Ann Arbor Folk Festival 2014 Night 1 Report!

Tonight I was an usher at the Ann Arbor Folk Festival! Obviously, their standards are very low for who they let be ushers. Actually, I guess it’s a pretty easy so long as you know the alphabet and can count. In that case, I’m totally qualified. Anyway, several bands played! This is what I thought of them.

Appleseed Collective

Old timey with a washboard. The washboard player looked like a smelly Deadhead, the fiddle player was a hipster, and the other three people in the band looked like they were dressed up to go to a party at Jay Gatsby’s house. Hey, if you’re gonna evoke a past era, at least get on the same page about which one you’re gonna evoke, know what I’m sayin’? Unfortunately, these cosmetic banalities weren’t that much less interesting than their music. The chick banjo player/vocalist did a really unfortunate lounge jazz singer imitation on their cover of “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out.”

Thao & the Get Down Stay Down

It’s pretty freaking rare you hear any sort of novel take on the Delta blues these days, but I’ll be goddamned if I didn’t hear one tonight. The frontwoman, Thao Nguyen, alternated between banjo, pedal steel, electric hollow body guitar, and mandolin, and she had a refreshingly unorthodox approach to playing all of them. Her banjo style was a sort of irreverent, hard strumming that was closer to Johnny Ramone than Pete Seeger (whose recent death loomed over the entire night and culminated in an audience sing-along of “If I Had A Hammer” led by MC Seth Walker). And her pedal steel licks weren’t country at all; they sounded like they’d been ripped straight off an early Led Zeppelin album. Check ’em out! They’ve got their own sound! Nobody has their own sound anymore!

Willie Nile

HOLY SHIT. How have I never heard of this guy before? Apparently he’s a New York guy who’s been around since the early 80s and toured with the Who and played with Springsteen and stuff like that – which doesn’t surprise me, since his songs were, like, lost London Calling anthems straight out of that era (also straight out of that era – Willie and his band’s leather jacket-based wardrobe and personae). Granted, he only had time for four songs, two of which were covers (“Sweet Jane” and a Pete Seeger cover), but even in that brief window he totally stole the evening. And yeah, he was the only act that really cranked it the fuck up and ROCKED OUT, but still. The only negative was the fact that the lead guitarist was a clown who insisted on doing idiotic fist pumps while singing backing vocals and made hair metal-style orgasm faces every time he played a solo. He could play, though.

Pearl And The Beard

Remarkably shitty pseudo folksy hipster nonsense with a cello, three-piece drum set, electric guitar, and horrible shouty vocals, which were accentuated by the fact that they frequently attempted to sing intricate harmonies with each other. The last two songs they did were darker and rockier than the others, and thus slightly better.

Neko Case

This was the first time I’d seen the glorious Neko solo live (the only other time I saw her was with the New Pornographers in 2010), and I wish it hadn’t been in this inherently limiting setting. I’m not talking about the Hill Auditorium, which is a gorgeous venue, but the folk festival itself, which due to all the acts on the bill and the finicky temperaments of the audience (comprised mostly of aging U of M grads from Ann Arbor’s late 60s/early 70s era that just never left) demands efficiency and a certain mannered air from its performers above all else. It seemed to me like Neko and her band weren’t all that well suited to or completely comfortable within these strictures, and as a result even the more uptempo moments (the sweeping “This Tornado Loves You” and the raucous “Man,” from her latest excellent studio effort The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You… boy, that’s a mouthful, innit?) seemed somewhat restrained. However, the band definitely got into a groove as the tragically brief set progressed. And besides, it’s a fucking experience to hear Neko sing with that siren-like voice of hers. She’s truly one of the most exciting and enduring female alt rock/country/whatever voices of her generation. The Lifes Rich Pageant-y jangle of “Hold On, Hold On” and the country-tinged “Night Still Comes” were definite highlights, as was “Ragtime,” which, with its chugging power chords and bright, poppy chorus, one could easily imagine Neko singing for the New Pornographers. Arguably even more entertaining than the music was the total ladybro banter between Neko and the great Kelly Hogan, who she’s got along with her as a backup singer. “If you see me cry during the show tonight, it’s because I was thinking about the Bee Gees.” You said it.

Justin Townes Earle

He’s not his old man (that would be the legendary and incomparable Steve Earle), but he’s not trying to be. Can’t say that for many Sons of the Stars. Not that he’s trying to avoid the association, and all the trouble and pain it may hold for him – he did play “Mama’s Eyes,” which features lines like, “I am my father’s son/I’ve never known when to shut up/I ain’t fooling no one/I am my father’s son.” But Justin’s got his own thing going on. He plays a whole lotta ostensibly generic 12-bar blues, and he doesn’t even use a full band – just him and another guitar player. But somehow his warm, earnest voice, charismatic Southern gentleman persona, and especially his guitar playing manage to transcend any feeling of having heard it all before. He just has this really idiosyncratic guitar style where he’s sort of slapping at the strings and finger picking at the same time. There isn’t any dazzling technical prowess involved, really, but it’s still mesmerizing to just watch his fingers, not to mention listen to what they produce. In any case, he’s a fine songwriter too – Harlem River Blues, which features Jason Isbell on lead guitar, is highly recommended.

Iron & Wine

OK, honestly, I didn’t stick around for the headliner. My feet hurt, the only thing I’d had to eat since lunch were a handful of M&Ms, and I wanted to go home and watch Best of the Worst. He has a bushy beard and plays an acoustic guitar. That’s all I got for you.

A Crazy Guy I Met Outside a 7/11 on the Way Home

Okay, technically this wasn’t a folk festival performer. But on the way from the theater back to the parking garage, I ran into a crazy veteran guy outside 7/11 who told me, “I respect Hitler, because anyone who wasn’t productive, he got rid of. If you’re homosexual, crazy, retarded, you can’t be productive. If we did that here, we’d have a great country.” Rock on (or should I say, REICH ON), crazy guy!

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