The first night of the 38th annual Ann Arbor Folk Festival was in full swing this past Friday, Jan. 30. With a stacked lineup and the silly wit of the night’s MC, Steve Poltz, a singer-songwriter, the festival explored the expansive genre of folk music. The night began with the smooth, simpler sounds of rising folk bands. Billy Strings and Jon Dulin, a Michigan duo, had the audience begin its night with some bluegrass samples. “Walk On Boy” was the highlight of the duo’s set, giving everyone old-school bluegrass with a jolt of energy from modern day music. Mandolin Orange, a North Carolina-based group, followed these boys with a softer variety of folk. Performing simple songs made large by one acoustic guitar, one electric guitar and a mandolin, Emily Frantz and Andrew Marlin were another duo who, although currently of only mild acclaim, will undoubtedly expand their sound and popularity before the year’s end.

With a strong bass and bluesy electric guitar, the Bahamas were the self-declared “odd ducks” of the night. Throughout their 30-minute set, the group held the intriguingly juxtaposed moments of heavy instrumental and vocal intensity followed by short bouts of calm silence. Afie Jurvanen, the band’s lead singer, led the show with his dark humor and booming voice through their well known hits like “Never Let You Go” and the highly acclaimed “Lost In The Light.” The Bahamas reiterated the intention behind The Ark’s chosen lineup: finding folk artists who reform the genre’s classic sounds with individuality and personal taste. Here, the personal taste was laced with a bluesy electric guitar and ethereal vocals.

Yonder Mountain String Band jumpstarted its set by declaring, “we’re not going to say much after this – we’re just going to play.” The 30-minute set held no breaks, nor any perception of fingers. Each member’s hands, fingers and movements were so quick and so dedicated to the high intensity bluegrass jam session they began that both audience and artists had lost themselves in the art they created. The band’s fiddler and banjo player added some of the set’s most notable solos. Following this fierce five-person jam session were the fierce folk sisters of the Swedish band Baskery. Aware of the power of Hill Auditorium, these three sisters began their set with a short, eery and ethereal a capella number before drastically transitioning into some crowd-clapping, physical folk rock numbers. Songs like “Catslap” and “The Shadow” were slathered in electric banjo slides and harsher acoustic rock sounds, all with an underlying lyrical emphasis on feminism. With heads cocked and hair pushed to the side, these three sisters confidently introduced their sound to the older folks of Hill Auditorium.

The top acts of the night, critically acclaimed Alabama native Jason Isbell and folk-rock powerhouse Brandi Carlile, refused to disappoint. Isbell glided on stage smoothly with wife and violinist Amanda Shires to deliver a sad and at times darkly humorous performance. Songs like “Live Oak” and “Cover Me Up” left some audience members a bit teary-eyed as Isbell and his wife told the stories beneath their detailed storytelling lyrics. The couple finished the set with a quietly beautiful Warren Zevon cover before exiting the stage, holding the same intense eye contact they held for most of the loving performance.

Brandi Carlile finished the night with alternative folk finesse filled with her powerful attitude and vocals. With a tattered leather jacket and wide-rimmed hat, Carlile and her band coolly floated on stage and ripped into her set. Her signature voice painted each song, making the instruments always fall second to the first-place performance she and her twinning band-mates provided for an adoring crowd. Time, age and experience have deepened her appreciation for her career and allowed for more confidence in her performances. She experimented with the crowd and venue, at one point using the amazing acoustics of Hill Auditorium to sing unamplified to her adoring audience. Whether amplified or not, Brandi’s throaty, crescendoing voice expanded throughout the auditorium in song and word as she told stories of inspiration and growth. She finished the night with a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain.” As she twirled and danced across the stage, Carlisle made herself worthy of any possible Stevie Nicks comparison as “we must never break the chainnn ….” echoed throughout the adoring Hill Auditorium.

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