REVIEW: Folk Fest Night One

Folk music is a broad spectrum, and there is no better showcase of that fact than The Ark’s Folk Fest. Folk is a process, an evolutionary music that is about the future as much as the past, all in the present moment. With Willy Porter emceeing the event again, he made the night go seamlessly as he shared wonderful stories and songs before introducing the next act.


Photographs by Morgan Hale

Elliott BROOD kicked off the 43rd Annual Folk Fest with some very high energy. The Canadian group gave us the typical love song and bleak song, but their unique twist on it made the music refreshing nonetheless. Rainbow Girls followed, contrasting Elliott BROOD nicely. They gave me a postmodern jukebox vibe, as the three singers crowded around the microphone and sang their mesmerizing harmonies. Their extremely clever lyrics, especially in their “love” song, “Compassion to the nth Degree,” really captured the personality of the trio, proving that their music really tackles the pursuits of social justice. With a simple guitar, upright bass, or harmonica, Rainbow Girls really captured the human experience with their acoustic sound.




Cedric Burnside was the third act, and probably one of the performers that stood out the most to me. His unorthodox hill country blues music was very percussive and rhythmic, and his stellar guitar skills had a stunning repetition and upbeat tempo that made you sway and tap your toes. He was very modest in his stage presence and did what he came to Ann Arbor to do—play amazing music. The Lone Bellow wrapped up the first half with music that was inventive and full of imagination. The trio also had stunning harmonies and a rich sound, particularly in their encore, “Loretta,” a chilling and touching song about lead singer Zach William’s daughter.

After the intermission, Ingrid Michaelson came out. Her bubbly, lively personality resulted in her telling many stories and laughing during songs, especially when she forgot how her song “Miss America” began and she needed someone in the audience to Google the lyrics for her. Joined by Allie Moss onstage, with just a ukulele and a banjo, the usual upbeat pop take on her songs were toned down, to make it more appropriate for a folk fest. Nonetheless, she made the audience come alive through laughter and performed beautifully.


Calexico + Iron & Wine was the headliner, the final act of a long night. They knew they couldn’t compete with Ingrid’s jokes and personality, so they went about with their set. There were fascinating keyboard and upright bass solos, and the mix of sounds created a soulful and melancholic atmosphere that ended the night that was filled with fabulous folk music.

REVIEW: Is This a Room

It starts with a foggy, black stage and a spotlight on a woman. That woman is Reality Winner. You may not recognize her name, but you might’ve heard her story. She leaked a document about the 2016 election to The Intercept and was arrested and sentenced to 63 months. However, as she sits in prison, Half Straddle, a New York Based-company, has kept her story alive, and they brought it to Ann Arbor in their UMS debut. 

The premise of the concept itself made the theatrical piece intriguing. With nothing to go off of but an audio transcript and the reported aftermath, I felt like there wasn’t much to the story. 

But boy was I wrong.

The tone, the body language, and the pauses—all of which were purely imagined for the stage—dictated the play more than the verbatim words. Every cough was captured, As the actors walked around the small stage, it shifted from the driveway to the backyard to room to room. And you knew that with every step they took, they were getting closer to the gripping truth. However, due to the bare staging and the nature of the script, some parts of the play were confusing as scenes shifted or we heard simply one-sided conversations. Additionally, the sudden bursts of noise and flashes of lights were unexpected, and while some of them indicated parts of the transcript that were redacted, others were unexplained, leaving the audience wondering what was being left unsaid and why things were staged a sudden way. The disorienting sounds of a synth further enhanced the thrill.

The four actors of Half Saddle conveyed the tense situation and brought the transcript to life in their imagined enactment. Emily Davis captured the nervous chuckles and humor of Reality, trying to lighten up the conversation as Pete Simpson and TL Thompson played the two special agents who acted friendly through small talk but persisted in getting the truth. Becca Blackwell played an unknown male whose role was pretty nebulous, but they seemed to alleviate the tension with their body humor. Their combined presence on the stage—making it a total of three versus Reality—seemed to corner her intimidatingly. When you realize there were eleven agents interrogating Reality in reality, the nerves conveyed in the transcript seem completely reasonable. 

“Is This a Room” is a surreal interpretation of the events that went down on June 3, 2017. And it’s a reminder that the ramifications of that day remain today.

REVIEW: A New Brain

A New Brain follows the life of Gordon Michael Schwinn, a composer who must write songs about green frogs, spring, and “yes.” SMTD delivered a wonderful performance of this one-act musical, despite some problems with the original book itself.

I walked out of the Arthur Miller Theatre amused, but also slightly confused by some of the character relations and the plot. The relationship between Gordon and his partner Roger seems tense from the beginning, and it seems to be because Roger is obsessed with sailing in the open waters and Gordon struggles to write the songs that are stuck in his head and can’t get out. Their tenuous relationship throughout the course of the musical just seemed off to me, though Luke Bove and Jack Mastrianni performed their roles wonderfully.

