ANN ARBOR – When it comes to folk music, we would argue that Oscar Isaac said it best in "Inside Llewyn Davis," a 2013 film about a folk singer in 1961 trying to make it big: "If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it's a folk song." Simply put, if you love the mixture of old and new, classic and modern, you will not want to miss this year's Ann Arbor Folk Festival, the annual fundraiser for The Ark, which returns to the University of Michigan’s Hill Auditorium on Friday and Saturday at 6:30 p.m.
The master of ceremonies this year is Joe Pug, who became a folk sensation in the early 2010s and has come back in a major way in the last year with his album "Windfall." The theme of resilience played an important part in the album's creation.
"I never really write songs with a specific narrative in mind," Pug said. "When you're sort of pushing through a dark period of your life, it's probably inevitable that some of that is going to find its way onto the page."
Headlining Friday night's show is Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit, recently reunited for their latest album, "The Nashville Sound," which amplifies Isbell's already stellar storytelling ability with a variety of sounds and moods. A native of northern Alabama, Isbell is an example of how musical influences can help an artist evolve and mature. His sound is part of that evolution and is, according to The Ark, "equal parts loud and thoughtful, Southern and worldly." Find out what that means on Friday night.
Other musicians performing on Friday include JJ Grey and Mofro, a band that comes to Ann Arbor from just outside Jacksonville, Florida, whose songs are at once vivid, personal and universal; Lori McKenna, whom The Ark refers to as an artist who "puts a magnifying glass on un-championed lives" and is a master at chronicling the small, difficult moments between romantic partners as they navigate their relationships; Stephen Kellogg, whose music is Americana-tinged, sometimes folk, often rock, and is, according to CBS Radio, "the best live act you've never seen"; Dead Horses, a folk band consisting of vocalist/guitarist Sarah Vos and vocalist/bassist Daniel Wolff, who have crafted a timeless sound informed by Americana and traditional roots music; and Chastity Brown, a banjo-playing soul singer who has been called "a rocking, rolling encyclopedia of roots music."
On Saturday, two-time Grammy award-winner John Prine headlines the evening of music, bringing with him the songs that have become central to our American musical heritage, including "Angel From Montgomery," "Sam Stone," "Paradise" and "Hello in There." Prine has become not just a well-loved and appreciated songwriter. At this point, he is considered an American treasure. His ability to reach the heart of any listener is an amazing gift and one that makes his performance a must-see.
Another artist we're quite excited to see on Saturday is Aimee Mann, the Los Angeles singer-songwriter whose latest album, "Mental Illness," is one she herself considers the "saddest, slowest, most acoustic" recording she could create. Allmusic calls it an album that "finds reassurance within the darkest corners," which is why, we would argue, seeing her perform live is nothing short of pure excellence.
Other performers on Saturday include Mountain Heart, a bluegrass band that has been fearlessly revolutionizing the way acoustic music can be presented and played and whose name is synonymous with cutting-edge excellence in bluegrass circles; Birds of Chicago, the duo of Allison Russell and JT Nero who draw heavily on gospel tradition; The Cactus Blossoms, a duo consisting of siblings Page Burkum and Jack Torrey, who were rasied on rock and pop but who have always had a fondness for old-time country and folk tunes; and The War and Treaty, a band from Albion, Michigan, whose name represents the pull between trauma and tranquility, which itself represents music inspired by darkness and despair that ultimately finds a higher spiritual purpose.
Check out more Ann Arbor events on the A4 Community Calendar
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