The second night of The Ark’s 43rd Ann Arbor Folk Festival began with the lilting sounds of guitar, banjo and lap steel, as it often does. There is nothing quite like sitting in Hill Auditorium during the festival, every seat filled with excited patrons laughing, crying and clapping throughout four hours of music that The Ark, a local music venue, puts on each year. To begin this year’s second night, emcee Willy Porter roused the crowd for the first act, a bluegrass and roots-rock group called Cold Tone Harvest. As audience members filed in through the auditorium’s gilded doors, they were met with the beautiful, yet gritty voice of the band’s lead vocalist, over a soundscape of rhythmic slide guitar and bouncing drums. Though the group played only three songs during their act, they set the tone for the rest of the night with a warm sense of intimacy.
After Cold Tone Harvest, Tulsa, Oklahoma. native John Moreland took the stage with his musical partner and guitarist John Calvin Abney, both of whom are monumental talents in their own right. Moreland is the kind of songwriter that makes you forget everything that’s happening around you, his deep voice wielding the kind of gravitas that only comes from years of careful practice. As he played several songs from his upcoming album, Abney’s trills and riffs added a brilliant dose of treble to the songwriter’s emotive lyrics and cadenced guitar strumming. Moreland is a big guy, but his stage presence dwarfs any physical attributes he might have. It is hard to fill an auditorium of Hill’s size with one person’s voice alone, but he achieved it easily, moving the audience with each line of his roots-rock stylings. If soul is what sets folk music apart from other genres, Moreland is its poster boy. His performance reminds us of why large events like the Ann Arbor Folk Festival are critical: They highlight lesser-known but immensely talented artists with time on the big stage.
Moreland is a tough act to follow under any circumstance, but Nashville songwriter and acclaimed guitarist Molly Tuttle is one of the only people who could match his intensity and talent. The first woman to win the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Guitar Player of the Year award, Tuttle’s flatpicking skills are incredible to watch and even more of a gift to hear. Paired with the singer’s clear and stirring voice, her songs call to mind the kind of timeless music folk is built on. At the peak of one chorus, Tuttle’s precision both with the guitar and her own vocals left the audience in awe, with the typical whoops of support and enjoyment quieted as each note echoed through the auditorium. She approaches music like a surgeon would a body. In many ways, her live performance is a spectacle of both heartfelt commitment and incredible technical prowess.
Following the theme of female empowerment and skill, Tuttle’s talent was matched by the next act, R&B legend Bettye Lavette. The Detroit singer began her career in the early days of Motown, and decades later, Lavette has gotten back on the horse to show audiences her unforgettable voice and inimitable soul once again. Her performance was full of laughter and wit, with Lavette’s raspy voice carrying each song with jokes and false exits. Near the end of the set, she admitted to the audience that she was out of breath, proceeded to dance off the stage in her black velvet jumpsuit and came back a minute later with the fervor and stage presence only a veteran of the industry can embody. For a woman of advanced age, Lavette’s spark is still as bright as it ever was, her raw talent and gregarious personality pulling the audience in with every word that came out of her painted-red mouth.
The festival could have easily ended with Lavette’s magnetic performance, and yet, the two headliners hadn’t even played yet. As Lavette danced through the stage doors once more, this time not returning, cleverly-named North Carolina duo Mandolin Orange prepared for a set full of grace and emotional clarity. Songwriter Andrew Marlin and collaborator Emily Frantz have a special sort of magic when they play together, passing the same guitar back and forth as they picked up their mandolin and fiddle, respectively. Marlin’s voice and poignant lyrics act as the base for Frantz’s blindingly clear mezzo soprano, each of their individual talents winding their way through the hour-long set to create a gem of storytelling.
Mandolin Orange has a particular capacity to make an audience feel like they’re being sung to individually. The lyrics of their songs and each member’s earnest vocals settle in one’s body like they were there all along. The group is a perfect example of what folk has become in the modern age, still retaining its well-worn narratives and sense of impassioned truth while growing more complex in production and song structure as time has gone on. If there’s anything that hasn’t changed, however, it’s the way artists like Frantz and Marlin make an audience feel, holding them in comfortable rapture until the last bow is taken.
This kind of awe continued with the major headliner of the festival, Nathaniel Rateliff, embarking on a solo performance after years of performing with his full band, affectionately named the Night Sweats. Without experiencing it yourself, there is nothing more to share than the fact that Rateliff’s music is something everyone should hear live at least once. He’s the kind of musician that makes a person rethink everything they’ve ever heard in comparison to his music. The truth and raw understanding of life his music offers an audience is staggering in person, especially if performed solo, as it was at the festival.
Throughout his performance, Rateliff joked about the differences between playing with a band and by himself, commenting on the difficulty of holding your own in an auditorium as large as Hill without anyone to fall back on. If it was truly difficult for Rateliff, it was hard for anyone to tell outside himself ― the singer was larger than life on stage, carrying each song into another with a voice so powerful that at times the venue’s seats seemed to literally vibrate. Stripped down to just himself and a guitar, Rateliff’s talent was laid bare for the festival’s audience without any frills. It is hard to imagine him with a band after seeing him without one, but it was clear throughout the songwriter’s performance why he has become such a star in the roots-rock genre.
His talent cuts through a person’s heart immediately and with ease, the emotion of his music both universal and deeply personal to Rateliff’s own story. Near the end of his set, the musician broke down in tears remembering his late collaborator Richard Swift, with whom he was planning to write his upcoming solo album before his death from hepatitis in July 2018. As the tears found their way to his eyes, the audience was crying, too. It is in moments like this we remember why folk music has lasted so long, without the major changes or reinvention other genres have seen. There is nothing like folk to make you cry harder than you ever have before, and then laugh with the people you’re crying with.