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Ann Arbor Folk Festival goes virtual -- this year's takeaways
"For a little while, all is well," Marianne James, director of The Ark, said at the beginning of the 44th Annual Ann Arbor Folk Festival on Friday night, Jan. 29.
"All it takes is a little live music."
Her words proved true over the course of two nights and more than 10 hours of music on Friday and Saturday, Jan. 30 -- with a third, a "Michigan Tribute to John Hiatt" on tape for Sunday, Jan. 31. The festival could obviously not take in its usual home at the University of Michigan's Hill Auditorium, so it sailed into virtual space, with the 25 acts performing from living rooms, home studios, back yards -- and even live in-the-moment from The Ark's stage, where the Accidentals and the RFD Boys opened the respective nights.
It made for an invigorating, sprawling and, in festival tradition, diverse affair, long to a fault but with uniformly strong and heartfelt performances for festival alumni and Ark favorites. Like so many virtual Plan Bs in the pandemic age, it had an intimacy even more pronounced than the cozy confines of Hill, that of artists inviting the audience into THEIR worlds to play music for it. Nearly all of the performances were created especially for the festival, and most shared similar themes -- a longing to be able to gather together again and what a wonderful place The Ark is to play.
Kiefer Sutherland, whose acting career can make his musical pursuits seem like a hobby (listen to it and you know it's not the case, however), noted in one particularly sweet remembrance that after performing at bars and rock clubs for indifferent audiences his first Ark show was "the first time I felt comfortable to tell a story."
The festival's presence, even online, brought a small sense of normalcy to the last weekend of January. Streaming through Feb. 7 at noonchorus.com/the-ark/, here are some takeaways from the packed two nights...
Traverse City's Accidentals started things, appropriately, with their "Michigan and Again" from The Ark stage, while playing its upcoming "Time Out" EP." The trio was joined by a pair of Michigan string players, Erin Zindle of the Ragbirds and Last Gasp Collective's Jordan Hamilton, while Kim Richey drove from Nashville to meet the Accidentals for the first time in person to perform their writing collaboration "Wildfire" and "All Shall Be Well."
The RFD Boys' Saturday set from the Ark was equally eventful as the 52-year-old bluegrass quartet paid tribute to Prine ("Paradise") as well as to Tony Rice ("Old Home Place"), Bill Monroe ("Blue Night"), the Carter Family ("Bury Me Beneath the Willow"), Tom Petty ("I Won't Back Down" and the band's co-founder and fiddler Richard Van Akkeren Dieterle.
Prine, who headlined the first Ann Arbor Folk Festival, was on other performers' minds, in fact -- even before Sunday's tribute. A dedication to him ran at the end of both nights' streamcasts, while the War and Treaty sang an a cappella "Knockin' on Your Screen Door" on Friday. On Saturday, emcee Jeff Daniels and Vance Gilbert both acknowledged Prine's influence during their segments.
Daniels was a smooth host throughout, delivering richly filmed performances of songs from his new album Alive and Well Enough -- including a particularly emotional "Al Kaline" -- and brief artist introductions. And unlike live hosts at Hill, Daniels never had to stretch while the next act's gear was being set up.
As settings go, Colin Hay's palm tree-ed backyard in California's Topanga Canyon was the most scenic -- it also didn't hurt that the Men at Work frontman's pet dog made its presence known throughout the set, as Hay, his wife Cecilia Noel and guitarist San Miguel Perez worked through his solo material and Men At Work favorites such as "Overkill" and "Down Under."
Carolina Chocolate Drops veteran Dom Flemons, meanwhile, played from the porch of a log cabin-style home in Chicago, with sounds of street traffic leaking into his performances and succinct but gracious song introductions.
Old Crow Medicine Show alumnus Willie Watson performed his set from a garage/workshop where he also makes clothes, switching between instruments that seemed almost randomly laid out around the room.
Sutherland and Rocco DeLuca established their mood in an empty club, with the famous photo of Johnny Cash flashing his middle finger to a photographer in the background.
Friday closer Raul Malo of the Mavericks -- his voice as beautiful as ever during a set of both Spanish and English songs -- had the most interesting home studio layout, laden with vintage instruments and nick knacks, including Addams Family dolls.
The characteristically effusive Vance Gilbert made himself "at home," talking about The Ark's dedication to him ("I'm not a big draw, but they keep having me. They're either stupid or they like me...") and chiding Daniels for "being so good at everything you do!" He also tugged at heartstrings by dedicating "Old White Men," by name, to his fellow model airplane enthusiasts living "in a 40-mile radius" of Ann Arbor.
The festival has become known for spotlighting up-and-coming acts -- if not fully establishing new stars. This year's likely breakouts include: provocative singer-songwriter (and southpaw guitarist) Crys Matthews, who was joined by Heather Mae; Matt Anderson, the robust, bluesy singer-songwriter from New Brunswick; West Virginia's Sierra Ferrell, whose trio accented her gypsy-flavored folk with cheeky, homespun choreography; and Gina Chavez, the Latin Grammy Award nominee whose ferocious full-band festival set from Austin may not have been particularly Ark-centric but certainly provided a good calling card.
The 44th Ann Arbor Folk Festival streams through Feb. 7 via noochorus.com/the-ark. Tickets start at $25. "A Michigan Tribute to John Prine" debuts at 7 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 31, also streaming through Feb. 7. Tickets are $10.
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