Preview: 39th Ann Arbor Folk Festival / Friday Night Lineup
About this time of year, buzz begins to build among music lovers inside and outside of A2 as the lineup is announced for the Ann Arbor Folk Festival, and the 39th edition slated for January 29-30, 2016 at the Hill Auditorium is stacking up to be another blessed event. A brilliant stew is being cooked up for appreciative audiences of old and new music, mainstream and off-beat, regional, national, and international artists. Hosted by MCs David Mayfield (Friday) and John McCutcheon (Saturday), the Folk Festival 2016 lineup sets the bar very high.
Friday, January 29th
"There's a line that I'm trying to find, between the water and the open sky," sings Canadian Dallas Green on "Friends", the penultimate track off of his fifth release as City and Colour, If I Should Go Before You. For someone like Green, it's hard to imagine that there's much left to search for – he's traversed the globe on tour, released numerous albums (one most recently as You+Me with Alecia Moore, aka P!nk) and collected scores of accolades. Though Green is a musician, he doesn't make a show of things: that's the songs' job.
The name having been derived from Dallas Green’s first and last name, he began recording as City and Colour in 2005, with Sometimes, followed by 2008’s Bring Me Your Love and 2011’s Little Hell, and has experienced huge success both on the charts and the road.
Throughout a career spanning six decades, Richard Thompson has drawn accolades such as this from the Los Angeles Times, “the finest singer-songwriter after Dylan and the best electric guitarist since Hendrix. He was named by Rolling Stone Magazine as one of the Top 20 Guitarists of All Time.
Having co-founded the groundbreaking group Fairport Convention as a teenager in the 60’s, Richard Thompson and his mates virtually invented British Folk Rock. A wide range of musicians have recorded Thompson’s songs including Robert Plant, Elvis Costello, REM, Del McCoury, Bonnie Raitt, Patty Lovelace, Los Lobos, Tom Jones, David Byrne, Don Henley, Robert Earl Keen, and many others.
And I had never heard of him, until 2012. Thus began a journey of discovery as I soaked in as much of Richard’s musical and songwriting genius as I could, on a series of music festival cruises called Cayamo where he has often headlined, to an intimate performance at The Ark in 2014. He’s one of those artists that’s worth your time digging into his back catalog to find all the gold and precious gems there. Whether Thompson displays his formidable electric skills on "Sally B", or fingerpicks his iconic and acoustic "52 Vincent Black Lightning", you will be transfixed. I hope he does both.
Yo La Tengo (Spanish for the outfielder’s cry of “I’ve Got It!”) originally formed in 1984, and today features a lineup that has played together since 1992. Their staying power is testament to a strong cult following and they have been called the “quintessential critics’ band”. YLT features Ira Kaplan (guitars, piano, vocals), Kaplan’s wife Georgia Hubley (drums, piano, vocals), and James McNew (bass, vocals). In 2015, original guitarist Dave Schramm rejoined the band and appears on their fourteenth album, Stuff Like That There.
Though they most often play original material, Yo La Tengo is known best for its encyclopedic repertoire of cover songs both in live performance and on record. Their latest album features Hank Williams’ "I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry", among others.
It is sometimes extraordinary, that which can be musically wrought through the mingling of sibling DNA (think Everly Brothers). The Oh Hellos are a 21st century case in point. They began in a cluttered bedroom, where Maggie and Tyler Heath (born and raised in southern Texas) recorded their self-titled EP in 2011. In the fall of 2012, the sibling duo released their debut full-length record Through the Deep, Dark Valley, an album full of regret and redemption, which they wrote, recorded, produced, mixed, and mastered themselves.
Their second full-length album, Dear Wormwood, is a collection of songs that tells the story of a protagonist trapped in an abusive relationship, by way of letters written to the antagonist. It was recorded, piece by piece, in the house where Maggie and Tyler live in San Marcos, TX, and much like The Oh Hellos' live performance, the album presents two alternating faces: at times delicate, intimate, affectionate; and at others, soaring and towering and joyfully explosive.
