The Ann Arbor Art Fair means free music and tonight, I snuck down the street long enough to snack on tamales and a disintegrating gyro, while listening to tunes by Captain Ivory. These five lads from Detroit churned out chunky, bluesy roots rock. Crazy folks were dancing in the street, oblivious to the heat.
This week at work was, well, the puckered end of an ugly dog, and I’d considered hiding in bed rather than seeing Brown Bird at The Ark. I am glad I made the effort because the show revived my trampled spirit. Going into the show, all I really knew was that Brown Bird smoked through their set at the Ann Arbor Folk Festival. Their tone was dark; their music serious. These were no bullshit performers and I was hooked.
The warm-up band One Bad Tooth did not suck, no not at all, though an annoying buzz haunted their set like a drunken heckler. Their frontman was hip and jovial, introducing band members as “that guy, oh and that guy” when they joined him onstage. Instrumentation was a finger plucked hollow body guitar, a fiddle and a banjo and drums. As I told them in the merch area after the show, I don’t usually like bands with drummers but theirs, heck, I didn’t mind. They managed a nice interplay of textures on their pieces, melody overlaid with haunting obligato and churning rhythm underneath. Good stuff so check them out on BandCamp:
Brown Bird were a simply revelation. David Lamb and MorganEve Swain worked as true duo complementing each other’s performance with a bit of percussion here, a subtle line of harmony there and throughout a sense of mastery and freshness. It was like witnessing a high level musical conversation between two fully engaged participants. Their stage presence was friendly and warm without being chatty.
And they rocked. Performers like Brown Bird who display an innate sense for complex rhythms form the basis for my snarky prejudice against drummers, noted earlier. Their pieces were driving, rocking at times but never quite predictable. I wasn’t the only audience member dancing in my seat, so to speak. I get the same egghead pleasure listening to Brown Bird that I get from “math rock,” those brainiac metal bands who obsess over weird time signatures. Let me be clear: this is high praise.
But their beats weren’t their only innovation. The melodies were dark and intriguing. MyDearPatner asked later if all their music was minor and I had to say, they were minor, modal and everywhichway in between. I’ve forgotten all that music theory my grade-school piano teacher tried to impart so I can’t explain why but the melody lines were captivating, intriguing, like something barely overheard, “what was that again?”
I realize it’s a strange thing for a writer to admit but lyrics are quite literally the last thing I notice in music. Brown Bird’s songs, however, seem crafted and intentional. Repetition supports the meaning rather than merely extending the running time. After the week of drama and trauma at my workplace, might I note that I particularly enjoyed “Fingers to the Bone” off their Salt for Salt album. These feel like songs unearthed from a family crypt on an old stone-clotted farm, both timeless and vital.
I grabbed three of their discs after the show since I’ll want to re-play these memories for quite awhile. Even better, I got a poster of the gloriously surreal cover image from their latest, Fits of Reason. On Monday morning, I will drive the point of a thumbtack into the drywall of my cubicle and unfurl this poster like declaration, fair notice to all co-workers and managers alike: Don’t Tread on Me. Or at least, with Brown Bird playing in my earbuds, I’ll make it through another week.
The format for the Ann Arbor Folk Festival, if I dig it correctly, is the first night presents acts that mess with any fusty old interpretation of “folk” music while second night settles back and celebrates all the best of what hand-crafted, traditional music can be. What a celebration it was.
Before taking offense at the candor of my comments, check out my musical predilections that prefaced my review of the first evening. Take as your mantra “Your Mileage May Vary” as you peruse these remarks but I think it goes without saying that, clocking in at over four hours, the Ann Arbor Folk Festival remains fantastic value for money. This weekend The Ark exposed me to at least four new acts that I am definitely planning to follow.
Drew Nelson is the real deal, an honest song writer in the country vein. His direct songwriting addresses the personal impact of real world topics and I’m a sucker for that approach. Drew seemed comfortable and confident onstage and his brief inter-song comments revealed a guy I think I’d like to drink a beer with while discussing curent events.
