In many ways, the advent of the Internet, affordable home recording equipment and independent distribution have helped to save music. By taking the stewardship of the musician's future out of the hands of CEOs and by putting it back into the public realm, today's musician will find it a heck of a lot easier to circumvent a system that's designed to keep artistic vision at bay. But just as technology giveth, it most certainly taketh away: With shortcuts comes mediocrity and with mediocrity comes an endless supply of thoughtless, poorly played music cramming hard drives and challenging attention spans the world over. Typically, the main culprits are bad songwriting, overproduction and soullessness, but, thankfully, there's one genre of the art form by virtue of its simplicity that has made it through decades relatively unscathed. It's folk.
From artist's mouths and fingertips to our ears, folk music is a soft place where life's complexities have nothing to do with avarice. Folk music by definition, and when done correctly is a place where the human condition can be hashed out through simile, harmony and song.
This week, the Ann Arbor Folk Festival taps into the goods with a two-day offering of music from the heart: Here's a quick glance at everyone performing this year. There ain't a dud in the bunch.
Friday, Jan. 26
RFD Boys: Mainstays of the Ann Arbor folk scene, the RFD Boys' classic bluegrass is the perfect way to kick the event off.
Millish: Pangs of Celtic love rise when this experimental acoustic folk-rock foursome hits the stage. Be it an invitation to dance courtesy of the pennywhistle, or a rolling jig, these baby-faced Ann Arbor kids are actually making a long-in-the-tooth Irish folk tradition something fresh.
Gandalf Murphy & the Slambovian Circus of Dreams:They've been described as "punk-classical-hillbilly-Floyd," and while it might sound like a gratuitous hodgepodge, it's not. To wit: Same as last summer's fad band, Gogol Bordello, infused punk with bohemia, the Slambovians have successfully used their boho chic to infiltrate rock 'n' roll.
Martha Wainwright: She's No. 3 on the list of famous Wainwright singer-songwriters (number four if you count her classically trained madre, Kate McGarrigle), but because big brother Rufus and father Loudon often eclipse her it doesn't mean we shouldn't praise Martha Wainwright's solo efforts. Her airy singing voice and unexpectedly frank and foul-mouthed lyrics put her somewhere among Joan Baez, Shawn Colvin and Courtney Love.
Kiyoshi Nagata Ensemble: Quite possibly one of the most interesting acts booked at this year's fest certainly the most unusual the Kiyoshi Nagata Ensemble is a taiko drumming group that uses ancient Japanese dance and percussion to create an atmosphere both disciplined and cascading.
Ember Swift: Ska? Funk? Folk? Ember Swift is an Ontario-based singer-songwriter who takes the female-positive thang to the place where Michelle Shocked and Ani DiFranco rule the roost.
Jackie Greene: The New York Times calls him "the Prince of Americana." Suffice it to say, he's the thirtysomethings' breathing Gram Parsons.
Rufus Wainwright: The most famous member of the Wainwright clan has made it his responsibility to pummel people's hearts with his aching voice and highbrow compositions. He has opened people's minds about what it means to be a gay rock star. And most importantly, he raised the contemporary singer-songwriter bar to very necessary "weed out" levels.
Saturday, Jan. 27
Daisy May: While the cute factor is almost distracting, country singer Daisy May makes it easy to sit back and enjoy. Elegant and young, Daisy May's twangy love songs recall the crisp and clean singing of a young Linda Ronstadt, and lonesome pining of Emmylou Harris.
Paul Thorn: He's a little Caucasian to fit the stereotype of a bluesman from Tupelo, Miss., but Thorn, despite his scant melanin levels, is the real deal.
Bill Staines: Sweet rolling pick-infused folk music the way Seeger insisted it should be.
Terri Hendrix and Lloyd Maines: She's country in that she employs pedal steels, mandos and dobros; she's jazz since she sings scat and she's folk because her music is rootsy. She's touring with producer Lloyd Maines (Joe Ely, the Dixie Chicks).
Over the Rhine: Linford Detweiler, half of the musical duo Over the Rhine, says of their latest release, Snow Angels, "We hope that Snow Angels is a record that becomes part of the landscape for small gatherings of people who love each other." It's folk for an adult contemporary crowd.
Mountain Heart: In the grand tradition of Flatt & Scruggs and Ricky Skaggs, Mountain Heart is straightforward bluegrass with name appeal.
John Prine: He's the king of the scene. He's the much-loved proponent of "illegal smiles," three-chord masterpieces and levity. Prine's also reprising his role as headliner of the very first Ann Arbor Folk Festival in 1977.
Friday, Jan. 26, and Saturday, Jan. 27, at Hill Auditorium, 825 N. University, Ann Arbor; 734-763-8587. Tickets are $30-$45.
Eve Doster is the listings editor of Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org