The 60th Annual Philadelphia Folk Fest wrapped up this past weekend at Old Pool Farm north of Philly some thirty miles, and to say it was a triumph for the community it creates would be an understatement.
The three day music, arts, and culture extravaganza atop the hill featured a deeply diverse span of artists, ranging from Korean shamanic folk-pop (AGD7), to 90s hip hop (Arrested Development), to blues rock (The Lee Boys) to grandfatherly folk singer-songwriter music (Tom Rush and Livingston Taylor) and much more.
The grounds provided ample room to roam, and even the carefully sectioned-off sitting/standing areas were never too crammed for comfort. Multiple stages scattered across the farm, with two tent-covered performance areas flanking the entrance, along with the main stage – or the Martin Stage – across the way and down the hill. Beyond the woods and through Dulcimer Grove was the Dulcimer Stage (naturally), and a few other small stages here and there.
It was the first time since 2019 the festival was able to run its usual course, so the excitement and positive energy was palpable. I even got offered the last slice of cheese pizza from three kind hill dwellers.
Festivals can be overwhelming as a one-man journalist crew, as there’s often too much to see and absorb, and while there was plenty here, it seemed digestible enough.
That being said, here are the Top 12 acts that had the most impactful presence on this here wandering wordsmith:
These Scottish lads comprised of Mohsen Amini (concertina), Benedict Morris (fiddle), and Graeme Armstrong (guitar) were the very first performance I caught upon my arrival Friday, and unfortunately I missed a good portion of it. They had a very Mumford and Sons sound to them, what with their hard-driving acoustic guitar with lots of harmonic melodic “oohs” and “ahhs” etc. The trio sat in chairs in linear fashion, with the wildly enthusiastic front man (Amini) delivering fiery, charismatic stage banter with an accent so thick and endearing the crowd would’ve loved anything he said. I know I did.
They had a great way of capturing the audience and getting them to sing back the ongoing harmonies that seemed to go on forever- in a good way. “You can find us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Tinder, Grindr- we’re on everything,” Amini said. Shortly after, I would see him doused in sweat walking the grounds with a Miller Lite in hand, seemingly getting nods of approval of passersby.
11. Los Texmaniacs
This Lone Star State group exhibited some top notch Tex-Mex music, full of traditional country and rockabilly flair, with the accordion shining through in many a song. From Buck Owens’ “Crying Time,” to Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya,” to Freddy Fender and the Texas Tornadoes’ “Who Were You Thinking Of,” the band rallied through many a classic along with equally dynamite original material.
They performed at the Lobby Stage near the entrance, and had folks swing dancing (or swinging their young children around by the arm in one instance) and feeling like they were at a juke joint outside of El Paso. They brought the sounds of their heritage and the culture around them, and were a tried and true act that had me staying put.
10. Tom Rush
For 81 years old, Rush didn’t miss a beat. His stories of yore flowed with boundless appeal, and he had the crowd of 20-somethings to fellow 80-somethings smitten. He told stories of camping in North Hollywood, meeting Bono in Phoenix and him not liking his joke about Irish folk songs, and more that had the audience grinning ear to ear.
He played his famous 1968 song, “No Regrets,” which has seen covers from Emmylou Harris, Olivia Newton-John (RIP), and Waylon Jennings among others throughout the years.
His storytelling through song captivated, and his effortless guitar-picking underneath kept the audience in their rightful positions on the hill. He is precisely what you’d envision at a folk fest in both 1962 and 2022.
There was a guy with a red shirt that said ‘All Folked Up’ standing in front of me up towards the front, and he was groovin’ with his partner to Dustbowl Revival on Friday night. Having gotten previous knowledge of what special songs might be played, I nudged him and told him, “Rumor has it they’re going to play a Beatles’ tune.” Just a fun little tidbit I thought I’d offer. He nodded, but I’m not entirely sure he heard me. A handful of songs later, the band busted out a most welcomed cover of “Oh! Darling,” from Abbey Road.
Dustbowl Revival had a great big bold sound that spanned from roots rock, to soul, to even a little zest of punk rock. Strong male and female vocal combos are always a treat, and this bunch had it dialed in. Lead singer Zach Lupetin was very outspoken on social issues like abortion rights, climate change, school shootings, and more, as he prefaced several songs expressing his thoughts on the matters. And what better place to use your platform and speak your peace than a festival like this.
While I very much appreciate the gushing positivity and infectious acoustic-pop melodies Franti perpetuates, it’s not always for me. I will say his live performance was incredibly engaging, and he was certainly one of the best performers of the weekend.
At one point, he made his way off the stage, up the walkway between the sectioned crowds, and to two DIY standing platforms right in the thick of the audence. He brought fans on it to dance with him as he sung with them, creating some unforgettable moments no doubt. He had some heartfelt stage talk as well discussing his son and his father, Covid matters, and more. Lyrically he’s no Leonard Cohen, but I’ll be damned if he doesn’t whip up a crowd, deliver catchy songs, and promote love, kindness, and positivity. Many points for that.
