Hill Auditorium was set on fire Friday night, January 26, by the 2024 47th Ann Arbor Folk Festival’s headliner band, Old Crow Medicine Show (OCMS). They rocked the house and brought the audience to their feet with their high energy country roots stringband music. Discovered by Doc Watson in 1998 where they were busking on a street corner in Boone, North Carolina, they proved Friday night just how far they’ve gone since Doc introduced them to the music scene in Nashville.
OCMS’s Americana sound encompasses hillbilly, bluegrass, old-timey, folk, country, and loud country rock. On top of their instrumental and singing expertise, they have an exuberant sense of humor and stage presence—they clearly love being on stage, performing skits that evoke the old hillbilly TV show “Hee Haw.” I couldn’t help but notice all the instruments on stage including: two fiddles, an upright bass, several acoustic guitars, several electric guitars, electric bass, at least three different banjos, a mandolin, a baritone ukelele, an accordian, drums, piano and what sounded like a hammond B organ hidden inside a piano, and even a key flute blow organ toy piano called a melodica! All the members are multi-instrumentalists, sharing all those instruments as well as everyone singing solos, duets, and the whole group together.
Dynamic and tireless, they performed songs from nearly all eight of their records, released from 2004 through a few months ago, including “Take ‘Em Away,” their wildly popular “Wagon Wheel,” their raucous version of “Cocaine,” my favorite “Tell It To Me,” and covers of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Rollin’ the River,” Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire,” The Band’s “The Weight,” Neil Young’s “Ohio,” and a sweet tribute to Pete Seeger with their own rendition of “This Land is Your Land.” During their bittersweet tribute to the legendary people and musicians who died in 2023, they covered David Crosby’s “Teach Your Children Well, “Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain,” Bobby Osborne’s “Rocky Top,” and even Jimmy Buffett’s “Margaritaville.”
Along with their big stage presence, a nearly floor to ceiling back wall of flashing white lights created a throbbing beat to go hand-hand-in-hand with their huge message: WE ARE OLD CROW MEDICINE SHOW, cowboy shirts and big Stetsons and all! The evening ended with the band inviting all the musicians from the evening on stage for a heartfelt cover of the Carter Family’s “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”
Now that I’ve told you about the end of the show, let’s go to the beginning of Friday night at the festival, with a nearly packed house. Actor, musician, comedian, film director, singer/songwriter, and founder of Chelsea’s Purple Rose Theater, Jeff Daniels (who lives with his family in their hometown of Chelsea,) emceed to perfection. Casually dressed like an Ann Arborite wearing a faded blue t-shirt and jeans and an old brown Fedora topping his head, Daniels was absolutely brilliant both nights. He kept the audience entertained between acts, while stagehands moved sets around at the end of each act.
Daniels is great at working the crowd, with his entertaining acerbic songwriting and spot-on delivery. Playing an acoustic guitar and singing with a twang, Daniels put to good use his hilarious storytelling, with laugh-out-loud songs about such things as his beloved Detroit Lions with his song about the Lions vs Tampa Bay game fitting for the Ark crowd, “Lions 31, Tampa Bay 23,” his first car “In My Old Man’s Blue Valiant,” losing his wife while on the road in their rented Jayco RV while en route to Cooperstown, NY to visit the Baseball Hall of Fame with his family, and “How ‘Bout We Take Our Pants Off and Relax.” Besides his homage to pot being available at more dispensaries than there are gas stations, with his song about hemp going back to biblical times, his coup de Grace was the story of his infamous and uproarious Peyton Manning connection with his song “The Curse of Bobby Layne.”
Friday night’s opening act, the hip hop/rap/folk group Sons of Mystro, got the house rocking. They are brothers Malcom and Umoja, flamboyant performers, both on electric fiddle, with electric keyboards and drums backing them. Though not folky, they were loved by the audience with their reggae and pop-inspired songs.
Irish-born singer/songwriter Darren Kiely, now living in Nashville, charmed the crowd with his ease on stage and as a solo performer, backing himself up on acoustic guitar. Proudly announcing he is on his first American tour, and clearly a newcomer on the contemporary folk scene, he is a performer to keep our ears tuned to.
Next up was the dynamic “indie-pop power trio” group Bailen, featuring NY-born siblings Daniel, David, and Julia Bailen. Heavy drums behind electric guitars, their rock ‘n roll sound accompanied them as they belted out gorgeous vocals with breath-taking harmonies. Not a folk band, they ended their set on a folk-ish sound, as all three took one mic, backed by an acoustic guitar, singing an homage to playing at the folk festival.
