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Philly Folk Fest

The 52nd Philadelphia Folk Festival kicked off on Thursday night and ran through Sunday evening.  Perhaps because of superstition and a desire for nice weather, the sign for main stage noted "2012 + 1."  With the exception of a brief light rain Sunday afternoon, the August days were remarkable with highs in the low 80's and cool nights complemented by warm campfires in the campground.

It was nice to see a new food vendor, Nyota’s Ting, who provided vegan dishes infrequently found at festivals.  Coming from Jamaica, New York, they used textured vegetable protein for the vegan goat curry and other vegan curry dishes in a way that made meat lovers swoon.

Despite relatively cool summer weather, concert goers still sought daytime shade.  One couple assembled mobile shade protection for hillside viewing, while others brought wooden blocks to level chairs on the slope.  The festival is set in the varied lush green terrain of the PA countryside.  A creek flows through it, separating the main concert area from a couple of other venues and the overnight campground, where jamming happened all night long.  The Main Stage is nestled in the hills between two smaller Craft and Tank Stages which run simultaneously before the main stage starts.

A Lobby Stage, located near the entrance, was covered with a tent.  This year, a new intimate indoor Cultural Stage was also near the entrance.  A new Front Porch Stage was available to those who opted to camp. The Camp Stage, open to all festival goers, was located behind the Main Stage near the entrance to the campground and required a journey through shady Dulcimer Grove, where hammocks were strung, colored parasols hung in the tall trees, and juggling, tight rope wire walking, and acrobatics went on.

The festival musical expanded beyond its traditional folk acts to include an occasional act with broader appeal, like this year’s Saturday night performers Todd Rundgren and In the Pocket - an all-star cast of Philly musicians.  Blues found its way in on Friday night with The Otis Taylor Band, who mesmerized the audience with a trance blues rendition of Hendrix’s "Hey Joe" and then Jimmy Vivino & Gabriel Butterfield, who presented a Butterfield Revisited show on Saturday afternoon.

Friday night’s line-up was strong with RUNA playing a strong set of traditional Irish music capped off with an Irish step dancing finale.  Amy Helm, who is also a member of Ollabelle, brought a solid band, which included Ruthie Unger, for a great set of Americana music.  Hawaiian ukulele wizard Jake Shimabukuro flailed away as a master, taking this small instrument to great heights and toning it down to share a range of emotion. The Richard Thompson Electric Trio put on a stellar performance.  His playlist, which included a rousing "Sally B" and a solo performance of "1952 Vincent Black Lightning," excluded his recent tune "Salford Sunday," which would have been appropriate for this Upper Salford Township festival.

On Saturday, Burning Bridget Cleary got people on their feet with lively traditional Celtic, featuring vocalists/fiddlers Rose Baldino, Deirdre Lockman, Lou Baldino on guitar/vocals, and Peter Trezzi on percussion.  At one point the two fiddlers took the show to the Craft Stage hill, roaming, sitting, and dancing with the audience as they played. 

Later Saturday afternoon, three fifths of the Decemberists, who are on hiatus, returned to the festival as Black Prairie, a dark bluegrass/string band. Decemberists members included Chris Funk who played a square-neck Dobro guitar, bass player Nate Query, and accordionist Jenny Conlee.  They were joined by Annalisa Tornfelt and Jon Neufeld on violin and guitar, respectively.  John Wesley Harding sang on the Lobby Stage for two tunes, including Led Zeppelin’s "Bron-Y-Aur Stomp" to close their show.  This was only one of two scheduled performances away from home by the Portland, Oregon band, who returned to play another set at the Main Stage later in the day.

Banjo player Michael Beaky, also with Lehigh Valley group Pavlov’s Dawgs, performed a John Harford Tribute Saturday afternoon with the Steam Powered Aero Band, jammed later that night in the campground until past 3 am, and was then on stage again Sunday as part of a Banjo Styles show with Marcy Marxer, Cathy Fink, Jane Rothfield, and Mark Schultz.

Saturday’s Main Stage lineup included The Ben Vaughn Quintest, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, Todd Rundgren, and The Mavericks among others.  The Mavericks, a nine-piece band headed by crooner Raul Malo, were a stand-out, with talent, energy, and showmanship, playing several tunes from their latest recording "In Time."  Guitarist Eddie Perez and keyboardist Jerry Dale McFadden, long time band members, were key contributors to a lively performance.

Todd Rundgren showed solid stage presence with Jesse Gress on guitar, but his joking about playing his music at a folk festival didn’t sit well with much of the audience.  Regardless, he satisfied the audience with many of his hits from over the years.  He returned to sit in briefly with the next group, David Uosikkinen’s In The Pocket, a 12+ piece group, which featured an all-star cast of Philly rockers from The Hooters, Jeffrey Gaines, Ben Arnold, Richard Bush, Graham Alexander, Tommy Conwell, Steve Butler, and Rob Hyman, among others.  They rocked a closing show at the Main Stage on Saturday.

Philadelphia Folk Festival Director Michael Cloeren brought gospel music Sunday morning to the Camp Stage, as he had done recently at the PA Blues Festival which he also books.  The Folk Festival Sunday morning show paired alternating northern and southern gospel sounds with the Como Mamas and the Spirit Family Band. 

The Carolina Chocolate Drops wowed an overflowing Sunday afternoon audience at The Lobby Stage, returning to The Main Stage that evening with a unique African American old-timey sound.  The afternoon also included multi-genre performer/composer David Amram, returning to the festival to sit in with The Amigos Band, playing country/roots music at the Craft Stage.  The Amigos, who were selected to serve as American cultural ambassadors for the American Music Abroad program by the U.S. Department of State, were in style with their red western shirts with black trim.  The Main Stage featured a handful of solid performances to cap off the festival.  The folk/blues performance by The David Bromberg Quintet in the evening was a classic festival show with Bromberg in fine form.  Texas group Asleep at The Wheel drove it home with "Hot Rod Lincoln."

Carlos Benjamin is the host of Rhythm and Roots on Sundays from 3 to 5 pm. Prior to this, he was a 20-year host of The Blend, where he focused on new adult alternative music, including a weekly Rockabilly Roundup feature for five years. Carlos has hosted numerous performers for interviews and live on-air performances. His radio experience pre-dates WDIY, covering the explosive 80s music scene. He created and produced WDIY’s Culture Calendar for 10 years and continues to be plugged into the regional live music scene, extending that experience beyond the Lehigh Valley, most recently in Austin, Texas.