Review: Marc Cohn Takes Us Back at The Ark


Review: Marc Cohn Takes Us Back at The Ark

Mark Cohn makes music in his cohn of silence.

On Wednesday night at The Ark, Marc Cohn dialed us all back about 25 years, reprising his eponymous debut album and firing a host of emotional synapses throughout the appreciative near-capacity crowd.

Marc Cohn burst upon the pop music scene in 1991 with the release of Marc Cohn, going platinum and providing Mr. Cohn the recognition he justly deserved after 10 years of honing his craft as a struggling musician and performer. He was nominated for three Grammys that year and took home the Best New Artist award. Cohn followed with successful follow-up albums The Rainy Season and Burning the Daze… establishing him as a pre-eminent pop singer-songwriter, composer and instrumentalist in the mid-1990s. I was a big, big Marc Cohn fan back then, and though his subsequent work hasn’t achieved the commercial success of his early efforts, he continues to perform, collaborate and create new music for a legion of fans still emotionally bonded to his songs of love found, love lost and love reclaimed.

Last night – the first of two performances at The Ark on Wednesday and Friday – was purely nostalgic as for song selection. Many artists of Cohn’s era have recently dusted off their past works and re-played them in live commemorative tours. This silver anniversary tour began in March, continued through the summer including an overseas segment opening for Bonnie Raitt in Europe, and continues through May 2017. Wow. 57 year-old Marc Cohn evidenced no road weariness over the course of the evening, though his voice became raspier in the final third of his set.

Most of Marc’s sidemen have been playing with him for many years, and the sound was tight and expertly blended. Drummer Joe Bonadio did not have a conventional drum kit on stage, but it was never missed as he used a large African djembe drum, cajon and other percussion pieces to lay down the beat. Organist Glenn Patcha brought volume and depth to the music – he’s toured and recorded with Sheryl Crow, Bettye Lavette, Roger Waters, Ryan Adams, Willie Nelson, Loudon Wainwright and the great Levon Helm, to name a few. (In fact, the one song Cohn inserted into the playlist that was not on his first album was an homage to Helm: Listening to Levon, from Cohn’s 2007 album, Join the Parade.) Patcha channeled his best Garth Hudson organ style to take us back to The Band’s best days. Though I could barely see him hiding behind Cohn’s piano, guitarist Kevin Barry demonstrated not only his solo prowess but also his ability to achieve a seamless blend of sound with the other musicians…a craft honed over 40 years of masterful lap steel and guitar performances.

The album Marc Cohn played for us is unique to its genre for its variety and consistent excellence, varied in its emotions, and powerful in both words and music. After 25 years of playing these iconic songs, Marc Cohn – perhaps for the sake of his own sanity – has introduced chord variations, melodic departures, new riffs and improvisations that refreshed every song for us, yet still allowed us all to mouth every word of the songs that so many of us knew so well. The typically respectful Ark crowd would never sing along unless asked to (and we were) but as I looked down my row I would see most of my row mates mouthing the words right along with me.

The concert started (as does the album) with Walking in Memphis – the hit that catapulted him to fame. Cohn spoke of meeting Muriel Wilkins at the Hollywood Café in Memphis while on a trip to see Graceland. Inspired by her and his visit, Cohn wrote the largely autobiographical song. Throughout the night, Cohn continued to add meaning to the familiar music by explaining the personal core and impetus for his writing.

There was the song about his dad that makes me think about my dad: Silver Thunderbird. Dammit, Marc. Then a song that makes me think I’m 20 again: Perfect Love. C’mon, Marc. The last song of the album reminds me of good times with my ex-wife: True Companion. Marc!!! Judging from the sniffles in the audience, most of the 11 songs on the album touched deep memories for the largely middle-aged crowd. Well, I guess we asked for it; we even paid good money to be reminded of those times when music, memories and heart met in our lives.

I think often of performers like Marc whose light burned so brightly and then dimmed. Though he certainly wasn’t a one-hit wonder, his first hit was his biggest hit, and it would appear to less interested observers that he is riding his past fame from the early 90s until today. Nothing could be further from the truth; Cohn has continued to perform, collaborate and make new music over the last 25 years. To a more interested observer, and to all the true fans who showed up on Wednesday night, it wasn’t all about Walking in Memphis. It was about an album that has held up for 25 years, song for song, as one of the best pop albums of its era. It was about a musician’s career and the unusual arcs and twists it takes as he continues to work their craft, earn a living and perhaps exorcise some demons. And finally, it’s about firing those synapses to remember where we were, what we were doing and why we are so touched by Marc Cohn’s songs.