7. American Acoustic: Punch Brothers & Watchhouse, Ft. Sarah Jarosz
The treat of the night Friday was the ensemble that was The Punch Brothers, Watchhouse, and Sarah Jarosz as American Acoustic.
The unique musical chairs that ensued started with the whole lot singing an old bluegrass number, “Little Birdie,” to which I could not seem to locate the origins, but naturally they all knocked it out of the park.
Jarosz was first, and sung like a Texas angel. She serenaded the crowd, casting us all under her sonic spell. Her voice flowed up and over the hill and into the township, and her melodic guitar picking soothed and tranquilized.
Watchhouse then took center stage, and seemed perhaps road weary or weary in general, but provided some high quality melancholy folk music. It was very sleepy and meditative, with rich storytelling and raw feeling. The incredible energy and enthusiasm of Chris Thile and The Punch Brothers was on full display soon after, and the expert string band maestros hammered through a killer set that bluegrass fans of any creed could appreciate.
The same year the first Philadelphia Folk Fest took place – 1962 – Bettye LaVette put out her first single and B-Side.
The 76-year-old soul singer evoked the presence of a Tina Turner-type in vocal capacity and stage presence. She cruised through a number of soul, blues, and funk numbers, taking the crowd back to a beloved bygone era of Motown and classic soul.
Towards the end, she came down into the stoney photo pit below and walked along the fence singing, “Said the money came said the money came,” to the crowd for many several minutes. She also drew some serious tears in the crowd with her cover of John Prine’s “Souvenirs.”
This swamp-pop cosmic Americana roots-rock amalgam of sound is always a welcomed treat, and someone needed to bring the psychedelic vibes. Hiss Golden Messenger did it and did it well, and even busted out a killer cover of The Grateful Dead’s “Bertha” to boot.
It was my first time catching the act, and the band was as tight as they come, again hitting all the sweet spots of a jam band without being a jam band. Lots of deep pocket grooves with killer riffs and melodies, and a proper way to (almost) close out the fest.
It was nothing but blazing sun and heat all weekend with minimal breaks in the clouds, until the closing act took the stage. A song or two in, the rain started coming and came steady for much of the rest of the night.
While there was a mad shuffle on the hill, most regrouped with ponchos and umbrellas in hand, or just let nature have its way on them.
The power in Michael and Tanya Trotter’s vocals were unmatched throughout the weekend, and they easily had the strongest, earth-shattering vocals of the festival, hence their closing slot. As a husband and wife duo (and not the only one there i.e. Watchhouse) their chemistry was on point and fun. “Welcome to our living room y’all,” Tanya said when Michael seemingly botched a song and she had some words with him. The War and Treaty were a most welcomed closer for the fest.
It wasn’t until I got home and Googled Livingston Taylor that I found out he is in fact the younger brother of James Taylor. And I am no JT know-it-all, but man, Livingston absolutely crushed it and I may prefer him.
His presence, performance, and audience engagement was masterful, as he was sharp as a whip and downright hilarious at times. I felt he snuck in a bit of a comedy routine at times.
His guitar picking was crystalline, and his voice too. He played many early to mid-century classics, closing with a heart-melting “Somewhere Over The Rainbow,” along with a few Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory tunes in his performance. His version of Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me” was another highlight. They don’t make them quite like LT anymore.
I had not been as mesmerized by a performance as Korean shamanic folk-pop outfit AGD7 (Ak Dan Gwang Chil) in I don’t remember when. I was awe-struck. Often times during a set I might ponder if I want to grab a beer, maybe a water, or something to eat. The frozen bananas in chocolate looked good (and were good). But with AGD7, their theatrics, thunderous sound, and overall performance captivation was too entrancing to think about anything else.
The American schlub in me was swept away by their cultural artistic prowess, and they gave every fiber of heart, soul, and intensity into what they were doing.
The three women donned in various boisterous outfits led the singing troupe, while five or six others – all donned in what looked like off-white-ish silk clothes – played instruments I can not name. The colors, the sounds, and the visuals were some of the best of the whole event, hands down.
This legendary hip hop act hit the stage with so much fire and ferocity it was enough to stop anybody in their tracks and get them paying attention.
I admittedly didn’t have a large scope of their music, but their torch-bearing of premier 90s hip hop was on full display Saturday night. The Atlanta group even paid homage to another ATL group, as they slayed a cover of Kriss Kross’s “Jump.” It was a lightning bolt of energy, and you can imagine what the sea of people in the crowd did.
They had the audience in a frenzy, and dropped poignant bits of knowledge in between songs, using their platform to express their thoughts on our divided society among other subjects. Their deeply poetic and thought-provoking rhymes over killer grooves were beyond resounding, and they brought something extra special to the Philadelphia Folk Fest.
Photos by by Lisa Schaffer