CONCERT REVIEW: The Philadelphia Folk Festival

Meredith_Kleiber_AVATAR.jpgBY MEREDITH KLEIBER We rolled in on early Friday afternoon to camping fields overflowing with tents and people, so it was lucky for us that our friends had set up a sweet campsite on Thursday and saved us a spot for our tent and canopy. After setting up, we headed down to check out the music. Upon entering the concert field, we were greeted by the upbeat bluegrass of Hogmaw, which provided us with a much-needed boost of energy. I made my way up to the photo pit to get some shots of the following act, Miss Birdie Busch, whose colorful tie-dye dress and unfading smile were the perfect match for her lilting vocals and buoyant lyrics. For her final song, she played an updated rendition of an old favorite that was performed at the very first Folk Festival, “Muleskinner Blues,” which set the stage perfectly for the next act, Philly’s own Hoots & Hellmouth. Hoots & Co. brought their characteristic energy to the stage in full force, performing crowd favorites such as “You And All Of Us” and “Watch Your Mouth,” featuring the adept harmonica playing of Philly’s favorite accompanist, Bob Beach. They completed their set with the traditional festival staple, “Samson & Delilah,” which was fortified by a surprise appearance (and accompanying wild dance moves) by Andrew “Hellmouth” Gray, who heretofore had not performed with the band since his departure about a year ago.

The sky began to look ominous as we headed back to the campsite after the afternoon set, and just minutes after we settled into in our chairs, we were assaulted by a gale-force wind that upended all three of our canopies and hours of setting up were nullified in one split second. We huddled under a tarp, discussing that night’s lineup and hoping it would make us forget about the ruination of our campsite. Sure enough, it took only one song by Justin Townes Earle to lift our spirits. Earle won the audience over with his witty storytelling and velvety vocal timbre — not to mention he looked like a spitting image of Doctor Gonzo, Hunter S. Thompson’s drug-gobbling sidekick in Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas. Say what you want about his checkered past, various chemical dependencies and history of unpredictable performances, but you can’t argue that the man’s got soul. Closing out the night was the San Francisco–based band Tempest, whose Chieftans-meets-Metallica fusion of Celtic-, Scottish-, and Norwegian-inspired folk music was, mercifully, the only hurricane force to be reckoned with that night.

Kicking off Saturday afternoon’s Main Stage performances was New Orleans–native Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue. In what was probably my favorite set of the festival, Shorty raised the temperature a few notches on an already sweltering afternoon with his blistering trombone and trumpet riffs. By the middle of his first song, there wasn’t a still body in the crowd. The band settled in to a groove-heavy funk by the fourth song, “Hurricane Season,” the title of which was all too appropriate for the weekend, and closed with “When The Saints Go Marching In,” which featured accompanying vocals from the audience. A standing ovation was all the convincing the band needed to re-emerge for an encore, during which Shorty conjured up the memory of Michael Jackson with his remarkable moonwalking skills and impressed the crowd with one final searing trombone solo before clearing the stage for David Bromberg’s signature storytelling and multi-instrumental prowess. He opened with “Sloppy Drunk” with adapted lyrics in a nod to the Folk Festival: “I’m leavin’ Schwenksville / Come on, pack my trunk / I never touch no whiskey / but the blues got me sloppy drunk.” As a prelude to what would soon prove to be a collaboration-heavy night, Bromberg brought out Arlo Guthrie and the two traded acoustic guitar licks. Trombone Shorty joined the Bromberg band’s horn section to close out the set, earning a well-deserved standing ovation from the capacity crowd and leaving everyone in high spirits for the evening bill.

A lighthearted performance from The John Hartford String Band and a gospel-inspired set of sacred steel stylings by The Campbell Brothers whetted our appetites for the limpid Piedmont blues stylings of Jorma Kaukonen. He opened with “Hesitation Blues,” a song he used to perform with Janis Joplin in Bay Area coffee shops in the early 60s, accompanied by an animated Barry Mitterhoff on mandolin. The normally reserved Kaukonen drew chuckles from the crowd when he took in his surroundings and deadpanned: “Hey, Barry, look at all these lights. This is big time.” He continued his set with his rendition of the Reverend Gary Davis song “I Am The Light Of This World,” showcasing his mastery of finger-style guitar.  After a riveting, if disappointingly short set, it was time for folk legend Arlo Guthrie to take the stage. Much to the audience’s excitement, Guthrie was joined by Bromberg for the entirety of the set. With his lightning-white hair illuminated by the stage lights, Guthrie switched between electric guitar, acoustic guitar, and keyboards throughout the set, peppering the silences in between songs with detailed stories about Amish farmers getting hassled by government bureaucrats. Although he didn’t play “Alice’s Restaurant,” most likely due to time constraints, he made up for it with stellar performances of “Evangelina,” “Black Mountain Rag,” and the welcome surprise “Coming Into Los Angeles.” In a set-closing “City of New Orleans,” Guthrie had the audience swaying and belting out the lyrics. The feeling of joy was pervasive as we exited the music field, contagious smiles plastered across every face. With another full day of music ahead, we walked back to try to salvage the ruins of our campsite and share our feelings about the day over beers and the warmth of the campfire.

After a much-needed night of sleep, we were awakened early the next morning by a steady rainfall. Luckily, we were able to repair two of our storm-mangled canopies, which sheltered us from the rain as we drank coffee and prepared for another rainy day of music and mud. The clouds broke for an all-too-brief moment of sunshine, which happened to coincide with the Camp Stage’s Acoustic Workshop featuring Jorma Kaukonen, David Bromberg, The Wood Brothers, and the Philadelphia Jug Band. We received an intimate look into the musicians’ approaches to their craft and were treated to a collaborative performance of the always entertaining “Your Wife’s Been Cheatin’ On Us.” On our way back to the camp site, the skies opened up yet again. As sideways rain pelted us and menacing thunder boomed in the distance, we nearly threw in the towel, but then we thought of all of the epic performances we’d be missing if we left, so we toughed it out, threw a tarp over our heads, and steeled ourselves against the storm with Yards’ Folk Festival Lager. We continued to drown our sorrows during David Wax Museum’s rousing set and then made our way down to our seats for Tom Rush, who looked and sounded quite dapper in an all-white suit.

Next up was the Wood Brothers, who thanked the crowd for “bravin’ the rain.” They treated us to a beautiful, emotion-packed version of their new song “Mary Anna” and the fun, upbeat “Chocolate On My Tongue,” interspersing witty lyrics with reeling crescendos and textured solos. The Wood Brothers laid the groundwork for the culmination of the festival and perhaps the most anticipated performance of the weekend, The Levon Helm Band. Levon and company delivered stellar versions of old Band favorites, including a rousing “The Shape I’m In” and “Ophelia,” as well a beautiful, horn-punctuated “Long Black Veil.” Levon even exercised his cancer-ravaged vocal chords a bit — which nowadays is, sad to say, an all too rare occurrence — joining in on backing vocals from time to time. Levon and his band ended what proved to be an at-times-grueling weekend on a high note, making us grateful that we dug in and toughed out the storms when a hasty retreat would have been the logical response. In the end we emerged muddy and tired, but victorious. God bless the Philadelphia Folk Festival and all who sail on her. May it live to see its 100th anniversary.

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