REVIEW: Ann Arbor Folk Festival Night One

When David Mayfield first came out onto the stage on Friday night, it was an understatement to say I was majorly confused. He started talking and making jokes, so at first I thought he was there to introduce the first act. But then out of nowhere he received a guitar and started playing and singing a song, and I was really confused. Was this The Ben Daniels Band? Was this the opening act before Ben Daniels?

This was my first experience at the 39th Ann Arbor Folk Festival, something I’d been waiting for since December when I got my ticket. When I was in high school, I sat on my bed and listened to a simple song called “The Girl” over and over until I needed more, and finally, I’d get to see the singer/songwriter live. But even though I was thrilled to see City & Colour headline, I was more excited to have the opportunity to see the Ann Arbor Folk Festival at all, since it was something I’ve been hearing about since I started going to school here.

It definitely did not disappoint. Though the seats were nowhere near to being filled, The Ben Daniels Band definitely started off things right. Although it was more country influenced than I usually prefer, I still enjoyed the upbeat songs, and was definitely a great start to the night. Their set really picked up around the third song, which saw Ben trade his electric guitar for an acoustic. The singer also told the audience it was a love song, already a crowd-pleaser, and also informed us it’s been five months since she married Ben, getting a hearty applause. Although opening for so many bands can be rough, they set the tone for the night that all the other acts had to match.

Next up was Penny and Sparrow, a duo from my home state of Texas that I absolutely adored. Simply coming out with one guitar, I was amazed at how quickly I fell in love with their music. It was definitely a change of pace, as all their songs were slow and quite melancholy, but it definitely showcased one of the strengths of the folk festival – no two artists sounded the same. By balancing the upbeat Ben Daniels Band with the slower Penny and Sparrow, the night never became too slow or too fast or too country or too anything. Penny and Sparrow definitely surprised me the most, and I walked away that night a new fan.

After Penny and Sparrow, Nora Jane Struthers and the Party Line was a fresh change from the male dominated bands previously. She also kicked up the tempo, delighting and engaging the audience well. This was the part of the night when I definitely regretted being in the balcony of Hill Auditorium. Nora was more bluegrass and Americana than straight folk, which again showcased the variety, but also made me want to get up and dance. As someone who’s from Texas, even though I’m not a huge fan of bluegrass and country, I know how to dance to it. It was also an interesting change of pace when she sang with the emcee David Mayfield.

After Nora Jane was The Oh Hellos, a band I looked forward to, as my friend liked their music. I didn’t have time to listen before the show, but I trust her musical taste. As it turns out, she was more than right – The Oh Hellos performed the best set of the night by far. They brought out and entire troupe – 9 total, although the actual band is just brother and sister Maggie and Tyler Heath, again, from my home state. They were definitely the closest to indie on the roster, perhaps only being passed by City & Colour slightly. I fell in love with their song “Exeunt,” which although short rises to an amazingly satisfying climax. While they were playing, too, they were jumping all around the stage – not just to jump, but because that’s what the song feels like. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a headbanging violinist, but I did that night, and he was having the time of his life.

The last act before the intermission was a group that everyone should know, Yo La Tengo. For some reason, their set was my least favorite – they played about an hour, but each song was similar in that they were all slow, dreamy songs. It was definitely entertaining when they played “Friday I’m In Love” and everyone in the crowd sang along, but after the youthful energy of The Oh Hellos, it felt a bit off. Nonetheless, they still played a great set, and at intermission I was pleased and excited for the last two acts.

I’m not familiar with folk music or the folk community, although after Friday night I realized I should be, because I love folk music, but the next act is apparently a legend. Richard Thompson came out and there are no words for his set. He was alone, no band, just a guitar, and what a guitar player he was. At one point, he sounded like he was playing two guitars at once. He also did a sea-chanty-type-song that was call and response, and was immensely fun for an audience that had already seen five acts previously. Although I wouldn’t go listen to his music on my own, I immensely enjoyed his set.

And then, finally, what I had been looking forward to all night – City & Colour. I had listened to his new album while at work that day, so I was already in the mood, and I had bought it as well as a t-shirt at his merch table. I was ready.

I guess, though, other people weren’t, because during his set – about two or three songs in – people started leaving. People had been coming and going all night, which was mildly annoying, but not horrible – it was more the venue and my annoyance at not getting front row seats (but hey, poor college student). But this was somewhat confusing – he was the headliner, right? And I mean, it was late, but 7 bands are going to take a while.

