Friday was a great day to be at the 53rd annual Philadelphia Folk Festival. With the gates opening to a sunny afternoon, the stage was set for a day of showcases and concerts.
The Hot Club of Philadelphia was blowing the roof off of the Cultural Tent by the main entrance. The band consistently drew in a ever-growing crowd until people were just hanging around outside of the tent sipping samples from the nearby Honest Tea stand.
Over on the Main Stage, a group of Folk Festival veterans performing under the name A Fistful of Sugar played a set full of modern takes on old traditions. Coming off of its first full-length album released earlier this year, “Perspicacity,” the band played jazz, country, and roots music. A Fistful of Sugar also is hosting a scavenger hunt; which I entered in the spirit of Gonzo journalism.
Following that sweet band was The Wallace Brothers – a very loose band that is “Putting the South back into South Philadelphia.” Led by twins Zachary and Colby Wallace and Khoa “Lucky” Pham, their pedal steel guitar playing friend. The band put on a great show and had a lot of fun doing it – even playing a riff to convince Pham to take off his shirt.
Starting off the evening concert just after the bagpipers ceremoniously opened the festival, longtime favorite John Flynn took to the stage. After seeing him perform at the Common Ground on the Hill festival in Westminster, Md., I knew I was in for a treat. Flynn played through his typically excellent setlist and started the evening shows off on a high note.
Bursting on stage like a bull through Pamplona, Shemekia Copeland controlled the hill and captivated the sprawling audience. The two-time Grammy nominee brought blues and soul to the folk fest and told the crowd she was “Going to bring y’all to Grandma Jessie’s church,” in a call and response number.
She had everyone around her finger as she told a story about growing up in New York with all her friends either listening to hip hop or Whitney Houston. She came to school and sang, “I am a woman – I can make love to a crocodile,” which forced her mother to explain to her teacher – “She’s a blues singer.” Her boldness has not wained since then and Copeland nearly stopped the entire festival when she stood at the end of the stage and stunned the audience by singing without a microphone.
The Friday evening concert featured a variety of musicians – which was entirely evident by placing Archie Fisher between Copeland and Tempest. The charming Scottish singer-songwriter told nearly as many jokes as he did play songs. Noting on the dramatic change in tempo, he joked about a woman reading a book in the front row during a show in Canada. “I don’t mind the knitters – they usually knit in time,” Fisher said. “I noticed the book she was reading was a Scottish dictionary. I said I didn’t think I sang in too much dialect. She said, ‘It’s not the singing it’s the talking.'”
He invited a fiddle player to join him on stage for a Stan Rogers song, led everyone in a call-and-response song about the dying ship industry in Scotland and played a song by John Jacob Andrews. He said there aren’t too many Scottish love songs and when he asked someone by the borderlands why, they said, “Because we don’t waste time singin’ about it.”
It’s already been three years since the Irish-rockers Tempest took the Martin Guitar Main Stage. Currently on a 25th anniversary tour and performing on the 25th anniversary of first coming to the folk fest, the band fused Celtic, Norwegian and Scottish traditions into one incredible sound. Playing with mandolin and fiddle, bass, guitar and drums, the mood was set for Old Crow Medicine Show.
Coming out to a dark stage with one pale light casting their silhouettes across the attendees, the newest band to be inducted in the Grand Ole Opry, was full of energy with a classic spirit. The band was great in working in references about Pennsylvania and Philadelphia, even joking about drinking in Wawa parking lots. Either they do their homework or this is knowledge gained traveling and performing across the country for 15 years.
Lead singer, guitarist, banjo and fiddle player Ketch Secor said, “What they don’t know in Nashville is there’s a whole lot of hillbillies in the Keystone State. Some great moments included a “Song for the Jersey Girls” in the audience, “Palisade Park,” and breaking into verses from “This Land is Your Land” for Pete Seeger.
After playing their Platinum-selling song “Wagon Wheel,” and wrapping up the show with a great closing song featuring vocals and solos from all the members “Cocaine Habit,” Secor asked if the crowd would like to hear another.
Who would have guessed the band would close with Tom Petty’s “American Girl?” Not me. It’s delightful surprises like these that make the Philadelphia Folk Festival a memorable tradition for generations of music lovers.