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.  


As one of the first warm and sunny weekends of the year comes to a close and Ann Arbor begins to recover from an eventful couple of days, I’m still riding a natural high in the wake of Johnnyswim’s performance at The Ark on Saturday night. The ghosts of endorphins are kicking around in my brain as we speak – and with good reason.  My expectations were high, but the pressure was nothing for these two, whose energy upon their return to Ann Arbor in the wake of a crowd-pleasing performance at the Folk Festival in February left them shining like a couple of polished gems.

The intimate space of The Ark was a perfect venue for the acoustically driven sound and incredible vocals of this songwriting pair.  The sold-out crowd was taken from the moment they stepped on stage, kicking off the show with a sweet and simple track from their upcoming debut LP.  While their ability to weave their voices – each distinct and rich in their own right – into a unique and mesmerizing union was enough to capture the attention of the audience, it was the couple’s magnetism that set them apart.  Married in real life, wife Amanda and husband Abner played off each other in a refreshing and intimate way that is seldom seen on stage.

As they moved on to the title track, Diamonds, the two offered an even deeper look into their lives by providing insight on the inspiration of this empowering song.  Abandoning all pretenses for frank honesty, Abner explained that this song was their “suck it” song, directed at an individual in their personal life who continues to doubt them in spite of their mounting success.  While in looking into the lyrics one can find that this message is there, the two were quick to point out that the song is also one of hope – indeed it stood for hopeful optimism to the 250 cancer children they performed it for soon after its conception.

This early peek into the minds of these talented musicians set the tone for the night, as the remainder of their performance was filled with anecdotes about various songs, new and old, and silly stories about their experiences.  The audience particularly enjoyed a long and very involved story by Abner about the events surrounding his proposal to Amanda three years into their relationship, the inspiration of their soft and rhythmic piece Paris In June.  Upon flying her to Paris for their three year anniversary on 24 hours’ notice, Abner found that just about everything that could go wrong did, though in the end he got his storybook proposal.  These insights added to the charm of their songs, deepening one’s understanding of their already graceful tracks.

Their set list gave those excitedly anticipating their debut album, Diamonds, which drops at the end of the month, a taste of what to expect. Songs like Pay Dearly, a revenge-seeking piece full of falsetto and strong riffing, bring out the soulful side of the versatile couple, while tracks like Home capture the country-folk influence of Tennessee, where the two met.  Their wide sampling of genres appeals to many different kinds of listeners, and by the end of the show everyone had found music that suited their style, calling excitedly for an encore. The two didn’t fill the request, instead showing their appreciation by holding a meet-and-greet in the lobby after the show.

As a fan of Johnnyswim, I wasn’t expecting to have the opportunity to meet them, so I was pleasantly surprised to make my way to the line near their merchandise.  Their grace and charisma translated off-stage, and I was happy to find that they are even more kind and humble than I could have imagined.  Their genuine interest in their fans was rather uplifting and I found myself walking away with a phone full of selfies that Abner insisted on taking. I will leave you with a few of my favorites, though the quality is not the best (it seems my iPhone has let me down once again.) Their debut album, Diamonds, hits iTunes on April 29th, and their EPs Home and Heart Beats are available now.

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When: Saturday, April 5th @ 8pm

Where: The Ark

Tickets: $20 General Admission

The married musical duo JOHNNYSWIM are bringing their mix of folk, soul, and pop to Ann Arbor on April 5th as they perform at The Ark in promotion of their new album, Diamonds, out April 29th.  Featured on 2014’s VH1 You Oughta Know, twosome Amanda Sudano-Ramirez and Abner Ramirez combine impeccable lyrics with powerful vocals and a captivating stage chemistry that you won’t want to miss.

For a little taste of their versatile sound, check out the music video for their 2013 single Heart Beats, their toe tapper Home, and Abner’s killer falsetto in a live performance of Pay Dearly, featured on the upcoming record.

REVIEW: The Head & the Heart

Last Tuesday, October 29th, The Head and The Heart performed at the Royal Oak Music Theatre with opening bands Thao & the Get Down Stay Down and The Quiet Life. The Royal Oak Music Theatre only offers general seating, which is bad news for anyone arriving minutes before the main act. However, for those willing to stand packed tightly right in front, this venue is for you! Unfortunately, those opting for this option (as my friend and I ultimately did) would have had to listen to almost three hours of openers before The Head and The Heart graced the stage.

