The 54th Annual Philadelphia Folk Festival starts this Thursday, August 13, 2015. The Thursday night show is for campers only with the Festival for the rest of the world opening its doors on Friday morning, August 14. I’ve been attending the festival since 1977. I used to say that I missed six years when I “lived out of the area.” While that’s true, I now live farther than ever from the festival — almost exactly 500 miles, in North Carolina — but I would not miss it for the world. It was literally a condition of accepting the position in North Carolina — I get Folk Festival leave in mid-August every year.
Who are the headliners this year? Good question. They are:
FRIDAY NIGHT: Arlo Guthrie
Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Alice’s Restaurant. (I think the real anniversary was last Thanksgiving, but he’s made a year-long tour out of it ). I have seen Arlo more than any other single artist over the years. His shows, including his tall tales and a few real adventures, are always entertaining, no matter how many times you may have heard the stories.
SATURDAY NIGHT: Lyle Lovett and His Large Band
At a festival years ago, someone (I don’t recall who) sang Lyle’s, “If I had a Boat” and called Lyle, “weird.” Truth be told, he is kind of weird, but if that is what makes his songs work, and his shows so entertaining, I am glad he is weird. May he always be weird.
Sunday night: North Mississippi Allstars
The Old Pool Farm will rock with North Mississippi Allstars, closing out the festival with their country blues on Sunday night. They put on a great show.
While the headliners themselves are reason enough to attend the festival, they are just a tiny fraction of the music available over the course of the weekend. The main stage show starts mid-afternoon each day (though the fiddler announces the evening shows at 7) and runs continuously until midnight (10 pm on Sunday) with an amazing lineup of folk, Americana, and roots performers.
The days are devoted to workshops. When I started attending in 1977, they were really workshops. You learned something. David Amram handed out instruments to play, banjo players could learn a new lick or a new tuning, or you could learn how to play the bones. In the intervening years, the festival got big and then bigger and those intimate workshops were no longer practical. It also required artists to prepare something special for the festival. Workshops are now just mini concerts with multiple artists. They range from amazing collaborations to a sampling of the various performers who are on the stage for the same topic at the same time and who at least feed off of each other even if they do not take the time to collaborate. One of the workshops that struck me as a must-see this year is
with Mason Porter, Hoots and Hellmouth; Hinton, Bower, and Jones; Chris Kasper, No Good Sister, John Francis, Griz, Kevin Killen, Ladybird, Spuyten Duyvil, Rootology, and Bob Beach
The Folk Festival web page for this workshop is a little short on details, but with “Workingman’s Dead,” which essentially is a folk album, and Garcia’s interest in Bluegrass, I’m not surprised by the title. I guess I’ll learn about those roots in more detail this weekend (or at least it should be some great music given the lineup of performers participating).
For some of the best music of the festival, and for the full festival experience, you have to camp. The Thursday night show, which is solely for campers, has in the past been a throw-away event for me. Devoted to rockers with no folk roots at all, it’s never been that much of a pull. I was OK with missing it last year. However, this year, at least one of the three performers scheduled for Thursday is especially promising: Lindi Ortega, a Canadian singer-songwriter, has a very country sound and will be on the Camp Stage on Thursday night. Check out her YouTube video, Tin Star. She is promising enough to make it worth going to the Thursday show.
Regardless of whether the Thursday night show delivers or disappoints, some of the best music over the weekend won’t be on the schedule and won’t be on a stage, or at least not one of the big ones. From the Front Porch Stage, a sometimes walk-up-and-play stage that goes strong all night after the main stage show is over, to the official campfire in the camping area, and some (but not all) of the campers themselves strumming and fiddling at their campsites, there is more music that any single person can even begin to take in over the course of a single weekend. The music literally runs around the clock from the moment the camping site opens until 10 AM Monday morning.
The late Dave Van Ronk (“the Mayor of Macdougal Street”) used to come into the campground after the main stage show and jam with campers. I saw him in the campground in the wee hours of Monday morning at my first festival, in 1977. He played until the sun came up.
The festival is also a family event. (Really.) In the cool shade of “Dulcimer Grove,” there are kids’ activities, story-telling, and music all day long. I took my kids when they were as little as three and four, and one of them visited at 18 months. Two of my three kids, now in their 20s, will be there again this year. Luke, my youngest, will be camping with me and Jake, my eldest boy, will be joining us on Saturday and Sunday. Luke has been attending the festival for the last 15 years. Jake hasn’t been to quite as many, but I’m thrilled when he can make it. It is better as a family event.
If you’ve never been the Philadelphia Folk Festival, maybe you should check it out and find out why I’ve been going back all these years. It’s not hard to find on the Internet, at least. They somehow snagged the web name,FolkFest.org.
Also appears on my occasional Folk Music blog on WordPress