I thought maybe they had only come for Richard Thompson, but if so, why not leave when he left? After a minute, I decided to ignore it and focus on the amazing songs Dallas Green was playing.

And he was performing beautifully. He was everything my high-school heart could desire. He even started off his set with his older music, starting with “We Found Each Other In The Dark,” “Sleeping Sickness,” “Hello I’m In Delaware,” and even “As Much As I Ever Could.”

But then, maybe 5 or 6 songs in, after exchanging his guitar for the umpteeth time (he even switched mid-song at one point), he hung back near his drummer. Perhaps he was getting water or something, but it lasted for more than a few seconds, and after a minute he comes back and says “Sorry, I was having a team meeting.”

And then, right before his last song, he asked people to sing along, or, you know, leave. While at the time sounded a bit tongue-in-cheek to me (people were screaming from the balcony how much they loved him), but looking back at it, he was probably upset. After that song, he ran off stage abruptly – no goodbye, thank you, maybe he waved, but besides the song that was it. He was gone.

And worst of all? No “The Girl.”

I’m not going to lie, I was heartbroken. We were sitting right behind a railing, and I leaned over it, arms outstretched, waiting for him to come back. He had only played for around an hour, maybe less. And where was my song?

David came out one last time to thank everybody but I don’t even remember what he said. I was too dazed. The house lights came up, and my small hopes for an encore dwindled to nothing.

I’m not going to blame anyone for what happened, because I don’t know whether it was him, or if the stage managers were telling him he was out of time, or if someone else’s set had lasted too long. There are a thousand reasons his set could have been shorter than I had expected, and maybe it was always going to be that short. So I’m not going to blame anyone. But this is my honest review, and honestly, I was upset.

I had a great night overall, but it was hard to wipe that feeling from my memory. I will definitely be returning for a show at The Ark, hopefully The Oh Hellos, and I’m grateful that I found so many new bands to enjoy. But I wish it hadn’t ended quite like that.  

PREVIEW: Ann Arbor Folk Festival NIGHT ONE

The Ann Arbor Folk Festival is back! This Friday and Saturday night folk artists from across the country will gather for this famous two-day event in the Ann Arbor music scene. At 39 years and going strong, I’ve heard great things about this event and I’m so excited and privileged to be reviewing the first night of the Festival.

City and Colour – Headlining
Richard Thompson
Yo La Tengo
The Oh Hellos
Nora Jane Struthers & The Party Line
Penny and Sparrow
Ben Daniels Band

Where: Hill Auditorium

When: 1/29 and 1/30, Doors open 6pm both nights

Tickets: $200, $100, $50, $37.50 (Gold Circle, Regular – Orchestra, Regular – Balcony). Two day tickets also available

For more info visit The Ark’s website

REVIEW: Helen Zell Visiting Writers Series with Anne Carson

When I walked into the UMMA on Thursday night, I was instantly reminded of last March, when Kazuo Ishiguro held a reading of his then-recent novel The Buried Giant. Then, I felt as if I was plunged into an environment that was larger-than-life, sitting under the high ceiling of the main foyer. But when I went down to the basement and entered the auditorium where Anne Carson would be reading, I felt the exact opposite; chatter abounded throughout the room, but the lights were muted, closing the room and making it feel small and warm.

If I was to characterize the reading as a whole, then, that’s what I’d say: small, warm, intimate, and most importantly, enchanting. From the introduction praising her amazing body of work to her actual reading, I was completely entranced. She wasn’t an intimidating figure, but quite the opposite. She even joked, in a very dry, but still somewhat kind tone, “I’ll try to be stream-worthy.” I felt nothing but warmth and welcome emulating from her as she introduced her work, titled “An Essay on Threat,” and began to read.

As for the work itself, I must steal from the eloquent introduction Jenny Boychuk. She described Carson as “unclassifiable” and quoted a national critic who deemed her a “philosopher of heartbreak.” Those two thoughts encapsulate her writing perfectly. If you asked me to describe “An Essay on Threat,” which came in three parts, one long, one very long, and one very short, I honestly wouldn’t have an answer. I don’t even know if there was solid plot that I could identify. Instead, I was mesmerized in listening to the writing, delighting in how poetic her prose sounded. Rather than narrating with a direct plot she fills your imagination for you, each salient detail immersing you into the world she created.

