Hill Auditorium looked like an opulent opera house but smelled and sounded like a roadside bar on Friday evening. A thick, pungent mix of fruity alcohol, cigarettes and musk hung in the dimly lit air as every seat was filled for the 28th annual Ann Arbor Folk Festival, which gathers folk musicians from around the country.
But this was not traditional Tom Joad folk music; in fact, it may not even be defined as folk music at all. There was a prophetic singer/songwriter who sounded like a Welsh Bruce Springsteen, a petite and timid woman who sang in soft Taiwanese and a gospel group led by three blind men. Irreverent MC Susan Werner even played songs of the big band variety while joking that she decided to try the genre because “most of the competition is dead.”
Dancing in the aisles of the packed auditorium, the crowd was as eclectic as the varied musical acts. Though mostly middle aged, the audience was more energetic and excited than teenagers at the hippest rock show. For their part, the artists were personable and informal, as if playing at an open mic night for a group of close friends.
The opening act on Friday night was the bluegrass group Steppin’ In It, which consists of four men wielding an acoustic guitar, a steel guitar, a harmonica and a stand-up bass. The group played with a casual ease, barely looking at the crowd and focusing intensely on their instruments and harmonies. Next was Jeremy Kittel, a fiddler backed by deep, resonating stand up bass and steady acoustic guitar.
After Kittel took his final bows and the crowd took a short breather, broad-jawed, thick-necked Welsh baritone Martyn Joseph emerged onstage announced as making “Leonard Cohen look like Julie Andrews.” Compared to his sledgehammer voice and bulky frame, Joseph’s guitar looked fragile in his arms, as chords and notes were practically pounded out.
The Blind Boys of Alabama were the second headliners and perhaps the most unassuming and delightful act of the night. The band, three elderly blind men, led by their younger drummer, bassist and guitarist, appeared on stage to much fanfare and played an energetic set. The Blind Boys took turns taking lead, as their soulful vocal harmonies hushed the crowd and filled Hill’s high ceilings. Their gospel sound was accompanied by loud bluesy rock, making for an appealing twist. Before launching into an animated and ominous version of “Amazing Grace,”the Blind Boys announced, “We didn’t come all the way from Alabama to find Jesus. We brought him with us!”
The Boys had vocal skill and endurance surpassing most 20-something pop stars, and by the end of their set it was clear that they had more passion and energy than the bandmates half their age.
Headliners The Indigo Girls were in good spirits when they took the stage late Friday. Their vocals were feminine and fierce, but the music was notably rough and raw. The Girls mentioned that it was the first time they’d played together in two months. “We’re not really practicers, as you can probably tell, but we play from the heart.”
On Saturday, Ottawa native and Juno Award winner Lynn Miles graced the stage in a bright blue velvet blazer. She effortlessly sailed through the higher octaves while poignantly recalling lost loves in her trademark whispery alto.
Whit Hill, whose unusual voice had the low drawl of Lucinda Williams and the yodeling vibrato of Dolly Parton, played what she called, “beatnik-tinged country music.” Backed by her band The Postcards, Hill played through a short set of simple, expressive and unabashedly sentimental songs.
Traditional English singer David Jones moseyed up thereafter. He sang a capella English folk songs, sea shanties and children’s songs; his strong baritone voice and thick English accent reverberating in the auditorium. Jones looked like a husky sea dog with his white beard and worn baseball cap — a man that might be seen sailing an old boat around Cape Cod, fishing and singing to himself.
King Wilkie, the amicable bluegrass sextet from Virginia consisting of six strapping young men under the age of 27 who, with shaggy hair and vintage blazers, look like a Strokes’ side project. Wielding a violin, stand-up bass, banjo, dulcimer and two acoustic guitars, their sound was classic, organic, and genuine as they performed original tunes as well as classic covers (Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” for example).
Richard Thompson, the charismatic Saturday headliner, gave a personable performance despite his tall frame and intimidating demeanor. With his deep, rumbling voice, Thompson dipped into an extensive repertoire of folk, blues, and bluegrass for his set. His songs were powerful, fierce and beautifully simple.
The highlight was a Randy Newman-esque ditty that could have been the nerdiest and most genuine seduction song ever. “I like a girl in satin/ Who talks dirty in Latin …I’ve got the hots for the smarts/ IQ off the charts/ give me brains over hearts.”
Like all of the musicians who participated in the two day festival, Thompson seemed immensely grateful to be involved in the thriving neo-folk scene being celebrated at Hill this weekend.