Just a few words about Seth Glier, who opened for Cohn last night with his sideman Joe Nerney. Glier has previously headlined at The Ark and brings a sweet tenor and sharp musical sensibility to any show, whether his own or as an opener. Glier paused for quiet moments during a couple of his songs, and you could have heard a pin drop – highly unusual for an opener while patrons are scuffling around looking for their seats. That’s why I love The Ark’s Ford Listening Room, and why I truly enjoyed Wednesday’s performance.

Don Alles is a marketing consultant, journalist, house concert host and musical wannabee, living in and loving his adopted home, Ann Arbor.

Marc Cohn plays at The Ark again Friday night, September 30th, and tickets are still available. Buy them here. Check out all of Marc Cohn’s music on Spotify. Check out Seth Glier’s music on Spotify.

Review: Bruce Hornsby & the Noisemakers at the A2SF


Bruce Hornsby and the Noisemakers.

Bruce Hornsby and The Noisemakers.

Those of you who have followed Bruce Hornsby since the 80s and were prepared for something looser, more genre-bending: you weren’t disappointed. Those of you who remember Bruce from his 80s music and not much else: I hope you were ready for something other than studio album re-creations.

Bruce Hornsby and the Noisemakers made beautiful noise for two hours on Thursday evening at the Power Center to an appreciative audience that filled about three quarters of the Power’s seats. The Noisemaker’s singular talent -- aside from stunning musicianship -- is to make old new again, and to the audience’s delight, that’s exactly what happened. They also happen to be really good at making entirely new music, and we heard some of that as well. All this, despite a less-than-excellent sound mix and several technical issues that had Mr. Hornsby gritting his teeth.

The Noisemakers are bassist J.V. Collier, a twenty-year veteran of the band, as well as keyboardist/organist John “JT” Thomas and drummer Sonny Emory, who have played with Hornsby twenty-four and twelve years respectively. Summer 2014 marks the arrival of two new Noisemakers — fiddle/mandolin player Ross Holmes and guitarist Gibb Droll — as well as the departures of longtime members Bobby Read and Doug Derryberry. Holmes currently fiddles for Mumford and Sons, has played with hosts of Nashville titans as diverse as Ricky Skaggs and the Dixie Chicks. Droll has played guitar on various projects involving Keller Williams, Kevin Kinney, and Brandi Carlile.

Picking and choosing from their just-released album Rehab Reunion, as well as other Hornsby discography highlights like "The Way It Is," BH&N demonstrated their individual musical prowess through improvisational solos that spanned and twisted jazz, pop, bluegrass, and Americana genres in a way you will never hear in any other band.

More evidence of Bruce’s live concert experience and expertise: the mid-set featuring acoustic duos and trios out front served to mix up the sound, feel, and intimacy of the event. The band’s working motto: “Look at Bruce!” Whatever the song, every band members’ eyes were locked on Bruce as he would often point to a soloist without warning for an impromptu 12 or 24 bars. The band is tight and loose at the same time, knowing their stuff but subject to Hornsby’s split-second diversions.

Above it all, Bruce’s piano skills wowed the crowd as he created improvisational dances on the keyboard. Bruce Hornsby is not a technical perfectionist on the Steinway, but the musical emotion he generates through his from-the-heart meanderings give new life to his classics. The audience would hold our heads to prevent musical whiplash as he’d take an iconic song like "Valley Road" in a unique and re-syncopated direction with dulcimer (Hornsby), mandolin (Holmes) and shoulder-mounted washboard and spoons (Emory).

The evening’s best moment: a wandering, jazz-infused take-off on the 1989 collaboration between Hornsby and Don Henley, "The End of the Innocence." I would need to have recorded the live track to tell you how many improvisational turns this song took as it raced through styles and genres. I can only tell you that Bruce’s emotional keyboard interlude had the crowd ooh-ing, ahhh-ing and hooting approval.

A brief encore followed the satisfying performance with a surprise appearance from Jeff Daniels, who complained, “you guys play all this stuff in E-flat diminished 9th chords” and finished the night with Bruce and band in a rousing 3-chords-and-the-truth rendition of his "Go Henry David Go."

