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.