By Mark Guarino
“I’m the fill,” said Jeff Daniels, the Hollywood actor, weekender songwriter-guitarist and congenial emcee who provided political satire to a welcoming crowd: the dedicated just folks attending the Ann Arbor Folk Festival in its 30th year.
One of the oldest and most respected folk festivals in the nation, the two-day event was once again hosted by The Ark, the non-profit acoustic music club operating in Ann Arbor’s downtown since 1965. This year’s festival was geared to commemorate generations past and present in the club’s history. John Prine headlined just as he did the festival’s inaugural year in 1977. He was preceded one night earlier by Rufus and Martha Wainwright, children of Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle, two of The Ark’s earliest veterans.
If the crowd was particularly reverent, the venue deserved partial credit. On this January weekend, The Ark moved the music to the University of Michigan campus where the Hill Auditorium, circa 1913, allowed for stunning acoustics and provided polished class. Thanks to a recent $38.6 million restoration, every vocal breath and nylon string tremor crystallized over nearly 4,000 seats.
Daniels, a Michigan native, brought star power — a song about his buddy Clint Eastwood helped — but he also proved a charming fingerpicker and a satirist with a mean bite. In between complaints about turning 50 and reminiscing about backseat romance in his dad’s Valiant, Daniels took his talking blues not once but many times to Capitol Hill. “Iraq’s a bloody mess/everyday another dose of killin’/and all everyone seems to care about/is Paris fuckin’ Hilton,” he sang.
The difference between both nights came down to how you defined folk. When Wainwright ruled Friday, he joined an unusual bill that included psychedelic pranksters Gandalf Murphy and the Slambovian Circus of Dreams and the Japanese taiko drummers in the Kiyoshi Nagata Ensemble. Saturday stayed traditional, from the modest bluegrass collegians in Mountain Heart to the wry storytelling of long-time folk music veteran Bill Staines.
In fact, in his white beard and khakis, Staines reflected back his audience. But despite the Burl Ives vibe, anyone expecting reverent hobo ballads would be deterred. Accompanied by Austin guitarist Brian Wood, Staines sang songs with a sly, delicate touch; they inevitably turned into singalongs by their second chorus. Interspersing stories with a comic’s timing, Staines converted every pocket of the auditorium by the end of his short set.
To the unconverted, a folk music festival can substitute for dull. The Cincinnati four-piece band Over the Rhine did not shatter expectations. Despite the beguiling vocals of Karin Bergquist, there was little mystery to the music she and partner Linford Detweiler played, which ranged from songs about snow angels to an appreciation of a man’s five o’clock shadow. Similarly, the neo-bluegrass sextet Mountain Heart proved as flat as their name. There was little sense of group unity to the music, just some expert jamming broken up by solos.
An invocation to Woody Guthrie is inevitable during weekends like these; on this stage it came courtesy of Austin singer-songwriter Terri Hendrix. She covered the blistering Guthrie screed “Pastures of Plenty” with gusto, amping up the song’s eerie forecast with gut-busting harmonica blasts and lightening strokes from accompanying steel guitar ace Lloyd Maines.
That energy transferred to the set by Paul Thorn, who received — next to John Prine — the first of only two standing ovations of the night. Thorn started his set lamenting his guitar was stolen that day, then dedicated the song, “It’s a Great Day to Whup Somebody’s Ass,” to the involved party. A rebel yell that became universal after the audience got into the act, the song became the tipping point for Thorn’s entertaining, but too brief set, filled with deadpan humor and songs built on unusual meters and personal foibles.
By the time John Prine stepped onstage, nearly four hours of music had gone by. He played an abbreviated set (just over an hour), backed by bassist Dave Jacques and guitarist Jason Wilber who filled in color as well as popping off neat houserocking solos. As a closer, the evening’s worth of musicians returned to sing “Paradise,” Prine’s obit for an eroded Kentucky coal town. As Prine traded vocals with Thorn and Staines, a picture of the festival’s enduring theme formed onstage: a community lamenting the past by singing through it.