Bruce is my age, and I have grown up with him as he has blessed my life with some of the best music I can remember. Thursday night did nothing but drive my appreciation for him that much deeper. Don’t stop for a while, Bruce. Keep improvising. You’re not finished.

Don Alles is a marketing consultant, journalist, house concert host and musical wannabee, living in and loving his adopted home, Ann Arbor.

Preview: Bruce Hornsby & the Noisemakers, A2SF on 6/30


Bruce Hornsby with his noisemakers.

Bruce Hornsby with his noisemakers.

Bruce Hornsby is still making beautiful noise. If you liked The Way It Is back in the 1980s, you’ll be amazed by what he’s done since then. His latest touring iteration as the group of jam/pop/jazz/grass/rock fusionists, Bruce Hornsby & The Noisemakers, and their just-released album Rehab Reunion, have me vibrating with anticipation for their appearance Thursday night at the Power Center on the University of Michigan campus.

In the 30 years since Hornsby owned the airwaves and was named Best New Artist at the 1986 Grammy Awards, the other “BRUUUCE!” has enriched and reinvented his music in a series of layers that can be studied like rock strata, each layer deepening the impact and artistry of his career.

The strata from bottom up:
• Take a rock-solid improvisational piano technique honed at Berklee College of Music, steeped in surprising jazz phrasing and syncopation.
• Throw in a banjo, perhaps Bela Fleck. Bring bluegrass themes to the fore, and then aft as pop/jazz bounds forward.
• Add some horns. Organ. Extra percussion. Mandolin. More banjo!
• Call up Jerry Garcia and sit in at keyboard for the Grateful Dead. Only 100 shows or so.
• Call up Ricky Skaggs and turn your most iconic top-40 songs into funky bluegrass improvisational explosions.
• Collaborate with the likes of Bob Weir, Don Henley, Sting, Elton John, Eric Clapton, Pat Metheny, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Trey Anastasio, Mickey Hart, Bob Dylan, Railroad Earth, Crosby, Stills & Nash and Bonnie Raitt to expand the repertoire. (Many sub-layers here!)
• Continue to tour and record off and on for the last 15 years as Bruce Hornsby and the Noisemakers while continuing to perform and record as another half-dozen personae.

Rehab Reunion is the band's fifth audio release (after their DVD debut Here Come the Noisemakers) and their first release in five years. The music business has turned upside down with the digital revolution, and artists now earn most of their keep on the road. That doesn’t obviate the recordings, which are mostly marvelous, (Hornsby has a habit of walking the improvisational wire without a net) but the real money is on tour.

I used to say that Bruce Hornsby got me through some dark musical times of the mid-80s and early 90s (along with Tom Petty, Huey Lewis and Don Henley), but in truth, Bruce’s multitude of musical styles and collaborations has carried me through every decade since.

Join us Thursday night to discover what stratum Bruce will draw from… likely, all of them.

Don Alles is a marketing consultant, journalist, house concert host and musical wannabee, living in and loving his adopted home, Ann Arbor.

Bruce Hornsby & The Noisemakers will perform Thursday, June 30 at 8pm at the Power Center. Tickets are $20 (students), $35, $40, $45, $50, $55. Visit" or call (734) 764-2538.

Hayes Carll: Satiric Americana Master @ The Ark on June 18


Hayes Carll comes to the Arkk.

Hayes Carll comes to the Arkk.

I first learned of Hayes Carll from the Bob & Tom radio show about 10 years ago as I drove to work in the morning, singing such goofy favorites as "She Left Me for Jesus" and a wonderful cover of Ray Wylie Hubbard’s "Drunken Poet’s Dream". Then I kept listening. There was more than satire and twisted lyrics here.

Hayes started making records in 2002 after earning his chops in and around Austin, Houston and Galveston, Texas. He quickly developed a reputation for sharp-witted lyrics that could make you laugh and cry all in the same song. Hayes channels other Texas troubadours Lyle Lovett, the aforementioned RWH, Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt and others, but possesses a fierce yet unassuming style of his own that becomes instantly familiar and comforting.

