Philadelphia Folk Festival is not your father's folk festival

The Secret Sisters bring their bluegrass/old-timey charm to the Martin stage Sunday evening.
The Secret Sisters bring their bluegrass/old-timey charm to the Martin stage Sunday evening.
Posted: August 17, 2012

WHEN the Philadelphia Folk Festival locks into gear at noon Friday on the Old Pool Farm in Upper Salford Township, it won't be with some old-timey string band, rural bluesman or British chantey singer.

Michigan-based singer/songwriter Chris Bathgate has a slow-rockin', bittersweet-romantic aura that could win the hearts of the same teens and twentysomethings who pant for a John Mayer or Ed Sheeran. And that's exactly the selling point for so much of this weekend's festival in Schwenksville.

"We made an agreement with the festival management team - this is not just the 51st festival, but also the first," related Jesse Lundy, one of the event's primary talent bookers. "We want the festival kids - the second- and third-generation festivalgoers - to get out of the campsite and over to the music stages. And we're hoping some of the talents we've booked will bring out people who've never thought of coming to this festival before. I'm personally psyched by the possibilities with City and Colour - the alter-ego for Dallas Green - part of the Sunday-evening concert. Not the former Phillies' manager; he's a Juno [Canadian Grammy] winner, writes smart, not dummy, love songs, and sold out two nights at the Trocadero last December."

Old-school acoustic-music buffs might groan over the preponderance of drum kits and electric guitars plugging in this weekend. "Four acts on the Saturday-afternoon/evening bill are even bringing their own soundboards and mixers, which we've never allowed before," Lundy added with a laugh. Still, he'd argue, like the great bluesman Big Bill Broonzy famously said: "It's all folk music to me. I ain't never heard a cow sing."

What's the sonic stuff that's pulling me back to the Old Pool Farm this weekend?

Friday: If you're looking for the next big breakout from Philadelphia, bet on Chris Kasper, a wispy, moody singer/songwriter and facile guitar player in the David Gray/Damien Rice vein. Kasper closes Friday afternoon's 12:30 p.m.-to-6 p.m. main-stage (Martin Guitar) show.

Friday night: Got an expansive musical mind? You're sure to love the sprightly world music swirling Debo Band - newly signed to the hipster Sub Pop label. We're also intrigued by the honky-tonk rockin' Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three - guys who "stole" the Newport Folk Festival the past couple of years. And if you're into jammin' music, gotta hang out for Friday's show closer, the nine-piece Voice of the Wetlands Allstars. Think a delicious gumbo of seasoned Louisiana talents in the blues/rock/zydeco continuum. Best-known members are Cyril Neville, Big Chief Monk Boudreau, Waylon Thibodeau and Tab Benoit.

Saturday: Talent booker Lundy is stashing/showcasing the weekend's most progressive/ambient folk talents on the (tented) Lobby Stage on Saturday afternoon from noon to 4 p.m., "so as not to upset the purists." Come check out Chris Bathgate, Arborea, the Wooden Sky and Strand of Oaks.

Had he lived, Woody Guthrie would have hit 100 this summer, good reason for a big birthday bash Saturday afternoon (2-4 p.m.) on the Craft Stage. The man's music remains amazingly relevant, as you'll hear from host band Mason Porter & Friends with some special "surprise guests." Who wouldn't give it up for Woody?

Still, if you'd rather get down with some gritty, rootsy, electric guitar and organ-scored music, excuse yourself and wander over to the Camp Stage for the Paul Thorn Band, kickin' up the Camp Stage dust at 2:45 p.m. He's really something good.

The most consistently rocking Martin Guitar (main) stage festival show EVER starts Saturday at 4 p.m. with the soulful harmonies of the Holmes Brothers and the classic rockabilly tones of Wanda Jackson (once considered "the Female Elvis Presley"). She segues into contemporary twang confessor Lucinda Williams, then Steve Earle and the Dukes (crank it up!), John Hiatt and the Combo, the legendary bayou/jazz/rockin' Little Feat (can't remember them EVER playing festival before) and show-closing Mike Cross.

Sunday: An 11 a.m. "Gospel Sunday" set with the Holmes Brothers on the Camp Stage is sure to start your day on righteous notes, followed by the many fiery fiddlin', banjo, guitar, mandolin, dulcimer and slaphappy bass talents colliding at "New Old Time Music to Old Old Time Music" - noon to 4 p.m. on the Craft stage.

Want a modern alternative? Set your compass for the Tank Stage showcase of Mark Erelli, Mary Gauthier, Brother Sun and Lori McKenna, 1 to 4 p.m.

Or roll over to the Lobby Stage for the hillside (Mississippi-style) blues of the Cedric Burnside Project and Big George Brock, noon to 4 p.m.

Then hang in for the Sunday-evening (4 to 9:30 p.m.) Martin stage soiree with the aforementioned City and Colour, Tracy Grammer (sure to mark the 10th anniversary of her musical partner Dave Carter's sad demise), the bluegrass/old-timey charms of Secret Sisters and the Red Clay Ramblers and the show-capping return of last year's festival standouts - the rompin'/stompin' Louisiana jazz 'n' funk-scorched Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue.


51st Philadelphia Folk Festival, Old Pool Farm, Upper Salford Township near Schwenksville, noon Friday to 9:30 p.m. Sunday, all festival ticket $145, all festival youth (ages 12-17) $72.50; all festival/tent camping $195, all festival/tent youth $97.50, Friday $65, Saturday $89, Sunday $79, youth daily tickets are 50 percent off when purchased with an adult ticket, under 12 admitted free (except for camping), with lots of children's activities available. 215-247-1300, pfs.org.

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