STORY WRITTEN BY DAVID W. WANNOP
For 21st Century Media
There are more than 60 unique, legendary and up and coming acts playing at this year’s Philadelphia Folk Festival — now entering its 53rd edition. Here’s a look at three acts based regionally that have very different approaches to the festival. They responded through email. More festival details here.
◆ Nationally respected topical songwriter John Flynn has played several times at the event, and always brings something new rapped in tradition and storytelling. John reminisced about his early folk fest memories. “I bought my first ticket back in the mid-’80s. Camped in the back of my truck and was blown away by performers like John Hartford and Jim Post. Tommy Smothers was also there I think! That’s all I remember except that my butt hurt from sitting on that hill for three days and I ended up buying a chair called a Main Rocker up in the craft area. I loved that chair!”
He’s looking forward to this year’s fest, remarking, “I’m kind of looking forward to doing a solo set, just me and my guitar, for the first time on the main stage. In all the times I’ve played up there, I’ve always been lucky enough to have great musicians to back me up. But I make my living as a solo artist all across the country. So I figured it was time to just get up there and do what I do. Really let it be about the songs. Also, once you’ve gotten used to the freedom of playing solo, doing a show with a band always feels a little like moving back in with your parents! Oh, and I’ve been asked to lead the Pete Seeger workshop! I know there will be a lot of good energy on that stage!” Comparing regular sets with music work-shops he related, “The workshops are a lot of fun and often allow for a little more spontaneity. The big stage set has to be a bit tighter. I do remember my first set on the main stage as quite a big deal! My band did 45 minutes in front of Los Lobos. It was a brutal Saturday afternoon and about 130 degrees up there under the lights. I sweat right through my cowboy boots, but we got a standing ovation! Afterwards, my friend, fest head-honcho Andy Braunfeld, pulled me from our backstage celebration, and had me dunk my head right into one of the big ice water bins where they chilled the sodas. I guess I was in worse shape than I knew.”
Flynn has launched new products at the Folk Festival and will again this year. He wrote, “My new stuff has always been very well received at the Old Pool Farm, which is part of the charm of this festival. These folks really listen to and love songwriters! That’s why I’m excited to be getting to do some stuff from my new CD, “Poor Man’s Diamonds!”
◆ You have to be proud of (A Fistful of Sugar), the collective that draws from many bands in the area, which is named after the autobiography of Sugar Ray Leonard. So many roots music variants go into their sound that easy labels don’t really fit; All the more reason to go and listen. Members of this band include the Ardmore-based married couple Mike Shax and Lisa Watson plus Reverend TJ McGlinchey, Will Mills and No-good Sister members Meaghan Kyle and Jess McDowell. Other band mates include Steven “Lu” Ciannavei (upright and electric bass), Scott Loughery (drums), Patrick Hughes (cornet), Silvio Navarro (trombone), Dan Nosheny (tuba, accordion, baritone horn), and Hezekiah Jones aka Raph Cutrufello (Hammond organ). It may be the largest assortment of songwriters and instruments you will see on the main stage.
Shax and Watson wrote to tell me how they got on the bill. “We definitely have had playing at the Philadelphia Folk Festival on our radar ever since we started performing together back in 2010. In fact, it was the first stated long-term goal we set for ourselves. Even before we decided to record an album, we decided we wanted to play Folk Fest … and here we are, playing the main stage!” The Philadelphia Folk Song Society advocated for A Fistful of Sugar’s inclusion. Shax and Watson said, “We became actively involved with the Philly Music Co-Op, which is an amazing initiative started and run by Noah Swistak at the PFS. Last year we got the opportunity to perform at NERFA (the Northeast Regional Folk Alliance conference) as part of the Folksong Society’s guerrilla showcase. Our set was the last one of the night, which means we were playing around 3 a.m. But it was basically a private audition with Levi Landis and Noah Swistak and Meagan Cary, and it led to us being asked to play one of the co-op’s showcase nights this past spring at the Tin Angel. We were told almost immediately that we were playing main stage at this year’s fest. We think a big part of this has been that we try to be as supportive as possible to other musicians and to really make it a point to use groups like the Co-Op to form cooperative relationships with other acts and help each other as much as possible. So maybe it’s a little good karma coming back our way?”
◆ Kwesi K is based in Philadelphia but in his official bio it says, “Since finishing school at Lehigh University, the Alaskan/Ghanaian/Ohioan and former college running back has made quite a splash on the East Coast’s music scene.” Kwesi K speculated about his inclusion on the Folk Fest roster. “My band and I got called into do a WXPN’s ‘Free at Noon’ in February; I think that helped a lot. It’s great exposure playing for new fans and what not.” This will be his first time performing at the festival.
Children’s entertainment, craft selling areas, food vendors, camping spaces, and many ticket packages abound. Check the festival’s website www.pfs.org for directions and a performance schedule. Follow www.tickettoentertainment.com for life coverage.