Of course it’s sold out already. The Ann Arbor Folk Festival, set to be reincarnated for the 31st time this weekend, is a town staple that ranks somewhere between Hash Bash and the Art Fair. It’s got reputation, an honest crowd and a slightly diluted (if well-intentioned) soul. It gets eaten up every year by the hunky-dory, over-the-hill University Musical Society/Hill Auditorium crowd for good reason – it’s a slew of palatable artists performing in one of the country’s best venues.
Most of the money goes straight to The Ark, which brings in folk acts for college, professional and retired crowds. You could learn from the venue’s website that in 1965, four local churches “envisioned a gathering place for students – a coffee house like many that were springing up on campuses all around the country.” When those churches could no longer raise the money, the festival was created in 1977 and The Ark soldiered on through the decades and into its comfort zone.
If my tone has been vague up until this point, it’s because the folk festival is hit-or-miss at best. Ben Folds, headlining tonight, doesn’t really fit into the proverbial folk tracksuit. Emmylou Harris, topping off Saturday night’s lineup, seems a better fit. The festival has snagged Ani Difranco and Jackie Greene in the past, but Toad the Wet Sprocket? “Something’s Always Wrong” and “Fly from Heaven” aside – and let me tell you, that’s huge seventh-grade-nostalgia – why is this band at a folk festival? Sound like mid-’90s pop to me.
What is also missing from the event is the atmosphere a folk festival generally invokes. The Ark is wonderfully cramped and intimate, but Hill is wide open. The audience/performer dynamic is largely forgotten – people don’t know if it’s polite to stand up and dance, lest they upset the crotchety regulars. Folk festivals are usually outdoors and eclectic to the point of Appalachian/French/zydeco tap dancing, but Ann Arbor’s festival doesn’t always feel like a real snapshot of roots and folk music. It gets the job done but does little else to distinguish itself as a preeminent festival on the folk circuit. The same could not be said for our annual film festival, which is enjoying not only a legal victory for arts funding but international awareness.
But you can’t begrudge baby boomers and freshmen the chance to enjoy great acts in their own backyard. It makes us feel at home, like Hash Bash (in a “drum circles meets filling the dorm hall with eau de ganj” fashion) and the Street Art Fair – though the latter might be more of a lost cause. There is a good deal of legit folk music to be heard. But think of mashed potatoes . lumps with the good, anyone?
I’ve gone each of my four years here, and when (if?) I make it back, I won’t turn down another chance. Good luck finding a reasonable scalper.
Ann Arbor Folk Festival
Friday and Saturday
At The Ark