Frank Fairfield was a delightful curiousity, perfectly portraying an eccentric almost bumbling afficianando of traditional music. He trundled onstage with an armfull of instruments and rambled away at a homey introduction that won my heart. Frank picked up his fiddle and started sawing away, intially with a carefree rhythm but building masterfully through a series of jigs that had my Celtic heart dancing. His set was an antique cabinet of wonders and a living testament to how gosh darn fun old-timey music can be. My second favorite performer of the night.
Steel Wheels, a zesty four-man string band, harmonized into one mic — need I say more? Maybe just a bit. Perhaps it’s a gimmick but it sure felt like an authentic technique with these fellows. Excellent handcrafted music like that made by Steel Wheels depends on sensitive listening and the ability to “self-mix” while singing parts is essential. “Rain in the Valley” I think is the name of song that sticks in my brain. Note to self: Hats are cool.
My Dear Loving Partner loves Dar Williams but to honest, her music never clicked with me that is, not until last night when I saw her perform. I’m sure part of the new-found appeal I discovered is based on her winsome, non-pretentious stage presence but truth be told, I was wowed over by the nerdy-goodness of her songs based on Greek mythology. I just gotta track down those recordings. Her last song about Storm King Mountain was particularly luminous.
Brother Joscephus and the Love Revolution Orchestra did absolutely everything right, but still left me unmoved. I had the overwhelming sense of watching a Broadway musical about 1970’s era tent revivals, so slick and pitch perfect but clapped between quotation marks. This perception is most likely a failing on my part, perhaps my miserable cold, because I surely can’t fault any particular part of their performance and I know the audience was absolutely on fire. The brass section entered raucously through the back of the auditorium and winded its way onstage, a simple but honest ploy to build excitment. When they assembled onstage, they were joined by Brother Joscephus, a larger than life frontman who led the massive band through a series of pulsing, soulful tunes. For someone like me who prides himself on being postmodern and so oh ironic, I am particularly sad to say I just didn’t get Brother Joscephus. I was likely the only one in the crowd who didn’t though.
I have a soft spot in my heart for Lucinda Williams and from my totally biased perspective, she did not disappoint. While she endured technical difficulties, the audience serenaded her with “Happy Birthday.” After the delay, she attacked her set with a gritty, almost grouchy fierceness. Those seeking sugary sweet consolation need to look elsewhere. This is the real world. Sure, sure, sure there were flaws in the performance but damn, I got my money’s worth just watching her short collection of tunes.
“Copenhagen” by Lucinda Williams
The Head and The Heart, I am sad to report, took the stage just my cold medicine started to wear off. A couple of their tunes sounded familiar and this relatively large ensemble certainly performed with confidence and power. But my spirit was already drifitng back to my sick bed so I feel awkward attempting any substantive commentary.
Somehow My Dear Loving Partner shipped my carcass home safely and installed it beneath warm covers. The angels in my fever dreams repeated sweet, sweet echoes from the 36th Annual Ann Arbor Folk Festival. Another year, another blessing.
Written into my will is the provision that if I die while holding tickets to the Ann Arbor Folk Festival, my remains will be propped in my chair so I can enjoy it one last time. This year, I came perilously close to exercising this provision due to a condition I’ve dubbed “The Death Cold” which has persisted in my head and lungs since shortly after Hallowe’en. I am happy to report that two nights of hand-crafted music were just what the doctor ordered.
Full disclosure: these are my highly idiosyncratic reflections of these two wondeful evenings. My tastes tend toward what Laurie Anderson described as “difficult listening.” For calibration’s sake, my personal musical highpoint of last year, for instance, was the University Musical Society revival of “Einstein on the Beach” that glorious, four-hour weird operatic work of Robert Wilson and Phillip Glass. I like my culture chunky, chewy and difficult to digest. But I also appreciate polish, showmanship, craft and the willingness of a performer to gratify an audience. At one end is “steak” and the other “sizzle” with no value judgement beyond taste weighing either end. My Dear Loving Partner and I are members of The Ark – the sponsoring venue of the Folk Festival – because it reliably delivers entertainment that is both intriguing and nourishing.