Their influences range from Fleet Foxes and Sufjan Stevens to The Middle East and the Muppets, bending and blending styles and genres into a unique mixture of eclectic folk rock. The rhythms, the chording, the vocals--they are unique, varied, compelling, and worthy of a prestigious AAFF invitation.
I’ve been listening to this woman for the last hour and I haven’t heard an inauthentic song yet. Nora Jane Struthers comes to Ann Arbor hot off a triumphant 2015 tour, including a prominent showcase at the September 2015 AmericanaFest in Nashville, and she could very well become a prime example of what can save Country Music from itself.
Her 2015 album, Wake, is a powerful statement of her own rock-n-roll awakening. Backed by her band The Party Line, Struthers mixes pedal steel with robust guitar riffs and her own fearless voice, and evokes the realization that she can, as she says, "reconcile my love of both bluegrass and Pearl Jam". Her amalgamation of sounds is supported in the studio and on the road by Josh Vana on guitar; Joe Overton on banjo, fiddle, and pedal steel; Brian Duncan Miller on bass; and Drew Lawhorn on drums.
“I try to put myself out there and be vulnerable and trust that what people give me back is loving. I hope that people listen to these songs and are given some courage to take a risk, be vulnerable and brave, allow themselves to embrace imperfection. And I hope that that has a positive influence on the way that they are able to lead their lives and interact with people that they love.”
I went to the Penny & Sparrow website and Facebook page to try to learn more about them. This was all that was there: “Penny and Sparrow are Andy Baxter and Kyle Jahnke, from the heart of Texas. Previously roommates, the duo makes music influenced by The Swell Season, Bon Iver, Mumford and Sons, and others. They also love musicals.”
That was it. No glowing reviews, no trumped-up biography announcing them as musical messiahs. Just that two-sentence blurb, a picture and...the music. Left to my own devices, I cued up a song of theirs called "Jeffery Allen", the first track from their latest album, Struggle Pretty. Oddly, it was a 1-minute instrumental introduction to the next track, "Serial Doubter" (yet another reason to listen to an album in whole as it was originally tracked). Words came to mind: haunting, driving, brilliant composition, rhythm, and harmonics.
Penny and Sparrow opened just a few weeks ago at The Ark for Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors, and I missed them both. It won’t happen again. Catch them at the A2FF January 29th.
When Chelsea’s own Ben Daniels decided he was going to be a musician, it was more than a career choice. A natural poet, this young songwriter went to school on Bob Dylan, Robert Johnson, and Jack White, among others. His lyrics speak directly to a younger generation that hears, sees, and thinks about the very things he’s writing. From their opening song to the finale of their set, the Ben Daniels Band cuts through with their originality, musicianship, and a sound that spans Americana, Blues, Jazz, and Rock.
With George Merkel on guitar, Tommy Reifel on bass, Wesley Fritzemeier on drums/mandolin, and Amanda Merte on percussion/vocals, BDB’s live show never fails to take over the venue. With five CDs in the can, including their latest, Roll, the Ben Daniels Band has grown to be a formidable group that sounds pleasantly familiar, yet unforgettably unique.
Oh yeah… and he’s Jeff Daniels’ son. You know, that famous actor/neighbor of ours? Not that Ben and the band need the familial connection to be a legitimate force on the alt-folk scene. If you’ve not taken advantage of the numerous previous opportunities to see BDB in and around Ann Arbor, grab this one.
Don Alles is a marketing consultant, house concert host, and musical wannabee living in and loving his recently adopted home, Ann Arbor.
The Ann Arbor Folk Festival comes to Hill Auditorium January 29 & 30. Tickets go on sale for the general public starting December 1 and can be purchased online, by phone at 734-763-TKTS, or in person at the Michigan Union Ticket Office and The Ark box office.