Of his first new album in five years, Lovers and Leavers, Hayes says, “It isn’t funny or raucous. There are very few hoots and almost no hollers. But it is joyous, and it makes me smile. No, it’s not my Blood on the Tracks, nor is it any kind of opus. It’s my fifth record—a reflection of a specific time and place. It is quiet, like I wanted it to be. Like I wanted to be."

Here’s your chance to discover – or to be reunited with – one of Americana’s most gifted and poignant songwriters, Hayes Carll, appearing at The Ark in downtown Ann Arbor this Saturday, June 18 at 8:00 pm. Emily Gimble, granddaughter of legendary Texas Playboys fiddler Johnny Gimble, opens for Mr. Carll.

Don Alles is a marketing consultant, journalist, house concert host and musical wannabe, living in and loving his adopted home, Ann Arbor.

Tickets are still available but the Ark’s 400-seat Ford Listening Room is filling up fast. Grab your tickets online or take your chances at the door.

Review: Juggernaut Jug Band takes us through a musical wormhole and back again


The Juggernaut Jug Band (jug included)

The Juggernaut Jug Band (jug included).

I’ve lived in Arbor for three and a half years now, and for someone who calls himself a “small music” fan, I haven’t gotten out often enough to visit all the great venues we have in and around town. The Green Wood Coffee House has been on my must-go list for some time now, and Friday night I walked in. Located at the United Methodist Church on Green Road, it’s an Ann Arbor institution of great live folk, roots, and Americana music, and the performance by the Juggernaut Jug Band did nothing but burnish that reputation.

I’d never heard of “JJB” or their music before last night, though I confess to being a lapsed practitioner of the washtub bass (it was a high school thing). There was no washtub there, but JJB frontman Stu “Roscoe P. Goose” Helm had at his disposal more than a dozen jug band instruments, most of them clamped to a red 4-foot step ladder. The star of the rhythm assortment was Roscoe’s ancient-looking crockery jug – a gallon-sized model – equipped with a 21st century wireless mic. This video provides a nice intro to JJB.

Louisville, Kentucky is considered the birthplace of jug band music: a goulash of Dixieland, honky-tonk, blues, jazz, minstrel, and swing that first bubbled up in the late 1800s. JJB’s primary calling is to preserve the jug band tradition and to expand the envelope of this sub-genre with modern musical infusions. Channeling past jug band ghosts like the Dixieland Jug Blowers, Whistler’s Jug Band, the Mud Gutters, and Ballad Chefs, JJB covers the best of traditional jug music, complete with washboard, cowbells, tin cans and nose flute.

But wait… there’s more! In addition to those original sounds, JJB samples modern rock in a jug band format that has the audience’s senses and sensibilities reeling – in a good way. Consider "Pinball Wizard"… played to the tune of "Folsom Prison Blues". Or a Led Zeppelin medley of "Heartbreaker", "Kashmir", and "Stairway to Heaven". These guys know how to turn a genre on its head, whether it’s theirs or any other. If you’ve not heard a jug band cover of "People Are Strange" by Jim Morrison and The Doors, you must seek this out immediately.

Before you write off JJB as a bells-and-whistles novelty group, you need to know that these guys are accomplished and talented multi-instrumentalists. Roscoe Goose surprised me by setting aside his washboard thimbles for a song and pulling out a muted silver trumpet in mid-set. Greg “Frankie” Lentz displayed his fretboard skills on an electrified Fender dreadnaught. Pat “Slim Chance” Lentz (Greg’s brother) strummed and picked a masterful electric jazz guitar of his own making – and alternated with a Dixieland banjo, while the newest member of the group, James “Jug Band Jimmy” Brown anchored the group with his stand-up bass. Members of the band have changed since its inception in the early 1960s, but the tradition, original sound, and corny jokes carry on. Roscoe Goose has been raking the washboard for JJB for more than 50 years.

What I absolutely did not expect from this group was the level of vocal skill and harmony-making reminiscent of good barbershop groups. Roscoe possesses a sweetly natural lead voice, and ranges easily down to the bass notes required for the jug. All of JJB’s members join in often for the choruses, and the lead singing role is occasionally thrown to “Slim”.

Catch Juggernaut Jug Band on their next trip through town (they promised), since no studio recording quite captures the look on Roscoe P. Goose’s face when he’s playing the nose flute on "Stairway to Heaven". Visit this Spotify link to sample their stuff. If you like it, BUY their music at the Juggernaut website. And thank you, Juggernaut Jug Band… for keeping musical history alive… and kicking!

