“This is the kind of thing that’s supposed to happen at a folk festival — you should break a string,” Zach Williams of the Lone Bellow quipped on Friday night, Jan. 31, at Hill Auditorium.
Save for that guitar snafu, however, the 43rd Ann Arbor Folk Festival went off as smoothly as its predecessors, rolling through two nights of music that again demonstrated how wide the folk music umbrella can be.
While Saturday, Feb. 1, headliner Nathaniel Rateliff brought a bit of platinum pedigree to the proceedings, the 14-act bill covered a wide terrain of styles, from Cedric Burnside’s Mississippi hill country blues to the pop centric songcraft of Ingrid Michaelson and Molly Tuttle, Michigan native Bettye LaVette’s Americana soul, the broad-reaching acoustic stylings of Mandolin Orange and the Lone Bellow, and whatever one calls the eclectic combination of Calexico and Iron & Wine, which closed Friday night’s show.
Overall the festival — which benefits the Ann Arbor venue The Ark — struck a somewhat quieter and more solemn one than previous years, with the jubilant moments few and far between (as were banjos, usually a folk festival staple). And for an election year, there was a surprising lack of commentary from the stage — though emcee Willy Porter fired a potent shot on Saturday with his song “That’s How You Rob a Bank.”
It was left for the music to do the talking, then, and these are some of the moments we’ll remember most in the festival’s wake…
• Rateliff left his band the Night Sweats at home on Saturday and told the Hill crowd that “playing an hour by yourself is like trying to meditate for an hour — it’s a long time!” It was also a disarmingly emotional stretch for Rateliff, who offered some revealing insight into his upcoming solo album “And It’s Still Alright,” due out Feb. 14. The most moving moment came as he introduced the new song “Rush On” and choked up as he spoke about the late Richard Swift, who Rateliff was planning to work with on the album; “Richard lost his life to alcoholism but also the unbearable, unexplainable darkness I think we all have in our lives. I wish I would have been able to sing this song to Richard and let him know he’s not alone…”
• Ingrid Michaelson took crowd participation to a new level during her Friday performance. Explaining it was her first show in more than a month and felt “a little rusty,” Michaelson messed up the opening lyrics to “Miss America” a couple of times before asking fans to google the song for her; A front row fan obliged and after a quick study Michaelson managed a successful rendition of the song.
• Michaelson also treated the festival crowd to one of the songs from her new musical based on the hit film and novel “The Notebook,” which is opening in Chicago this fall.
• Give self-awareness points to Mandolin Orange and particularly Andrew Marlin during the North Carolina groups’ textured and nuanced set. “I apologize to anybody who has to cough,” he said on Saturday. “(With) most bands you can get away with it; Our music has so much space you have to time it.”
• LaVette, who hails from Muskegon and lived in Detroit and will be inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame this year, left both fans and herself breathless with her Saturday performance. In the midst of “A Woman Like Me” LaVette declared that she could “barely breathe” and sang herself off the stage, noting that “this has never happened to me in 57 years.” She returned shortly thereafter, closing with Bob Dylan’s “Going, Going, Gone” from her 2018 Dylan covers album “Things Have Changed” and even belting out the closing lines away from the microphone, taking advantage of Hill’s perfect acoustics.
• Calexico + Iron & Wine showed that one plus one can indeed equal more than two on Friday, joining each other for some of their own songs but particularly shining on selections from 2019’s “Years to Burn,” including highlights such as “Father Mountain,” “In Your Own Time” and a dynamic “The Bitter Suite.”
• In the midst of his group’s sublimely harmonic set, the Lone Bellow’s Williams remarked about his love of Calelxico and Iron & Wine, talking about how he tried “to play it cool” when he encountered the two acts backstage on Friday.
• Porter was a nimble emcee throughout the weekend, and while his song performances were, unsurprisingly, wonderful it was the jaw-dropping guitar instrumental “Bear’s Ears” on Friday that stood out as a memorable festival highlight.
• For festival discoveries this year, bet on Burnside and Rainbow Girls (on Friday) and Michigan’s Cold Tone Harvest (Saturday), all of whom impressed with short early evening sets that surely sent fans home with a resolve to further explore their music.
• A festival finale seemed a bit hard to pull off after Rateliff’s heart-wrenching set, but the combination of Mandolin Orange, Molly Tuttle, Porter and Cold Tone Harvest took a gentle approach with Neil Young’s “From Hank to Hendrix,” harmonizing as if they’ve been doing the song together for years rather than just for a single night.