Inspire, Expire: Ann Arbor Folk Festival 2019 at Hill Auditorium

featuring Rufus Wainwright, I’m With Her, Joan Osborne’s Dylanology, Pokey LaFarge, Ahi, and The RFD Boys with Peter Mulvey MC’ing.

It’s the second night. I didn’t get tickets to the first night, which featured Michigan Rattlers and Gregory Allan Isakov and Brandi Carlile.

Rufus broke a string on his guitar and so Joan Osborne has lent him hers.

He’s about to sing us a song about his German husband. He says his husband demands to have at least one song written about him on all of Rufus’s albums.

“It’s our European arrangement,” Rufus tells us in his friendly, effeminate tenor speaking voice, which seems to carry a hint of bladed sarcasm in everything he says.

He’a full of stories and wit. He recalls a massage he received in Barcelona, where the English-challenged masseuse told him to “Inspire…expire…” and whispered, “Do you like depression?” into his ear.

He opens with Beauty Mark and immediately goes into Vibrate, which he plays with only his left hand. Then he does The Art Teacher. He finishes a new song about the 24 hour news cycle called Early Morning Madness and says, “I’m going to stay in this sort of lugubrious, French depressive state here, because although this is a folk festival it’s JANUARY!”

He does a song in French. He can’t remember who wrote the music.

It’s his husband’s birthday. He feels guilty about being away.

“Um, so it’s your fault,” he says to us, half-joking. “But it’s okay cause it’s a folk festival.”

He’s been doing a lot, he says. New opera in Toronto, new pop album coming out hopefully within a year. He’s thinking about calling it “Unfollow the Rules” which is something his daughter came up with.

His most recent album (2012’s Out of the Game) was produced by the illustrious and insanely famous Mark Ronson aka the guy who did Uptown Funk.

“I thought I was gonna be this huge star, then five years later I realize it’s called ‘Out of the Game’,” Rufus says.

Earlier, the show opened like all folk festivals should, which is with no fanfare whatsoever.

MC Peter Mulvey came out while the lights were still up and and just started singing a song about the trouble with poets. He introduces every act with humilty and class and valiant attempts at humor.

The RFD Boys open, doing their plucking and harmonies. They’re a family banjo-folk band that’s been around since the sixties. They do Turkey in the Straw for their closer. Good stuff. If I was drunk at some honky tonk bar I’d be screaming with enthusiasm.

I’ve never been to Hill Auditorium before. The sound is great. I’m in the last row of the mezzanine. The seats were clearly made before people in America were obese. I spend most of the show standing behind my seat because it’s more comfortable.

A band called Ahi (pronounced ‘HI’) comes on. They’re from Canada and the singer tells us a story about a hat he ordered and about traveling the continent with his wife and kids. They seem friendly, good sound. They do A Change is Gonna Come and I feel the Holy Spirit in the walls.

Pokey LaFarge comes on looking like John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson had a kid who fell in love with Buddy Holly. He tells us the venue was created for 3500 people because that’s how many students were in the University of Michigan when the place was built. He compares it to a spaceship. He plays solo, he’s on Jack White’s label, and he plays songs that sound like an old jukebox.

Joan Osborne Bob Dylan project comes on next. Jackie Greene from The Black Crowes is on guitar and backing vocals. They do a neat jammy version of Rainy Day Woman #12 & 35. It becomes apparent very early on that Joan is quite the diva. It actually gets really annoying, ego rolling off the stage. The intro to Tangled Up in Blue is beautiful, though.

I go get a Sprite and look at old instruments like a clarinet made by the inventor of the saxophone (his name was actually Sax) and an instrument made out of an elephant tusk, all set up in a display case in the lowest level of the theater.

After a brief intermission, I’m With Her is introduced. They sound like an all-female Nickel Creek, which makes sense since Sara Watkins is one of the women. Just like Nickel Creek, they sound better live than on record. Artists like this are why you need to see music live. The moment can’t be replicated with any recording whatsoever. They cover Joni Mitchell, close with John Hiatt. The music is arresting, they don’t talk much, they sound incredible. This is what they fucking do. I’m envious. I wish I was this good at anything.

“Fuck you, you’re too good,” I yell at them as they leave the stage.

Peter Mulvey does two more songs while Rufus’s piano is prepared. The last one is called Pigeons and it’s a minute and fifteen seconds and very pretty. He’s gotten better thoughout the night, more comfortable. Maybe he’s drinking but maybe that’s just how he is.

Rufus walks out in a sparkly coat. His voice rinses my mind like sleep. No one sounds like him, no imitators. It’s nasal but with power behind it. It’s like Layne Staley. Try to name someone else who sounds like him. I can’t.

For the encore, I sneak down to the front row of the mezzanine and I see how right Pokey LaFarge was when he compared Hill Auditorium to a spaceship. The place feels like Professor X’s Cerebro, an enormous sphere. The place yawns over you.

Rufus does Going to a Town to open the encore.

“I’m so tired of America,” he sings. “…no shit.”

Everyone joins Rufus for Hallelujah to close out the festival. They hang to the wings at first until Rufus waves them out.

“I know I’m intimidating,” he says. “Please come closer.”

Jackie Greene gets a verse. Joan Osborne gets a verse. I’m With Her gets a verse, doing impressive three-part harmony. Everyone else from the show is chorus. They stand there. It’s a hootenanny. I sing along.

Then, like all concerts, it’s over. Rufus graciously shakes a bunch of his fellow musicians’ hands and gets the hell out of there.

I follow the procession outside to discover there’s a snowstorm tonight. Driving home is a challenge, and the streetlights glow yellow and white.

Everything is a work in progress.

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