The first night of Hill Auditorium’s 29th annual Ann Arbor Folk Festival found MC Cheryl Wheeler wearing an outfit made up of a faded t-shirt and sweatpants – more suitable for a night on the couch than onstage at Hill Auditorium – while Blanche bassist Tracee Mae Miller sported a ’50s-style, dusty pink party dress and oversized bouffant hair. Older, country-fried rocker Bill Kirchen showed he was still able to knock out Chuck Berry and Jimi Hendrix impressions; young folkie James Hill dazzled on the small-scale with a cutting, cheetah-fast variation of the traditional “Miserlou” on ukulele.
Friday’s performances were an amalgamation of vintage and up-and-coming talent, brought together two nights a year at one of the largest and most prestigous folk festivals in the country. Though sponsored by the Ark, a Main Street concert hall, the event moved to the more spacious Hill Auditorium four years ago. Fans travel from across the state as well as from across the country for the gig, which clocked in at a lengthly five hours by the end of headliner Robert Cray’s set. The performers’ energy was not dampened by the length; they were ever enthusiastic and championed the merits of the venue, the festival and Ann Arbor’s folk music legacy. To top it off, Hill is in the middle of Central Campus – yet it’s doubtful the majority University students knew about the folky weekend festivities, much less found them relevant.
The festival’s opening night was meant to be more diverse – a louder and more eclectic gap of artists for the presumably hip Friday-night crowd. Saturday night, headlined by the Lyle Lovett Trio, saw more traditional folk and rootsy Americana. But Friday – if a ticket holder wanted everything from chill-inducing, campfire sing-a-longs (Catie Curtis’s closer of “Passing Through”) to the aforementioned ukulele maestro – was definitely a lot of bang for $45.
The Robert Cray Band headlined, playing a predictable (but still satisfying) dirty blues-based set more than four hours after guests started filling the seats. Tired attendees started to sneak out of Hill between songs, but Cray still tried to work the crowd, proclaiming, “Thank you kindly!” between every other song.
Cray’s style of blues is solid but almost too pop-oriented – maybe too easy-listening to keep an audience alive after they’ve sat still for the past five hours. Singing about “Poor Johnny” and losing your baby to a 12-year-old boy works better when the venue is packed tightly and the crowd isn’t escaping during your set.
The audience’s reaction to the Robert Cray band reflected the rest of the night – for the most part, they ate it up. Certain members of the crowd didn’t quite get the memo that Hill acoustics guarantee well amplified sound or that Blanche isn’t quite as tame as their thrift-store suits suggest: A number of people covered their ears during Blanche’s last song, a blistering cut that segued from pedal-steelist Dave Feeney chanting the lead to dirge-like three-part harmony.
But Blanche’s performance was one of the strongest of the night. A few tried not to listen during Iris Dement’s set – her aggressive soprano proved too much for a couple of the baby boomers on the main floor, though they couldn’t seem to get enough of MC Wheeler’s quirky sex jokes and rewritten verse.
Throughout the night, it was clear that the show would be Ann Arbor-centric. Besides the local artists and Ark president explaining the donation cards stuck inside the programs, performers showed love for the Ark, its legacy and its home city. Wheeler described her excitement at finding booking contracts for the Ark in her mailbox; the Greencards’ Carol Young, on the other hand, burbled about how the food at Jerusalem Garden is incentive for her and her band to return for shows.
Today’s folk music isn’t all Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, or world-peace-oriented lyrics and acoustic guitars. The husband-and-wife-led Blanche isn’t even associated with the Ark scene. The band spent several months of last year opening for Wilco and the White Stripes. Friday night was a stylistically diverse experience for those who attended – and folk music might stand a chance with University students once they realize what they’ve been missing.
Ann Arbor Folk Festival
Friday and Saturday