with gallery / with poll: Ann Arbor Folk Festival's Saturday highlights included Lucinda Williams, Head and the Heart
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• Related story: Review from Friday night
What did you think of the concert? Leave a comment and / or vote in the poll at the end of this post:
Chances are, when it comes to the Ann Arbor Folk Festival, everyone will have their favorite moments. For me, Saturday night, it was old-timey Frank Fairfield, headline act The Head and the Heart, and the killer set delivered by Lucinda Williams.
The two-night festival, which began Friday in Hill Auditorium, is the annual fundraising event for The Ark, Ann Arbor’s well-respected acoustic music and more venue. Where Friday tends toward more cutting-edge folk, Saturday is generally geared toward more traditional tastes.
Williams’ performance was even more special because she was marking her 60th birthday. In addition, her set was a triumph over adversity, for not only did she miss her introduction, when she did get out on stage technical difficulties prevented her from using her first instrument of choice, an acoustic guitar.
“Maybe it’s not a good idea to have a show on your birthday,” she mused, clearly displeased, as technicians scurried around her and the audience filled the awkward silence by singing Happy Birthday.
After several minutes, Williams—accompanied by guitarist Doug Pettibone—decided to plunge ahead, using an electric guitar for the whole set. Although the guitar was a little over-amplified, her powerful, gritty voice was crystal clear on songs like “Drunken Angel,” “Copenhagen” and the new tune “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” which Williams said will be featured in an upcoming episode of the TV show “Nashville.” The song was terrific, by the way, and has “hit” written all over it. She closed her well-received set with “Joy,” her anti-capital punishment song she recently remade for the “West of Memphis: Voices for Justice” soundtrack.
Fairfield, who dressed like a gent from early in the last century, sounded like one too. With his wavering voice, and songs like the 1850s-era “Cottage By The Sea,” it was like listening to an old 78 rpm record. He accompanied himself on fiddle, guitar and banjo, and worked himself up into a frenzy on each. Fairfield was something different, and the crowd loved him.
As far as Seattle’s The Head and The Heart was concerned, the four guys in the group were hands-down excellent, but the band’s lone female, Charity Rose Thielen, on vocals and violin, put the band’s performance over the top. What a powerful singer—more of her, please.
In addition to tunes from their self-titled 2010 album, such as “Ghosts” and "Rivers & Roads,” TH&TH tried out a couple of excellent tracks from a new album that’s in the recording stages. One—written after the Connecticut school shootings and probably called “I Wish It Was All A Dream”—was especially moving. The band closed the night with a rendition of the old Jimmie Rodgers tune “T is for Texas,” that brought a handful of other musicians from earlier acts out on stage to, well, mostly just kind of stand around and dance in place, since they didn’t seem to know the song.
Of the other acts, Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Brother Joscephus and the Love Revolution is one of those groups that has to be seen to be appreciated. I’m not sure a recording could do this highly visual, New Orleans-inspired gospel-soul-rock aggregation justice. The two front men, Brother Joscephus and the Right Reverend Dean Dawg, played off each other as a three-man horn section, a pair of female singers, and others offered a high-energy set that fired up the audience to tunes like “Jubilation Day” and “Shine On.” They were loud, showy, and the crowd loved it.
Dar Williams, who offered several songs from her latest album, “In the Time of Gods,” was spot on in her singing, especially on “I Am the One Who Will Remember Everything,” but she lost me in her between-song meanderings about the Greek mythology that inspired the disc. Still, songs like "Mercy of the Fallen" and “Storm King” reminded me of what an exquisite voice she has and why she has earned an honored place in the folk pantheon.
Drew Nelson, the west Michigan native who opened the night with his band, sang eloquently about the working poor in songs such as “Promised Land” and “Stranger,” the story of a laid-off auto worker who takes a job at Home Depot so he can help pay for his daughter's wedding.
Last but not least, roots band The Steel Wheels sounded great harmonizing a cappella or performing with instruments. They had a very clean and crisp sound that was evident on songs like “Lay Down, Lay Low."
Finally, to the MC, Colin Hay. I had a strange sense of deja vu hearing the exact same banter and almost the same song set as Friday night. He redeemed himself, however, with an acoustic version of the 1980s hit “Who Can It Be Now,” recorded with his band, Men at Work, which he did not include on Friday. He told the audience that the saxophone soloist on the record had passed away recently, and it was funny how you could hear the sax in your mind as Hay performed the song almost as a ballad, accompanied by his guitar.
Hay also offered the Men at Work song “Ghosts Appear and Fade Away,” after telling a very funny story about misheard lyrics and a goat (hey—anything is possible at the Ann Arbor Folk Festival).
All in all, I think most would say this year’s Folk Festival was a hit, not only from the point of view of the box office (two sold-out nights), but artistically. Part of the joy of this event is being exposed to acts that are not on the radio and who may not be familiar to attendees but are hands-down terrific and deserve attention (pretty much what The Ark does some 300 other nights a year). After 36 years’ worth of festivals, The Ark (a tip of the hat to program director Anya Siglin and the rest of the crew) has this perfected.
Siglin was overheard during intermission saying she is already booking acts for 2014. Personally, I can’t wait. Three nights, anyone?