REVIEW: Enter the Haggis at the Ark

I love the Ark. I love its hallway lined with black-and-white frames of the performers that have graced its stage in years past. I love that it’s run by volunteers who will always help you find the best seat. I love how the stage isn’t roped off or even that tall – if you’re sitting close enough you can kick back and rest your feet on the edge, feeling the vibrations of the band’s sound.

I also love the Toronto band Enter the Haggis. I found them by accident when I was in the 6th grade. I had been going through a strange Irish/Celtic rock music phase and was jamming along to my The Corrs radio station on Pandora when I first heard their song “To the Quick”. There’s something about the Highland bagpipe that is so gorgeous to me. Each note rings clear, louder than anything else surrounding it, and without any vibrato or chance to cover up what the note is. You can’t lie on the bagpipe! And the combination with fiddle and rock guitar is so interesting.

My favorite Haggis songs are “Musicbox” and “To the Quick” — two tracks off of their oldest album from 2005, and two of the few that have no lyrics. Coming to hear them live was a pretty magical way to experience those songs, but was also a great introduction to their more recent work. I could notice a few changes. I love it when bands experiment with their sound – I don’t think any creator deserves to be put in a box where they can’t change.

At the show everyone played a little bit of everything, it seemed. There were vocals and keys and guitar and drums and sometimes, spontaneous battles between the fiddle and harmonica! I sat up close to Craig Downie, who seemed to know how to play basically every music-producing thing on this planet. I do not kid when I say that Craig had his own little *table* with a spread of instruments that he would swap between at will. It was marvelous to watch him go from swinging around a giant set of bagpipes to a tiny little harmonica or piccolo to a moon-shaped tambourine. The band joked that they needed to set up a special “Craig Cam” just to follow his movements.

Craig Downie playing the Great Highland Bagpipe

 

Just before starting the last song on their set, the frontman turned toward my part of the room and said “This song is dedicated to this pair right here. They’re a mother and daughter, this is their 5th concert of ours in a row that they’ve come to – and they were late to our show tonight because they were getting MATCHING Haggis Head tattoos.” At that the pair both rolled up their sleeves to show the audience proof. It was wild. Someone to their right yelled “That there is COMMITMENT” and we rolled into the final song. Everyone in the audience was clearly there to support the band and to share that excitement with each other, and by the end nobody was standing still.

I hope that more artists find ways to play their music in smaller venues again. Big stadiums have their own kind of magic, but they can’t replicate that feeling of intimacy that comes with being so up close and personal.

REVIEW: 35th Annual Storytelling Festival

I highly recommend attending this event at some point in your life. It’ll be a chance to reflect on the media exposure you are getting and appreciate the art of language.

The event took place in the ark, in front of a stage with blue curtains. Two microphones were there; one for the MC, and one for the teller. The audience was seated surrounding the stage and the tellers exchanged the ‘shower caps’ of microphones every time they took the stage. The room was dimly lit with warm, orange lights. It was a perfect atmosphere to hear a good story-minimal visual distraction so that we could let our imagination run wild and focus on the vibration of air that hit our ears. At this stage, 6 tellers told one story each, the type of stories varied from a revision of an old folk tale (I recalled hearing a story in a similar twist in the Talmud), some point in the border between a joke and real life, and humorous reminiscence of moments just a few days ago or a few decades ago. In all, the tone of stories had humor and drama to them, the two great components that captures our attention. It was a combination, a tasting menu of stories to give the audience a taste of the art of storytelling.

I loved the atmosphere of the event – It was like Youtube, but without any visuals and distractions. I realized that I forgot what it was like to listen to a good story. When you hear a good story from a storyteller, you enter this state of trance where you are running a mental film inside of your head guided by the story you are hearing. This lone light of guidance in the vast night of possibilities is a feeble but powerful one: the teller’s voice and rhythm of speech shape the story yet lead enough room for imagination to fill the gaps. As I listened to the tellers, I realized how distracted I was when I was hearing a story with so many ‘visual aids’ and ‘recommended videos’ in a queue. Words from a life story made the audience focus on every word because we could not go back a few seconds to catch what they missed.