The MC for the evenings was Colin Hay, a performer forever doomed to be known as the former frontman for “Men at Work.” I confess that during the 80’s, that band could have been my musical nemesis, vacuously pleasant pop that hence was overplayed on commercial radio. It was a hard sell for me but, damn it, Colin nailed it. I caught myself humming one of his songs in the shower this morning, for goodness’ sake. He knows how to pluck a guitar and his tunes are wistful, sensitive reflections on life and there’s hardly much wrong with that, is there?
The first performer, Carl Broemel, got down to business with a tight set of tunes featuring, to my mind, a masterful use of the digital delay. Carl recorded and overdubbed passages and rhythms live on his guitar and slide that he then was able to pop into and out of quite seamlessly. (Amateurs on the digital delay let the loops drone on too long, IMHO.) The couple sitting next to us clucked their tongues at what they suspected was lip syncing but Carl actually made a tricky technique seem simple. The high point of his set, for me, was his witty rendition of “Lolly Pop” adding a layer of harmony to the chorus on each repetition.
I’d heard good things about Frontier Ruckus but didn’t know exactly what to expect. To be brutally honest, I was afraid they’d be a slightly precious “college band” but they turned in a solid performance, even attempting an un-miked number to test the fabled acoustics of Hill Auditorium. From what I could tell of the lyrics, the song and verse structures themselves were intriguing with buried rhymes and almost rambly sentment and line length.
Brown Bird were probably my favorite act of the first night of the Festival, but given my predilections, that’s no surprise. Gutsy, sometimes gutteral, spare and dark, this duo of a seated guitar and stand-up bass performed a tight set of balls-out gritty tunes probably a good choice for a revue type show such as the Folk Festival. I would like to hear what they do with slower, more introspective pieces. I will definitely be in attendance when Brown Bird flies back to the Ark later this year. Note to self: I shaved off my chest length beard a year too early. All the young hipsters seem to sport them nowadays.
When I glory in the sizzle of Delta Rae, please do not hear it as a criticism. These half dozen vibrant young performers were fully conscious of their presence onstage and disciplined every drop of their youthful zeal to churn out a performance that was both polished and authentic. I had the sense that these positive and professional younguns had perfected their chops while performing in church, the wellspring of so much great Ameican music. In the days before pyrotechnics and digital projections, bands had to captivate audiences with purely musical means, and Delta Rae is well practiced in these classic techniques. They used a shiny metal trashcan as percussion, for cryin’ it out loud. The tune “If I Love You” in particular was a great example of soulful, passionate, gospel tinged awsomeness. In my estimation first evening’s most enjoyable blend of sizzle and steak, Delta Rae rocked.
“Dance in the Graveyards” by Delta Rae
A brief intermission allowed me to suck a cough drop, stretch my legs and rub elbows with a fellow music lover who clued me into the utterly fantastic story of Rodriguez. Seriously, check it out. I usually try to exclude extra-musical information but wow, in this case knowing a few background details made his performance infinitely richer. Rodriguez was the oldest performer on the bill and was escorted onstage with the honor befiting a dignitary. His music channeled a different time, a time when music could be about love and politics, perhaps a bit repetitive and psychedelic, when difficult social problems could be confronted with little more than hope and optimism.
Trampled by Turtles, damn, I rather enjoyed them. They felt like a rock and roll band who accidentally picked up old timey instruments and I mean that as a compliment. Their chops were competent, sure, but they seemed to approach acoustic music unencumbered by past traditions. Their tunes were fresh and boisterous, snapshots from a musical journey still an adventure for the performers. If they were the house band at the local bar, I’d be a drunkard for sure.
Curmedgeon alert: I rarely enjoy the headliner at the Folk Festival. City and Color was, by that measure, pretty good. His between song patter was unaffected and engaging which made him seem personable. I have to give him special props for performing a song about night terrors. It just wasn’t my thing, which isn’t to say I might react differently if I encountered his work in a different context. I was feverish, achy and congested, remember.
A sparkling dust of snow had fallen while we were inside and My Dear Loving Partner bundled me up against the cold and freighted me back to my sick bed, the warming glow of the 36th Annual Folk Festival still pulsing through my system.