The Ark Coffeehouse is one of the reasons so many well-known musicians choose to stop in Ann Arbor on their tours. The venue, which had its 50th anniversary earlier this year, seats about 400 and is one of the most popular intimate listening rooms in the area.
Pictures line the walls of the Ark showing some of the giants of American music who have played there: Tom Paxton, Lyle Lovett, Richie Havens, Judy Collins and Ani DiFranco, to name just a few.
One of the biggest annual arts events in Ann Arbor is the coffeehouse’s Folk Festival. The festival, which celebrates its 39th year this Friday and Saturday, serves as a fundraiser for the Ark, which is a non-profit organization.
Each night is always equally exciting to music lovers like Pete Held, a long-time Ann Arbor resident who is a regular at the festival.
“I have been going to the folk festival since 1987,” he said. “While there I have bumped into people from all over the state, neighboring states and Ontario. Highlights for me include watching legendary folk musicians including many that have since passed on such as Elizabeth Cotten, John Hartford, Pete Seeger, and of course dozens of still living legends.”
“While the big name performers are never a let-down, one of the best features of the festival is that the Ark books lesser known up-and-coming performers as well as some local talent. Without fail, every festival I am awestruck by at least one act that I have never heard before,” Held said.
This year is no exception, and will feature some of that new, up-and-coming talent. Some local or lesser-known acts featured this year are The Accidentals, a young Traverse City folk trio, Joshua Davis, a Michigan singer-songwriter who made it to third place on The Voice last year, and the Ben Daniels Band, a local Americana rock band led by Jeff Daniels’ son. City and Colour, whose front man Dallas Green has also worked with Pink!, will headline Friday night.
However, some of the musicians scheduled to perform this year have a long history with the Ark. Richard Thompson, a virtuoso guitarist and songwriter who nearly singlehandedly invented the folk-rock genre, has been coming here almost as long as the Ark has been around.
“The first time I played in Ann Arbor was in 1970,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed coming back ever since. I couldn’t say how many times I’ve played here, but it’s a lot. I think I’ve performed at three incarnations of the Ark.”
And what would a line-up with this kind of pedigree be without its very own super-group? Ry Cooder, Ricky Skaggs and Sharon White are all celebrated musicians in their own right, but as a trio, their talents blend together into a unique and exciting sound.
After all those amazing acts, the festival still knows how to end with a bang. Closing out Saturday evening is troubadour and folk legend Joan Baez, who has been one of the best-known voices in American folk music since the 60s.
The Ann Arbor Folk Festival is Friday night, Jan. 29, and Saturday night, Jan. 30, both starting at 6:30 p.m. Both performances will take place at Hill Auditorium. Tickets are on sale at the Ark’s website, www.theark.org.