It’s a strange concept, to say the least — a free outdoor festival of music and movies … held on top of a parking structure?
As odd as it may seem to frolic among huge slabs of gray concrete, Ann Arbor’s annual Top of the Park series has been a huge hit and a time-honored tradition for 21 years. Presenting a delightful mishmash of musical genres, TOP, as it is affectionately dubbed, draws throngs of people of all ages; it’s one of those rare events that manages to charm toddlers, teens and adults alike.
TOP is the free portion of the annual Ann Arbor Summer Festival; the other half, the Main Stage events, involves ticketed events with national performers at the Power Center for the Performing Arts and Hill Auditorium. Previous years’ acts have included James Brown, Natalie Merchant, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Harry Belafonte and Al Green; this year’s lineup includes They Might Be Giants and Detroit native Lily Tomlin.
TOP literally takes place on top of the parking structure for the Power Center. Each night for three weeks, an eclectic mix of local bands play from 7 to 9 p.m., while spectators can lounge in chairs, browse the food vendors, relax in the beer garden, or dance the night away. A popular film shows at dusk; it’s projected against the parking structure’s towering concrete elevator shaft (no films are shown on Fridays and Saturdays). After the bands leave the stage, teens scrabble to stake their claim on the flat platform, snuggling up with blankets and pillows for the show. And no night at TOP is complete without at least one spotting of Tree Town’s favorite unlikely celebrity, Shaky Jake, an affable old gent — bedecked in bright ’70s polyester finery and white patent leather loafers — who carries a guitar and often bursts into impromptu songs (he can’t really play, but that’s beside the point).
The concept of the event started back in the late ’70s, when Power Center founder Eugene Power became increasingly frustrated and disappointed by lack of activity at the center in the summer; Ann Arbor simmers down to a sleepy little town in the warm months when many of the thousands of University of Michigan students retreat to their hometowns.
Power wanted to create a festival to draw in year-round locals, but wanted two components: one free; one ticketed. The first season was presented in 1983; originally TOP was conceived as a gathering place for patrons before and after the ticketed events, but, over the years, the little free festival has become a huge draw on its own, especially among families.
Festival director Evy Warshawski books and organizes both parts of the festival, and must squeak by on a $1.3 million budget; the festival is also funded by private donors, sponsorships and grants.
“It’s a lot of work,” says Warshawski, “but it just works. … It’s very revered in the community.
“But we’re very dependent on the weather,” she adds with a laugh, “that’s the one thing I can’t control.”
Seasoned Ann Arbor roots rock band George Bedard and the Kingpins has the honor of closing the festival each year; for the past decade or so (they can’t recall exactly how long) the band has been the last act of the season.
“It’s kind of become a tradition,” says Bedard. “It’s a lot of fun, a wide range of ages and people, and we look forward to doing it every year.”
Ann Arbor jazz bassist Paul Keller has played the fest for several years and thinks it’s a great alternative to a night spent in a smoky jazz bar.
“It’s a great family event,” says Keller. “People who don’t want to bring their kids out to an evening event can bring their kids to this and hear the same kind of music, and expose kids to some different kinds of musical culture.”
Free events always draw large crowds, and it’s typical for the occasional scuffle to occur, especially when alcohol is added into the mix. However, longtime TOP patron Ira Lax says he’s never seen a problem arise in about a decade of attendance.
“I’ve never seen a fight there, and I can’t even think of anyone drunk who’s caused a disturbance,” says Lax.
Lax, a jazz fan, is especially appreciative of TOP given the recent demise of jazz events like the Frog Island Jazz Festival and the Ann Arbor Jazz and Blues Festival. Furthermore, he appreciates an event that cultivates such a diverse patronage.
“It’s great to have something that anyone can come to,” says Lax. “Young, old, rich, poor, homeless, and everyone there is enjoying the atmosphere, dancing, and just hanging out and talking to each other.”
The Ann Arbor Summer Festival premieres Friday, June 11, with the Breakers and the Ambassador Big Band at TOP. For a complete listing of both TOP and Main Stage events, visit annarborsummerfestival.com or call 734-647-2278.Sarah Klein is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org