The four-piece act before the headliner, Devon Gilfillian, a funk/R&B/soul band, is reminiscent of Earth, Wind and Fire; Prince; and Marvin Gaye. Gilfillian ended his set with his hit cover of Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On” from his 2020 album release, a track-by-track cover of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” album, announcing that 100% of the profits from the album are donated to Tennessee’s Equity Alliance Fund. Wearing an eye-popping bright blue and purple jumpsuit and dancing and swaying throughout his set, Gillian is a powerful and accomplished performer who knows how to grab his audience and keep them singing and clapping along.
On Saturday night, day two of the 47th Ann Arbor Folk Festival, Jeff Daniels opened up the night with: “Tomorrow’s a big day. We cannot be f**king around tomorrow.” That was the first of many references to the big Detroit Lions game–truly the throughline of the festival (aside from folk music of course).
The 3000+ people who filled the seats at Hill Auditorium were charged up for headliner Emmylou Harris. Now in her 6th decade, the legend of the Nashville sound, the larger-than-life 76-year old country roots diva, poured her heart out with 15 songs from her vast repertoire of songs she’s covered and written throughout her career. Sharing hits such as “Orphan Girl,” “Wheels,” and the rockin’ “Luxury Liner,” Harris admitted “despite my disgustingly happy childhood, I love singing about and writing sad songs.” She went on to sing “Red Dirt Girl,” “My Name is Emmett Till” and her bittersweet song to deceased friend Kate McGarrigle, of the duo Kate & Anna McGarrigle, “Darlin’ Kate.” Instruments used in the set: electric bass and an electric upright bass, electric guitar, accordion and keyboards, and the talented Tammy Rogers on fiddle and mandolin, with Emmylou playing three different acoustic guitars during the show. The long-legged and striking Harris, with her voluminous white hair and flowing floral bell bottoms, can still belt it out with her infamous powerful voice, so beautiful still these 60 years from the start of her career. Emmylou invited all the evening’s performers to join her on stage to sing The Band’s “The Weight,” a wonderful ending to an excellent night of music.
Opening act husband and wife duo The Sea The Sea, Nashville-based Chuck and Mira Costa, shared Mira’s lovely songwriting, backing themselves up on acoustic guitar and electric bass. Their harmonies were simply lovely, the songwriting beautiful poetry. The five songs they performed were the perfect opener for an eclectic evening of singer/songwriters — and sweet when Mira Costa shared with us that she’s a University of Michigan Theater Arts graduate.
The audience was wowed when Lizzie No, next onto the stage, attached her portable harp onto her body as her four-piece band gave No and her instrument front and center attention. The five songs the folk/rock group played from No’s newest album release, including her funny/not funny song about “breaking up while there’s still another month and a half on the lease.” The audience was hypnotized as her fingers plucked away on the lovely instrument strapped across her slender body. Lizzie No has a beautiful full voice and presence, assuring us that she’s on to a big career as a singer/songwriter and harpist.
Next up: Steve Poltz, a force of nature with his long white hair flowing under his well-used old Stetson and a personality that filled every inch of Hill Auditorium. Formerly of the 80s San Diego-based Rugburns, Poltz, ear-to-ear grin and wide eyes, ran onto the stage making clear he was rearin’ to go! And go he did, from one funny story and song to the next, doing a little jig with that big grin on his face. Besides watching Poltz happily whip off his shirt to reveal the Detroit Lions #97 Hutchinson shirt he was wearing underneath, the glowing (and he was!) storyteller treated us to the story of why he carries a glass eye in his pocket (you’ll have to google that one) among other stories. His final song, “Cancer, F**k Off,” was an audience participation song that was as moving as it was funny. Thank you Steve Poltz for being “not normal” as it says in the festival program book. It was a treat to be entertained by you!
Petosky, MI-based Michigan Rattlers were the last act before the headliner and rattle they did in a big way with their big country rock sound. Definitely not folk music, the band rocked the auditorium with songs from both their albums. If your eyes were closed, you’d think that lead singer Graham Young has been around the block a few times as a polished performer, with his gorgeous deep voice and ease as lead guitarist, though the band has only been on the circuit since their debut record release, Evergreen, in 2018.
Man o man, am I happy I have this past weekend’s two-night folk festival in my memory bank! Thank you to the Ark and everyone who made this year’s festival come to life.