frequently perform together. After arriving at the University of Michigan as a pre-medical student, Siegel turned to English when he discovered poetry, and later began writing songs and performing at venues around Ann Arbor. His music has never been “just” folk, but spans jazz, blues and pop, an indication of his versatility.
At 8 p.m., the lights turned off, and all eyes pointed to the stage as a volunteer introduced the performers. It was a fairly minimal setup, consisting only of their instruments, amplifiers and the speakers. Roof immediately got comfortable with his upright bass, while Siegel took a minute to adjust his guitar strap. Siegel and Roof talked to the audience, joking about how they had rehearsed Siegel putting on the strap. These opening interactions set the atmosphere of the rest of the show, which was a wonderful exercise in intimacy.
Throughout the show, Siegel was often conversational, delivering witty and humorous anecdotes to preface each song. It paralleled his music, which often adopts a conversational tone, telling vivid stories centered around simple themes that carry the energy of a friend telling you about their day. Before performing “Starlight Rodeo,” he told us about how he forgot to put his daughter and her boyfriend on the guest list, after which Siegel’s daughter responded from the audience, yelling “Hi, dad!” These kinds of anecdotes and interactions throughout made the music feel even more personal than it already was. This became especially evident when he sang “Pearl,” a heartwarming song about his daughter. It made the song much more moving knowing that his daughter was there to hear him sing it.
The music itself was also delightful. While Siegel isn’t the most technical singer, his voice has a delicate gruffness to it that feels very comforting. It’s almost like driving down Michigan roads, smooth and resurfaced mixed with bumpy cracks (okay, maybe not that bumpy). “Little Things,” a song that was already wonderfully poignant, was transformed by the slight instabilities in his voice. His guitar playing was also mesmerizing to watch. In many of the performances there was an instrumental break during which Siegel’s fingers developed a mind of their own, jumping between chords like hopscotch. It’s also a rare moment in the show where Siegel diverts his attention from the audience, becoming transfixed by the music.
It’s hard to talk about the music without mentioning Dave Roof’s contribution. While I was not aware of Roof outside of his association with Siegel, his bass playing was incredible throughout the show. In lieu of an actual backing band, Siegel’s instrument-heavy songs were transformed into guitar and bass pieces. Despite the lack of drums, Roof helped give many of the songs a fluid rhythm, playing in between guitar chords and slapping the bass like a drum. On “Happy,” he launched into a killer bass solo, his hands flying up and down the bass, while absolutely smashing it like he was playing drums. It reminded me of the Indian classical music performances I went to as a kid, as the tabla players would beat their drums at breakneck speed.
The Ark is a perfect venue for folk music. For a genre so heavily acoustic and storytelling-driven, folk music thrives best in settings where the music feels personal enough to seep into your being. The Ark’s seating is structured in the form of a semicircle around the stage, which made it feel like we, the audience, were huddled around a campfire, listening to Siegel narrate his deeply resonant stories. The both of them provided a lively performance filled with pleasant personal stories and fiery solos. While I only recently became familiar with Siegel’s music, Friday night’s performance was instantly memorable, and I can now certify myself as a fan. And most importantly, for two hours, Siegel and Roof whisked me away into another world, with not a single thought about my impending exams.
Daily Arts Writer Thejas Varma can be reached at email@example.com.