Philadelphia Folk Festival

What can be said about the Philadelphia Folk Festival? Literally, how can it be said? I mean is it possible to write a review? It might not be feasible for one person to write a "brief". Depending on how you count them, there are at least 6 - 8 different stages. It's physically impossible for one human to witness all the acts. You can not be at all the places. Concerts start for the campers on Thursday evening and end on Sunday evening. It's pretty hard for one human to be in the proper mode to critique all of that time.

However, given the limitations on space and time, a brief overview is fairly simple -- unbelievable!

To start with, you wouldn't believe such a large festival would be held at this location. You see, the Philadelphia Folk Festival isn't in Philadelphia. It is held on a farm near the small town of Scwenksville, PA. To see 10's of 1,000's of people converge in the middle of nowhere is really quite a sight.

The campground opens on Thursday and quickly becomes a quirky sort-of city. Since The Old Pool farm has been the Festival's home since 1971, many of the campers have been attending for years. They have their own code-of-conduct and set of ethics. Many of them are also singers, songwriters and musicians. Thus, at any given time a campers' concert might break out. For the last couple of years, official concerts have been given for the campers at the Camp Stage on Thursday evening. WXPN has been recording the shows for future broadcasts. I was fortunate enough to catch Espers' set.

Espers is a Philadelphia based band that released their first album in 2004. Though they have a strong folk influenced sound, their music also has Pink Floyd-ish electric guitar and modern rock overtones. It felt quite right in the evening twilight as a lightening storm approached. The strong winds caused a few tents to take to the sky. Unfortunately, the rain caused me to flee the remaining concerts.

The next morning I returned to perfect weather and headed back to the Camp Stage. Performing as a duet were Anthony DeCosta with Abbie Gardner of Red Molly. They recently recorded Anthony's seventh album in only three days. As he is only 17-years-old, that's quite remarkable. There is no doubt that he falls into the category of prolific songwriter. His stage presence is contagious, too, letting loose a firestorm of energy. (More about Anthony later)

As a volunteer, I spent the rest of the day working in the camp ground area. Even though I couldn't see the shows on stage, I got to witness the show that is the camp ground. Whenever I had a chance, I'd pull out my guitar and any given numbers of strangers would partake in a jam session. There is a feeling that transcends and permeates all participants of the fest.

The only other stage act I was able to catch that day was Jake Shimabukuro. Jake plays the ukulele like no one I've ever seen. If you didn't see him, and just closed your eyes, you probably wouldn't ever guess a youngster was playing Led Zeppelin on a ukulele.

Saturday I returned with some youth in tow. The whole Festival is family friendly, but there is a particular area set aside that is special for the young at heart. Dulcimer Grove has free children's crafts and two stage areas for performers. You can learn to juggle, watch people swing from the tops of trees or take part in a jug band. Perhaps the biggest attraction is the hammock hillside. Anyone can climb into one of the dozens of hammocks and hang around. It's another good place to pull out your guitar or harmonica.

Next, I headed over to another of my favorite stages, The Craft Stage. The Craft stage features workshops and other unusual configurations. On this morning, Janis Ian gave a story telling based workshop. Janis just wrote her autobiography. Before playing a song, she would tell the story that went along with how the song was written. I ended up listening to songs I normally wouldn't have paid attention to... gaining an appreciation for them... and coming to realize her great ability as a guitar player. Though some in the audience thought it depressing, I found her uplifting to those that are part of the music business. Perhaps the industry can be brutal, but her perspective gave hope to artists that persevere.

Hearing a crowd through the woods, I headed back to the Camp Stage. It was the "WXPN Local stars" shows. The final band was Mary Bichner and Box 5. Mary combines classical music with Brit-pop in a "musical succotash she likes to call classipop." Seeming a bit nervous in front of the rather large crowd, her jitters actually helped feed the audience. Knowing that Mary has synesthesia made it all the more colorful experience. Synesthesia is the term applied to someone who has perfect pitch and sees sound in colors.

Late Saturday afternoon, the "sweep" takes place. The sweep is an hour long clean-up of the grounds when everyone is asked to leave. On my way out the gate, I came upon a piano set up in the field. Before I knew it, I spent the rest of the evening with other random musicians. Good times such as these make you wish there was a piano on every street corner.

Sunday, I thought would be subdued. That was not to be the case. As soon as I approached the Camp Stage, I could see masses of people dancing in the field. Here Hoots & Hellmouth were already on stage playing an infectious style of soulful and twisted roots music turned into something completely different. They are a relatively new band out of West Chester, PA. The foot stomping folk oriented sound has been called musical mayhem.

Slightly dazed and confused, I made my way over to the Craft Stage. Much to my delight, it was packed full of a wide array of musicians. In what was called The Musician Summit, singers and musicians from a variety of bands created an all-star workshop. Samual James, Anthony DeCosta, Oscar Lopez, Pete Kennedy, Bill Vanaver and a special appearance by Maura Kennedy of The Stranglings taught us about their instruments, as well as, dazzled us with their combined talents: Oscar's stunningly fast nylon string guitar, Pete's electric sitar, an eight stringed base and an amazing slide guitar. At one point in the workshop, Anthony asked the audience if they wanted to be in a documentary he was making about the Corona Brothers. He asked once he started playing that the audience boo him. Of course, the crowd obliged. This got people all the less encumbered. When he went on to sing Folksinger, audience participation shot through the roof. By the time this super group went into their final number, Buddy Holly's (Bo Diddly's influenced) Not Fade Away, everyone was on their feet singing and dancing.

It was mentioned that Samual James on slide guitar would be playing on the Lobby Stage. Never having seen Samual before, I had to have more.

Under the tent at the Lobby Stage, Samual James sat alone with his guitar... a microphone in front of him and one by his foot. As soon as he began playing, it became obvious why there was a microphone down at floor level. With a slide guitar on his lap, his foot started banging out the beat. You couldn't help but to bob up and down to the rhythm. It was another glorious example of the musical diversity that can be found at the Festival. From full out Delta Blues to extra fine Piedmont Picking, the crowd couldn't get enough of Samual.

Get on your feet and dance Sunday continued on back at the Camp Stage. You could feel the Earth moving as you approached. On stage playing a cross between hard rocking folk, Irish and Scottish jigs, was Tempest. Tempest is a San Francisco based band that has been playing since 1988. Before I knew it, I was doing the Buffalo Jump. When the double-necked guitar player and kilt-clad fiddler jumped out into the audience, the whole place went wild with everyone dancing in self-abandonment.

What could possibly surpass this dance craze? Well, at least as entertaining, if not more so, was Terrence Simien & the Zydeco Experience. Just when I thought I could dance no more, I was caught by Terrence's act. Though it was suppose to be his kids' show, the adults didn't seem to mind. He taught us all about the origins of American music in Creole, Zydeco and World music. He'd let us in on the secrets of a Zydeco instrument and then bring children on stage to play with him. It was not possible to stay seated. Soon, the people kept flowing in to overflow capacity. As he'd toss Mardi Gras beads out, we'd take in knowledge of Mardi Gras Run music. It was a nice way for me to end my Fest -- a multi-cultural community learning experience that left me breathless.

For after this performance, I couldn't hold-up another moment. I'd have to retire until next year with the memories to keep me alive. The Folk Fest is highly recommended. And, as I stated at the beginning of this review, it really must be seen to be believed. Otherwise, it is unbelievable!

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