The Ark prides itself on stretching the definition of “folk music.” While the Ann Arbor institution is primarily known as a “folk” venue, in reality, it loves to accommodate all kinds of genre-breaking artists. In The Ark’s eyes, it seems, folk isn’t always just a guy standing alone on stage with a guitar, but rather a guiding set of principles for making art.

That philosophy couldn’t have been more apparent on Saturday night at Day 2 of the 38th Annual Ann Arbor Folk Festival. The seven-artist, five-hour show was like a sampler pack of everything The Ark has to offer year-round. While the show’s headliner was, in fact, a man by himself singing with an acoustic guitar, the journey to Amos Lee covered confessional singer-songwriters, old-school blues and even a true depression-era big-band throwback.

The night began with Ann Arbor native Laith Al-Saadi, who played with what he called the cheapest and most-traveled guitar of the night. Bearing at least a slight resemblance to Jerry Garcia with his long beard and glasses, Al-Saadi got a great response from the crowd, especially when he added riffs from Led Zeppelin songs to his virtuosic guitar solos. He captivated the audience, and he clearly had a very special relationship with his instrument.

Following Al-Saadi was the young Seattle-born Noah Gundersen, who played acoustic guitar and sang while his sister played violin and provided back-up vocals. His songs were more elegiac, more delicate, with slow-building, powerful vocals. After the Gundersens left the stage, they were replaced by the eight-piece Dustbowl Revival, a group that was a complete throwback to depression-era hoedowns. Opening with a spirited rendition of “John the Revelator,” the horns livened the crowd and the five-part harmonies were quite impressive. The band even included a vaudeville-inspired number in its set, and it was a bit of a shame that everyone in the reverent audience was sitting down and not dancing.

Between the sets, while the stage crew was switching out instruments, New England folk singer Cheryl Wheeler kept the crowd entertained. Self-deprecating, upbeat and off-the-cuff, she seemed to talk about whatever popped into her head, including stories from seventh grade or tales about her dogs. She sang short songs that were goofy, like her song about potatoes set to the “Mexican Hat Dance” melody, and heartfelt, like her ode to her wife.

Wheeler was especially proud to introduce the legendary Buffy Saint-Marie, a singer-songwriter of Canadian Cree decent who has been around since the ’60s. The oft-covered Saint-Marie yelled her way through rock ‘n’ roll protest songs with environmentalist lyrics, alternating those numbers with softer, prettier acoustic tracks, including the classics “Universal Soldier” and the Academy Award Best Original Song winner “Up Where We Belong.” Saint-Marie was clearly a crowd favorite.

After an intermission, Holly Williams, granddaughter of country legend Hank Williams, took the stage. Dressed like a cowgirl with hat, boots, jeans and long blonde hair and singing with a southern twang, Williams played a very personal, confessional style of folk music. She sang about her grandparents in Louisiana and a cemetery where five generations of her family lay.

Then it was time for the night’s two headliners. Ani DiFranco announced, while she usually tries to mix up her setlists, tonight she would only play new songs. With two backing musicians (percussion and bass), DiFranco played tracks from her most recent album as well as songs she had just written. The music was mostly open arrangements played at slow, relaxing tempos, and though most of it was unfamiliar to the audience, DiFranco did relent and close her set by playing 1998’s “Swandive.”

Finally, after over four hours of music, Amos Lee arrived. Standing tall with glasses and a beard, Lee took control of the crowd, singing like a folk Otis Redding with tons of charisma in his rough soulful voice. He was one of the poppiest musicians of the lineup, and even though he was performing solo with just his guitar, his songs felt fully developed. He garnered tons of “Whoo!”s from his fans when he moved all across his vocal register. Lee told plenty of stories, introducing his classic “Sweet Pea” by telling the festival attendees about a time when he made an elderly woman in a hospice with a reputation for being difficult dance when he played this “little ditty” for her. He expressed admiration for the city of Ann Arbor, for the fans who sat through a marathon night of music and for the other performers. He backed up that last comment when he brought out every other artist who had performed throughout the night, all of them harmonizing together on “Angel from Montgomery.” After 50 years of music and 38 years of a folk festival that still sells out both nights, the sense of the community between musicians and audience at The Ark feels stronger than ever.

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