Don Alles is a marketing consultant, journalist, house concert host, and musical wannabee living in and loving his recently adopted home, Ann Arbor.

Preview: 39th Ann Arbor Folk Festival / Saturday Night Lineup


Ann Arbor Folk Festival performers clockwise from top left: Joan Baez, Darlingside, Rose Cousins, Joshua Davis, Alan Doyle, The Accidentals, and Cooder – White – Skaggs

Ann Arbor Folk Festival performers clockwise from top left: Joan Baez, Darlingside, Rose Cousins, Joshua Davis, Alan Doyle, The Accidentals, and Cooder – White – Skaggs

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.

Saturday, January 30th

Joan Baez

For those who may mistakenly believe that after a 55 year career and 30 albums, Joan Baez has ceased to be relevant, one should only visit her latest original music in a recent album, Day After Tomorrow. You’ll understand that her voice, her words, her music are just as emotionally powerful today as they were in the 60s--yet wiser, richer, more circumspect, and just as damned beautiful as they were in that golden age.

Joan Baez recorded her first solo LP for Vanguard Records in the summer of 1960. Known more as an interpreter of songs than a songwriter, songs she introduced on her earliest albums would find their way into the repertoire of 60s rock stalwarts, like "House Of the Rising Sun" (The Animals), "John Riley" (The Byrds), "Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You" (Led Zeppelin), "What Have They Done To the Rain" (The Searchers), "Jackaroe" (Grateful Dead), and "Long Black Veil" (The Band), to name a few.

At a time in our country's history when it was neither safe nor fashionable, Joan put herself on the line countless times, and her life's work was mirrored in her music. She sang about freedom and Civil Rights everywhere, from the backs of flatbed trucks in Mississippi to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King's March on Washington in 1963. That was also the year she helped introduce Bob Dylan to the world, continuing a line of folk royalty beginning with Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and others that dared to challenge that which they knew in their hearts was wrong or flawed.


Ricky Skaggs has often said he’s “just trying to make a living” doing what he loves to do, which is being one of the best mandolin players in the world and an icon of Bluegrass and Country music. Since he first collected a paycheck as a 7-year-old on Flatt and Scruggs’ TV show in 1961, Ricky has been doing just that...and creating marvelous collaborations with some of the world’s best musicians in and out of the country categories. Singing, songwriting, and playing--not only on mando but fiddle and guitar as well--he helped bring back a sense of tradition and history to the scene beginning in the 1980s. Chet Atkins once said that Ricky Skaggs “singlehandedly saved Country Music”.

As a “musician’s musician”, it’s easier to tell you who Ry Cooder has NOT played with than to tell you whose music he has made immeasurably better. Cooder's trademark slide guitar work has graced the recordings of such artists as Captain Beefheart, Randy Newman, Little Feat, Van Dyke Parks, the Rolling Stones, Taj Mahal, and Gordon Lightfoot. More than a dozen film scores also grace Cooder’s résumé, including Crossroads and Primary Colors.

Sharon White, who happens to be married to Ricky Skaggs, comes from a lineage of bluegrass and country singers since starting her career in the early 70s with her parents’ family band, The Whites. She has since forged a 40+ year career singing with her sister Cheryl as The Whites and reuniting with her parents Buck and Pat in bluegrass and gospel collaborations.

And now, Ricky Skaggs joins with Sharon and Ry to deliver a revelatory program of blues, gospel, and bluegrass music. They will be joined by Joachim Cooder (son of Ry) on drums, and Mark Fain on bass. I caught this supergroup in Nashville in September at the AmericanaFest, and you can tell, beyond any stage smiles, that they are having an absolute blast playing together.

Joshua Davis

I first heard Josh Davis playing with one of Michigan’s favorite roots bands, Steppin’ In It, in 2008, and since then I’ve been waiting for them to blow up. They haven’t, but front man Joshua Davis caught a break on The Voice and found himself in the TV series’ finals last spring. Since then, Joshua’s infectious smile and genuine voice have earned him a wide following and a place on Saturday’s Folk Fest slate.

Davis has released three critically acclaimed solo albums, five albums with Steppin' In It, and a record of jazz standards with Shout Sister Shout. His most recent album, A Miracle of Birds, is inspired by his travels in the Palestinian West Bank with non-profit organization On the Ground. About the album, Revue magazine says, "His heartfelt documentation of 'people as people' offers up compassionate songs of hope, darkness, and perseverance."

