Monday, February 16, 2009

2009 Ann Arbor Folk Festival, Part I

Here we were (my lovely bride, Nicky and me) at (I think we counted) our 14th Ann Arbor Folk Festival and the truth is, it continues to deliver a variety of current (and not-so-current...see next blog entry) folk music in all sub-genres, e.g. contemporary folk, alt-country, classic folk, singer-songwriter, Americana.

The Friday night line-up this year included local Ann Arbor favorites, the Ragbirds, and I think it is a tribute to the variety and excellence of the Ark (the recipient of the fundraising activity created by "thick" ticket prices...not a bad thing, no, just fine in fact) to include local artists. They get an opportunity to play before 3530 people (as opposed to the Ark's capacity of 400). The Ragbirds were a breath of fresh air...interesting and fun to listen to. Erin Zindle, the lead singer and player of a variety of instruments (incl fiddle, mandolin and banjo) was wonderful, had a great stage presence and lovely voice. I liked this band!

In the past, the order the groups play was carefully scripted to have less well-known artists play first and end the first part of the program with a "2nd billed" group. Then they return with better-known artists culminating in the headliner. This year proved similar and since we deal with a subjective topic (I might very-well like a group more than you but their ticket and CD sales may be lower than a higher-billed artist). I have to say, depending on who you talk to, the group ending the first half blew the doors out of Hill Auditorium...but more on that in a hot sec.

After the Ragbirds we were treated to 2 female singer-songwriters who were most enjoyable, Chelsea Williams and Katie Herzig. Their clear voices were beautiful and they individually chose to sing quiet, introspective songs...and Hill was dead quiet for them. They'll be back at the Ark this spring and I think the exposure they received will help fill the Ark when they return.

Then we saw the Ryan Montbleau Band...and in the liner notes of the program they list this group's leader as having similar songwriting skills to Martin Sexton and I would have to agree...the style was "Sexton-ish". The only issue for me, and heaven forbid I admit it, I don't enjoy Martin Sexton's style...his abbreviated deliver and percussive guitar-playing don't move me. Ryan Montbleau was enjoyed by the audience and that's what counts.

So, back to ending of the first set....can you say, "Old Crow Medicine Show"? Wow, what an excellent group...tight playing, great vocals, amusing lead singer...the whole package. It was apparent the audience was looking forward to this accomplished group of competent musicians. They kept shouting out, "Wagon Wheel"! Well, the OCMS finally did it and the place went wild. They were a major hit of the night for me and I look forward to seeing them again (after they return from New Zealand and Australia!). Highly recommended.


I suppose I would be remiss if I did not mention the emcee, Jim Lauderdale, who admirably hosted both Friday and Saturday nights. If you have not been to the festival before, it takes about 5-10 minutes to change the setup on stage for the next performer and the MC either performs, or entertains with humor, or both (most preferable). Mr. Lauderdale is an accomplished musician, songwriter (having penned many songs for the likes of Geoge Strait, The Dixie Chicks and Patty Loveless. Jim Lauderdale has hosted the Americana Music Awards for three years in a row, and won their first Artist of the Year and Song of the Year awards in 2002, as well as a 2003 award for the albumHeaded for the Hills. His 2002 album, Lost in the Lonesome Pines, a collaboration with Ralph Stanley, won the Grammy for Bluegrass Album of the Year. His latest release, The Bluegrass Diaries won the Grammy for 2008 Bluegrass Album of the Year.

I tell ya, the fella can carry a Western outfit...he was decked out, both nights. I know one his big fans, Karen Miller of The Miller Tells Her Tale, would have loved this show.


After the break, Joe Pug came out , by himself, and did one song...showing he has talent and a
somewhat creepy resemblance to looks and delivery. Great stuff, keep coming back Joe. who the heck are these, "Carolina Chocolate Drops"?! The Ark says, "a group of young African-American stringband musicians who explore the rich tradition of fiddle and banjo music in the Carolina Piedmont". Lest you think that is too confining, this group had us all laughing one minute and indignant the next. I believe, at least Nicky and I thought, this group might be best at a place like the Ark...somewhere more intimate...but that in no way limits what they did on Friday (or Saturday for that matter...along with Joe Pug and the emcee Joe Lauderdale...were the only ones to do a repeat performance). It was a folk festival favorite for sure and the song Rhiannon Giddens sang about a cheatin' man....whoa! It was awesome! Sticks-playing and some jelly-like dancing made the Carolina Chocolate Drops a joy to experience. Thanks you Drops.


Headliner Jeff Tweedy came out to do a solo gig....taking a break form his band, the highly successful and brilliant, Wilco. Tweedy has a bit of a reputation as an antagonistic performer, sometimes talking back to the audience (hey, I do not blame him...I remember going to a concert of Al DiMeola, John McLaughlin and Paco de Lucia....a real treat of acoustic guitar virtuosos...and in the second set Al diMeola stopped playing, looked up to the audience an implored, "Hey folks, this is beautiful music...let's let everyone hear it"....he did this because so many people were talking loudly) due to the heckling he receives. Cetainly he brings it on himself, as witnessed this night. But, so what. The guy is great. He writes interesting songs in both music and lyrics. He can make you cry, laugh at yourself, and feel your life. He played a whole bunch of songs, keeping close watch on the time (as evidenced by his comment, "You have to keep going at this gig, it's like they have the time Nazis on you."). I like this guy and REALLY like Wilco but I do not know anyone who likes Jeff Tweedy like my friend Bob K does. Check it out...he went to the concert Tweedy did in Kalamazoo, Michigan the night before this.

The Ann Arbor Folk Festival is a treat. Nicky and I had a really good time, even staying in AA after this show so we didn't have to drive back to East Lansing and back to AA again. I'll blog the second night of the festival next. See ya. Steve

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