The minister seemed unnecessary to the whole thing, while the presence of the homeless lady also confused me a bit, since her appearances and interactions with the rest of the characters didn’t seem to add much to the rest of the musical. She consoles Roger, sells Gordon’s books, and sings a poignant song asking for change—both for physical money and social change. While that message rang true, it seemed rather out of place for this musical. However, once again, Daelynn Jorifand her powerful voice stirred lots of emotions, especially during her solo number “Change.”

Finally, moments of the plot confused me a little as well, especially as Gordon started to hallucinate or when he first fell into a coma and the progression of that. Madeline Eaton, who plays Gordon’s mom, also had a shining moment in her song, “The Music Still Plays on,” though it seemed to suggest that Gordon had actually died while he was in the coma.

Nonetheless, the stage props and transitions, as well as the creative use of the ensemble, pushed these questions to the back of my mind. Given the few problems I had with the characters and plot, the SMTD cast was exceptional, selling the whimsical humor that underlies the nature of this play. Owen Claire Smith as the Thin Nurse and James Young as the Nice Nurse contrasted each other perfectly with their sassy attitudes. Especially during numbers such as “Gordon’s Law of Genetics,” the over-the-top choreography and break from characters added much entertainment to a somber and serious topic for a musical. The idea of Gordon dying before he could get all the songs he wanted to write out into the world is a stark reality for many individuals who have so much potential, and yet life (and death) happens. Thankfully, A New Brain approaches this prospect with lots of light and energy, inspiring us to make the most out of the time we get and giving us all hope that it will work out in the end.

PREVIEW: A New Brain

As the semester wraps up, stop by the Arthur Miller Theatre tomorrow for the last performance of  A New Brain, SMTD’s production of the 1998 musical about a composer during a medical emergency. After collapsing into his lunch, composer Gordon wakes up in the hospital to find himself surrounded by friends, family, and a large green frog from the children’s show he is meant to be writing for. For just $13 with a student ID, don’t miss the matinee tomorrow at 2:00 PM.

REVIEW: Stew & The Negro Problem

Stew’s poignant prose accompanied by Heidi’s soulful melodies create songs that encourage and make you think all at the same time. It’s not until after many listens do you fully grasp all the references within the lyrics. Notes of a Native Song is an album meant to train its listeners to analyze every situation. Songs within the album are a clarion call for activism. Stew and The Negro Problem’s performance was an illustration of how songs can shine light on social injustice and inspire a generation to take action.

Stew, feeling under the weather, started by lowering our expectations, stating that the current performance could not nearly be as good as the previous night. However, halfway through the opening song, we knew that his disclaimer was not true. Stew and The Negro Problem kicked off the performance just as their studio album does with a song titled Baldwin CountryBaldwin Country gave the audience background information about James Baldwin. Stew used the song as an appetizer to sate the audience’s initial inquiries as to what the album is about and what kind of music they were about to hear for the ensuing hour.

Stew and The Negro Problem artfully lulled the audience during Istanbul. The song acted like a palate cleanser for the ears. Istanbul was followed by the thought-provoking lyrics of Amen Corner and Proof. “Jesus ain’t no match for jazz and these police.” “When the restlessness of Jesus meets the patience of Job.” “Power is so powerful it can’t afford to pay people to speak truth to it.” “Power looking ugly, Power looking mean, but never painting power so that Power’s ever seen.” These two songs have driving melodies and powerful lyrics.

Florida, Stew jested was the only political song on the album. A song in which the band plays a laid-back Californian beat while Stew compares Florida to other states in the Union. Stew suggests that no state is better than another; each state has pros and cons. But quickly follows up with “It doesn’t matter if the weather is great if I gotta wear a bulletproof vest.” The amusing comparisons and harsh criticism of Florida, made Florida my favorite song in the performance.

I was introduced to Stew last year when SMTD performed Passing Strange. The first act is a feast full of political statements and nuggets of truth not often heard aloud. It opened my eyes to musicals that have a motive other than to entertain.

Without force feeding the audience, Stew and The Negro Problem served up a well-balanced performance—one that left me full all the while leaving me to beg for more. The insightful songs and sounds of Stew and The Negro Problem inspired me, and I am thankful they returned to the University of Michigan to once again share their mighty message of a movement.

PREVIEW: Stew & The Negro Problem

In case you missed Tony Award-winning playwright and singer Stew last night, you have another chance tonight! Don’t miss out on a homage to the art and activism of James Baldwin in a music and theater experience through a contemporary commentary on Baldwin’s 1955 collection of essays on being Black in America. Notes of a Native Song is an irreverent and spirited rock ‘n’ roll song cycle that uses Baldwin’s work to explore race, love, class division, and politics through an exciting mix of rock, jazz, and soul. Catch Stew & The Negro Problem at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre tonight at 8!