With those chaotic distractions eliminated, finally, the pauses, the tone of voice, speed, and rhythm of speech got the attention it deserved. The language was once again more than just the meaning of the text it conveys, the wisdom we forget so easily in modern life. 90 minutes was enough to provoke all those musings and re-appreciation of language. Curious about the event? You’re in luck: the recording of the event is uploaded in youtube. Also, this is an annual event with a long history! So next winter, when you’re stacking your hot cocoa for the winter, look up the news of this event as well-it’ll make you feel cozy on a winter night, maybe even better than hot chocolate.

REVIEW: 44th Ann Arbor Folk Fest

Day one of The Ark’s 44th Ann Arbor Folk Fest was a perfectly calming mix of tunes to send me drifting out of the busy work week and into the peaceful weekend. The lineup was made up of both live and recorded performances from local and traveling musicians. Many had played at The Ark before (way back when, I know), recalling the time and hoping for its return. This was a good replacement while we wait for the world to catch up.

 First up was The Accidentals, veterans of The Ark stage.  Their vocals were light and airy, while the strings pulled at you to feel some connection between you and your insides, or your home, or some other familiar place. “Michigan and Again” was my favorite from them; I grew up here taking the state’s majesty for granted. This song let me relive and respect my childhood for the awe of nature it gave me, inspiring my future in environmental science.

 Ron Pope struck me in how intimately he treated the performance, even though he couldn’t see anyone in the audience. He would talk between songs, not in the pretentious way of an experienced performer (though he is), but actually genuinely, despite it being one-sided. He has a new album out called Bone Structure, from which he played a few songs. As he sang “My Wildest Dreams” it felt like he was looking right at me; I had to stop putting away my laundry and lay flat out on my bed so I could focus on the gentle rising of my sinuses and tear ducts. People who can make you cry from nothing are powerful–I’m lucky that Ron Pope uses this benevolently, with a tender voice and calm energy.

Amythyst Kiah was nothing but smooth, with a very nice, echoey mic. She told us that she dreamed the melody to one of the songs, something that’s only happened to me once or twice despite a lifetime of piano playing. Her voice is big, but it fits into little cracks and crevices of tone, bouncing lightly from high to low.

 It was just nice to be (virtually) around Willie Watson as he played songs in his workshop (he’s also a maker of quality jeans and shirts). You can tell from his music and the way he talks that he is soft and kind. He goes about folk music in the quintessential, storytelling way, and seems to live in that exact vein. Upbeat and soulful in how he puts short, full yells and yodels in with such ease.

 The War and Treaty duo went together so nicely, and the  comforting, melodic, low thrum of the piano felt like many more voices. It felt religious, peaceful, calm, deep. The high and low tones of their voices could not fit together better if they were the same person–it’s no wonder the two are a married couple. The dynamics of the songs are interesting in their complex give and take form, like their voices are dancing with each other, sometimes leading and sometimes melting together.

If you missed out on the folk fest, worry not; their virtual calendar is packed with several amazing shows every week.

PREVIEW: 44th Ann Arbor Folk Fest

The Ark is a staple of our community, Ann Arbor’s #1 source for all things acoustic! But it’s been a hard year for live music, to say the least. This year’s annual Ann Arbor Folk Fest will be held online this year, with ticket and merch sales going towards fundraising to keep this beautiful venue kicking for years to come.

The two-day event begins Friday, January 29th at 6pm and continues through the evening, with a second group of artists performing during the same hours on Saturday. I’ll be going Friday, but both nights will undoubtedly be lots of fun! Sets are around 30 minutes and feature artists of recognition and up-and-coming nature. It’s a great night to experience an at-home concert with your roommates; still a wonderful musical event, with the added benefit of being able to show up in your pajamas.

