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Philly Folk brings big tent approach

Old Pool Farm, Schwenksville, Pa., August 16, 2014

Reviewed by John Lupton

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Each year, dozens of performers are booked to play the Philadelphia Folk Festival, but probably less than a quarter of them make it onto the main stage. Several smaller stages dot the grounds at which most performers (including the main stage headliners) can be found throughout the weekend doing workshops, "theme" sets with peers whose music is similar or in some cases a distinct counterpoint. These "mix and match" sessions are often very entertaining.

While walking down to the main stage area on a bright, sunny, flawless Saturday afternoon, the Camp Stage hosted a Philly-area singer/songwriter finishing up his set doing Ben E. King's classic R & B hit "Stand By Me." It brought to mind once again the question that crosses just about everyone's mind at some point at events like Philly Folk: what is folk music, anyway?

If a pop song from a half-century ago is fair game at a "folk festival," what isn't? And truth be told, if you cruise the campground late at night you'll hear all Beatles jam sessions, and undoubtedly at some point someone will launch into "Stairway To Heaven."

Many in the current folk music business will tell you, that's exactly the point. If it's a song that people like to play and sing together on their own, well, that's "folk music" more or less by definition. Still, there are some who will grumble "that ain't folk music" in much the same way many of the purists were muttering in the 90s about Alison Krauss, "that ain't bluegrass."

You just can't please everybody, but one of the hallmarks of Philly Folk over the years is their ongoing "big tent" approach and include a wide a variety and diversity of music as possible. Just ask anyone who saw the Tuvan throat singers a few years back.

Saturday's main stage ran straight through from 4 p.m. to midnight with the Gibson Brothers (reigning IBMA Entertainers of the Year) playing a well-received set, proving once again that dyed-in-the-wool folkies do appreciate top shelf bluegrass when they hear it. Cape Breton fiddle legend Natalie MacMaster returned to the festival after an absence of several years during which, as she gleefully told the crowd, she got married and had six kids. She's still among the most sensational acts around.

Folk icon Janis Ian did her set solo, with the notable exception of calling Australian guitarist extraordinaire Tommy Emmanuel on stage to back her up on "At Seventeen," her groundbreaking hit single from the late 1960s. (Who among us recalls that along with Randy Newman, she was one of the musical guests on the first "Saturday Night Live" show back in 1975?) And in his own set, Emmanuel charged up the crowd with tributes to Doc Watson and Merle Travis.

Upcoming highlights for Sunday include Sarah Jarosz, the Steep Canyon Rangers (without Steve Martin, unless there's a surprise in the works, Loudoun Wainwright III (maybe he'll go back 40 years and treat the crowd to "Dead Skunk") and the Orpheus Supertones, an old time band that includes onetime Highwoods String Band banjo and fiddle ace Walt Koken. Stay tuned.