In a Folk Festival night filled with highlights, Rodriguez, Delta Rae and Colin Hay were standouts
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It’s always the same happy dilemma where the Ann Arbor Folk Festival, presented by The Ark as its annual fundraiser, is concerned. There’s such an outpouring of music (this review covers Friday night; the festival continues on Saturday night), it’s hard to know where to begin.
For starters, native Detroiter Sixto Rodriguez brought the Hill Auditorium crowd to its feet twice with his Dylanesque blues-rock set that included his signature “Sugar Man,” as well as “I Wonder,” “Inner City Blues” and “The Establishment Blues.”
A self-described “musico-politico” who admitted “I’m a solid 70—I’ve been around the block,” Rodriguez mixed political musings and homespun philosophy (“free love—it’s too expensive”) with the music, to the obvious delight of the audience.
The only thing that marred his set were vocals muddy almost to the point of unintelligibility, especially for the first few songs. The problem seemed to mostly clear up eventually, and by the time he concluded, with “You’d Like to Admit It,” he sounded fine. As his set ended, it was clear the audience felt a great deal of respect for the man who spent many years in near-obscurity before getting his due late in life, becoming something a sensation last year when his story was told in the Academy Award-nominated documentary "Searching for Sugar Man." This was definitely a memorable Folk Festival performance.
Of the other acts, North Carolina folk-rockers Delta Rae caused a stir and earned a standing ovation with a set highlighted by the stunning, spiritual-sounding “Bottom of the River,” in which dirge-like percussion was provided by drums, drum sticks and an aluminum trash can pummeled with a length of chain. The set also included the percussion-heavy “Dance in the Graveyards,” as well as a well-executed cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain.” This was one of those festival acts that people will probably be buzzing about for days to come.
Headliner City and Colour (Canadian songwriter Dallas Green) was the closing act, offering highly personal set of tunes interspersed with self-deprecating humor and seemingly random stories that somehow offset the somber tone of his songs (two of the tunes back to back—“Body in a Box” and “Wait”—were about death, while another—“Fragile Bird”—was about his wife’s night terrors). The closing song, “The Girl” (raved up in its closing moments) ended the set and the night on an up note—at least for him. Face it, Green’s music can be pretty morose, yet somehow, with his engaging personality, somehow he makes it work.
The biggest pleasant surprise of the night was probably MC Colin Hay. For those of you who lost track of him after his hitmaking stint with the 1980s Australian band Men at Work, it’s nice to report that Hay proved a strong vocal performer as well as an amiable host adept at one-liners and at keeping the show moving smartly along. While roadies were setting up the next acts behind him, he offered several songs from his solo career, including the powerful “Waiting for My Real Life to Begin.” Now a Californian, he usually comes to The Ark on a regular basis, however he announced that he’s moving up in the world this year, with a show scheduled Sept. 6 at the Power Center.
The Detroit-area band Frontier Ruckus, formed several years ago in a dorm room in Ann Arbor, also offered a great set that included songs from their new, double CD “Eternity of Dimming.” If the whole disc is as good as “Black Holes,” fans are in for a treat. Matthew Milia’s vocals (and his sweater) were terrific, as was the multi-talented Zachary Nichols, who played five different instruments, including the ethereal-sounding musical saw. To end their too-short set, and to test Hill Auditorium’s renowned acoustics, the band performed its last song unplugged, a great move that really made their part of the show stand out.
The percussion-free bluegrass band Trampled by Turtles also dazzled the crowd, particularly with the outrageous speed at which they attacked the guitar, bass, banjo and mandolin. Ryan Young on fiddle was particularly amazing, especially on the breakneck “Help You” and on it’s total opposite, the absolutely heartbreaking “Bloodshot Eyes,” a sad song made even sadder by his weeping violin.
Carl Broemel, who sings backup vocals for the band My Morning Jacket, had the unenviable job of opening act. His multi-octave voice was pleasant to listen to, but overall his set was forgettable.
The next band up, the duo Brown Bird, fared much better, and is one of those acts worth catching when they cycle back to The Ark for a full show. Their set was uptempo and seemed to produce a far bigger sound than just two people should be able to make.
One thing you can always count on at the Folk Festival is that you’re guaranteed some great music, even if you’ve never heard of many of the bands. On that count, Friday night’s nearly five-hour, sold-out show didn’t disappoint. Now, on to Saturday, which is also sold out. That’s bad news if you don’t have a ticket, but good news for The Ark.