What's Left Ypsilanti

Working the Fountain Stage at the AAAF

Isaac Levine

I worked the sound booth at the Ann Arbor Art Fair this year. The “Original” Art Fair is a 60-year Ann Arbor institution in which craft artists selling wares from around the country are given more space in Ann Arbor public life than any artist in Washtenaw County (including of course, Ypsilanti) is given in Ann Arbor the other 361 days of the year. I drove in from Ypsilanti to park in the West Side of town and hike in for my 9-hour shifts in the heatwave.

The sound booth where I worked was for the “Fountain” Stage, the second largest stage in the festival. The performers at my stage were a consortium of Public Access type individuals, and unlike the majority of the festival, mostly local⁠—16 year old aspiring pop songwriters, an eccentric young man playing digital keyboard tributes to each branch of the United States Armed Forces one by one, white-led hula/hip hop dance class recitals, and my very favorite—a group called Agenda 21, a middle-aged punk band who almost exclusively writes songs about forgoing the use of GMOs (which would normally be too on the nose for me but really hit the spot⁠—they had a fabulous spirit).

There were lots of repeating patterns over the course of my four days there that I believe would qualify as "simulation hints"⁠—things that as repeating patterns showed me, if just for a moment, the connection between what I was witnessing at my “gig" and a more cosmic set of rules that governs life in Ann Arbor and maybe the world.

For example, the day that there were three guitar-based singer-songwriters named Carly, of which two did crossfit. Or how the next day there were two consecutive solo pianists both named Michael, things like that. Or this one: That there were no less than five platonic man-woman acoustic duos; that in each of them the subject of their relationship was quickly brought up⁠—one of them clarifying that they weren’t dating and that sure enough her husband or fiancée is out there in the audience. The Husband watches the musical intimacy of the Platonic Duo with reservations but claps for posterity, frequently moving between chairs and looking off.

The duos tended to play mostly covers. At one point, a platonic man-woman duo was playing a guitar power chord version of a cover song⁠—sunglassed man playing harsh steel string through a vintage amplifier, her singing, standing, and fronting the duo. The song was “Ironic” by Alanis Morisette and the 95-degree weather caused the singer to suffer conditions of heat exhaustion at which point she froze, on the lyric:

It's meeting the man of my dreams
And then meeting his beautiful wife
And isn't it ironic

She was moving her hands to her chest and back to express the shakespearean incredulity of all the situations Morrisette lists in the song and froze like a tableau of a thespian doing the ‘to be or not to be’ speech⁠—hand to chest, other protruding.

She collapsed to the floor and put her finger to her temples saying ‘sorry’ over and over again. I brought her some ice water and her fiancée (not collaborator) gently shoulder-touched me out of the way and began to symbolically move his arm in a round but not ergonomic motion around her back to create a feeling of comfort.

Her guitarist shrugs, cranks his amp and begins to play Stairway To Heaven in order to fill the space in which the air was thick with concern.

She looks me in the eyes and says “Sorry” and I say “Don’t be.”

On the same stage, at another time, a duo called the Keynote Sisters did a slowed down and tightly harmonized tribute to Uncle Kracker’s timeless hit “Follow Me”—it turns out he’s from Michigan. Their voices were paired in angelic parallel as if they’d never touched dirt or cleaned a spilled big gulp out of their cup holders.

At a certain point in that day my blood began to turn into Dial soap inside of my veins.

After years of attending and booking DIY shows, it was a reckoning of craft to hear so many unabashed covers and nostalgia for the softer, non-grunge side of the 90’s—covers of ‘Semi-Charmed Life’ and long rants about being inspired by the Goo Goo Dolls filled the stage as heatwave turned to rain storm and back over and over again.

I had begun to adjust to the idea that the curation of the stage was meant to be catered to families—to be inoffensive and accessible—folk in the 60’s idiom, jazz in the 60’s idiom, jazz in the 20’s idiom being reframed and posited by nostalgics. My friend Dennison who stopped by said it appeared the curation of the stage was to be white and, I would add, coming of age in the 60’s.

The background music I was told to play was a sort of muzak. I played (the late great) Allen Touissant’s ‘American Tunes’ between acts and experienced geriatric montages of comfortable life like the part of a Woody Allen movie where him and some poor woman inexplicably fall in love (there is, aptly, a large mural of “geniuses” including Woody Allen and, forebodingly, Franz Kafka in the heart of downtown Ann Arbor).

Two confused lovers with sunglasses gently scowl while looking around, exchange students with earbuds in shoveling down funnel cake and gyro platters, and many many middle-aged men walking around with Life is Good apparel and the demeanor of Paddington Bear on acid.

The idea that this is an original Art Fair is far-fetched. “It’s not really a celebration of the original, it’s a celebration of the regurgitated” my friend Claire from Pittsburgh said. She was in Ann Arbor for two days on a trip. “It itself is a cover. I saw this like, booth, with paintings of pop culture figures waiting in line for the Hogwarts Express. Like Edward Scissorhands had his own trunk and was sitting on it.” I felt this was true via the ratio of original songs sung on the stage to covers of songs from the 1990’s.

Fantasies can only be made out of memories— so if all you’ve done in your life is see Harry Potter and go to Disney World and First Presbyterian, you might have the conviction that that is all there is. If these are your baseline, and you curate a festival—you might end up with the Fountain Stage at the Ann Arbor Art Fair. You might end up putting Tim Burton characters in JK Rowling theme worlds.

But is that a problem? Is it an issue of a city, and a festival, failing to cultivate independent arts? Or is it that people’s channels of culture are more incidental now? People, despite following others on social platforms, more discover their work from low-hanging fruit (front-page streaming service playlists, movies, advertisements, PITCHFORK) than finding more personalized/“localized" gatherings of art like posters, blogs, zines, conversation at the brick-and-mortar record store, etc. People’s avenues for discoveries of culture (baselines for fantasy) in public space are more limited, which might contextualize some of my easily-read disappointment in the AAAF programming, as I think it could be a chance to show a side of life in Washtenaw county beyond what is currently represented there.

Top played songs at the stage were: ‘Jolene’ by Dolly Parton, which was performed 4 times, and ‘Dream a Little Dream of Me’ popularized by Mama Cass, which was performed 2 times.

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