Throaty utterances of heart-felt lyrics. An abundance of banjos. Perhaps, peasant skirts. But also, “fire-breathing circus freaks” who use kitchen utensils as instruments. These are just a few things attendees of the Ann Arbor Folk Festival can expect.
This year’s Folk Festival features an impressive group of headliners including Ryan Adams, DeVotchKa, Emmylou Harris, Nanci Griffith and Glen Campbell, but also intermingles emerging talents Elephant Revival, David Wax Museum and Caravan of Thieves (the self-titled circus freaks). While The Ark is the organization that runs Folk Festival, the event’s expected attendance of six to seven thousand folk fans would be an amount simply impossible to jam into the cozy setting of The Ark itself. Instead, these musicians will share the stage at the Hill Auditorium tonight and tomorrow in an event that has been played since 1977.
The Ark’s Marketing Director, Barb Chaffer-Authier elaborated on the history of the Folk Festival, emphasizing its importance in maintaining The Ark’s non-profit mission. The event was created with the goal of raising money for the organization after funding from the First Presbyterian Church began to dwindle, and started as a few friends and performers of the Ark gathering at the Power Center to make music and money. While The Ark was originally founded as a coffeehouse where youth of the ’60s could discuss Vietnam and Woodstock, it gradually began to focus more on the music. By 1969, it was the hub of Ann Arbor’s folk music scene, and while money was no longer an issue, The Ark decided to stay non-profit.
“We’re really the longest-surviving non-profit music venue of our kind in the nation,” Chaffer-Authier said. “There was a time where there were a lot of non-profit music venues, but there aren’t a lot of those left.”
However, the Ark isn’t exactly begging for change. The Folk Festival, as per usual, is sold out this year. Part of what attracts such large crowds to the two-night concert is the diverse lineup. While there are Folk Festival devotees who attend every year, there is also a substantial number of attendees drawn by a single headliner.
“It’s a great opportunity for people to come to the festival to see someone like Ryan Adams, in which case they know the music and that’s what brings them in,” Chaffer-Authier said. “But they might leave the festival knowing someone new who might be their future favorite.”
To accommodate for such musical discoveries, The Ark invites the non-headlining Folk Festival performers to play a full show in the spring. Chaffer-Authier gave a particularly serendipitous example of a Folk Festival artist who achieved a more than solid fan base in just two nights. Chicago native Joe Pug had never performed in Ann Arbor and wasn’t even on the Folk Festival lineup, and when he performed as a guest appearance, he only played one song each night. But when he returned to the Ark in the spring, he sold out.
“I like when young performers get a boost,” Chaffer-Authier added. “We book headliners first and then the headliners influence who we pick to round out the bill each year. We try to have a balance of different styles.”
Sometimes, creating this diversity means booking louder, more energetic artists, like 2002’s Melissa Ferrick. Sometimes it means booking a drummer who wears nothing but a loin cloth during performance, as it was for 2007’s Kiyoshi Nagata Ensemble.
“A lot of our bands can be a surprise to audience members depending on what they think of when they think of folk music,” Chaffer-Authier said. “No matter what folk means to you, we’ll have it at the Folk Festival. There’s a different definition for everyone.”
One band in particular, Elephant Revival, encompasses a multiplicity of genres in their music. Multi-instrumentalist and singer Dan Rodriguez explained the band’s label of “transcendental folk” was bestowed upon the Colorado quintet by a local journalist.
“From my understanding, folk music is music created by the people for the people,” Rodriguez said. “You can’t really define music through labels. They’re a way to conceptualize or compartmentalize. But we are definitely folk music.”
But part of what distinguishes Elephant Revival from the stereotypical folk band image of bearded guitarists with a washboard is its wide range of influences and the malleability of its sound. Rodriguez described the music of Elephant Revival as a spectrum, able to channel a variety of styles — old-time, avant-garde jazz, pop rock.
“We all have such different influences,” Rodriguez said, “And it all comes together and creates this tapestry. That’s why we can play for all audiences. It’s all over the map, in a good way. A broad spectrum.”
Given the band’s eclectic nature, Elephant Revival seems like an obvious choice for the festival. Though Rodriguez was a bit surprised at the invitation to perform, he expressed a contagious enthusiasm.
“The lineup looks awesome so we’re excited to be on the same stage as so many amazing, talented artists. We’re grateful to have this opportunity to play for the folks of Michigan,” Rodriguez said.