Though the first band, The Quiet Life, only started around 7:30 pm, they fed the crowd what we all wanted: some good lively music. With a sound that I can only describe as upbeat country, members of The Quiet Life played like they weren’t performing for another venue on the tour, but as if they were playing in some practice room for fun. In other words, they were up on stage just having an experience with each other.

The second opening act, Thao & the Get Down Stay Down, brought with them a completely different environment that definitely changed things up. What was most remarkable about this band was the ease at which they changed their vibe from song to song. With electric energy, leader singer Thao Nguyen danced about the stage singing passionately starting their performance off big…that is, until the mood drastically changed with the next song. Here, the melodies turned darker and the lyrics harsher. Instead of predictable, building tempos, Thao & the Get Down Stay Down would usually play consistently slow right up until the chorus. Here the music burst with palpable energy, lead singer whirling around the stage. Thao & the Get Down Stay Down had just one slow tempo song, but this one was my favorite because it didn’t have any harsh undertones and wasn’t startling. After the performance I looked up this band and it really seems to me that the quality of their music is significantly better off their album. I would definitely recommend buying their album off iTunes, but perhaps would not elect to see them live again.

By the time The Head and The Heart actually started to play, it was 10 pm. I’d gotten there on time, so it had been three hours at that point and I was tired, pretty thirsty, and getting impatient. However, what was truly impressive was that as soon as they got on stage, none of it mattered. They brought with them such an uplifting vibe that from the second they began playing, all pain from waiting was forgotten and the crowd was completely recharged.

What’s really great about this band is that unlike most other groups, the lead sound in each song comes from someone different, each as talented as the last. They switch singers from song to song, alternating between Josiah Johnson, Jonathan Russell, and the only female band member Charity Rose Thielen.

Photo by Vik Santaprakash
Pictured: Josiah Johnson, photo by Vik Santaprakash
Pictured: Jonathan Russell and Josiah Johnson, photo by Vik Santaprakash

They highlight different instruments in each song as well, often the guitar is most prominent, sometimes only the piano, and even the harmonica. The Head and The Heart had an amazing performance, cutting through the audience with their genuine spirit and utter joy. This band is the epitome of the kind of sound you want to hear in person, they are no less impressive than in their music videos or straight off their iTunes album. The only difference is, live, you get to feel their energy with them. To add to their playful stage presence, their between-song commentary was witty and entertaining. To be at this concert, to be a member of the audience, to see these characters in person…it was just fun.

PREVIEW: Let’s Be Still

Who: The Head And The Heart

What: Let’s Be Still Tour 2013

Where: Royal Oak Music Theatre

When: Tuesday, Oct 29, 2013 – 7:00PM

Starting Price: $25.00

Check out The Head And The Heart as they grace the stage with folky tunes and soulful singing. Come early to see performances by Thao & the Get Down Stay Down and Quiet Life. Buy tickets here. Don’t miss out!

Still having doubts? Here’s a little taste: The Head and the Heart – Lost In My Mind (Live on KEXP) Read More

PREVIEW: The Avett Brothers at Hill Auditorium

The Avett Brothers are looking to conquer a college town, where folk music thrives just as well as hip-hop, and avid music fans search actively for gorgeous storytelling via guitars, pianos, and graceful lyrics.

So, it’s fitting that Hill Auditorium will showcase the four-piece band on February 12.

With brothers Scott and Seth Avett fronting the band holding a banjo and guitar, the passion for genuine, heartfelt music lies very visibly in its band make-up. A band of siblings hasn’t seemed particularly cool since the Jackson 5 or the Kinks, and the Avett Brothers present themselves with a similar sincerity and grassroots wholesomeness. Their songs are particularly hopeful and earnest, typically casting a balladic piano at the forefront, and guitar, banjo, cello, and drums accompanying vocals.

Leaving an outstanding 2012 including a Grammy nomination and a top-10 album, the band is touring until July 2013, playing alongside bands like Matt and Kim, Old Crow Medicine Show, Portugal. The Man, and Grace Potter and the Nocturnals. Their show at Hill Auditorium will beautifully highlight the band’s sound described by the San Francisco Chronicle as having the “heavy sadness of Townes Van Zandt, the light pop concision of Buddy Holly, the tuneful jangle of the Beatles, the raw energy of the Ramones.” This is the Avett Brother’s third time performing in Ann Arbor after headlining the Ann Arbor Folk Festival last year and playing at the Michigan Theater in 2010.

The Avett Brothers will play at 7:30pm at Hill Auditorium on February 12, 2013. Tickets start at $33.