Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Philadelphia Folk Fest exceeds expectations

If someone had told me that all three days at the Philadelphia Folk Festival would feature violent, tornadic thunderstorms and incessant downpours I may well have given it a pass. But the 50th anniversary of this event was an extraordinary weekend of music and fellowship. After attending hundreds of outdoor festivals over the last 40 something years I had forgotten what it felt like to among such a large group of people who'd gathered not for hedonistic purposes but in hope for and service of a better world. The music was inspirational and democratic. Although I heard many demonstrations of instrumental excellence from the likes of Jorma Kaukonen, the Campbell Brothers, Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue, David Bromberg, the Battlefield Band and Levon Helm's group, I was just as pleased to hear the amateur musicians who brought goodwill and a healthy attitude to the music they played. Most of all I heard the work of some of America's greatest songwriters played with real purpose. One of the most emotional moments in the festival for me came when a crowd sitting in a driving rainstorm sat under their umbrellas and sang along to the only real National Anthem this country ever deserved, Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land," performed by a group of children whose parents were longtime festival goers. The moment repeated a theme that ran through the entire weekend. I kept seeing families who'd come to share this music together -- young people with their toddlers bouncing along beside them; older folks with their teenage kids, who usually were carrying some sort of acoustic instrument; and in a couple of instances three generations of family members who'd come together for the party. This was a case of people who'd been coming to this festival, some for many, many years, bringing their children and grandchildren along to carry on the tradition.
Trombone Shorty once again demonstrated his extraordinary ability to read a crowd and instictively understand what it wanted. The Folk Festers danced to Shorty's funk and applauded his and his band's instrumental prowess but their greatest response was to strong melody and excellent songwriting. For the first time in all the Trombone Shorty shows I've seen the showstopper here was "Show Me Something Beautiful." The crowd loved the song and stood on its collective feet to let Shorty know it. Then when the band kicked into the big finale, "Saints" was not the table setter but the main course. The chorus of voices from the audience singing along to the famous refrain gave me goosebumps. I know some people might regard this cynically, with the jaundiced eye of those who've dealt with too many Bourbon Street tourists looking for cliches, but this crowd response was a pure and heartfelt reaction to a song whose words had real meaning to them.
The festival also managed to shine a spotlight on what is a very strong local folk music scene in Pennsylvania. I was particularly impressed with two local groups, the Celtic-influenced quartet RUNA, which kicked off a spectacular Sunday afternoon set at the Camp Stage during one of the festival's few dry moments; and The Angel Band, which features the wonderful vocalist Alison Paige, who has a side band called AlyCat. Paige sounded like Tracy Nelson belting out a soulful blues during a jam sessions with David Bromberg backing her up. Bromberg, who accomplished the nearly impossible feat of following Trombone Shorty with his big band, was in classic form playing material from his great new album "Use Me" (see my review of this record in Stereophile magazine).
Tom Paxton held the crowd in the palm of his hand as he sang the best song about 9/11 I've heard from anyone and a song about the old days in Greenwich Village at the legendary Sheridan Square watering hole The Lion's Head. I always wanted to have one of my book covers framed on the wall of that venerable pub, where I drank with friends like Morthland, Tosches, Altman and Lester. New Atlantis would have been an appropriate candidate but sadly the Lion's Head is no more. I will, however, console myself with Paxton's observation about nostlagia: "It's OK to look back as long as you don't stare."
The star of the festival from my perspective was 80-year-old David Amram, who participated in a tribute to Phil Ochs, held a spellbinding workshop recalling his days playing with Jack Kerouac, led a lengthy World Music jam, performed his own jazz set which made me realize he influenced Mose Allison rather than the other way around, and finished off the festival by sitting with Levon Helm's outstanding band, which included Larry Campbell on guitar, Steve Bernstein on trumpet and Howard Johnson on tuba. Amram's double pennywhistle solo on "The Weight" at the close of the night was the perfect grace note for the festival.
Amram's best quote: "When they're telling you that the policemen and the firemen are the enemies, going after the Archie Bunkers, you know they've overplayed their hand."

1 comment:

jesselun said...

John, thanks so much for this amazing review. We were all as excited and happy as you. Thanks for being there

Jesse Lundy