Editor’s note: Michelle and Kevin Crilley have been regular festival-goers for decades and have been reporting on their experiences at the annual event for the Town and Country newspaper for the past five years.
New this year was the addition of the cultural tent which featured sing-a-longs, jam sessions, storytelling and workshops. One of the workshops was a beginners' ukulele workshop which gave people a hands-on experience with the instrument.
The Philadelphia Folk Festival celebrated its 52nd year last weekend at the Old Poole Farm in Upper Salford Township. As is always the case, this year’s installment had something to offer for nearly every musical taste. With acts from such far-flung places as Scotland, Sierra Leone, Cuba and Hawaii, it was native Delaware Valley acts who stole the show at this year’s festival.
The festival opened on Friday afternoon with local upstarts “Psych-A-Billy” taking the camp stage. After some 30 years of informal jam sessions in the campground, this was their official festival debut. Their high-energy brand of “punk-grass” must be seen to be believed. Band co-founder Bradley Keough of Sumneytown told us that playing here was a “giant adrenaline rush.” Seeing our good friends tear it up for some 500 adoring fans gave us the very same feeling.
In true Philly Folk Fest style, the musical acts kept coming fast and furious. Friday night’s show featured Amy Helm (daughter of the late, great Levon Helm). While her whole set was beautiful, her cover of her dad’s classic “It Makes No Difference” brought many a folkie to tears. Ukulele wizard Jake Shimabukuro had the audience in awe with his lightning fast playing style. This young man is truly amazing to see and hear. The night’s music closed with the inimitable Richard Thompson. This 40-year music veteran truly keeps improving with age.
Saturday night featured Upper Darby’s own Todd Rundgren. Not surprisingly, the aging star cranked out such favorites as “Hello, It’s Me” and “I Saw the Light” in rapid-fire fashion. The evening concert concluded with a veritable “Who’s Who” of Philadelphia-based talent. An ensemble of 17 musicians included members of The Hooters, Tommy Conwell and Robert Hazard among others. It was a set filled with memories of the 1980’s Philly music scene and was a highlight for many festival-goers. We never dreamed we would hear “Me and Mrs. Jones” at fest, but it really happened Saturday night.
Sunday’s concert featured a veritable mixed bag of musical genres including blues (Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band), bluegrass (Philly’s own David Bromberg), and Western swing (9 time-Grammy winners Asleep at the Wheel). We were surprised to learn that front man Ray Bensen also hails from Philadelphia.
While the event is primarily a music festival, folk fest has so much more to offer. Festival-goers can shop for one-of-a-kind crafts at some 50 vendors’ tents, learn to play an instrument at the new “cultural tent,” or just nap in a hammock in “Dulcimer Grove.”
Not surprisingly, dancing on a hillside, or just negotiating the rolling hills of the farm can make a person hungry.
Just by luck, folk fest is a great place to eat. Offerings this year included Cajun, Mexican and vegan fare, and many others. For us less adventurous types, festival mainstays the Upper Salford Volunteer Fire Company offer pizza, hamburgers, and their now legendary fresh-cut French fries. In addition to keeping music fans fed, the fest is the company’s biggest fundraiser of the year. According to 40-year Folk Fest veteran Barbara Gormley, it takes some 85 volunteers to man their food tent for 14 hours a day over the long 3-day weekend. In addition to Upper Salford, The Skippack Lions Club and Schwenksville Volunteer Fire Company rely heavily on folk fest food sales to fund their operations as well.
For folks who choose to camp at the fest, the general store is an integral part of the experience. Here you can find everything from toys to toiletries and clothing to camping gear. Or, as volunteer Erin Logan of Somerset, New Jersey put it, “We have everything you forgot, broke, or didn’t know you needed.”
Perhaps the real unsung heroes at fest are the folks from “Potty Queen,” who clean and service some 200 port-o-pots all weekend, day and night. As veteran fest-goers, we really appreciate their tireless efforts.
This year’s installment marked another first at fest, with the official release of the documentary film “At Fest,” produced by James Wallace. Filmed on location at the 50th annual folk fest in 2011, it chronicles and captures the very essence of the festival, and features an interview with our very own Michelle Crilley.
With all the music, merriment, and magic that embody the Philadelphia Folk Festival, one of its biggest charms is the tradition it has become for so many people. We met folks who came from Florida, Alabama, Bermuda and California who travelled here just to keep that tradition alive.
As with all good things, folk fest has to have an ending. Monday morning is a time of smiles and handshakes, hugs and long good-byes. The memories made here, and the love of this place and its people will keep us going until we return next year. We hope to see you all next year down on the (Old Poole) farm.