The version of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess that will be performed at Hill Auditorium on Saturday, Feb. 17, won’t be tremendously different from other renditions familiar to audiences through the decades. But it will be the closest thing anyone’s heard in quite some time to the “folk opera” performed just the way its creators intended.
Saturday’s opera is part of the Gershwin Initiative -- a long-term partnership between the Gershwin family and the University of Michigan. Presented by the University Musical Society and the U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance, the event will mark the public debut of a new, scholarly edition of the opera’s score. Morris Robinson as Porgy and Talise Trevigne as Bess lead the cast; the performance will also include the University Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kenneth Kiesler; the UMSMTD Chamber Choir, directed by Jerry Blackstone; and the Our Own Thing Chorale, directed by Willis Patterson.
There was a sense of things coming full circle Saturday at Hill Auditorium for the sold-out second night of the Ann Arbor Folk Festival.
There was Joe Pug, who first became known to Ann Arbor audiences via a well-received one-song cameo at the 2009 festival; since then, he’s become a very popular singer-songwriter and this year returned as the festival’s MC. (Pug will play The Ark on March 9.) There was Mountain Heart, the terrific young bluegrass band that has developed a special affinity for Ann Arbor, even recording a live album here in 2007. And most of all, there was John Prine, headlining the 41st edition of the festival just as he did the very first one back in 1976.
But that’s not to imply that the festival -- which is a fundraiser for Ann Arbor musical institution The Ark -- is stuck in the past. On the contrary, Saturday proved again just how vital, vibrant, and compelling roots-based music can be in 2018 and beyond.
Local Americana band Corndaddy celebrated its 20th anniversary at The Ark on Thursday in a birthday party that perfectly showcased some of the reasons for its longevity.
The well-paced show highlighted the different sides of the band’s musical personality, starting with a rock-oriented set, followed by a more country-flavored interlude; a purely acoustic, no-drums set; and a fitting finale wrapping everything together. Old songs met new songs, dedications were made, and tributes were paid. And the band sounded great throughout.
A well-done opening set from another longtime local favorite, Paul’s Big Radio, perfectly set the stage for the headliners -- partly because talented bass player Jerry Hancock anchors the sound of both bands.
Growing up, Erin Zindle -- leader of the Ann Arbor global-roots band The Ragbirds -- loved her extended family’s Christmas Eve gatherings. Her “very large and very musical family” would traditionally gather to perform Christmas songs together. “It was my favorite thing all year round. Honestly, it was better than the presents,” she says. “I was known for making everyone sing all seven verses of everything. I didn’t want it to end.” That’s the spirit she and her fellow musicians will re-create at the annual Ebird and Friends Holiday Show at The Ark Dec. 7-9. “It was just a real natural extension of that childhood experience,” Zindle says. And indeed, the holiday concert has become a tradition all its own, now marking its 10th year.
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.
The Ann Arbor Concert Band holds a special place among the area’s musical groups. Following the classic concert-band tradition, it’s an ensemble consisting almost entirely of wind instruments.
So as the band prepares to open its new season at the Michigan Theater on Sunday, the theme for the concert may seem a bit surprising: a selection of opera works, which we’re accustomed to hearing performed by singers with an orchestra.
“I chose this theme because it's rarely done by concert bands, and it's a nice contrast to a typical program that has only marches and Broadway medleys,” says James Nissen. “My job as conductor is to expose the audience to the vast wind ensemble repertoire, and there are so many great opera overtures that translate well for wind instruments. Also, there are so many instances where a composer wrote an opera that was soon long forgotten, but its overture survived as a masterpiece. I don't want these overtures to be forgotten!”
Alvin is best known as a core member of the roots-rock band The Blasters, often considered part of the 1980s Los Angeles punk scene. Gilmore is a Texas troubadour who helped start the alt-country/Americana movement as a member of The Flatlanders. But the two came of age loving the same kinds of authentic folk and blues music -- and today, they’re both comfortable working in a laid-back singer-songwriter format.
In fact, they’ve been friends for more than 30 years. So when Alvin suggested the two start doing some shows together -- including on at The Ark on Oct. 30 -- it seemed like a natural pairing.
Bill McKibben has long been sounding the alarm about our changing climate.
The renowned environmentalist and author (including the landmark The End of Nature) founded 350.org, a worldwide organization dedicated to climate-change issues. He will speak at Hill Auditorium on Thursday, Oct. 5, on the topic “Down to the Wire: A Hot Fight in a Hot World.”
If it seems like the fight has gotten more difficult lately, given the current federal administration’s refusal to even acknowledge the problem, McKibben isn’t about to give up. He says it’s still possible to take significant action.
Colin Simpson was a veteran of bands in Oregon and Washington before returning to his home state of Michigan a few years ago. He arrived in Ann Arbor with no job and no connections to the local music community. But he did have an idea that he wanted to try something a little different.
“I knew I wanted to continue with music, but I also knew I didn’t want to just be the guy at the back of the coffee shop with a guitar,” he recalls now. So he created the concept of The Low Voltage to play out his musical ideas, adding a kick drum and some electric guitar -- and, later, a musical partner, singer-instrumentalist Emily Fox.
The result is a remarkably distinctive sound, sitting somewhere in the realm of Americana/folk/indie rock but managing to find its own unique niche. The sound is effectively evoked by the name The Low Voltage.
Although the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti area is certainly home to many talented jazz musicians, sometimes it might seem that they fly a little under the radar. The A2 Jazz Fest is out to change that.
The free admission, two-day festival returns for its second edition Friday and Saturday, September 8 and 9. Friday evening’s venue is the First Congregational Church, while on Saturday the festival takes over LIVE nightclub. (This is a change from the initially announced location at the Ann Arbor Distilling Co.)
“Currently jazz is featured at a number of restaurants and bars, once or twice a week, but there is no longer a dedicated jazz club in Ann Arbor or Ypsilanti," says Dave Sharp, local bassist, bandleader, and organizer of the A2 Jazz Fest. "UMS and the Kerrytown Concert House certainly feature amazing jazz groups, but not on the scale or frequency of a jazz club or jazz festival."