Lots to love about Ann Arbor Folk Festival's Friday night performances
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What did you think of the show? Vote in the poll and/or leave a comment at the end of this post.
You’ve gotta love the Ann Arbor Folk Festival. Where else can you hear a theremin and a sousaphone in the same song? Or find it funny when the headline artist promises to try his best to send the audience home depressed? And where else can you hear the M.C. sing about Ohio's infamous landmark “Big Butter Jesus” and bring down the house with laughter?
The first night of the Folk Festival—the annual, two-night event presented in Hill Auditorium as a fundraiser for The Ark—is usually reserved for artists more on the cutting edge of what’s considered folk music, and Friday night’s lineup clearly fit the bill. I don’t think anyone can complain about not getting their money’s worth—all told the show ran five hours—although I am sure there will be some who feel headliner Ryan Adams could have squeezed in at least a short encore.
Although Adams was billed as the top act, there was so much talent on the program that honor could just as easily fallen to Devotchka, Dawes or even Carbon Leaf. The crowd also seemed excited about some of the lesser acts, such as Elephant Revival and David Wax Museum, as well as opener Sunny War, an introspective blues singer with a wicked talent for the guitar.
The Gypsy-folk-and-more band Devotchka, whose singer Nick Urata’s croon reminded me of Roy Orbison, provided an outstanding, high-energy set. Urata was the one responsible for playing the theremin, while Jeanie Schroder delivered on sousaphone and bass —just two of the nearly 20 instruments the group used to create its sound. One of the highlights of their set was “How It Ends” (from the movie “Little Miss Sunshine”).
Dawes, an up-and-coming indie rock band, clearly had a lot of supporters in the house, and fans seemed to appreciate songs such as “A Little Bit of Everything,” “Fire Away” and “Time Spent in Los Angeles.” I’m willing to bet if they return to town again it will be to a larger venue than The Ark.
Carbon Leaf did not play its hit “Life Less Ordinary,” but did offer several other excellent tunes, among them “One Prairie Outpost” and “Nothing Rhymes With Woman.” Rather than line up on stage, they all gathered in a semi-circle, like guys around a campfire. Their harmonies were spot on, especially during their first song, which was performed a cappella.
Elephant Revival’s lead singer Bonnie Paine has an amazing voice reminiscent of Bjork, and she plays a mean washboard as well. They got off to a good start with the song “Remembering a Beginning,” their sound bright an energetic, a perfect early act to get the crowd going.
Boston’s David Wax Museum was next, a foursome known for blending traditional Mexican folk with American roots / indie rock and whose musical instrumentation included the jawbone of an ass (which prompted a Newt Gingrich joke from host Heywood Banks). They had an intriguing, upbeat and jazzy sound, with founder David Wax playing an instrument I later discovered was a jarana, a Mexican instrument similar to a guitar.
And speaking of the M.C., Banks—known for his Thanksgiving shows at the Ann Arbor Comedy Showcase—was absolutely perfect. Even his corniest jokes were funny. His ode to toast, appropriately called “Toast,” never gets old, and he surely must deserve some kind of award for filling the gap for nearly 15 minutes while roadies set up the stage for Ryan Adams. Banks is some kind of crazy, but in a good way.
Adams’ music is the ultimate in intimate and, as expected, his set was steeped in melancholy. The prolific alt-country artist—accompanying himself on guitar, piano and harmonica—offered a satisfying solo set that included “Lucky Now,” “Firecracker,” “Dirty Rain,” “Two,” “Oh My Sweet Carolina,” “Come Pick Me Up” and “Ashes and Fire.” His 9/11-themed “New York New York,” the song that really brought Adams to a wider audience, was especially poignant.
Unfortunately, as good as it was, sound issues plagued Friday night’s show. Some microphones weren’t on when the artists went to use them, and one whole band (David Wax Museum) seemed to have only their stage monitors for amplification. I would have liked to have heard more of Dvotchka’s amplified sousaphone, but it was buried in the mix (and for one song wasn’t even plugged in). Elephant Revival’s bass was way over-amplified and the vocals were drowned out. I am aware it is a challenge getting the sound right for so many performers, but Friday night the problems seemed greater than normal.
Ark Executive Director Marianne James also took the stage to tell the crowd that Friday night’s show was sold out (four the fourth year in a row), with the same happy circumstance applying to Saturday night’s event, headlining Nanci Griffith, Emmy Lou Harris and Glen Campbell. Since The Ark makes about a fifth of its annual operating revenue from the Folk Festival, that’s news worth singing about.