2019 Ann Arbor Folk Festival, Night Two

Monday, January 28, 2019 - 3:18pm

The second night of the 42nd Ann Arbor Folk Festival at The Ark, a local music club dedicated to good music and good times, was nothing short of magical.

Maybe the magic came from the Narnian winter wonderland the audience found themselves in after leaving the warm embrace of the University's Hill Auditorium post-concert, just before the clock struck midnight. Maybe it was The RFD Boys playing fiddle and singing some old-time blues as if they were in a back-alley rafting bar deep in southern West Virginia. Maybe it was AHI, standing there in a black rider’s cap he bought off the internet, soulfully singing of finding himself. Maybe it was Pokey LaFarge, standing solo stage, looking like Hank Williams fresh-off a concert at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tenn. Maybe it was everything combined–– and that was only the first half of the show, too.

But the magic in the room wasn’t only restrained to the stage, either.

On the left, an elderly couple danced lovingly to songs of fallen angels. To the right, a gentleman shot to his feet in standing ovation after every song. Somewhere in the middle, two young writers blinked away rebellious tears in the safety of the dark.

The RFD Boys opened up the night, treating Ann Arbor to some classic folk tunes. 50 years strong and still going, The RFD Boys are regulars at The Ark. Despite their long career (and advancing age), the group showed no signs of slowing down –– the RFD boys, if anything, have merely aged like some good whiskey (or moonshine). The entire performance was electrifying and delivered some much-needed, foot-stomping fiddle on a cold winter’s night.

Then, with his soul-bearing honesty, AHI was larger-than-life on stage, throwing his entire being into every moment. But what made the performance so captivating wasn’t just the lead singer himself, but rather the band’s group dynamic. One could see the inherent connection — musical and personal — between each musician on stage. It was this perfect cohesion between each band member that made the performance incredibly intimate and forged a sense of community between everyone in the room, musician and audience member alike.

To round out the first half of the festival, Pokey LaFarge walked on stage looking like he had just hopped out of the 1950s. LaFarge seemingly embodied a legacy of country and folk legends. Yet, his performance felt fresh, rather than overdone. More than his music, however, it was LaFarge’s vulnerability standing solo on stage and his immediate camaraderie with the audience that made his set stand out. LaFarge’s performance was a perfect example of why the magic of live music is so tantalizing. To see LaFarge perform last night was the equivalent of walking into the famous Grand Ole Opry and watching Patsy Cline or Hank Williams back in an age gone by.

— Madeleine Virginia Gannon, Daily Arts Writer

“If you can’t afford therapy, you might as well listen to folk.” This is something I couldn’t get out of my head all of Saturday night, as I sat in the red velvet chairs of Hill Auditorium for the second night of this year’s Ann Arbor Folk Festival. It’s funny, but true ― nothing can get you crying in public quite like hearing people bear their souls 50 feet away from you, singing their stories like it’s the last thing they’ll ever say.

The Festival is arguably one of the biggest music events in the metro-Detroit area each year, a collection of folk and blues’s best and brightest for two nights in the cold January wind. 2019’s lineup was particularly striking, featuring huge acts like Brandi Carlile and Rufus Wainwright as headliners on Friday and Saturday. Alongside them was a series of equally incredible musicians that made each night one for the ages. Although I can only speak for Saturday, I can honestly say the show was life-changing, and that’s not hyperbole. It is every year, and probably will be forever, if folk continues its 100-year roll through America.

The two secondary headliners for Jan. 26 were Joan Osborne and I’m With Her, a trio made up of folk stars Aoife O’Donovan, Sarah Jarosz and Sara Watkins. Osborne brought the Folk Festival’s audiences an inventive set of Bob Dylan classics along with guitarist and fellow vocalist Jackie Greene. Called “Dylanology,” Osborne and friends brought the house down with their renditions of hits like “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” bringing new life to the timeless words. Afterward, I’m With Her took the stage, and also took the audience’s breath away ― O’Donovan, Jarosz and Watkins are masters of their craft, weaving their voices together to absolutely stunning ends. They played an hour-long set, but it felt like minutes due to their music’s sheer, undeniable beauty. I can only explain it by asking anyone to drive out and hear them live if possible, because their music is nearly perfection.

And, of course, at the end of the night, came Wainwright. The composer, singer, songwriter extraordinaire is one of those people that don’t seem human because of their talent, yet, Wainwright’s biggest strength is the fact that he is so human. His lyrics read like ironic, funny, sharp poems on paper, but when Wainwright sings, all the listener can do is sit slack-jawed. Venues like Hill Auditorium were built for musicians like Wainwright ― there were moments during his set that the venue literally began to vibrate with the intensity of his voice and piano. It was only when he brought out the rest of the night’s musicians for a group rendition of “Hallelujah” that I realized tears were streaming down my face. Through broken guitar strings, massage-parlor stories and a million little jokes, Wainwright closed the festival with the ease and familiarity that only true performers have, and a voice that can only be described as God-given.  

— Clara Scott, Senior Arts Editor