Ann Arbor institution the Ark celebrates 50 years of folk

All aboard

Jul 22, 2015 at 1:00 am

Most places founded on ideals don't last for more than a few years, let alone a half-century. From all indications, Ann Arbor in the 1960s was built based on ideals of peace, love, and art. These passionate sentiments are still very much a part of the city's identity, but if you walk through Ann Arbor today, you'll see indie, mom-and-pop stores forced out due to high rents, and chains moving in. Given the new pricey high-rise condos and apartment buildings constructed in the last decade, you might be forgiven for thinking the city's '60s spirit is long gone. But Ann Arbor still has its fair share of spaces for art, culture, and independence. A major one of these is the Ark, the city's longtime nonprofit home for folk music of all varieties.

The Ark was started in 1965 by a coalition of four local churches, in nothing more than a house on Hill Street. It was created as a place for University of Michigan students to escape stress and vice by making music and creating other forms of art. The Ark no longer receives funding from the churches but pays the bills through donations and ticket sales, plus annual fundraising events like the always-sold-out Ann Arbor Folk Fest at Hill Auditorium. The Ark has been through three locations in its history and survived decades of local and national change only to come out bigger and more vital and active than ever before, even buying its current space in 2012.

The Ark has been celebrating "50 Folkin' Years" (get it?) this year. This weekend, the venue has put together a special "50 Year Fling" event that features over a dozen artists of both local and national renown. These artists represent the full spectrum of folk music that the Ark likes to book year-round.

"It's really about bringing in people who represent the Ark and the different kinds of genres that we present and are particularly known for, and people who have been close to the Ark," says Marianne James, the Ark's executive director. "We really looked for people who really have a relationship with the Ark and had a relationship with the audience."

The Friday, Saturday, and Sunday shows all have a different focus. Friday's theme is "Guitar Greats," headlined by two of the most prominent Telecaster players in the world: former Merle Haggard guitarist Redd Volkaert and Ann Arbor High School alum Bill Kirchen. Laith Al-Saadi, an Ann Arbor native and longtime fixture in the city's music scene who is also playing Friday, seems especially excited to do a show with phenomenal musicians like Volkaert and Kirchen. "These are two legendary players that I've looked up to and I've had the chance to hear play together," he says. "So I'm going to have to be prepared and not be too nervous to even play."

Though he's recorded and written blues music across the country in cities like Los Angeles and New Orleans, Al-Saadi still plays several shows a week in Ann Arbor. He's fond of Midwestern legends like John Lee Hooker and Albert King, and is proud to be a part of the local scene and heritage. "I find when artists move to L.A. or Nashville or New York, they tend to be completely homogenized by whatever scene is the big thing at the time in those places, and they have a much harder time being true to themselves as artists," Al-Saadi says.

Every night of the event features at least one musician with a connection to Ann Arbor, but Saturday is officially "Made in Michigan" night, specifically meant to showcase local artists, including multiple Detroit Music Award winners Jill Jack and Erin Zindle. Zindle is perhaps better known and more prolific as the leader of the Ragbirds, a folk-rock group with world music influences, but her performance on Saturday will be a solo one. Zindle moved to Ann Arbor from Buffalo, New York, eventually starting the Ragbirds with her now-husband, Randall Moore. Since then, she's played many times at the Ark, including an annual holiday show that she leads with a large collective of community musicians. "I've had such a long history with the Ark and feel like it's a place where my whole musical career has been really supported and nurtured and kind of found its start," she says.

Abigail Stauffer, another musician with local roots, will perform acoustic folk and soul on Saturday night. She grew up near Ann Arbor and actually — after playing Potbelly's Sandwich Shop — got her start opening for the Ragbirds at the Ark in 2010. "I've heard people who aren't from here say that (playing the Ark) is like playing for their own family. For me, it's like playing for my own family, and it usually is," Stauffer says. "Even if you knew no one in the audience, you feel like you're playing for your friends and your family, and you're so close to them."

Though national tours have become much more common for musicians as album sales decline, and some venues have found their calendars filling up with out-of-towners, the Ark has done a fine job of continuing to shine a light on developing local talent. It's still a venue that actually listens to demo tapes sent in by musicians (James says they receive about 1,000 every year) and looks to fit these artists in opening slots or present them at Take a Chance Tuesday, the Ark's monthly free concert series. Zindle credits Take a Chance Tuesday as being an early break for the Ragbirds. "We just had such an amazingly warm reception there and so much support," she says.

Finally, Sunday is a night of what the Ark calls "Songcrafters in the Round," which is a broad term but covers folk legends like Peter, Paul & Mary's Peter Yarrow, Ark veterans John Gorka and Robbie Schaefer, and Detroit-based Michigan alum Vienna Teng.

While the music alone is reason enough to go, watching a performance at the Ark is an experience all its own, as the audience there is famous for its knowledge, engagement, and reverence of folk music. "The people who come to our shows at the Ark, they're really true supporters, and they're really deep listeners," Zindle says. "They're really there for the music, so it's a place I always look forward to playing."

The culture of Ann Arbor and the passion of its residents deserve plenty of credit for sustaining a place like the Ark and creating the unique community around it. Al-Saadi got much of his musical education from Community High School, a popular alternative place of learning in Ann Arbor where, before a lottery was instituted, parents would camp out days in advance to sign up their kids for enrollment. "We weren't having to chase after something that was looked at as the standard in some other place. We really were encouraged to be ourselves and be unique and to be individuals," Al-Saadi says.

"Ann Arbor is very laid back and very open, so it's an easy place to make that kind of intimate connection anywhere," Stauffer says. "It's just an easy place to meet someone, and be friendly, and you might really hit it off, and I think that really lends itself to the way that the Ark feels." Everyone identifies the Ark as a venue for folk music. However, even just a quick glance at its calendar of shows will reveal a wealth of artists far beyond the stereotyped notion of just a guy playing acoustic guitar. The presentation of the full spectrum of folk and roots music has always been a part of the Ark's mission, but some of this diversity also comes from the fact that, frankly, there aren't as many stages for local live music anymore, and the Ark has had to step up to fill that void.

"I think DJs and dollar pitchers kind of took over," Al-Saadi says, specifically noting Rick's American Café's phasing out of live music." "Even frat parties, when I was coming up in Ann Arbor, they would hire live bands. All of a sudden, 10 or 15 years ago, someone in the house DJ-ed, and they had songs on their laptop, and so all of a sudden they stopped being willing to pay for bands to play."

With some of these facts in mind, the festivities for this year aren't just about the Ark's history — they're about making sure the future is secure for the next generation of local folk fans. The Ark's staff is working on a capital campaign to help make improvements to the venue, pay off the loan that allowed them to own the space, and maybe even expand activities to the daytime. Such work might even set up the home of Ann Arbor's folk music scene for another 50 years. Preserving the special ideals of Ann Arbor might be more important than it's ever been.

The Ark's 50 Year Fling begins with a "Community Sing" on Wednesday, July 22 and a "Community Movie Night" on Thursday, July 23. Musicians perform from Friday, July 24 to Sunday, July 26 at the Ark, 316 S. Main St., Ann Arbor.

Adam Theisen is an intern for Metro Times.