The Best Folkin’ Festival: The 55th Philadelphia Folk Festival

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It’s 10:00 p.m. on Sunday night, and I’ve just taken my post-Folk Fest shower, which means I’ve just witnessed all of the mud from the past four days finally leave my exterior. Our tent zipper got busted last night, so I woke up to a few ants crawling on my face. I’d been wearing the same pair of shorts since Friday. The watch on my wrist even started to smell funky. I was wet, malodorous, sleep-deprived, and just plain dirty when the festival was finished.

And it was folkin’ awesome.

This past weekend of August 18-21, 2016, I took the opportunity to return to the Philadelphia Folk Festival for a third year in a row. Three years is no time at all in comparison to the Folk Fest veterans who’ve lined the campsites for upwards of 55 years now. These veterans do this out of a desire to re-experience the carefree state of mind that the festival brings, and they have been what has allowed Philly Folk Fest to maintain its status as the longest-running continuous outdoor music festival in North America.

This festival is designed to bridge generational gaps, and pass down the experience because that is the essence of folk music. It’s a genre that provides common ground for every age group to appreciate, which is why Folk Fest has been so successful for such a long time. Children are able to grow up coming to the same campsite every year with the same people, and with the same camp name. I was lucky enough to be accepted into the Stupidheads.

There were countless magnificent musical acts all throughout the weekend. Every act from the locals to the headliners had an important role to play in this festival. Of the headliners, one that stood out was a band called Darlingside: a Western Massachusetts-based folk quartet. These guys were unique in their performance because they all crowded around one microphone and played their guitars, banjo, and fiddle into it. The bass was plugged in, but they get a pass on that. Their vocal harmonies absolutely blew the audience away, as they combined all of their emotion into one voice, and glided it through the mic they shared. Their song, “The God Of Loss,” is a beautiful folk masterpiece, as it reflects all of the qualities I believe represent their act best:

Also, their onstage banter between songs was freakin’ hilarious. They have such an awkward, dry humor that does not match the fluidity of their songwriting at all. The group is coming to the Triple Door in Seattle from November 3-4, 2016.

The headliner of Thursday night at the Camp Stage, whom opened the whole festival, was a Canadian blues band called The Sheepdogs. These musicians must get so tired of being compared to The Allman Brothers Band, but oh my goodness they reminded me so much of The Allman Brothers Band. That’s alright for me to say, though, because they closed their set with a cover of “Whipping Post.” In reality, their guitar lines and grooves were completely their own. They’re level of tightness was perfect to kick off the festival, and they got everybody full of energy. The main guitar melody in their jammer, “Southern Dreaming,” makes me bob my head hard.

Damn Tall Buildings satisfied my Folk Fest requirement of really fast bluegrass. They stormed the Lobby Stage on Friday afternoon with their guitar, banjo, fiddle upright bass, and tight vocal harmonies, continuously alternating solos on their respective instruments, and making me feel the need to spit sunflower seed shells into a spittoon (huach-tiiiiing).

In addition to renowned touring folk artists, Folk Fest does a fantastic job of highlighting local Philadelphia acts: April Mae and the June Bugs lit up the Tank Stage, Ethan Pierce’s voice shook people to their core, and Deer Scout represented the Bedroom Folk-Musician team on the Front Porch Stage.

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The Grove at Folk Fest, where hammocks are hung for the public; Photo courtesy of letscapturethemoment.com

One Philly-area local that I’d like to bring attention to is someone who opened up a world of music for me. This man’s name is John Flynn. When I was just a lad, taking my lunch pail and crayons to Sarah W. Starkweather Elementary School in West Chester, Pennsylvania, John Flynn would come around about once a year. He’d bring his acoustic guitar and harmonica, and play a concert of children’s songs for the school. I have vivid memories of him playing his song, “A Manatee Sneezed On Me” and joining in as every kid in the room erupted in laughter at the line, “You might think it’s funny…it’s (s)not.” It was these concerts that got me into music, among other factors in my young life. John Flynn had always been at least a subconscious motivation to explore music, and he’s now one of the head-honchos at Folk Fest. I got to talk to him and tell him how much those concerts impacted my life.

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John Flynn and I after his set on the Lobby Stage.

At his Folk Fest set with WXPN’s Kids Corner, he dedicated “A Manatee Sneezed On Me” to me, which was an absolute honor.

Overall, Folk Fest proved to be the down-right-dirty-hippie-Christmas-weekend I was hoping it would be. Everything from the music to the craft vendors selling tapestries/hemp-honey/ukuleles/other random folk commodities to the gourmet food trucks to the whacky campsites were uniquely and distinctively Folk Fest. I was proud to be a part of something so durable, and it reassured me that Folk Fest is one of my favorite weekends of the year. It was definitely worth every ant that crawled into my mouth while I slept last night.


Jason McCue | Just Chillin’ Like Bob Dylan | KXSU Reporter

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