Highlights from night one of the 39th annual Ann Arbor Folk Festival

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STORY BY ROGER LELIEVRE

One thing you can always count on at the annual Ann Arbor Folk Festival, a fundraiser for the much-loved downtown acoustic music venue The Ark, is that you’re guaranteed two nights of great music, even if you’ve never heard of some of the bands on the bill.

This year’s Folk Festival – the 39th annual, and marking the end of The Ark’s 50-year celebration – kicked off Friday in Hill Auditorium.

Among Friday’s performers, City and Colour had previously played the Folk Festival in 2013. Revered British singer/guitarist/songwriter Richard Thompson has countless local appearances to his credit. Yo La Tengo has been performing around these parts for nearly three decades, and the Ben Daniels Band is from neighboring Chelsea.

But The Oh Hellos, Nora Jane Struthers & The Party Line or Penny & Sparrow? Never heard of them? Well, that’s kind of the point. With the Ann Arbor Folk Festival, it’s as much about the bands and performers you know as those you don’t. If you go, you’re bound to find some new favorites, and most of them will be returning to The Ark for full shows later in the year.

For me, one litmus test of the Folk Festival lineup is which of the bands made a big enough impression that I would be willing to catch them solo. So who made the cut?

I liked the group The Oh Hellos (siblings Tyler and Maggie Heath, plus a revolving cast of musicians) a lot. Citing influences as far-flung as “Fleet Foxes and Sufjan Stevens to the Middle East and the Muppets,” their sound is a delightful mashup of eclectic folk rock. Energetic, quirky and percussion-heavy, the current nine-member line-up will have a hard time fitting on The Ark’s stage.

For my concert partner, it was the folk duo Penny & Sparrow (Texan pals Andy Baxter and Kyle Jahnke). Comparisons to Bon Iver or Mumford and Sons abound, and it’s easy to see why, with their stripped-down sound and powerful harmonies. Baxter in particular has a voice that’s at turns soaring (“I Love You”) and gut-wrenching (a killer cover of “I Fall to Pieces”).

We both agreed Nora Jane Struthers & The Party Line, with its toe-tapping mix of country, rockabilly, rock, bluegrass and folk would also be a worthwhile gig to catch. Songs such as “Let Go” and “Don’t Care” showed off Struthers’ pipes and got the audience going after the more mellow Penny & Sparrow left the stage (a banjo at a folk festivial… imagine that!).

Alt-rock institution / indie darlings Yo La Tengo, another act that’s played often in Ann Arbor, offered up a cooler-than-cool set of tunes, including their covers of The Cure’s “Friday I’m In Love” and Devo’s “Bottled Up,” from their covers-and-more album “Stuff Like That There.” Some might find drummer and vocalist Georgia Hubley’s ethereal, somewhat tentative vocals a bit off-putting, but clearly not the Folk Festival crowd, which clearly loved the Hoboken, N.J. group.

Headliner City and Colour (Canadian musician Dallas Green), who was at the Folk Festival as a solo act in 2013, brought a band with him this time to offer songs from a well-received new CD, including the title track, “If I Should Go Before You.” As tight as he and the band were, I felt Green’s inward-looking lyrics got lost in the mix ­–and perhaps some vocal overamplification – Friday night. Step back from mic Dallas, step back from the mic.

English folk icon Richard Thompson was just the opposite, offering a terrific, standing-ovation-worthy set that included (for those of you who keep track of such things) “One Door Opens,” “I Misunderstood,” “Dimming of the Day,” “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” “Johnny’s Far Away,” “Valerie,” “Stony Ground” and “The Ghost of You Walks.” His set also included “Beatnick Walking” and “Josephine,” from the new CD “Still.” Thompson has played Ann Arbor more times over the years than one can count – how could I have possibly not seen him live until now? Shame on me!

The Ben Daniels Band (yes, Ben is son of actor/musician and Chelsea man-about-town Jeff Daniels) got the evening going with short set of originals, some from the band’s sixth CD, “Roll.” Since I last caught the BDB, Daniels’ wife Amanda has been added to the lineup, her voice a sweet counterpoint to Ben’s bluesy pipes.

Ark Executive Director Marianne James also took the stage to tell the crowd that the night’s show was sold out, with the same happy circumstances applying to Saturday night’s event, featuring headlining folk icon Joan Baez.

Since The Ark makes a good chunk of its annual operating revenue from the Folk Festival, that’s news worth singing about.

The second night of the Ann Arbor Folk Festival happens Saturday, January 30 at Hill Auditorium. Many thanks to longtime Ann Arbor music/arts reporter Roger Lelievre for contributing this recap for A2ArtsAddict, and thanks also to The Ark for providing photos for the story.

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