The 53rd Annual Philadelphia Folk Festival: A Most Quotable Weekend
Double rainbow, check. Amazing music, double check. My 31st year at the 53rd annual Philadelphia Folk Festival has come and gone, but the memories are lingering on like lyrics and notes across the sweet waves of blue sky and high moon. This was a stellar year on the fields of Schwenksville, PA, from the main stage to the late night campfires. Humidity was low, spirits were high, and the incredible line-up prevailed with Old Crow Medicine Show, Natalie McMaster, The Lone Bellow, Loudon Wainwright III, The Steep Canyon Rangers, Shemekia Copeland, and hundreds more. Far and wide in the campground, singing all night and all day was the menu of choice for the thousands of campers that reunite year after year after year after year, set up all kinds of mini-villages, and can’t imagine being anywhere else. The festival programmers even created a special Thursday night concert just for the campers, emceed by WXPN/World Café host David Dye, who attended his first Philly Folk Festival with his parents way back in 1968. “The Thursday show is the best kept secret of the folk fest”, David says. “It’s a huge party and we’re really lucky to get the acts we do to go with the party. Having Sturgill Simpson here was a real coup.”
WXPN General Manager Roger LaMay would agree, having only missed one folk fest in the 30 years that he’s lived in the area. “WXPN presents three showcases over the weekend at different stages and all have become traditions we’re really excited about”, says LaMay, noting the Thursday night kickoff, Helen Leicht’s local artist showcase on Saturday, and Kathy O’Connell’s Kid’s Corner show on Sunday. He goes on to say, “XPN is happy to play a small role in such a great festival especially since we share a lot of music lovers and audience.”
One of the Thursday night acts was an energetically grooving Americana band called Parsonsfield who experienced a mystical haze washing over their faces from an earlier storm that just added to the mystique as well as the delight of the many festival photographers hovering over the stage. Just after their set, with barely a chance to take a breath, they shared their reactions about playing at the festival. Banjo player Chris Freeman spoke about the amazing energy from the audience coming back to the whole band on stage, while guitarist Max Shakun simply said, “This place is magical.” Mandolin player Antonio Alcorn echoed his bandmates saying, “We usually have to work a lot harder to get an audience to pay attention. Here, they brought the energy to us and we just tried our best to bring it back.” Indeed they did.
Festivals happen all over the country and the world. That’s no secret, yet there is something uniquely different about the Philadelphia Folk Festival, perhaps due to its amazing history of being the longest continuously running folk festival in the country, and in no small part due to the great emcee and legendary radio host, Gene Shay, who hasn’t missed a festival in all its 53 years. Wrap your head around that one for a second. This year seemed especially nourishing for so many people, possibly as a respite from all the strife in the world, and maybe even as a place to gather strength to bring positive momentum afterward. I asked several people to share thoughts about their festival experience, and musician Josh White, Jr.’s sentiments may have said it best: “If everyone could experience the feelings that go on at this festival, there wouldn’t be violence in the world.
Lief Sorbye from Tempest shared, “When people ask me what it’s like to perform on the main stage at the Philly Folk Festival, I say, imagine a huge living room and all your best friends are in it.” Vance Gilbert is one of the funniest performers on stage, but off stage he shared a more sentimental thought: “I’m home. I grew up in Philly. When I was a kid, I didn’t like folk music, but the Philly Folk Festival waited for me to come of age and now I’m here.” Dave Fry, performer and founder of legendary Bethlehem, PA folk club Godfrey Daniels said, “I grew up at the folk fest, playing music in the campground and sitting up front watching my idols. Coming full circle and playing the same stages that inspired me in the first place is a dream come true.” Gracing the stage this year was an up and coming singer/songwriter who quite literally grew up in the campground year after year and went on to be a well-established actor on TV, film and Broadway, including a main role on Newsroom and winning a Tony award for Spring Awakening. Even with his busy acting schedule, Johnny Gallagher, Jr. spent the entire weekend at the festival, reuniting with his festival family as well as performing alongside Vance Gilbert, Sonia, and Antsy McClain. “2014 was one of the best Philly Folk Festivals I’ve attended”, he said. “Between camping with my family, catching up with old friends, seeing so much stellar music and getting to share my own songs on the Tank Stage, this year will be pretty tough to top!” From the main stage on Saturday night, the one and only Natalie McMaster was so very humble with the audience, saying, “I love the Philadelphia Folk Festival and I was so excited when I got the call to play. You all are so sweet. You make people feel like they could fly over the moon.”
A folk festival as long standing as Philly really becomes a family with multi-generations growing up there, the countless volunteers who give their time and talents over decades, the occasional on-site wedding, and dare we say, those attendees that have curiously attended one more festival than their actual age. The folk fest is like a family reunion for so many, and with that can also bring hard times.
