The 44th Ann Arbor Folk Festival Offers Uplifting Weekend of Music

The Ark
Image courtesy of The Ark.

The Ark always goes all-out for their annual Folk Festival. Every January since 1976, crowds have gathered to hear the best Michigan folk musicians and celebrated national artists weave memorable performances.

This past weekend, instead of packing Hill Auditorium, the Folk Festival was forced to go virtual, stringing together short videos of acts performing from their couches, gardens, or porches. While nothing compares to listening to live music, the experience was still highly satisfying.

Both Friday and Saturday nights started off with live, audience-less performances from the Ark’s stage. Friday night featured up-and-coming Michigan band The Accidentals, who charmed with their sincerity, tasteful playing, and well-blended vocals. Recently, frontwomen Katie Larson and Savannah Buist have co-written songs with folk luminaries Tom Paxton, Dar Williams, Mary Gauthier, and Kim Richey (who joined the band for a couple of songs) with impressive results.

The War and Treaty Folk Fest
The War and Treaty. Image courtesy of David McClister

The festival’s mellow first night was populated by great acts, but some stood out. Amythyst Kiah’s commanding voice was complemented by her raw, energetic guitar, and Alan Doyle’s robust, hopeful, Newfoundland sound was infectious. Gina Chavez’s unapologetically Latinx, queer club vibes were highly danceable (especially the song she dedicated to Kamala Harris, “Nevertheless, She Persisted”). Albion, MI natives Michael and Tanya Trotter, better known as The War and Treaty, were spellbinding with a stripped-down version of their usual ground-shaking offerings. Raúl Malo’s piercing, soaring voice and gorgeous guitar closed out the night in style.

Willie Watson stood out even amongst these highlights, captivating with a mix of old-timey blues, bluegrass, and stirring ballads. His no-frills, just-the-tunes approach was particularly moving on his cover of Stan Rogers’ “Harris and the Mare”, which was easily the best performance of the night. 

Saturday night’s show was livelier, starting with Ark mainstays The RFD Boys. Guitarist Charlie Rhoerig remarked that it was “a little strange with no audience”, to which someone responded, “I thought that was just like a regular performance”, drawing a laugh. Their love of performing and being with each other shone through, especially on covers of John Prine’s “Paradise” and Tom Petty’s “Won’t Back Down”.

George Winston alternated calming and energizing with his contemplative piano playing. Crys Matthews and Heather Mae played uplifting material encompassing social justice, COVID, and struggles many have faced over the last year. Former Carolina Chocolate Drops member Dom Flemons performed on a log cabin’s snow-covered porch, which provided the perfect frame for his striking voice and whimsical, sweet old-timey songs.

Blues guitarist and singer-songwriter Matt Andersen’s fiery voice and raw slide guitar would have brought down the house in any live setting, but his power came through even on the screen. Bruce Cockburn’s quiet, conversational set was compelling, his intricate guitar matching his thought-provoking lyrics. Dar Williams gave us her signature narrative songwriting, punctuated by gorgeous imagery, with beautifully airy but grounded vocals and earthy guitar work.

Willie Watson Folk Fest
Willie Watson. Image courtesy of Meredith Munn.

Jeff Daniels emceed and contributed a handful of original songs. His skillful guitar playing and rugged voice were the perfect complement to both his wry, comic material, “Everybody’s Brave on the Internet” and “Jesus Was a Stoner,” his powerful ballad, “I Am America,” and a beautiful tribute to Tigers legend Al Kaline, who died last April.

Everyone got their money’s worth, with more than five hours of music each night: I was left wanting even more. Hats off to the Ark for creating a festival that brought us closer together, no matter how far we are apart.

Replays of each Folk Festival night will be available until February 8, and tickets are available until February 7 on The Arks’ website.