39th Annual Ann Arbor Folk Fest’s second night thrills sold-out crowd

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STORY BY ROGER LELIEVRE

On night two of the annual Ann Arbor Folk Festival, it was all about the genre’s elders.

The annual musical buffet, held in Hill Auditorium and sold out Friday and Saturday, is the main fundraiser for The Ark, Ann Arbor’s nonprofit home for acoustic music and more.

Sure, the kids impressed during the first part of Saturday’s show, with deserved standing ovations for Michigan’s own The Accidentals, who opened the evening (the audience loved “Michigan and Again and Again”), and Joshua Davis of “The Voice” and Steppin In It fame. He did a fine job with his easygoing band, despite a muddy sound mix, especially on the Detroit/Flint ode “The Workingman’s Hymn.” The vocal quartet Darlingside (four guys gathered around a single mic) offered sweet, spot-on harmonies that pulled from folk, pop and barbershop traditions and earned another standing O.

Alan Doyle, best known as lead singer for Newfoundland’s beloved export Great Big Sea and touring with his more recent band, got the crowd fired up with Celtic-influenced songs like the bluesy “Testify (Take Me To The River)” and the rowdy GBS-style drinking tune “1,2,3,4” which might as well be subtitled “Whiskey Whiskey.” Much to the delight of this Great Big Sea fan, he also included the GBS song “Ordinary Day” as the capstone of his set. The only problem here was over-amplification – the vocals were on the unintelligible side, though part of the problem was probably Doyle’s charming but thick accent.

But after intermission was when the night really began to sound like a good old-fashioned folk music revival. First up was the Americana supergroup made up of guitarist Ry Cooder, country songbird Sharon White and country/bluegrass musician Ricky Skaggs. All are all-stars in their own right. As a combo, they are beyond perfection. With their set of traditional country, bluegrass, and old-time gospel music, it was like being in the presence of musical royalty.

They began with the Louvin Brothers “The Family Who Prays” and continued with Skaggs’ “Soul of a Man.” Sharon and Cheryl White showed off their amazing harmonies of “Makin’ Believe,” while the charismatic Cooder (and others, including 85-year-old pianist Buck White) showed off their solo chops on a spellbinding “Tennessee Waltz.” Merle Travis’ “Kinfolks on Carolina” also got a workout, as did Ferlin Husky’s “There’s a Big Wheel,” which closed the set.

They displayed an easy camaraderie, and looked for all the world like they had been doing this show together for years. I could have easily listened to them all night.

Then folk icon Joan Baez took the stage. What a perfect act to have cap The Ark’s 50th anniversary and this year’s Folk Festival. She may have just marked her 75th birthday, but she wears her years well, and really did sound wonderful Saturday night. She drew on a variety of composers (Woody Guthrie for “Deportee,” Richard Thompson for “She Never Could Resist a Winding Road” and The Band, of course, for “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”), accompanied on and off by her backing group (multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell and percussionist Gabriel Harris) and sweet-voiced assistant, singer/songwriter Grace Stumberg.

Looking relaxed in a plaid shirt and jeans, Baez started out with Elizabeth Cotton’s “Freight Train,” followed by Dylan’s “Silver Dagger” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” The set also included “Me and Bobby McGee,” her own classic “Diamonds and Rust,” and the traditionals “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and “The House of the Rising Sun.”

What more could a music lover who grew up with these tunes want? How about “Gracias a la Vida” or, for an encore, a touching, sing-along version of John Lennon’s “Imagine” combined with a spine-tingling “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” with some of the other night’s musicians joining her on stage.

Talk about a Folk Festival moment, and what a way to end the event, just before midnight (not that anyone seemed to care) and more than five hours after it began. I think this will go down in Folk Festival annals as one of the most memorable, and has me already looking forward to 2017’s 40thFolk Festival anniversary lineup. I can’t wait to see who they come up with for that milestone.

Many thanks to longtime Ann Arbor music reporter (and editor/publisher of “Know Your Ships”) Roger Lelievre for contributing this story to the A2ArtsAddict blog.

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