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A dozen takeaways from this year's Ann Arbor Folk Festival
ANN ARBOR -- “I’m in heaven right now, friends,” Stephen Kellogg told the crowd at Hill Auditorium on Friday, Jan. 26, during the first night of the 41st Ann Arbor Folk Festival.
That’s a pretty common sentiment about the event in general.
As with its predecessors, this year’s AAFF brought plenty of top-grade talent to the Hill stage -- 13 acts over two nights, stretching the parameters of what constitutes folk music in convincing fashion. This year’s edition may not have had the kind of unique, out-of-the-box act that other years have displayed, but there was a top-to-bottom consistency -- including amiable emcee Joe Pug -- that made for easy, if occasionally provocative, listening.
A good festival, of course, is a collection of memorable moments, so here are a dozen takeaways from this year’s AAFF...
• A festival is not a competition, of course, but JJ Grey & Mofro stole the show more than any other act. Telling the crowd that “I haven’t played (just) 40 minutes in 15 years,” Grey and his compatriots rocked Hill with a set of high-octane Southern soul, including a moving “Lochloosa” and an epic “When The Sun Is Shining Down.”
• This year’s breakthrough was unquestionably the War and Treaty, an Albion-based husband-wife duo whose three-song performance Saturday, Jan. 27, became the rare night-opener to get a standing ovation, particularly blowing Hill away with a roof-raising version of “Til The Morning” that moved emcee Pug to say, “I really don’t know where the show can go from here. I think we hit a climax.”
• Related: Dead Horses at the Ann Arbor Folk Festival, 3 Things To Know
• John Prine was revered by Saturday’s other acts as the elder statesman he is, and the 71-year-old troubadour delivered in kind, sounding weathered by defiant on favorites such as “Angel From Montgomery,” “Hello In There” and his Steve Goodman tribute “Souvenirs.”
• Prine also hosted the traditional all-star finale, bringing Saturday’s other performers back to join him for Waylon Jennings’ “Luckenbach, Texas (Back To The Basics Of Love).”
• Jason Isbell was pleased after the AAAF audience warmly received his performance of the politically charged “White Man’s World” during his headline set on Friday. “I like the folk festival crowd,” Isbell said. “Nobody goes to the bathroom when I play that song.”
• Aimee Mann raised some eyebrows on Saturday when she explained that her 2017 song “Patient Zero” was about “Hollywood and disappointment,” and, specifically, actor Andrew Garfield -- without further elaboration.
• You know it’s a folk festival when someone leads a hum-along -- which is what Kellogg did at the end of his set on Friday night.
• You also know it’s a folk festival when one of the artists talks about being kicked out of seminary school -- which Chastity Brown did as she opened things on Friday night.
• And you still know it’s a folk festival when an act can lead a sing-along of a brand new song, which is what Birds of Chicago did on Saturday as it finished its portion with “American Flowers,” leading the audience through a final chorus in front of the microphones to take advantage of Hill’s fabulous acoustics.
• The biggest hit, perhaps of the entire festival, was delivered on Friday by Lori McKenna, who performed “Humble And Kind,” the 2016 smash she wrote for country star Tim McGraw, albeit in a version she described as “more like a prayer to five children who live in Stoughton, Mass,” than McCraw’s lush hit.
• There were moments during the Cactus Blossoms’ set on Saturday night where, if you closed your eyes, you would think it was the Everly Brothers up there, not Page Burckum and Jack Torrey.
• There were a couple of snafus at this year’s festival, however -- notably lengthy changeovers before Isbell’s and Prine’s closing sets each night, which stalled momentum and also, unduly, marginalized Pug who was mysteriously ushered off stage on Friday and was absent after introducing Mann on Saturday, until joining the rest of the musicians for the finale.
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