A pair of the most expressive (and twinkly) eyes you’ve ever seen will draw you into Joshua, and you will realize why America came to love him on The Voice. His musicality, songwriting, and passion will convince you that he’s no media heartthrob of the moment.

Alan Doyle & The Beautiful Gypsies

Alan Doyle last took the stage at the Ann Arbor Folk Fest in 2000 as the lead singer and co-founder of Great Big Sea, one of Newfoundland’s most renowned musical exports. GBS made its latest return to Ann Arbor to a packed house of rabid, lyric-screaming fans at the Michigan Theater in 2013. He released a first solo album, Boy on Bridge, in 2012, and has followed up in 2015 with his latest, So Let’s Go.

With musical roots in his native land’s lyrics, melodies, and rhythms, Doyle mixes traditional Newfoundland music with a fresh pop sensibility, and presents a variety of lyrical and musical platforms in his latest work, from the whiskey-scented shanty sounds of "1,2,3,4" to the urbanized Canuck country pop of "Sins of Saturday Night". Doyle and his talented supporting band Beautiful Gypsies are sure to keep the Folk Fest faithful chanting, rocking...even standing (OMG), conjuring musical images of a Barenaked Ladies / Enter The Haggis mashup.


After six years of playing together and a decade-plus of knowing each other, the collaborative process for Darlingside has evolved side by side with their friendships. “We’ve become intimate with each other’s childhoods, families, fears, goals, insecurities, and body odors,” says violinist/mandolinist Auyon Mukharji. The four Connecticut-based musicians and singers opened for Patty Griffin at the Power Center on October 10, and my buddy Stan had tickets waiting for us. We were cautioned by friends familiar with Darlingside to be sure to be seated for the opening act. That was a challenge, considering that we had to double-time it on foot from the Big House after the Northwestern game to make the curtain in time.

The quiet yet powerful vocals of the group are what first capture you. It’s clear that these guys have been singing together--tightly and sweetly--for about a decade to expertly blend complex harmonies as they do. Birds Say is their second album effort, or third if you count their 2010 EP, and forms the backbone of their live set. Their vocal and instrumental mastery is at evidence on every track, from the haunting "White Horses" to the perplexing "Harrison Ford" (the latter about a meeting/fantasy with a man who looks like their personal hero, Harrison Ford).

We will definitely warm to Darlingside at the 2016 Folk Fest...and Patty Griffin will soon need to find a new opener.

Rose Cousins

Rose Cousins is another Canadian import to the festival, originally from Prince Edward Island and now living in Halifax. This singer-songwriter has captured nearly every significant honor and award that her native country has to offer for her craft, and, here in America, her latest recorded work, We Have Made A Spark, was named to NPR’s Top 10 Americana & Folk Albums of 2012.

Rose will be sure to bring a quieter, more contemplative tone to the Folk Fest...she is often a solitary figure at a gently played piano. Or, she’ll surprise you with a lilting, curiously waltz-tempo version of Tina Turner’s 80s classic "What’s Love Got To Do With It". First reaction: huh? On second thought: a new appreciation for that pop song.

The Accidentals

Seldom have I been as excited--nor heard as much buzz--as I have for these two brilliant young women. The Accidentals are Katie Larson and Savannah Buist, supported by percussionist Michael Dause. Katie and Savannah are little more than a year out of high school--albeit the prestigious Interlochen Arts Academy. They play no less than 12 instruments between them during a typical live set. Their lyrics are wiser than their years. And together, these Traverse City natives may be one of the acts most likely to succeed in a big way in the next few years.

Of all the artists I have written about for the Folk Fest, I have the hardest time describing the kind of music they play. I’m not even going to try. Just consider The Accidentals to be at a very special nexus of genres and generations that makes them much, much more than the sum of their very musical parts.

The Ann Arbor Folk Fest is well known for bringing lesser-known Michigan-based acts into the national spotlight. Thing is, The Accidentals may not need the help. They’re touring out west right now, and when they’re through, the Hill won’t be able to hold all their new fans.

For samples of what you'll hear at Hill, check out this Spotify mix of the latest releases from all the Ann Arbor Folk Festival artists.

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.

