The Ann Arbor Folk Festival's motto might very well be, “if it works, don’t fix it!” Celebrating its 35th annual incarnation this month, the festival has stuck to the same formula that has made it perhaps the most significant and eagerly awaited event on the Ann Arbor winter entertainment calendar every year since 1977. Each January, the Ark Coffeehouse, which organizes the event, invites some of the most familiar, best loved performers in folk, roots and ethnic music from the US and abroad. They also bring to town less familiar and up-and-coming performers and acts that are likely to become the most familiar, best loved performers in years to come. Ten years ago, the festival expanded to two nights, with Friday nights highlighting envelope-pushing, progressive folk performers, and Saturday nights devoted to the more traditional musicians.
This year’s Saturday headliners are three icons of acoustic music, Emmylou Harris, Nanci Griffith, and Glen Campbell. None of them need any introduction for even the most casual music lover, and Harris and Griffith in particular have long and strong connections to the Ark. Campbell, who has been a household name in American music since the early Sixties, will make his festival debut and goodbye at the same time. He is including the festival in his farewell tour. Rounding out Saturday night will be several noteworthy emerging artists — songwriter Joe Henry, bluegrass instrumentalist Sarah Jarosz, the gypsy inflected Caravan of Thieves and the young, multi-talented Seth Glier.
Friday night headliner, Ryan Adams has been a prolific force in a wide range of musical genres, from folk and country to rock, punk and even metal since the early 90s. Further confounding any possibility of pigeonholing him, have been his ventures into areas other than music; he’s also published two books of fiction and poetry. Friday night’s bill also includes another genre-defying group, DeVotchKa, which manages to seamlessly mix Eastern European and Mexican influences. Rounding out the cutting edged theme of the evening will be the hard rockin’ Dawes, the eclectic Carbon Leaf, string band quintet Elephant Revival, bluesy Sunny War, and the Mexican/Americana blend of David Wax Museum.
MCing both nights of the festival will be the irrepressible songwriter-comic-singer-poet-musician, Heywood Banks. You can choose to laugh at Banks’ jokes, admire his musicianship, or just enjoy this TV regular, cult hero’s plain old goofiness.
The festival is always a benefit for the Ark and is the single biggest fundraiser for the non-profit organization, allowing it to provide the huge variety and high quality of music that it brings to town for the rest of each year. The festival, this year on January 27 and 28, almost always sells out, so folkies know to get their tickets early.