Thanksgiving Tradition: Matt Watroba at The Ark
Thanksgiving is all about traditions. And over the last couple of decades, one tradition that has taken root in Ann Arbor is Matt Watroba’s Day-After-Thanksgiving Concert at The Ark.
The well-known Michigan performer, songwriter, and radio host isn’t exactly sure how long he’s been doing the concert on the day after the holiday, but he estimates it’s been about 25 years. It’s become his most popular annual gig, and he knows some families incorporate it into their regular holiday plans.
“It has taken on a real community feel,” he says. “People are actually making it a tradition.”
While the annual show often features some guest performers, this year’s edition will likely be something closer to a solo show -- although he notes, “There’s always the possibility of surprise guests popping in.”
Watroba’s wife, Kim, will sing with him for part of the concert. “It’s awfully fun to sing love songs on stage with someone you actually love,” he says.
Since the audience typically includes some longtime fans, Watroba will try to include some material from all his past albums. And he’ll definitely include a “community sings” component, something that has become a major focus for him in recent years.
The community sings movement encourages regular gatherings of people to sing as a group, regardless of musical ability. Watroba’s involvement began when he conducted a radio interview with folk music icon Pete Seeger, the dean of the movement, aged 89 at the time. At the close of a long, accomplished career in music and social activism, Seeger told Watroba his most important work was getting people to sing for themselves.
“That just astounded me,” Watroba recalls. So, a couple years later, “Living in a country that seems to be more polarized than ever, I got the notion that it was time to take up Pete’s invitation.” He now leads some regular community sings across the region, and he also spends time spreading the word and teaching others how to lead them.
Community sings can include classic folk songs as well as newer songs that can be easily taught. The type of song doesn’t matter; the act of singing together is what’s important. “Everybody leaves feeling better than when they got there,” Watroba says.
Although he’s well known throughout the region as a performer -- both on his own and in partnership with Robert Jones, with whom he’s also creating a new nonprofit called Common Chords -- many fans first came to know Watroba via radio. For more than 20 years, he hosted the Folks Like Us show, primarily on WDET, playing a wide range of acoustic-based music.
Just last month, he returned to the Michigan airwaves: Folk With Matt Watroba now airs 6-8 p.m. Sundays on WKAR in East Lansing, and it can be streamed online at wkar.org.
“It’s really been heartwarming,” Watroba says of the reception to the show. “WKAR has just bent over backward to make it happen.”
He’s committed to always featuring some Michigan artists on the show, and he also includes a calendar of folk music events around the region -- both of which were important features of Folks Like Us. He notes with a chuckle, “That old show had an effect on a lot of people.”
Bob Needham is a freelance writer; the former arts & entertainment editor of The Ann Arbor News and AnnArbor.com.
Matt Watroba plays The Ark, 316 S. Main St., at 8 pm on Friday, Nov. 24. Tickets are $20/$27; a dinner-show combination is also available in conjunction with Conor O’Neill’s for $30/$37. Visit theark.org for tickets and more info.