Preview: 39th Ann Arbor Folk Festival / Friday Night Lineup


Ann Arbor Folk Festival performers clockwise from top left: The Oh Hellos, City and Colour, Ben Daniels, Yo La Tengo, Penny and Sparrow, Nora Jane Struthers, with Richard Thompson in the center of it all.

Ann Arbor Folk Festival performers clockwise from top left: The Oh Hellos, City and Colour, Ben Daniels, Yo La Tengo, Penny and Sparrow, Nora Jane Struthers, with Richard Thompson in the center of it all.

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

City and Colour

"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.

Richard Thompson

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

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.

The Oh Hellos

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.

Nora Jane Struthers

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.”

Penny and Sparrow

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.

Ben Daniels Band

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.

Review: Arlo Guthrie: The Alice's Restaurant 50th Anniversary Tour


Arlo Guthrie brought the whole family along to the Michigan Theater

Arlo Guthrie brought the whole family along to the Michigan Theater

He flew us into Los “Angeleez”, then to the City of New Orleans, on to Stockbridge Massachusetts (where the Massacree occurred) and then to Woodstock. It was family night for Arlo and the Guthries, and the capacity crowd at the Michigan Theater loved every minute of music and stories.

I snagged a last-minute single ticket among the few left from everyone’s favorite online ticket marketer (who shall, like Voldemort, remain nameless), and headed up to balcony right for a seat at the rail with perfect sight lines to the stage. What a spectacular and rich venue the Michigan is. I secretly hoped that the mighty Barton organ would provide a processional as we were seated – it did not.

The evening began with Sarah Lee Guthrie who joined her dad’s tour a few weeks ago as an opener. Growing up in her father’s musical world (as Arlo did with his dad Woody) Sarah appeared on Arlo’s work as both a toddler and an adolescent, and has today established a solid singer-songwriter-storyteller reputation of her own since she began recording in 2001. She channeled her dad’s stories on stage, and her grand-dad’s lyrics and music to provide a delightful introduction to a Guthrie generational anthology that was told through the rest of the evening.

The three generations have all written songs especially for children, and Sarah has made a specialty of it in recent years. She delighted the crowd with a spirited sing-along "Go Waggaloo" from Woody’s catalog. She played lovely standards in her own style such as Tim Hardin’s "If I Were A Carpenter", followed with one of her grandfather’s most loved songs "I’ve Got to Know" and finished her portion of the evening with her own "Circle of Souls".

To be clear, Sarah can hold her own, on her own, in any roots, folk, or Americana venue. There’s no need for her to borrow from that legacy to make her performance powerful. She is proud to sing her heritage on stage, and you can see that same family pride in the face of Arlo’s son Abe as he leads the band with keyboard and provides supporting vocals. The rest of the band that supported Sarah and Arlo features drummer Terry Hall, guitarist and vocalist Bobby Sweet, and guitarist Darren Todd.

As Sarah left the stage, the ornately vaulted Michigan Theater did not brighten as it would for intermission. A large screen flickered to life at the rear of the stage as we heard the first chords of "The Motorcycle Song" accompanied by a stop-motion animated short created almost 40 years ago entitled No, No, Pickle. What a delightful way to bring out a vital and still funny-as-hell songwriter, Arlo Guthrie.

Displaying youthful energy and a slightly raw throat strained by touring – Arlo Guthrie hammered out a classics-studded evening of music and stories that kept the capacity crowd laughing and singing along all evening. He first measured the crowd’s age: “For those of you who heard about this concert and asked, ‘isn’t he dead?’… well, I’m workin’ on it.”

While prefacing a story about Woodstock, he quipped, “Well, I remember getting there…” and then told the story of his history-making appearance in front of “more people than I knew I would ever see again in my entire life” while in a significantly altered state of consciousness. It was just what we wanted to hear from an icon of the era, and he kept all generations in the audience enthralled with story and song.