The festival lost a dear friend this year. Longtime local favorite and handpan drummer Dante Bucci was scheduled to perform, and tragically and suddenly lost his life as he was packing for the festival. He was honored several times throughout the weekend and most especially at the local showcase on Saturday, presented by WXPN host and emcee Helen Leicht, who led the tribute. After the festival was over, she shared, “Last week we lost Dante Bucci, a wonderful person and an exceptional artist. Dante was scheduled to perform at my Philly Local showcase on the Camp stage with his long-time friend Mutlu and Jeremy Dyen. The showcase featuring Kwesi K, Ryan Tennis, Irene Molloy, and Mutlu became a tribute to Dante, while his family and friends were there to listen to the music and get some comfort being at one of Dante’s favorite festivals. Many tears and hugs and memories of someone we all loved were shared, and when Mutlu sang “Stand by Me”, everyone sang along. Dante’s teacher of the handpan, Doc Terry, ended our showcase playing a song he wrote with Dante.
“Hearing him play brought us all to tears but we felt Dante with us,” Kathy O’Connell said. “This year’s fest was fabulous, despite the enormous dark cloud that hung over it with the loss of Dante Bucci. Helen’s Philly Local Stage was an opportunity for catharsis for musicians in pain. The Kids Corner stage embodied everything that makes the Fest community so wonderful: the collaborative spirit of the musicians and attendees. Dave Fry’s welcoming voice was the first one I heard when I arrived, and I sang along to ‘Giants’ as I crossed the field to my stage. John Flynn closed my show in quintessential John Flynn form: a mix of his Kids Corner hits and ‘Like Woody Done’ from his new ‘Poor Man’s Diamonds’ CD.”
Campers shared their thoughts too, especially about the scene in the campground, as described by camping fiddler, Amy Forsyth: “For me, music is communal. I play the fiddle and sing, and I’m always looking to find people to connect with on a deeper musical and emotional level. I look for harmonies, intertwining melody and harmony lines, ensemble playing, ways to express that we are not alone in the world. One of the best things about Fest is that wandering around the campground allows you to meet and play with many other musicians, and then keep in touch during the rest of the year. This year, I found several of these—an extraordinary sax player with whom harmonies and melodies just naturally emerged, along with many smiles. A singer-songwriter whose voice and mine wound together in a most pleasing manner, a pile-up of old-time players who are all about the community of music.”
Long time festival attendee Renette Hackett described what the fest means to her: “It would take a wordsmith on the level of Bob Dylan to adequately convey what Philly Folk Fest means to me. It’s been a place where my family gathers to enjoy one another and a place where my personal family has grown into a legion of ‘sons and daughters, brothers and sisters’, related not by blood but by a shared love of music and fun. For four days every year, we come together and share music, food, stories, and most importantly, love. Since 1983, when I got a notion to go to folk fest, I have returned each year to reunite with my folkie family, to be embraced by that special love. This only scratches the surface of what the folk fest means to me.”
Woody Platt from the Steep Canyon Rangers recognized the diversity of the festival. “We play festivals that are eclectic in nature, but this one is the most multi-genre we’ve been to in a long time”, he said. “It’s reminiscent of Winnipeg and Edinburgh Folk Festivals. There’s a great familial experience with the staff and production crew. Everyone is happy to be here and that’s really nice for a performer on the road.”
It’s also nice for the folks behind the scenes. Festival talent buyer Jesse Lundy expressed gratitude, saying, “We couldn’t be happier with the response from the audience this year, the hard work of the volunteers (and everyone involved) and the weather. It really couldn’t have been a better year.” Of course, the festival wouldn’t be complete without a certain nearby guitar company whose presence truly is the essence of the festival. Martin Guitar senior artist relations manager Chris Thomas remarked, “The talent was amazing. Martin ambassadors Jason Isbell and Loudon Wainwright, along with Martin artists Janis Ian, Sturgill Simpson, John Flynn and Martin strings endorsee Tommy Emmanuel were among my faves. We cherish our decades-long relationship with the Philadelphia Folk Festival and we are proud to support this legendary festival.”
I agree wholeheartedly with all of the above, and all I need now is a do-over, with more time to spend with friends, more time to play music and see great acts, and more time to simply be at the fest. Oh well, 2015 is but a few notes away. Be sure to keep an eye on www.pfs.org to keep up to date, and we’ll see you in Schwenksville!
Pictures in order of appearance: Old Crow Medicine Show, Shemekia Copeland, Johnny Gallagher, Jr., Natalie McMaster, The famous green bus, Folk DJ legend/folk fest emcee Gene Shay. All photos by Jayne Toohey, (www.jayne2e.com) except green bus photo (and sign on green bus) by LisaBeth Weber (www.creativebizhub.com). More details in photo library on this site.