With five smaller stages going simultaneously and featuring various combinations of the hired talent, it's literally impossible to see everything at the 53rd Philadelphia Folk Festival on closing day, and choosing wisely involves considerable time looking through the program book.
A round-robin "Writer's Circle" featured the booming voice of Vance Gilbert, Nashville writer Antsy McClain, SONia (aka Sonia Rutstein, of Disappear Fear) and multi-talented singer/songwriter and actor John Gallagher Jr., widely known for his role as "Jim Harper" on HBO's "The Newsroom."
Gallagher is, in fact, what festival management and longtime attendees like to call a "festival brat ." Born and raised in nearby Wilmington, Del., his parents (John Sr. and June) are veteran folk performers in the region as well as more or less permanent festival volunteers, and accompanying them each August to Schwenksville was a big part of growing up for "Johnny" as most everyone here calls him. He has a clear, strong voice that he uses confidently, and has stage presence to spare (he is a Tony winner for a musical, after all). Now a full-time New York resident, his songs ring with sentiments like "meet me at Coney Island," but in a later campground encounter he reveals a deep fondness and appreciation for classic country talents like Roger Miller.
Before the startup of the main stage, it's always rewarding to walk through a cool, shady part of the festival grounds known as Dulcimer Grove, where hammocks cover the hillside, and activities for the kids go on throughout the weekend - jugglers, acrobats, clowns and more.
On a small stage off to the side is Dave Fry, a presence on the folk scene for decades (and for several years the head man at the legendary Godfrey Daniels music venue in Bethlehem, Pa.) who has the knack for entertaining the younger set by making them part of the show. Making sure there's a safe, entertaining spot for parents to take the kids is something that Philly Folk has done extraordinarily well though the decades, and it's why they can point to the presence of four generations worth of "festival brats" like Gallagher.
Speaking of the kids, Philly is one of the festivals that has annually featured the "Great Groove Band," where young musicians sign up for tutoring and rehearsal in preparation of an appearance on the main stage to start off the Sunday afternoon/evening show. It's fun for the kids, of course (and their families), but even grumpy old geezers get a charge out of it.
A trio of young men from Prince Edward Island, Ten Strings And A Goat Skin, (guitar, fiddle and bodhran) followed. Their name suggests a kind of "out there" approach, but they turn out to be pretty traditional - not quite as flamboyant and dynamic as their Cape Breton neighbor Natalie MacMaster's performance the previous evening, but they were lively and entertaining nonetheless. And unlike MacMaster, they sing.
Though based in nearby Chester County, Pa., the Orpheus Supertones are well-known nationally among the old time music crowd, and fiddler Walt Koken in particular is fondly remembered from his days in the '70s and '80s with the Highwoods String Band. Their set was spirited, highlighted by vocal numbers from the likes of Uncle Dave Macon, and Koken and his longtime partner Clare Milliner continue to do excellent twin fiddle work.
The most exotic act of the evening, DakhaBrakha, from Ukraine, proponents of the "chaos" music of that land - a swirl of cello, accordion and bass drum overlaid with bird calls, chants and other vocal sound effects., followed Even more exotic were their stage costumes - the band's three women were decked out in full-length white lace gowns topped off by the tallest Cossack fur hats on this side of the Atlantic. They were fascinating, and even if you couldn't understand a word, you couldn't stop listening or watching.
Sarah Jarosz, backed by fiddler Alex Hargreaves and cellist Nathaniel Smith (who was part of MacMaster's band the night before), offered a convincing set, proving that she's grown a lot musically in the last couple of years. Her voice in particular seems to have matured nicely, and she has a winning stage presence.
Anyone hoping for a surprise appearance by Steve Martin at the Steep Canyon Rangers gig would have been would been disappointed, but the Steeps are always happy to demonstrate that they're a major band on their own. There have been rumblings among the bluegrass faithful about the addition of a percussionist, and that's a debate with roots that go back to the drummer the Osborne Brothers used 50 years or more ago. The drummer didn't add much, but it wasn't a deal-breaker. They're still among the best stage bands around.
With the evening down to the final two acts, Alabama-born roots rocker Jason Isbell and his band made for a rousing (and loud) follow-up to the Steeps, then turned the stage over to Loudon Wainwright III to close the festival out.
Still riotously funny and acerbic (and occasionally profane) as he was when "Dead Skunk" became an instant radio hit in the early '70s, he spent much of his set talking about his late father, Loudon Jr., whom many of us of a certain age recall from his weekly columns in Life Magazine. Reciting from memory a piece of his dad's written on the occasion of the passing of the family dog, it was heartfelt and heartwarming, and showed a side of the younger Loudon that he doesn't always seem to come through.
With that, the curtain came down for this 53rd edition of Philly Folk. From a Roots/Americana perspective, it was a very rewarding year, lots to savor and talk about.