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Everyone's a Critic

The Observer's culture blog

Monday, May 2, 2011

WATER HILL MUSIC FESTIVAL, by Madeline Strong Diehl

Los Gatos plays at the Water Hill Music Festival, Ann Arbor, Michigan, May 1, 2011

The right to bear arms gets a lot of press, but not the right to bear musical instruments. But on May 1st, more than sixty-five Ann Arbor musicians plan to exercise that right by simultaneously performing on their own porches or in front yards in a northwest neighborhood recently dubbed "Water Hill." Both the festival and its moniker are the brainchild of banjo player Paul Tinkerhess, who says he got the idea about ten years ago, when he noticed how many noted musicians live near his house on Miner. He came up with the name because the neighborhood is near the city's water treatment plant and has streets named Spring, Fountain, and Brooks--probably because a creek used to flow nearby until it was channeled underground.

Tinkerhess says the only requirement for participation is that performers must live inside the boundaries he defined as Miller, Brooks, Sunset, and the railroad tracks. Performances will last between 2-6 p.m., with a May 8th raindate. A map and schedule of the shows can be found online at, and printed schedules will be handed out as well. He says he's expecting "hundreds" of visitors to meander through the neighborhood and enjoy such big names as Khalid Hanifi, George Bedard, Dick Siegel, Accidentally Hip, Chris Buhalis and Dave Keeney, Los Gatos, Vincent York, and Enid Sutherland, an internationally renowned expert on the viola da gamba. Genres include country rock, big band jazz, celtic, rhythm and blues--even the accordian will be well-represented. While about half of the musicians are professionals, Tinkerhess says he's especially encouraging participation by people who aren't. "Hearing a rough performance can leave an audience feeling empowered. I'm hoping there will be a certain amount of anarchy, and people will be inspired by the courage of their neighbors and dust off an old instrument and play it."

Because people are performing on their own private property, no permit is required, and the city has generously offered to donate use of a porta potty. (Tinkerhess indicated that it probably helped that a city employee with some clout lives in Water Hill.) Tinkerhess' one concern is that someone could invoke the noise ordinance, but he has already begun to urge musicians to be considerate of their neighbors--especially an act that wants to play hard rock. Volunteers are delivering notices to every resident, Tinkerhess says, and "if anybody complains about noise, I will personally deliver a pair of earplugs to them."

Something of an iconoclast, Tinkerhess says his family are the only five people with that last name in the country. (The name combines his family name, Tinker, with his wife's, Hess.) Tinkerhess likes to do things his own way, and the Water Hill Music Fest is the latest in a series of bold projects that Tinkerhess has launched over the years. He and his wife Claire bought their house from the city for one dollar, but he says it cost them significantly more to move it from Ashley and set it on a foundation. (Tinkerhess says it was worth it to "recycle" a house that otherwise would have been torn down.) They co-own the Fourth Avenue Birkenstock shop near Kerrytown where they sell Tempur-Pedic mattresses as well as shoes, and Tinkerhess' latest passion--wooden kite reels, which are also available online at Perhaps his boldest move was to sell battery-powered cars ten years ago. That effort was ahead of its time--he says many of the vehicles arrived at his store from the factory already needing repair.

But the Water Hill Music Fest has been golden from the start. "I have been astounded by the response I've gotten to this," says Tinkerhess. "I feel like I've found an accupuncture point on our culture, and just touching this one spot has released an enormous amount of positive energy."

posted by John Hilton at 2:03 p.m. | 0 comments


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