Even if the Philadelphia Folk Festival, which took place Aug. 20-22 in Schwenksville, spanned 10 days instead of just three, concertgoers could never hear every brilliant band in the lineup. So, instead, they must choose between brilliant shows—from electric guitarist Erin McKeown’s concert with Natalia Zukerman to the harmonious Blame Sally, Joe Pug or Rockin’ Acoustic Circus.
Luckily for indie music lovers, when Jeff Tweedy (frontman of Wilco) headlined Saturday’s afternoon showcase, he was the only act on the festival’s six stages. And, boy, were they lucky—it was not a performance to miss.
Tweedy, whose gig was only his second solo set on the East Coast this year, came on the heels of strong showings by The Decemberists and Iron and Wine in 2009. Though his harmonica- and guitar-powered set delved deep into his lesser-known material, it’s easy to see why he commands musical credibility on par with Bob Dylan.
In its 49th year, the Philly Folk Fest continues to win new fans, based on the number of campers who say they returned in 2010 because they had come for The Decemberists last year.
“The Philly Folk Festival is one of my favorite places to be. It’s amazing,” said Sean Hoots of Hoots & Hellmouth, which got its start in West Chester, just before the band’s electrifying show Thursday night.
Hoots & Hellmouth’s blend of southern-infused alt-country and gospel-tinged vocals gave more than 150 campers reason to dance this year. And even when the lights turned off for a half-minute during the set, the crowd kept right on singing along.
“I was raised in Montgomery County, went to school at West Chester University, and what makes the festival special for me is I grew up around here,” said Hoots & Hellmouth guitarist Andrew Gray backstage. “There is such a home draw here, and it’s fun to share in the musical tradition.”
At WXPN’s Philly Local Showcase, love was in the air. Not to be outdone by the smooth harmonies of Jake Snider and Tin Bird Choir, the Dave Quicks Trio led off their act by bringing a local man onstage to propose to his girlfriend. To the delight of the crowd, her acceptance kicked off a high-energy rock-and-blues show that everyone could celebrate.
Afterward, Dave “Quicks” McHale handed out CDs to the crowd. “We don’t want your money,” he explained. “We just want you to listen to our music.”
Mason Porter and the Ben Arnold Band closed out the show with an eclectic blend of songs that even featured a blue grass re-imagining of The White Stripes’ “Hotel Yorba” tune.
John Flynn, a local folk-music icon and fixture, can’t remember how many Philly Folk Festivals he has attended. But he’s filled just about every role the event has to offer, from camper to MC to headliner. “In 1984, my first year, we bought a ticket and slept in the back of our pickup truck,” he says. “It’s become a tradition; it’s how I know when it’s time for the kids to go back to school.”
Just as Jeff Tweedy, The Decemberists and Ben Arnold represent a generation’s folk-music voices, Flynn’s musical talents have passed down to his four sons, two of whom have started booking semi-professional gigs. During this festival, his youngest son, Ethan, also competed in C.F. Martin & Co.’s “Show Us Your Licks Guitar Contest.”
“I’m gratified that these guys have embraced a wide palette of music,” Flynn says.
From talking to people, the sense is that momentum behind the event is building toward next year. The excitement even had Gene Shay, festival founder and godfather of folk music, already buzzing with potential performers for the golden anniversary. Never has folk music—so-called “music of the people”—felt more relevant.