I know I don’t speak only for myself when I say I left the reading changed, challenged, and moved. Changed, because after hearing her read, I will never read her work the same way ever again. Challenged, because when she asked all the writers to raise their hands, I wanted to someday be the one asking that question from the stage, which means learning from great writers like her and developing my own craft. And, finally, moved.

“My heart is swimmed in time.” – Anne Carson


The next author in the Visiting Writer’s Series, NoViolet Bulawayo, will be at the UMMA Helmut Stern Auditorium on Thursday, February 11, at 5:30 pm.

PREVIEW: Helen Zell Visiting Writers Series with Anne Carson

As part of the Helen Zell Visiting Writers Program, Literati Bookstore is bringing in Anne Carson, author of The Autobiography of Red, red doc>, and Eros the Bittersweet. If you’ve never read any of her writing, she typically retells classic myths in long-form poetry. As a previous professor at the University of Michigan, it’s an honor to have Anne Carson come speak.

Where: UMMA Helmut Stern Auditorium
When: Thursday, January 21, 2016, 5:30pm
Tickets: Free, but currently sold out. You MUST have a ticket to get into this event.

For more information about Anne Carson and this event, visit the Literati Website.

REVIEW: Green Day’s American Idiot

Cast of American Idiot

On Sunday afternoon, I walked into the Mendelssohn Theatre ready to be dazzled by the School of Music, Theatre, and Dance’s performance of American Idiot. When I left, I’m not sure if dazzled is the right word for what I felt…it was closer to disappointment. Not quite disappointment, but pretty dang close.

I’ve been anticipating this show since the summer when it was announced, so perhaps my expectations were to blame for this feeling. But it was something more tangible than that. But let’s start with the good first.

From the moment I walked into the theatre, I knew this was yet again the work of masters of their craft. The set design was amazing – two television sets on the side, one burbling with static before the show began, a rickety looking staircase looking like it was lifted straight from a NYC fire escape, leading up to the walkway, with two doors cut into the massively graffitied wall. It was gorgeous, a perfectly fitting for the edgy American Idiot. The only complaint I had was that the action on stage turned insular. After seeing masterpieces such as Stupid Fucking Bird and Cabaret where the whole theatre and stage was used, I was surprised that all the main action happened on stage or on the walkway – the only time the TVs on the sides were used was the very beginning of the show. But overall, the set was amazing and perfectly set the mood for the show, the graffitied American flag large but covered by the drum kit.

The other highlight was definitely the actors. Of course they were amazing – this is an SMTD show we’re talking about. I really felt like I had been transported to early-2000s suburbia/city/America, not to mention the emotional intensity (or lack of, in some character’s cases), was perfect and real. I was also thoroughly impressed with the singing. The danger of doing a musical like American Idiot is how it twists genres. Sure, it’s a musical, but there’s nothing explicitly musical about the songs off of the critically acclaimed album. These are rock songs, and what’s more is that their famous rock songs – it’d be hard to find someone that’s never heard “Wake Me Up When September Ends.” Even though it’s been adapted to the stage brilliantly, with so many lovely harmonies, the songs still have the spine of a rock song – not an easy thing to sing, when you come from a musical theatre background.

The actors went above and beyond all my expectations, especially the lead, James Kilmeade playing Johnny. There were times when I could tell their training kicked in (especially any time St. Jimmy was on stage – fantastic, but not quite hitting the rock spectrum), but overall, I loved the music – it was all perfect.

What surprised me was the fact that I wasn’t a fan of a lot of the choreography. At times it was brilliant – “Give Me Novocaine” in particular, when Johnny and Whatshername do some floor work, so to speak. There was also a lot of creative use of staging along with the choreography – that stairway in particular got a lot of use around the stage. But a lot of it felt very normal and safe to me. Lots of headbanging – at one point I wondered if any of them were suffering the effects of it after four straight shows – lots of stomping, lots of angst.

What bothered me wasn’t the headbanging; I guess in my heart I expected it. But that’s exactly why I cringed a bit – it was exactly what I expected from a performance of American Idiot. In short? It was safe. I’ve seen SMTD shows that branch out, doing new, unexpected things, like their entire production of the quasi-experimental Stupid Fucking Bird. Headbanging around the stage didn’t feel new or creative or unique to me. Sure, it made sense, when you have high energy songs like “American Idiot” opening the musical, or crowd favorite “Holiday.” But with the large cast and the general formula of slow song-fast song-slow song, the headbanging got old really quickly. It also felt really out of place in a musical working against the cookie-cutter version of suburban America, calling for freedom. Where’s the freedom in being perfectly lined up to headbang in sync? I’m not saying choreography should be thrown out the door – the structure was perfect when Tunny went off to war in “Are We The Waiting” (which was another highlight of mine). But overall, the choreography constantly took me out of the action, reminding me that it was a musical and not just the lives of these three characters.

