Matt Watroba, veteran of Ann Arbor’s folk and Americana scenes, specializes these days in what he calls “community singing” which grew out of an epiphany during an interview with the late, legendary Pete Seeger. “He told me just getting folks to sing was really the most important work he’d ever done in his life,” Watroba says. “So I’ve really doubled-down on that idea of bringing people together just for the sake of sitting in a circle and singing together.”
Watroba’s solo concerts blend his encyclopedic knowledge of folk music with a charismatic raconteurish stage presence. The real treasure of a Watroba song is his mellifluous voice, a soaring register that resonates with the reverence he holds for folk music and the sharing of songs.
Pillar of the Yellow Room Gang
Watroba is one of eight artists who make up The Yellow Room Gang, a veritable folk-singing super-group of diverse songwriting stylists who can ignite your compassion with a poignant sense of community. If you are an aspiring songwriter, or just an ardent music lover, and you’ve never been to a Yellow Room Gang concert, then expect January 6th at The Ark to be an elegant crash course.
Watroba broke out in the Detroit music scene back in the late 70’s and early 80’s by playing bars and saloons. Eventually, one of The Ark’s seminal program directors, David Siglin, hired him to be the emcee for Open Stage performances, which led to Watroba fatefully opening for one of his heroes, singer Tom Paxton. “I remember (Paxton) telling me I had to do whatever I could to stop playing in a bar!” Watroba says. “That’s not true for every kind of artist, but (for a folksinger) it really steps up your game when everyone at The Ark is so quiet and attentive.”
Music to mend the communal soul
Quiet attention is one thing, but the assembled energies of each Yellow Room Gang member can also apply some much needed mending to the collective spirit. Times like these, with geopolitical tensions higher than normal, “are when we need cultural workers more than ever,” Watroba says. “Since starting another radio show and listening to the amazing range of topical songs being written, I feel, more than ever, that music is really playing the role it needs to play.”
Watroba’s return to the airwaves features a Sunday evening show on Lansing’s WKAR. He previously hosted “Folks Like Us” for 23 years on WDET, where his passionate, soft-spoken insights into the traditions of songwriting served as a formative avenue into folk for many listeners. “I’ll always include great new stuff from artists in Michigan,” he says of his new show, “but I also won’t forget to play the legends, because I don’t think they get a fair share on the radio right now.”
The Yellow Room Gang started 13 years ago, inside the eponymously-colored rehearsal room of David Tamulevich. Watroba says it was singer/songwriter Jan Krist who initiated the idea of forging a songwriter’s group to gather once a week to workshop their individual compositions over a cozy dinner table. The other musical storytellers in The Yellow Room Gang are David Barrett, Kitty Donohoe, Annie Capps, Jim Bizer, and Michael Hough, along with Tamulevich and Krist. “We didn’t anticipate we’d be out there performing with each other as much as we are,” Watroba says, but when you look back, it seems inevitable, because (sharing music) is just what we do.”