Glen Campbell, Nanci Griffith highlight Saturday's Ann Arbor Folk Festival
Talk about your midnight special. Saturday night’s edition of the Ann Arbor Folk Festival let out just minutes before the witching hour, five and a half hours after it began. One thing’s for sure: When a talent like Nanci Griffith is third from the top of the bill you know you are in for an amazing night of music.
Besides Griffith, the lineup for the second night of the annual event, a fundraiser for The Ark, included country-folk great Emmylou Harris and country legend Glen Campbell, as well as the lesser-known Joe Henry, Sarah Jarosz, Caravan of Thieves and Seth Glier. The evening’s M.C. was whacked-out comic/musician Heywood Banks, who also served as a self- described “palate cleanser” between acts on Friday night.
For me, the most anticipated set of the evening, and actually the one I most enjoyed, was Campbell’s. For one thing, I grew up on his tunes, many written by Jimmy Webb—they’re like comfort food. For another, I was curious to see how this veteran performer, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease a year ago, would fare in a live performance. To be honest, he had some problems.
Coming on stage to his signature “Gentle on My Mind,” Campbell, 75, seemed to struggle and he had to start again. When he wasn’t singing, he seemed distracted and restless. Some lyrics were forgotten. However, he made it through his hits (I was informed three teleprompters on stage at his feet displayed the lyrics) as well as two new tunes, and his performance was often quite moving. He joked about his memory loss, and when he focused on playing the guitar, he was simply stunning, earning well-deserved rounds of applause for each solo. Clearly there is nothing impeding his ability to play.
Campbell’s six-piece band—which included three of his children—was terrific, and a “Dueling Banjos” face-off with daughter Ashley was spot on. “By the Time I Get To Phoenix,” “Wichita Lineman” and “Rhinestone Cowboy” earned Campbell a standing ovation, and he concluded with “A Better Place,” a prayerful tune from his new and final album. Throughout, Campbell had a smile on his face, and when he said “I’m so happy to be here,” it was clear it came from the soul.
For her part, Harris and her five-piece band, which took the stage near 11 p.m., offered nearly an hour’s worth of tunes that included “Hello Stranger,” “Blue Kentucky Girl,” “Talk to Me of Mendocino,” Six White Cadillacs” and “Orphan Girl.” I thought the musicians came close to overwhelming Harris’ vocals, but maybe due to the late hour I was just suffering from sound fatigue.
Griffith, whose topical/political tunes embody what folk music is all about, led off her set with John Prine’s “The Speed of the Sound of Loneliness.” She also offered “Simple Life,” and dedicated “Listen to the Radio” to ailing pal Loretta Lynn. Her performance of “Loving Kind,” which refers to Loving v. Virginia, the 1967 landmark civil rights case that ended the ban on interracial marriages in the U.S., was especially moving, and it was clear she was drawing a parallel with marriage equality battles raging today. The crowd really liked her final song, the rousing new “Hell No I’m Not Alright,” which reminded me of the classic rock tune “I Fought the Law.” There’s no mistaking Griffith’ voice, and her gentler style of older-school folk music was an interesting counterpoint to the younger acts that came earlier in the evening.
Among the newcomers, the Gypsy-influenced Caravan of Thieves, which was almost as theatrical as it was musical, evoked the tradition of Django Reinhardt, with “Stomp”-like percussion. They were lots of fun to see and hear, with the bouncy “Eat You” and the clap-along dirge “Raise the Dead” bookending their excellent set.
Sarah Jarosz—a multi-instrumentalist whose set was unfortunately marred by pesky sound gremlins—has an old-fashioned roots style and a voice as clear as a bell. The band’s chamberish folk (cello, violin, banjo) seemed to please the crowd, with a cover of Tom Waits’ “Come On Up To The House” particularly well received.
Speaking of sound issues, I felt bad for Joe Henry, whose bluesy-jazzy sound was particularly muddy. I might have enjoyed his set better if it didn’t seem as if he was singing into a tin can. It looked like he was using old-fashioned mics, probably his own. His “Sticks and Stones” was the best of the set.
Seth Glier, who opened the show with his percussion-driven “The Next Right Thing,” is an artist to watch. He has a beautiful, sweet falsetto, his songs are very personal and the 23-year-old’s first album has been nominated for a Grammy Award in the category Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical.
The evening ended with Emmylou Harris bringing those performers who were left backstage out front for a rendition of the traditional “Rough and Rocky.” And with that, Folk Festival 2012 was over.
One final note: I can appreciate all the hard work that goes into booking the festival and I think the program on both sold-out nights was extraordinary. Still, I kept wishing for maybe one local act each night just to give the homegrown talent a bigger stage. I keep thinking how well Chris Bathgate or Orpheum Bell would fit in, just to name two.
Otherwise, it was clearly another fine festival to remember.