The 55th Annual Philadelphia Folk Festival
The 55th Annual Philadelphia Folk Festival just ended, and we are fortunate that ND photographer Mark J. Smith was there to capture so many great photos and provide this week’s commentary. As he first attended the festival in 1970, he knows his way around.
This festival holds a special place in my own heart as it was the first festival I ever attended. It also solidified my folk music leanings. It’s where, for the first time, I got to see several favorites, such as the Incredible String Band and Jerry Jeff Walker, and it introduced me to some new artists who became new favorites, like David Bromberg and Paul Geremia. I distinctly remember John Denver late one night, from the main stage, asking the audience to light matches and hold them up. It was pretty cool. The rest is kind of hazy. It was that kind of summer in the city.
Now, let’s explore Mark’s experiences at the 2016 Philadelphia Folk Festival, in his words:
Before I get into the Fest itself, I want to say how much we all missed Gene Shay. A founder of the Philadelphia Folk Festival (PFF) and the event’s emcee since its inception, Gene has been called the “Godfather of Philadelphia Folk Music.” Gene was under the weather this year and for the first time in Fest history he had to miss the show. We all missed you, Gene.
While the Fest begins on Thursday night with a concert for the campers only, for me it starts on Friday because I don’t camp. I know, everyone tells me I miss the true experience if I don’t camp. Living about 25 to 30 minutes down the road, I have opted to go home at night since my first Fest in 1970. The need to clean cameras and lenses, off-load memory cards of pictures, charge batteries, sleep in a comfy bed, and shower all go into that decision.
There are many more stages now than in 1970. Lots of great music all day spread over the Old Poole Farm, but I am going to stick to the Martin Stage (the Main Stage) shows. Those shows had lots of lively diverse music from bands like Hoppin’ Boxcars, Hello Strangers, Hurricane Hoss, Frog Holler and Burning Bridget Cleary. A lot of musical territory, covered beautifully.
The evening concerts had some excellent folk music from Iris Dement and Darlingside, but my standouts for the night were a couple of bands considered to be relative newcomers. Anderson East absolutely rocked the stage with his Alabama- and Nashville-infused R&B. His energy and passion and hard work on stage were electrifying. His talent, lyrics, and his band were fantastic. At one point in his set, he brought out some friends — the band that was up next — the Lone Bellow. Together they were a force for the night.
Originally from Brooklyn, the Lone Bellow have been recording and playing nationally since 2012. I photographed them at PFF in 2014 and totally enjoyed their music as well as their stage presence. They have grown since then. Releasing a couple of albums and playing often has honed them into a rare gem of a musical presentation. The currently use the folk and bluegrass method of all three members singing from one central microphone. Looks great, sounds great, but a challenge to photograph. Of course, the Lone Bellow brought out the Anderson East band for a couple of songs and again, together they are a wonderful mix.
The evening closed with Bakithi Kumalo & the South African All-Stars, some of whom played with Paul Simon on Graceland. What a wonderful way to close the show.
Tempest, a Celtic rock band with roots in Norway, kicked off the day on the Martin Stage. They have played PFF often and never fail to rock the socks off the audience. The Martin Stage also saw Robin and Linda Williams, Vishten, Si Kahn, and Sharon Shannon all the way from Ireland. The Wood Brothers closed Saturday and were fantastic, but my highlights were many other moments.
Peter Yarrow — talk about a classic — not only played and sang great but did something I have never seen at PFF. With the production director having conniptions, Yarrow invited the audience to join him onstage to sing “The Magic Dragon.” Never in my memory has such a thing happened. Forget the very tight schedule, forget the liability. It was, for sure, a PFF Magic Moment.
After that, Buffy Sainte-Marie was no let down. She was fantastic. I last saw her live in the late ’60s when she came to Temple University for an Hour of Pleasure the school had on Wednesday afternoons. We have all aged since then but you couldn’t tell by listening to or looking at her onstage. Her music is as wonderful as always, and her stage presence is just great. What a fantastic show.
The Stray Birds are another young folk group that have been getting a lot of attention lately. Mountain Stage applauded their singular ability to “successfully draw on the rich traditions of American folk music while still sounding modern.” And yes, I love the challenge of shooting all three around the same mic. (Let me know how I did by commenting below). Great set.
On to Del & Dawg: bluegrass from two of the best. Del McCoury and David Grisman on guitar and mandolin, respectively, have been great friends for years and got together to play some songs they love and some new songs written for the occasion. Believe me, it was an occasion. Actually, forget the great music. I could listen to the two of them do nothing but talk for an entire set. In a word: fantastic.
The day began with an old festival stand-by: rain. The falling water cut into the early workshops and main stage shows. It also cut into my wandering around the grounds to take pictures of the crowd. Some of my best shots are those of an event’s attendees.
When the rain cleared, we got to see and hear some really wonderful gospel music from the Fairfield Four and the McCrary Sisters, performing together as Rock My Soul. And they certainly did.
Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives took the stage and were superlatively fabulous. Yep, they were great with a country rocking sound that made everyone forget the rain. Marty highlights every member of the band, including having the drummer come forward with one drum for a bit of a solo and song around the mic. What a great set.
Buckwheat Zydeco was to be next. But with Buckwheat ill, CJ Chenier filled in for him with the zydeco Band. If you like zydeco … oh hell, if you like music that makes your toes tingle, this set was way up there.
Los Lobos closed the with a set of their fantastic Latino-flavored rock from East L.A., that we all have come to love. Another great set.
And with that, another Philadelphia Folk Festival is over and done. Many great memories enjoying the music and all the experiences with friends again this year. See you all next year for PFF 56.
You’ll see Mark’s memorable photos below. You can find more of his photographs at: www.photosmithdigital.com