A Walk on the Wilder Side: Water Hill Music Fest 2017
Video essay text:
Every first Sunday in May since 2011, Ann Arbor’s Water Hill neighborhood becomes a giant outdoor nightclub. Bands set up on lawns, porches, and inside homes and play for free as people pack the streets roaming from venue to venue.
The festival, which also gave the previously unnamed neighborhood its name, is heavy on folk, bluegrass, and Americana. But I went to Water Hill in search of the artists who didn’t fit under those umbrella terms. The event has always included music that’s not based on acoustic strings, but according to some longtime Water Hill attendees, this year was particularly low on bands bucking the festival’s perceived standard sound.
But if you wandered past a house on the 600 block of Gott Street a little after 3 pm, you heard nothing rootsy and earthy, just otherworldly electronics. The Tokyo Drift trio improvised their way through ambient soundscapes and percussive blasts, drawing an age-diverse crowd to their front porch.
Scissor Now! was another Water Hill deviation, playing a jazz-punk set that evoked New York City’s No Wave movement of the late 1970s and James Chance and the Contortions in particular. On the 700 block of Miner St., the trio combined hard-edged funk, avant-sax bursts, and sing-songy vocals to make a truly joyful noise.
The saxophone played a more traditional role in the 1100 block of Bydding, where Ron Brooks & She played straight-ahead jazz. Brooks is an Ann Arbor institution, and the three women who joined the bassist on drums, piano, and tenor saxophone swung gently through standards and blues.
While walking to see another group, I heard a mighty roar coming from the 900 block of Fountain St. Human Skull was ripping through a set of raspy rock-n-roll that pulled from The Replacements, Husker Du, and Radio Birdman.
I finished my Water Hill stroll on the 300 block of West Summit with the Nintendoland Family Band, featuring AADL’s Eli Neiburger and his family playing homegrown arrangements of video-game classics. The soundtracks mostly went over my video-game-ignorant head, but a few gamer kids sitting right in front of the group whooped it up with each new theme they recognized, which seemed to be all of them.
Folk, bluegrass, and Americana will always be the heart of the Water Hill Music Fest, and there’s no denying it’s the event’s main identity. It even earned an April 1, 2014, WUOM Michigan Radio blog post declaring, “Banjos will be banned at this year's Water Hill Music Festival in Ann Arbor.”
But next year, stroll the neighborhood’s packed but welcoming streets and open your ears. Over the genteel twangs and strums, you’ll be able to make out some freaky bleeps and bloops, some high-energy squawking and honking, and some glorious screaming and yelling.
Christopher Porter is a library technician and the editor of Pulp.