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Best Fest?

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Ann Arbor Folk Festival was a series of surprises and high points

"Leave the singalongs for those with no shame..." -from "E-chord" by Uncle Bonsai




Had the Bonsais made it to this year's Ann Arbor Folk Festival, they would have found things shameless indeed, as a crowd of over 3,800 humans, one guide dog and one bat (more on this later) gathered in Hill Auditorium to experience what some veteran observers thought to be the best festival ever.

Yes, someone can usually be found to say that every year but it was clear from the minute the line-up for the 13th annual fundraiser for the Ark was announced that this wasn’t going to be your average tour d horizon of the contemporary folk world.

Unlike previous years, which tended to offer an equal mix of new acts and familiar performers, on the whole, this fest's roster was crammed with familiar faces: Joel Mabus, Josh White Jr., Robin and Linda Williams, Loudon Wainwright III, Michael Hedges, Free Hot Lunch and emcee Owen McBride have all made at least a couple of appearances in town in the last couple of years. But for a show in which 70 percent of the talent were know quantities, and in which there were a, well, shameless number of singalongs, there was still plenty of the shock of recognition that you are seeing something special. Unlike the majority of folk festivals, which run several days and encourage a languid, we've-got-all-the-time-in-the-world attitude, the Ann Arbor Folk Festival is a tightly organized, intensely competitive pseudo-athletic event in front of one of the most demanding and attentive-yet enthusiastic-audiences in any form of music.

For this critic, the Folk Fest isn't a whole to be remembered in toto, but rather a series of surprises and high points.  Each festival is made up of those moments when the unusual occurs and are frozen in your memory. So, while Alison Krause and Union Station turned in a set of unamplified bluegrass that was intellectually admirable, Robin and Linda Williams were their usual cheerful selves yet seemed slightly overwhelmed, and Joel Mabus kicked off the show perhaps better than anyone in recent memory with a solid set of instrumental virtuosity, what one remembers out of the 13th Ann Arbor Folk Festival are scenes like these...

■ Free Hot Lunch (6:40 p.m.) This bunch of cutups from Wisconsin ("a comic trio,” observed emcee McBride drily, “but there’s four, so that’ll tell you somethin’ ”) jolted this critic to attention during their second song when, in the middle of a typically goofey variation of a song in which a man weeps over the Oreo cookies that are the only thing his departed love left behind, the Lunch bunch broke into flawless Chordettes-style harmonies a la “Mr. Sandman.” The audience whooped it up — until, that is, they pulled a similar stunt in two more songs afterward, reducing the surprise to anticipation of which 50s harmony classic they'd turn up with next.

■ Josh White Jr. (8:04 p.m.) If the urge to sing along is shameless, White is irretrievably exhibitionist, but after guiding the audience through several pleasant if typical variations on the “think positive” motif which serves as the foundation for his art and life, he closed his set with Bill Withers’ “Lean On Me.” Rediscovered by choirs, campfire sings and movie producers after languishing as a forgotten “oldie” for more than a decade, White’s choice seemed like sheer audience manipulation, until, that is, the audience caught hold of the gorgeous, simple melody and began producing spine-tingling vibrato and harmonies, and brought it to a close with a couple of audience members soloing on the final words “call me” with a flourish that professional gospel singers would envy. It reminds you that the audience is at least as important to this show as the performers and, on occasion, becomes the star without a spotlight.

■ Alain "Batman" Lamontagne (8:26 p.m.)  The first of three new acts to be introduced to the festival, Quebec native Lamontagne charmed and excited the crowd with a hypertense combination of chromatic harmonica shenanigans (producing the sound of everything from a button accordian to a church organ to a trumpet fanfare from his mouth organ) and the stage persona of a noir pixie — huffing, puffing, clogging while sitting down and addressing the crowd in earnest broken English. The audience was delighted by the whimsical combination of musical virtuosity and such musical topics as raucous elegy for a pet dog who chased cars — and caught them. But this critic has to confess that — although he seems to be alone in the opinion — it was one of the silliest things I ever saw in my life and found it quite apropos when a bat began flying around inside Hill Auditorium. This is a first, apparently, but this Phantom of the Folk Fest couldn't have appeared at a better time.

■ Loudon Wainwright III (9:36 p.m.) Here, audience and critic agree, the appearance of the acerbic singer/songwriter was a change of pace bordering on the essential. In songs that take such ordinary events as moving, getting through each day, family holiday get-togethers and explaining the breakup of a marriage to one’s offspring, Wainwright had the audience’s attention riveted with the timing and delivery of a stand-up comic as he mixed hard truths, tender emotions, painful recollections and those phrases we all wish we could come up with. Frankly after so much pure musicianship, political correctness and Dale Carnegiesque sweetness and light, Wainwright's charming modus operandi of venom and agony cleverly disguised with wit and melody provided a refreshing palate cleaner for everybody.

■ Michael Hedges (10:15 p.m.) There were a couple of song problems and, during an intense moment, Hedges broke a string and proceeded to perform the fastest change (48 seconds) this critic has ever seen. But in some cases, a little adversity works to a performer’s advantage, and Hedges may have missed a stride here and there, but it would be impossible to call his 28-minute set anything but astonishing. Whether you've seen him before or were new to his guitar virtuosity, Hedges either stunned you to silence or provoked whooping and whistling. He did a couple of old favorites, but the most exciting material was from his forthcoming "Taproot” album, which comes complete with a fable and bizarre characters, but distills what Hedges does musically to the essence of his mastery.

■ Sweet (and sour) Honey in the Rock — and friends (10:51 p.m.) By the time Wainwright and Hedges were done with the audience. they were tired but happy. But don’t think for a minute that the six “singers” (five vibrant voices and one sign language interpreter who is at least as eloquent with her hands) of Sweet Honey in the Rock were going to let the crowd sit back and relax. In a 40-minute set that included the Beatitudes, rapping, Chicago blues arid spirituals — and closed with everybody onstage for a dramatic, deliberately paced version of “Midnight Special," Sweet Honey took its position as festival closer seriously indeed. Notice was served during the group’s second song when group leader Bernice Johnson Reagon warned the sluggish audience that they were going to learn the mournful slave song “Run Mona Run” and produce harmonies if it took all night. The audience rose to the stern chiding and the results were a joy.

It was a great show, obviously, and for those cynical enough to look at the bottom line, one marvels that they don’t double the price of tickets — the Ark could sure use the money and it’d still be a bargain. But to call this the best festival ever? Well, let’s just call it a worthy successor to all those other "best fests" and marvel at the show that gets more impressive every year, and to not enjoy something like that would be, well, shameful.

THE ANN ARBOR FOLK FESTIVAL. The Ark and the Office of Major Events of the University of Michigan presented the 13th Ann Arbor Folk Festival in Hill Auditorium Saturday night.


Free Hot Lunch performs at the Ann Arbor Folk Festival.

Owen McBride was the festival's emcee.