2013. T’was my 30th year attending the Philly Folk Fest. I volunteered for over 20 years, and had the honor of performing there in 1993 and 2008. I first went in 1984, the year I graduated college. I was amazed at everything from the music (seeing the legendary Elizabeth Cotten) to the campground (a story unto itself) to the guy on stage telling silly jokes, legendary radio host Gene Shay, who would later become my friend, a mentor, and an iconic folk hero to me. Gene has emceed EVERY SINGLE ONE of the 52 Philadelphia Folk Festivals. (NEW YORK TIMES, are you listening?) I think Gene deserves great praise, and in fact is about to be inducted onto the Philadelphia Walk of Fame.
My cousins grew up nearby and always talked about this amazing festival, but by the time I started going, they were all on to other adventures. So there I went, on my own, to meet amazing people that I’m friends with to this day.
And that’s where the story of 2013 meets 1984.
I was walking around from hither to yon in the campground, on my way to one of the many music stages, and ran into a fellow who asked if I remembered him from nearly 30 years ago when I lived in Lancaster, PA. We reminisced a bit and he said, “Remember your old friends Pete and Annie? Did you know that their daughter Maya is in the band THE STRAY BIRDS?”
It was one of those “What the what?!” moments for me because I’d been following The Stray Birds all summer, and taking notice of their rapid rise and musical emergence. I’d seen them perform at a few festivals earlier in the summer, and was super impressed with their sound, their songs, and their presence. I was happily stunned, as I put it all together to realize how familiar Maya looked once I actually met her. In fact, she looked just like I remember her mother when we first met lo those many years ago. So we all had a big reunion at one of the stages, and it was rather magical to re-meet after all these years. Pete and Annie have a beautiful family and to me, look just as they did back when. Pete, who’s an architect by day, is also a fiddler, and his band, The Vinegar Creek Constituency, took the stage right after The Stray Birds set. How great is that.
And still, there was one more small world moment to come. Knowing that Pete and Annie live in Lancaster, PA, I asked Pete if he knew of the arts/culture publication called FIG that I write for in Doylestown and Bethlehem, since they originated in Lancaster. He said yes, and then pointed to a friend of his daughter’s and said she works for FIG. Like I said, will wonders never cease. My friends think I have 2 degrees of separation, and I’m inclined to agree. I seem to know a ridiculous number of people at the folk fest, from my many years on both sides of the stage, performing, volunteering, and having many friends and colleagues from ones who are deeply involved in the folk fest infrastructure to ones that are simply there to enjoy the music and camaraderie, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
Through the various ins and outs and the pasts and presents of life, two of the many that I know are Rich and Jesse of POINT ENTERTAINMENT who book the folk fest in addition to several other regional venues, like the Colonial Theater in Phoenixville and the newly opened Ardmore Music Hall, (formerly Brownie’s 23 East). Whether it’s chatting backstage, waving from a distance, or sipping a beverage together, it’s always great to see these two. They’ve done a yeoman’s job in booking the festival and having something for everyone. The standouts this year for sure, in my humble, were The Mavericks, The Stray Birds (well, you knew that was coming), Richard Thompson, Jake Shimabukuro and The Carolina Chocolate Drops. Dom Flemons from The Chocolate Drops was impressed with the cultural community of the folk festival, and how he could tell it was like a family both backstage and in the audience. Admittedly, I didn’t see every act, because, well, not only would it be nearly impossible, but frankly, I had so much catching up to do with friends and colleagues, my limited time at the fest this year was joyfully split between music and reunions. Oh yes, and walking from one place to the next at times became extended by hours, as hello’s turned into conversations, feasts, and sometimes jam sessions.
Check out the Chocolate Drops doing Johnny Cash’s JACKSON:
When I asked Jesse to give an overview of this years folk fest, he remarked not only on the music, but how everyone worked together in an emergency when there was a sudden propane fire at one of the vendors, (and I’d like to give an extra shout out to the folk fest Security team and others who helped in the emergency). “It was a fantastic year, with fantastic weather. Highlights included The Mavericks, The Sierra Leone Refugee Allstars, The Stray Birds, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Spirit Family Reunion, Black Prairie and of course David Bromberg and Richard Thompson. There are too many great performers to name them all. We’re super pleased with the success of the Cultural Tent that Levi Landis programmed with the help of Mark Miller from Spuytin Duyvil, and others. And of course we’re relieved that everyone, including the Upper Salford Volunteer Fire Department handled the fire on Sunday. The Philly Folk Fest audience conducted themselves really nicely and we didn’t even lose much time off the show as a result.”
Was great to see folks like Louis Meyers, the Executive Director of The Folk Alliance, Joan Kornblith from Voice of America, (check out the coverage VOA did of the folk fest), Kathy O’Connell from ‘XPN, of course Gene Shay (also from ‘XPN), friends old and new, (and some I never ran into but wanted to like John Vettese from ‘XPN) all the great photographers in the pit like Jayne Toohey, Frank Jacobs, Lisa Schaffer, Steve Sandick, Alex Lowy, locals like Runa, John Flynn, Chip & Annie, and my friend Pete Levin, who graced the keys of a piano with his jazz infused blues when he played with the Gabriel Butterfield Band.
I hadn’t intended on shaping this article around small world moments, but they say write what you know, and that’s what I know about the folk fest. It’s a small world in a great big family. A huge shout out to all the volunteers and everyone behind the scenes that make it happen again and again. Another festival come and gone, and on to another year of great music!