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Highlights from the 2017 Philadelphia Folk Festival

by Assessor

Once again, I’m happy to present my friend Mark J. Smith’s electric reporting, including photos, of course, from one of the oldest (56 years and counting) and most prestigious roots festivals, the Philadelphia Folk Festival. As most readers of this column may know, this fest has a special place in my heart as it was my first one in 1969, the weekend after Woodstock. What follows is Mark in his own words, and I can feel the excitement he felt. Again, many thanks to him.

It was that time again. Time for the longest consecutively running music festival in the country. Because I need a new knee, part of gearing up this year was getting a cortisone shot to help climb those farm hills. It was a great relief, along with the enhanced access from the festival director, in helping to get through the three days. Due to my somewhat limited mobility, I didn’t get around to all the different stages I usually do, but the extraordinary sets of music on the Martin Guitar Stage, the main stage, made up for what I missed. I did want to say how much incredible talent was participating on the seven – count them seven – satellite stages.

I was happy to see quite a few local Philly bands playing the Main Stage – that has always been a big part of fest, as it should be. It also says a lot about the quality of musical talent in the area. Bob Beach, Man About A Horse, the End of America, Hezekiah Jones, Ben Arnold, Runa, and many others performed. A ton more played the satellite stages during the Fest. The absolutely magnificent David Amram was in attendance with a set showing just how talented a guy can be. Amram, a folk pioneer who can play some 35 instruments, laid down some mellow jazz sounds on piano, performed some Native American vocals, and finished with an improvisational song about the fest, rain and all. Fantastic, a national treasure.

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Each year there is a performance from a band I’m not familiar with that blows me away. This year it was the Infamous Stringdusters, rock and roll bluegrass at its best, stage lights, smoke, and all. Samantha Fish brought her brassy attitude and amazing guitar work to the stage and was a knockout. Great playing, great songwriting, and fantastic stage presence. Talking about stringband bluegrass rock and roll, Old Crow Medicine Show was up next. Between those sets a friend mentioned the story about how Pete Townshend destroyed his guitar at Monterey and said “Top that!” to Jimi Hendrix, who was next up, who then set fire to his guitar. In many respects, OCMS did just that, figuratively speaking, to the audience’s exuberant delight. But for me the Stringdusters took the night. And that was just day one.

Wesley Stace is a Brit currently living in Philadelphia. With 17 folk and pop albums under his former working name, John Wesley Harding, he is well known. Last year he did a good job filling in for Gene Shay, who was a bit ill. This year he brought his beautiful music to the stage. Great set, Wes. He was ably followed by local Celtic band Runa, John McCutcheon, and the 20-year reunion of Cry Cry Cry – Dar Williams, Lucy Kaplansky, and Richard Shindell. Wow! Then came one of my favorites, Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams, always great. They were followed by another group not known to me, Ranky Tanky. Another wow!

So far it was an evening of music to behold. Different styles. All wonderful. That is the Philly Folk Fest in a nutshell.

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Wait, it is still Saturday night and up next was Graham Nash. Starting his set with The Hollies’ “Bus Stop,” Nash proceeded to run through his musical history. A lot of changes recently but Graham Nash is still Graham Nash. Closing out the night was the Weight band with the King Harvest Horns, all members of The Band or connected in some way, keeping the spirit of the Band alive. How could it not be good?

Sunday brought some knowns, actually well knowns, as well as a lively unknown (by me) to the stage. The writeup said about Baile An Salsa: “where Irish melodies meet Latin rhythms.” Ten musicians got together in Galway and play what they call “Salsa Trad.” Fantastic. I hadn’t seen Eric Andersen in a while, but, along with his wife, Inge Andersen, he delivered what I expected. Another great set. What can I say about Susan Werner? She is one of the most relaxed performers I have ever seen on stage. Total professional. Great songs, great voice, fantastic stage presence, always a treat. These two sets by themselves were worth the price of admission.

And to close Sunday and the 2017 Philadelphia Folk Festival was a match made in, well, wherever they match up blues greats just to bring us joy. TajMo, also known as Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’. Two blues greats together, backed by a fantastic band including Taj’s daughters singing backup. What a way to end the night and the weekend. I have seen them both separately before, and together they are the result of someone’s great idea.


Well, that is it for this year. Lots of great music, great fun, back together with Fest Family friends, seeing photographer friends from all over again. Thank you, Lisa. Thank you, cortisone. I made it through and loved every minute of it.

Now, scroll through Mark’s wonderful collection of photographs from the festival. You can check out more of his work at: www.photosmithdigital.com.

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