Tradition and transformation
by Sandor Slomovits
Matt Watroba likes tradition. He likes songs that somehow seem traditional, even if you know who wrote them. He likes knowing that every Saturday afternoon, as host of the Folks like Us radio show on WEMU, he gets to talk about them, introducing his favorite musicians to a vast invisible audience. And he likes knowing that every year, on the day after Thanksgiving, he'll play at the Ark, where he gets to do those same things and also sing before an audience he can actually see.
"What I love the most about folk music," Matt says, "is that it's constantly evolving from something older. You're always building on a tradition." That love of tradition and transformation has informed his work on both radio and stage. When WDET, longtime home of the Folks like Us show, in one of the more questionable moves a Detroit organization has made since the Tigers fired Ernie Harwell, let Watroba go last year, he didn't sulk or pout: he simply moved his encyclopedic knowledge of folk music and musicians, his not inconsiderable talents as an interviewer, and his comfortable, down-home speaking voice to WEMU. Detroit's loss, our gain.
His Thanksgiving shows have also evolved, from early solo performances to shared evenings with storytellers and some of Michigan's top musicians. This year's show, on Friday, November 25, will feature the Jukebox Folk Band: Bud Michael on bass, one-man band David Mosher on everything with strings, and Katie Geddes on vocals that blend so well with Matt's that they remind you of the best sibling acts in country music.
This year's show will also be different, because it will feature many more of Matt's original songs. Three years ago he quit his longtime full-time work as a teacher and, for the first time in his long career, started writing songs. But these songs are not the work of a novice. They show the sure hand of someone who's been working with language for
a long time he taught high school English for twelve years and one who's learned much from his conversations with some of the finest songwriters on the planet. Matt's songs range from the inspiring country-gospel-flavored "How Will I Leave" to a hot-off-the-press Woody Guthrie-type ballad about a Katrina family.
The Ark gig is special for Matt, but not because it's rare for him to play live concerts: he's been singing before audiences for more than twenty-five years. It's because, like so many people, he considers the Ark to be the finest folk music venue in the country: "When you play the Ark, you want to bring something good!" Every year, Matt does.
[Review published November 2005]