Then there's Jesse Lundy, half of the Point Entertainment team (along with Rich Kardon) that's booked most of this weekend's talent. He's still hanging on (barely) to his 30s and consumed with finding the next big things in folk - whom Lundy vows are not those lightweight, pop singer-songwriters who embrace some of the trappings of the genre (strummy acoustic guitars, lyrical tunes) without getting at the music's "by the people/for the people" essence.
Oh, and while Philadelphia Folksong Society president and Folk Festival marketing/promotions chairwoman Lisa Schwartz has managed to get 39 consecutive festivals as a volunteer worker/attendee under her belt, she started going at the tender age of 14, and still thinks young - ahead not back. Having a 25-year-old son (Justin Nordell) who's a "legacy" festivalite (and now co-chairman of the volunteers committee) doesn't hurt.
"We've dabbled in having hip-hop at the fest, and really should be doing more, because it's closer to the folk-protest tradition than most any other form of contemporary music that's out there," Schwartz ruminated in our chat. And what does she think of Dan Bern, the bold and wickedly funny songster (on Sunday night's bill) who was "banned" by a previous festival muckamuck for daring to drop the "F-bomb" onstage? "I can't wait to hear what he has to say this time," Schwartz tossed off with a laugh.
They 'get it'
In separate conversations these organizers understand how precious this festival is to the Philadelphia music community, and are duly pleased in this landmark year to be honoring some of the legends - not just performers such as David Bromberg, Tom Rush and Tom Paxton, but also the guys who got the show started and kept it going. People such as perennial emcee Gene Shay, "who'll be treated to some pranks," vowed Schwartz, and Folksong Society stalwarts Dave Hadler and Joel Schulson, "who got the bright idea in 1961 to go to Martin Guitars and see if they'd underwrite the first festival, to the tune of" (are you ready for this?) "$500."
Then in the next breath they also talk about not getting all fuddy-duddy and stuck on how things have always been done, about the necessity to move the event forward - it's now a near-million-dollar undertaking, even with its 2,500 volunteers.
Significant changes have been wrought for the big 5-0 - including an enlarged campsite (sure to please latecomers and improve the fiscal bottom line), a "Green Initiative" including solar- and biodiesel-powered stages, a golf-cart transport system to finally make the hillside farm site handicap-friendly, and new party treats from Black Walnut Winery and Yards Brewing that never would have flown at "alcohol-free" fests of yore. And please note the big bunch of fresh-faced talents they've booked, along with the old-timers.
So this weekend's festival represents "not only the past but the present and the future," said Lundy. "Because it's the 50th, a lot of people are coming back who haven't attended for years. Advance-ticket sales are definitely up. But our mission is to build the future audience, starting with getting the young, second- and third-generation festivalgoers who hang in the campsite all day long to come over to the stage side and actually listen to the music."
Picks to watch
Given Michael Cloeren's background, it's no surprise he's most excited by festival sparkplugs like Saturday-afternoon concert come-on Trombone Shorty - a 25-year-old New Orleans blues/funk musician (he also wails on trumpet) and singer with a red-hot band.
Cloeren calls him "the chosen one." Meaning? "It's his time. Not just because he's gotten exposure on HBO's 'Treme,' but also because he's hitting at the jam-band festivals and toured the world with Jeff Beck. Wynton Marsalis and Fats Domino took him under their wing. And Shorty's born to do this. His father, Jessie Hill, was a classic New Orleans soul composer and performer."
Although the David Bromberg Big Band also shares and closes the Saturday-afternoon main stage concert, Cloeren thinks "the kids will be coming out of the campsite for Trombone Shorty."
Also looming large on M.C.'s must-see list - the Alexis P. Suter Band, one of tonight's main stage attractions. "She's a powerhouse singer, a cross between Howlin' Wolf and Big Mama Thornton."
Lundy's high on the likes of Justin Townes Earle (Steve's kid, who sings with a Nashville twang about living in New York City), the tight harmonizing Canadian duo Dala and the David Wax Museum, "who're a really cool act, doing unique things with traditional Mexican instruments."
The talent booker's also frothing over the special collaborative possibilities of Sunday's noon Acoustic Blues Workshop that will span the generations between the too-cool-for-words Wood Brothers (of Medeski, Martin and Wood fame) and seasoned pros Jorma Kaukonen, David Bromberg, Roy Book Binder and Tom Rush. And he's expecting all three nighttime show closers - Celtic band Tempest tonight, Arlo Guthrie (and friends) tomorrow then the Levon Helm Band on Sunday - to rock out the festival. "Festival folkies are all die-hard rockers, too," Lundy said.
Levi Landis is a pretty good singer/strummer himself, we hear. But he gave up on a performing career to get a master's degree in public administration at Villanova, then to build a multiuse arts/entertainment/retail center in Gettysburg and now to help shepherd the Philadelphia Folksong Society and Folk Festival through the 21st century.
Private funding, membership ranks and governmental support for the operations are all "way up," he said - a shocker in this tough day and age. "Systems" have been put in place to control costs. And Landis is leading a campaign to make the Philadelphia Folksong Society more visible, active and relevant - "starting with finding us a larger home in a good location where we can run concerts and music-educational programs year-round."
So here's wishing a very happy hundredth birthday to the Philly folk brigade, 50 years early.