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Live Reviews

48th Annual Philadelphia Folk Festival

By Published: September 5, 2009
48th Annual Philadelphia Folk Festival
Upper Salford, Pennsylvania
August 14-17, 2009

Mud. It may have been the headline for the 48th annual Philadelphia Folk Festival were it not for a lineup of great musicians who covered many genres of music including folk, country, rock, independent, and jazz. The seventy-acre Old Pool Farm in suburban Philadelphia experienced rain prior to the opening of the festival that turned this fertile hay farm into slush, which caused significant parking problems but did not deter the 3000 volunteers, 6000 campers, and thousands of daytrippers from enjoying the sunny weather, great juried crafts, and terrific music. Once inside, the Philadelphia Folk Festival became a seemingly never ending party with non-stop acts during the day, and campers playing their own music late into the night at the campground.

Rebirth Brass Band

The folk festival is no doubt full of family traditions. Many attendees could be heard boasting about how many years they have been attending the festival—25 to 35 years was not uncommon. One man bragged that he has been coming for 38 years and is only 37 years old, having attended his first festival in utero. One of the most enduring attendees was Philadelphia radio personality and festival emcee Gene Shay, who has hosted the main music stage for 48 years. Families and friends stake their spots on the forty-acre campground with signs and other memorabilia as they create what becomes a small town every August on the farm. The campground is an amazing sight, with tents placed close together and groups singing around small campfires into the wee hours of the morning. For many, the campground is the main part of the festival as they enjoy their time with family and friends in this party atmosphere.

But it was certainly the music that drew most of the people to the festival. And this year, the festival organizers—The Philadelphia Folk Song Society—made successful efforts to draw younger music lovers to this weekend of music that many were heard to call a "mini-Woodstock." There was a recognition that the regulars were aging and that for the festival to continue, it would have to draw a younger crowd to continue the traditions. Thus along with the usual folk, country, and Irish music, this year's lineup included The Rebirth Brass Band, The Decemberists, Caravan of Thieves, Iron and Wine, Enter the Haggis, Sonny Landreth, and The Derek Trucks Band. Judging by the huge mosh pits of twenty-somethings that formed in front of each of these acts, it's a strategy that seems to be working.

The Philadelphia Folk Festivals boast five stages, including a large, permanently-built main stage with two smaller pavilion type stages on each side. During the day, the smaller stages can host lower key and solo groups, which included The Folk Brothers, John Flynn, and Crossing Jordan actress Jill Hennessy, who lately has been working on her singing career. The young group Caravan of Thieves, with their Gypsy swing style, was a treat for many. This high-energy band of two guitars, a violin, and a double bass had the audience swinging and dancing during its excellent performances.

Jill Hennessey and Brian Standefer

When the main stage, with its large video screens to project evening performances, was in use, the smaller stages were shut down for the continuous music late into the evening. An added treat occurred between bands when video of past performances were shown on the large screens, including a 1990 film of a young Janice Ian singing her hit song, "At Seventeen." This was a excellent way to keep the audience entertained and attentive during the fifteen-minute set changes.

The Rebirth Brass Band opened the main stage on Friday with their infectious New Orleans funk brass sound. It was a great opening, as the crowds danced to such hits as "Walking to New Orleans" and Rebirth's original "Do What Ya Wanna." The night slowed down temporarily with the beautiful guitar playing of Canadian Erik Mongrain. Mongrain's mellow strumming and gentle guitar thumping gave the impression of a guitar and drum duo as he played original tunes. New Hampshire resident Tom Rush took the stage with his band and their folk country stylings, and the evening ended with a high energy performance by Lafayette, Louisiana native Sonny Landreth, showing why many consider him one of the best slide guitarists.

Excitement was building for the Saturday afternoon performance of The Decemberists. This seven- member Seattle-based group had the twenty-somethings head bopping in the August heat in the mosh pits to their indie-rock storytelling tunes. This group left no doubt that there's something for everyone at the Philadelphia Folk Festival. Boston folk singer Ellis Paul brought the festival back to its roots, accompanied by a beautiful piano, and later Philadelphian Tom Rush played his feel-good make-the-world-a-better-place tunes that really did have the audience feeling better. Toronto Celtic rock group, Enter the Haggis, lit the festival up with its high-energy Celtic-infused tunes that included bag pipe and fiddle. This young, hip group was appealing to all ages and had the audience clapping and dancing as the evening progressed. The night ended on a mellow note when Iron and Wine—Austin resident Sam Beam—played a solo show. With his good humor and excellent acoustic guitar playing, he had his loyal fans singing along to his always meaningful lyrics, including his tune "Naked As We Came"—a song about long-term love.

Caravan of Thieves

Sunday's groups included Works Progress Administration, The Del Mc Coury Band, and Langhorne Slim. But the crowd seemed most interested in the festival closer, The Derek Trucks Band. A long-time member of the Allman Brothers Band, Trucks was simply amazing as he played covers and originals in various styles. The band's jazz version of the Sound of Music's "My Favorite Things" was beautifully played and Trucks showed that he owned the guitar, making it sound however he wanted it to sound. Trucks' blues tunes had the audience howling in appreciation. This was a perfect ending to a great festival.

There is no doubt that The Philadelphia Folk Festival is making great changes to draw a wider audience. It seemed that the original folk audience was happy, and the festival welcomed in a new generation of music lovers who also look for meaning in their music. Folk musicians have always been about the stories they tell of peace, justice, love, and change. Groups like Iron and Wine and The Decembrist also tell stories with great meaning to a younger generation. Groups like Rebirth Brass Band, Enter the Haggis, and The Derek Trucks band are an evolution of roots music. Including these new bands while keeping the groups that made the folk fest what it is and keeping it alive for forty-eight years is a tribute to vision and dedication of the Philadelphia Folk Song Society and its 3000 volunteers. This sort of progressive thinking should carry this festival forward for the enjoyment of many more generations.

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