Arlo Guthrie Set List – November 9, 2015 – Michigan Theater

1. The Motorcycle Song
2. Chilling of the Evening
3. St. James Infirmary (Joe Primrose)
4. Ballad of Me and My Goose
5. Pig Meat Blues (Leadbelly)
6. Coming Into Los Angeles


7. Alice's Restaurant Massacree
8. I Hear You Sing Again (Janis Ian)
9. City of New Orleans (Steve Goodman)
10. Highway in the Wind
11. This Land Is Your Land (Woody Guthrie)
12. My Peace (Woody Guthrie)

The crowd lit up for the most memorable tunes, including a rousing back-to-the-60s rendition of Coming into Los Angeles to close the first set. The story of the infamous “massacree” – the namesake of Guthrie’s 50th Anniversary Tour – top-lined the second set, and you could tell the audience had not gotten tired of the telling. Somehow, Arlo told the story as though for the first time – so that those listening for the first time would not be short-changed. “If I’d known the song would be so popular, I wouldn’t have made it so long.”

According to Arlo, Steve Goodman gave him a song he had just written, "City of New Orleans", to hand off to Johnny Cash. Arlo recounted that Johnny was concerned that one more train song might pigeon-hole him…to Arlo’s eternal benefit. The words to Arlo’s greatest ballad were on almost everyone’s lips in the audience. Mr. Guthrie also presented himself as an accomplished musician throughout the evening, brandishing a number of acoustic and electric guitars and a keyboard. Most enticing was the blue-to-black Rainsong 12-string acoustic as it jangled its carbon-fiber sound across the theater as if on its own dedicated speakers.

Arlo rolled up the evening with more of his own stuff like "Highway in the Wind", a lesser-known but no-less-special cut from his 1967 breakout album, Alice’s Restaurant. He included a sweet cover of Woody & Janis Ian’s "I Hear You Sing Again" as if he was singing of his own family, and then explained that he lost his wife of 43 years, Jackie, to cancer in 2012. Arlo may still be grieving, but remains wistfully positive on stage. He spoke of their meeting in 1968, and how Jackie knew she would marry Arlo the moment she saw him. You can see the result of their love on the stage with Arlo in Sarah and Abe.

The whole family took the stage for the Guthrie past patriarch’s masterpiece "This Land Is our Land", and Arlo spoke of the song: "as though in the multitudes of re-singing by so many millions of people, the song has now acquired its own spirit and weight in the universe. He bade us goodbye by passing his peace to us – My Peace – from he and his family to the audience".

Arlo and his family are an extraordinary example of the age-old practice of passing on passion and skills from one generation to another. They don’t just want to sing their father’s – and his father’s – songs. It’s not just good folk music or good money or good politics. They must sing them. It’s a family thing.

Many, many thanks to The Ark and to the Michigan Theater for bringing the Guthrie family back to Ann Arbor.

A very similar audio version of this great live event is available on Spotify. Check it out.

Don Alles is a marketing consultant, house concert host, and musical wannabee living in and loving his recently adopted home, Ann Arbor.

Preview: Arlo Guthrie: The Alice's Restaurant 50th Anniversary Tour


Arlo Guthrie brings his red VW Microbus to town this Monday at the Michigan Theater

Arlo Guthrie brings his red VW Microbus to town this Monday at the Michigan Theater

The son of pioneering folk icon Woody Guthrie, Arlo Guthrie grew up with a unique perspective on a genre he would later adopt as his own. Surrounded by folk and “beat” greats, he was forged in a smelter of arts and artists like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Allen Ginsberg, Bill Monroe, and Doc Watson.

And then came Alice’s Restaurant. This presumably true – albeit festooned with literary license – story of a garbage dump run gone horribly wrong, pushed Arlo Guthrie to the front of the folk and rock stages in an era of general angst and wrenching generational change. The musical and spoken story, released in 1967 about the fateful day in 1965, along with the “the twenty-seven 8-by-10 colored glossy pictures with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one”, became a cult classic, earning him a spot at Woodstock and a place in the hearts of counter-culture music lovers around the world.

50 years later, Arlo Guthrie will re-tell his story – perhaps with a few new verses thrown in – this Monday night at The Michigan Theater, at the latest stop of The Alice’s Restaurant 50th Anniversary Tour. Those of us desiring to re-live our hazy youths will want to see this brilliant and funny performer once again, and those of us who just want a great evening of songs and storytelling will want to see Arlo for his enduring humor and musicality.

Don Alles is a marketing consultant, house concert host, and musical wannabee living in and loving his recently adopted home, Ann Arbor.

Arlo Guthrie brings Alice's Restaurant to the Michigan Theater on Monday, November 9, at 7:30 pm . Tickets are available through Ticketmaster online or by phone at 800-845-3000.