For 43 years, The Ark’s Ann Arbor Folk Festival has been a reliable winter fixture in southeast Michigan — and on the national music scene.
And the venue wasn’t about to let the COVID-19 pandemic change that track record.
True, the 44th edition of the festival won’t mean two nights of sold-out crowds at the University of Michigan’s Hill Auditorium, or performers noshing on Zingerman’s treats backstage. But the show will go on virtually, with an online event Friday and Saturday, Jan. 29-30, that will feature 25 acts, some playing live from The Ark itself, and hosted by Jeff Daniels for a potentially international audience.
On Sunday, Jan. 31, meanwhile, a number of Michigan artists will perform a tribute to the late John Prine — who headlined the 42nd festival in 2018 and died April 7 of complications from COVID.
"The festival is our major fundraiser every year, and also one of our signature events," says Ark program director Anya Siglin. "So you can’t skip it. That would be strange. Everybody would be, 'What happened with the Folk Fest?'
"It’s important to The Ark and important to the community that we’re still presenting live music. We just have to continue what we’re doing — in a different way."
The Ark is, in fact, no stranger to the virtual music world. Early on, during the spring of 2020, it launched a Family Room Series of online shows, sharing audience donations with the artists and their representatives. There have been ticketed virtual events as well, with a few acts even streaming from The Ark’s stage on Main Street.
Siglin and The Ark’s other principals held out hope for an in-person festival until late summer, but toward the end of August they began working on Plan B, investigating live streaming platforms to handle a virtual event and beginning conversations with artist agents. Settling on Noonchorus, The Ark announced an initial lineup and put tickets on sale during mid-December, about a month and a half later than usual, and has made some additions and changes since then.
"I’d already had some artists booked for the live performance," Siglin says, "so I started contacting agents saying, 'Here’s what we’re doing. Here’s what we’re offering. Can they do a short set?' I could contact some artists we couldn’t normally get for the festival because they're on tour or they don't want to come to Michigan in January. But now they can do it from home."
Adam Bauer, an Ann Arbor-based agent with Madison House, booked former festival emcee Colin Hay and Toad the Wet Sprocket's Glenn Phillips onto the virtual bill. An annual festival attendee, he's pleased that The Ark chose to take the online route rather than postpone or even cancel this year.
"I absolutely think it’s important for them to keep it going," Bauer notes. "The Ark, as an entity within the live music community, has a lot of goodwill in the community. Streaming's not going to replace a live experience, that’s for sure, but keeping it out there, even as a virtual event, is at least doing something, and the community will hopefully respond to that."
With a larger than usual lineup, and some artists playing for free, the festival boasts plenty of special elements. Thanks to his award-winning acting career, Chelsea resident Daniels is a high-profile ambassador emcee. David Bromberg will be turning in a record 10th festival appearance, while Traverse City’s Accidentals will be joined by Kim Richey to kick off the first night’s show live from The Ark, while Ann Arbor’s RFD Boys will do the same on Saturday.
"We wanted the feel of having The Ark there, too," Siglin explains. "When we first started thinking about this we decided, 'Let’s see if we can do a local group, a Michigan local, to kick it off each night and kick it off at The Ark. People like to see live music. They like to see an actual stage. So we're excited they can be part of this." Siglin adds there are backup plans in the event those performances can’t go off as planned.
Most of the performances will be pre-recorded exclusively for the festival. The show will continue streaming until Feb. 7.
Siglin is hoping the virtual festival will be a one-time-only occurrence, but she’s confident The Ark has rescued a tradition that’s in fine fashion.
"It was a challenge, but worthwhile," Siglin says. "We have some people who have not played the festival before, and even some who have not played The Ark yet, which is exciting. And I tried to find artists who weren’t doing a lot of livestreams, because I wanted this to be something different. You don’t want people to be like, 'Oh, they’ve done 20 of ’em. I've seen it.' You want, 'Wow, I haven’t seen them in a long time! I’ve got to watch this.'"
• The 44th Ann Arbor Folk Festival, emceed by Jeff Daniels, takes place at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Jan. 29-30. Tickets start at $25 via noonchorus.com/the-ark/.
• Friday’s lineup features Raul Malo, Colin Hay, Alan Doyle, The War and Treaty, Keifer Sutherland, Joe Pug, Glen Phillips, Amythyst Kiah, Gina Chavz, Willi Watson and Ron Pope. The Accidentals with Kim Richey perform live from The Ark.
• Saturday’s lineup includes Bruce Cockburn, Dar Williams, David Bromberg, Todd Snider, George Winston, Vance Gilbert, Don Flemons, Matt Anderson, Crys Matthews, Sierra Ferrell and Andrea von Kampen. The RFD Boys will perform live from The Ark.
• "A Michigan Tribute to John Prine" streams at 7 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 31 for a separate $10 ticket.
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