Get your tickets (with package options that include Ark merch from event t-shirts to mugs) here:

44th Annual Ann Arbor Folk Festival

REVIEW: Joe Henry

 

What else is Joe Henry but a gentle-voiced being…I say that because from what I now know about him,–the way he thinks about circumstance and relationships with people and places–he would probably offer no lengthier description of himself.

“I don’t mind a reasonable amount of trouble,” he says, after composing a metaphor equating stage 4 prostate cancer to worrying about an infestation of ants in the house. He addresses the experience with honest humility, but reminds us exactly how much he doesn’t care to split the disease from himself; well-meaning fan mail referencing the cancer-as-battle trope were grating rather than inspiring. Fighting his own body is an illogical concept to him. Instead, he sees a reconfigurations of his total identity into another form, one that is not assignably positive or negative.

But he swings through this part of his between-songs soliloquy comparatively quickly to what he prefers to focus on: the etymological history of his music. Sure, the influence of his illness bleeds into his most recent album (The Gospel According to Water), but there is not notably more soulful reflection now than compared to his earlier works. He has always been an introspective character, aspiring to make music that sounds like poetry. There is heavy use of similes and metaphors, comparing distant emotional environments and objects rather than pointing out differences.

What has changed is his dedication to unclenching his grip on control. A quick perusal of his older music shows lyrics rooted in emotions a little more vicious in nature, and a little more certain in his knowledge:

“Notice how I vanish
And your world remains,
You show your head above it
For spite, nothing more,
Like you thought just living
Was somehow its own reward.” (From “Mean Flower” off his 2001 album Scar.)

Even his album titles have gotten progressively gentler, from titles like Fuse and Scar to Shine a Light and Thrum. He has grown not exactly passive, but more understanding of the connection between himself and the other floating things of the world. He rejects distinct separation in favor of greater fluidity. I would argue still that this is not simply an effect of being faced with a likely, rapid death; he is not old, but he is not so young–staring down one’s mortality whether it be through a violent illness or passing painlessly is a strongly altering experience.

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He’s kind of the love child of Alex Turner and Leonard Cohen, soft in tone but can sometimes border on over-stylized. He has an electric voice but one that’s well-insulted by a cocoon of soft rubber. Usually he deals in the lower pitches, which works well for those whose youth is becoming a memory. He doesn’t try for any falsetto nonsense, which almost never works out well for men of a certain age. This decision aligns with his philosophies, in which he prioritizes acceptance rather than making things a fight. I was coming from church before the show, the sermon about giving into thine enemies, turning the other cheek and whatnot. Given his own dedication to Christianity, it makes sense that he would draw upon such readings to form the basis for his newest tunes.

I encourage you to go through his discography for yourself on his Spotify page, and to peruse his website to learn more about what he’s been up to.

Note: photo credit for featured image is:

Hamilton, Jacob. Mlive.com, MLive, Ann Arbor, 21 Feb. 2020, https://www.mlive.com/news/j66j-2020/02/dfc471b5873850/harry-potter-and-storytelling-festival-5-things-to-do-in-ann-arbor-feb-2123.html.

PREVIEW: Joe Henry

Henry has had a long life in the musical world, shaped not only by his work with great artists, but by the personal turmoil in his life. His recent dance with cancer has ended for now, and it will be interesting to see how his closeness to and command over death influences his work and how he takes risks in it. He’s worked on albums with countless famous musicians, but he holds a humbleness unique to a person who has directly faced his mortality.

Take a listen to his tunes posted to Spotify to get a sense of the kind of evening we’ll be enjoying together.

General admission is $25. Tickets are available online or in-person at The Ark (up to 75 minutes before doors open) or the Michigan Union Ticket Office (530 S State).

Doors are 7:00 PM on Sunday, February 23, and the show begins at 7:30. The Ark’s address is 316 S Main.