Even so, I still highly recommend seeing it. The music alone is enough, and it is a certain kind of spectacle. However, it definitely doesn’t top some of the other productions I’ve seen the school do. Also, don’t see it if you’re expecting a straight musical with an easily defined plot – there’s very little dialogue, and is written to be intensely symbolic. Think Across the Universe minus Jim Sturgess and with less dialogue.

American Idiot runs for one more weekend, Thursday at 7:30pm, Friday and Saturday at 8pm, and the last performance is the Sunday matinee at 2pm. You can buy tickets here or in person at the League Ticket Office.

REVIEW: A Very Starkid Reunion

As I sat in the audience of the Power Center Thursday night, I heard high pitched chatter all around me, anticipation crawling up my spine. My last Starkid show had been in 2012, and this felt even more special for some reason. This time, Starkid was in their home turf. But then again – this time was different. I wasn’t just watching and enjoying this show. Notebook and pen in hand, I sat poised over my notebook.

My first two notes?

“The lights dim and I flinch.”

Why did I flinch?

“Screaming. All Screaming.”

The audience erupts into a dull roar as Darren Criss sits in the darkness, waiting for his cue to grace us with his beautiful voice.

This, my friends, is a Starkid show.

I’ve been a Starkid fan since at least 2009, my freshman year of high school. I thought I was clever making jokes about how that movie sucked royal hippogriff, and how when I went to college I’d be transferred to Pigfarts. I’m no ameteur. But even with all that preparation, I didn’t know what to expect for their reunion.

Of course, Darren opened with a much more polished rendition of “Goin’ Back to Hogwarts,” and I wondered vaguely how much rehearsal he really needed. Did he remember all of the words, or was relearning them like riding a bike; one shove and he was gone?

I continued wondering about the nostalgia, especially as the screams grew quieter during the second half of the concert. What did it feel like for Joe Walker and Brian Rosenthal to be bound together again in that damn turban? What was Jaime’s view from the stage, as she led the cast of Me and My Dick? Did Joey care that his vocals are being overpowered simply by the sheer will of screams?

Throughout the concert, performance, variety, whatever you may call it, I tuned out the screams and really tried to focus my critical eye on this phenomenon I loved. But there’s nothing to criticize. I could tell that these weren’t kids singing in the Walgreen Drama Center any more – all the vocals were polished, vowels open and consonants crisp. These were now seasoned professionals. I personally loved Brant Cox’s solo, when they performed “Beauty” from their 2011 musical Starship, and the subtle tweaks to writing, where Darren went off about there being another Spider Man and Meredith Stepien pointed out that Red Vines are disgusting (because they are), were nothing short of ingenious. No, the show wasn’t perfect, but since when has a Starkid show ever run smoothly?

Despite all the screaming and frustration at not picking my favorite songs (where was Granger Danger?!?!?), I remembered why I fell in love with Starkid. It wasn’t the jokes, it wasn’t the Harry Potter, it wasn’t even the perfection of Lauren Lopez. It was the honesty of all their performances, and how they made you feel like you could jump on stage and join them. And that’s how they took the stage at the Power Center, filled with joy, a bit of quirkiness, and hope.

It was clear Starkid wasn’t just reliving their old memories by recreating their favorite musical numbers from all their shows. Even through Brian Holden’s self-deprecating humor, it was clear Starkid was emphasizing that no, they hadn’t forgotten about where they came from. Even Darren in all his glory loved to come back hoMe.

“Michigan was our Hogwarts” they proclaimed, instantly making everyone in the audience who wasn’t a Wolverine immediately decide to apply to Michigan. I can’t lie, though, because despite its cheesiness, as a senior I felt their words ring true.

At the end of the night, I looked to the front of the audience, where Nick Lang, director, writer, actor, everyman sat watching his creation, pulled together in the span of mere days, a little over 12 hours rehearsal and prep put into making this show. He erupted in cheers, pulled onto stage by his castmates, his Starkids, his very best friends. As I watched, I thought I may feel just a tiny bit of what he felt: pride in what this group of quirky kids became, all because of one idea and the determination to see it through.