[Photo by GOOB712]
BY ARTHUR SHKOLNIK Tucked away on a tranquil farm amidst fields of sweet corn in quaint, semi-rural Schwenksville, PA is the cultural tradition and phenomenon known as the Philadelphia Folk Festival, which began in 1962, and celebrated its 49th year this weekend. Campers came out in droves and quickly filled the reserved 40 acres of space for the three day festival, forcing shuttle buses to make constant trips to and from a field sanctioned for overflow parking. Early intermittent rain and dampened grounds did little to muddy the spirits of performers and festival goers, who managed to stay comfortably dry under large tarps erected as a temporary expedient in case of inclement weather, as was the case during last year’s festival, when an explosive bout of last minute rain caused parking and traffic problems moments before the campgrounds were opened.
The spirit of free love was juxtaposed with peripheral events intended for children and families. The Give and Take Jugglers, who have a proud, decades-long commitment with the folk fest, brought their vaudevillian theater act and juggling expertise once again, in a performance which emphasizes humor and audience participation. Other planned activities included metalwork and glass-blowing demonstrations, candle-making, crafting with clay, and face painting. Seen alongside planned entertainment were multiple hackeysack circles, flying Frisbees, and hula-hoopers. Rows of vendors sold everything from eco-friendly clothing to handmade instruments and cigar box amps.
This year’s programming has been unarguably revamped, choosing to expand folk horizons beyond the traditional in hopes of drawing in younger audiences and infusing the festival with fresh blood. The three day festivities boasted over 40 artists, including a Philadelphia Music Co-op, which brought together emerging local talents, both traditional and contemporary, with an appreciative and supportive fan base of new listeners.
If the Kinks and Cream had an illegitimate child who was later adopted by My Morning Jacket, you might end up with a sound similar to the Philly-based psychedelic folk rockers known as Cheers Elephant, who offered a notably tight, versatile performance bursting with resounding harmonies. Festival goers bounced around with the booming, sweat-drenched band, which closed off their contagious, high energy set with some wicked slide guitar. All the while Oklahoma’s Rockin’ Acoustic Circus, a fiddle fiddlin’, banjo strummin’, mandolin pickin’ six piece led by seasoned musician and ringleader Rick Morton, conjured up a surprisingly mature and refreshing sound that managed to stay true to bluegrass standards without compromising the bands unique, integration of blues and rock.
Opening for Richard Thompson, and offering a full-flavored musical gumbo of folk, funk, swamp rock, blues, country, soul, and the kitchen sink, were The Subdudes, a sincere, unorthodox and uncompromising five-piece with its roots firmly planted in New Orleans’ mojo. The band’s unique stage setup and confident presence undoubtedly warrants a double-take and a listen. Performers ran the gamut from traditional to unconventional to just plain weird. Leading the bazaar of the bizarre was That 1 Guy, an offbeat eccentric who performs using an electric cord plugged into a cowboy boot and other homemade instruments. Another detour through the land of the weird was a singer performing in perfect Klingon, not to mention the band Sonos singing an a capella rendition of “Toxic” by Britney Spears.
Jesse McReynolds, bluegrass legend and member of the Grand Ole Opry since 1964, pleasantly surprised festival-goers with an unscheduled mando-picking performance Saturday night. McReynolds remains prolifically unconventional – a wild card reinventing bluegrass by straying from the traditionally implemented musical progressions and themes inherent to the style.
Jeff Tweedy, lead member of the rock legends known as Wilco, brought his acoustic guitar and harmonica to perform a rare solo set. Also performing a solo acoustic set was former member of Fairport Convention Iain Matthews, who was later joined on stage for a memorable surprise finale with Richard Thompson, also a former member of Fairport Convention and incontestable Guitar Legend. Thompson played his first Philly Folk Fest four decades ago and appropriately closed out this year’s festival with a rich, layered solo acoustic set, employing striking rhythms and his own brand of seamless finger picking. If you were to visit the Old Pool Farm in Schwenksville any other time of year, you’d be hard-pressed to envision a bustling folk village once stood amidst the calm, peaceful setting, and will once again, for next year’s 50th anniversary.