It rained in Thursday. It rained again on Tuesday. In between was the entire 40th Anniversary of the Philadelphia Folk Festival, three days and nights of blazing sunshine, starry nights, music, dance, crafts, camping, juggling, kids' stories -- and not a drop of rain in sight. You cannot make up stuff like this.
Even Judy Collins, who closed the official festival on Sunday night with one of those note-perfect, patented sets from her on-going Wildflowers Tour [http://www.judycollins.com], remarked on the remarkable weather.
Two kids, dazed by the heat, rolled in the dust on Sunday afternoon, and stood around, smiley faces painted on their non-muddy bellies to make the old folks laff, disoriented by their inability to do a Woodstock mudslide down the hill in front of the big new mainstage (brought to you courtesy of the Martin Guitar Company, a sign of our corporate times, as Utah Phillips, a rejuvenated piece of work if ever there was one, remarked. "Why couldn't it be the Woody Guthrie Stage? Or the Pete Seeger Stage?" Next year, Utah.) But I digress. Blame the heat and the humidity, if you're charitable.
Well, OK. Among the other things you cannot make up is Janis Ian, on a "Songs We Sang at Philly in the 60's" workshop stage. No, you're right. She couldn't believe it either. Second time around the round-robin, she could no longer contain herself. Striking up one of her favorite songs from back then complete with a drop-dead perfect bass-run on her magical guitar - she first got the hillside audience, laughing itself silly from the first few notes, to join in on the chorus of, no kidding, "These Boots Are Made for Walking", you love it, tell the truth - and then went on into her own new verse: "I don't know what I'm doin' in this workshop/ Because back then I only was fifteen/ And if I sang the songs I really sang then," They'd hang me from the nearest knotty pine." We needed the laugh, folks.
Janis Ian in Evening Concert
OK, perhaps not "needed." Just enjoyed. It was, in fact, a great party, kidding included. Roy Book Binder (or maybe that's "Bookbinder," sole proprietor of Peg Leg Records) joined Michael Cooney in co-MC'ing the evening concerts, in alternation with Gene Shay, the perennial genial legend of Philly folk-radio, whose almost as legendary audience-supplied bad joke marathon will get no space here (Well, OK - here's one, and I'll paraphrase: "This guy runs over a rabbit on the road, and gets out of the car, all upset, because the rabbit's lying there all squished and dead, but he says, "Oh, I can fix that" and he runs back to the car and comes back with a spray-can and sprays the rabbit, which a few minutes later jumps up, shakes itself, and starts waving to all the passing cars. Some guy who's been watching all this says, "How did you do that?" And he shows him the can, which says on it -- are you ready? --- "Restores dead hair in minutes, and establishes permanent wave." OK, remember you insisted. There's these two state troopers right now escorting the guy who gave Gene that joke over the state line, with a stern warning never to return).
Anyway: among bird's-nest-bearded Michael Cooney's amazing feats of musical strength was lifting the entire Saturday night hillside into a version of "Out To The Ball Game Take Me" that got them singing happily along once they caught on to where to start (I will not repeat Gene Shay's story of the Queen of England's visit to a hospital ward full of glottal-stop-swallowing patients), topped - if topped - by The Amazing Roy BookBinderbinder's extended extemporaneous version of "Amazing Grace and Sideshow Sam" ("Just think - she had an IQ so high she coulda been the first Tattooed Lady US President") during the lengthy set up for Judy Collins' show-closing set, the following night. With sidekicks like these, Gene's amiable amble thro his MC duties was just made to look even easier than he makes it look, year after year
Among the other highlights, for me at any rate - everybody has their own list, "Age cannot wither nor custom stale" the infinite variety that is the Philadelphia Folk Festival - would be the spiraling harmonies of the young Irish group Solas on the Karan Casey-led old love-ballad, "Suil a Ruin," in a Friday night mainstage mini-concert capped by a riproaring version of Woody's "Pastures of Plenty" embedded in a set of jigs and reels for which Seamus Egan traded off on flute and banjo, with the amazingly deft Winifred Horan (from Cherish the Ladies) on fiddle.
It was followed in quick succession by Laura Love, in shaved sides and trailing beaded corn-rows, doing an a capella opening of "Amazing Grace"- no way the hillside was singing along on this trilling and sliding voice - and the impossibly long-legged Barbara Lamb stepping up to the mike to whip it up into a Texas swing tune. Laura and Barbara fell on their knees to pay homage to Rob Cook's guitar during a raucous "My Booty" that had them bumping butts across the stage, and Laura's lilting, lovely version of "Stoned Soul Picnic" was followed in quick succession by her ode to free speech, "Sativa Sensimilla," "Sometimes David Wins" triumphantly turning the set around to "Train I Ride" and Laura yodeling around Barbara Lamb's solo -- "Play that funky fiddle, Barbara!" - and yelling above the crowd noise at the end, "Thank you, Fred Kaiser!" (Nice to hear the programming chair recognized, isn't it?)
Barbara Lamb and Laura Love
Laura Love and Rob Cook
Also on Friday night, the great Roy Book Binder sat in for Dave Van Ronk, who was sidelined by a herniated disc (somewhere Jamie's got a great backstage shot of Dave, standing over and apparently lecturing a seated Kenny Goldstein, from one of those great Philly festivals of the mid-seventies, that we have to find and put in front of you - for now, I just like that image, of absent friends, in my mind).
Sitting on a folding chair, Roy delivered a subtle "Rag Mama," leading into a discussion of his record label, Peg Leg Records, and pegleg dancers he has known over the years, and on into a tribute to one of them, "The Prince Who Picked the Guitar," and then into his "middle-aged blues - for the very hip over 55 among us," who know "You Can't Do That No More," and then into his "New Age Woman Blues" ("For my second ex-wife - may she rest in peace with her second husband, in Biloxi, Mississippi"), and his career-altering decision to become a "Singer-Songwriter-Bluesman," which works when you think about it, and then "The St Pete Blues," before donning a leg-bone slide for his trademark "Travelin' Man," and closing this deadpan, hilarious set with Jimmy Murphy's country-gospel hit which almost crossed over into pop music status, "Electricity" (which you have to say "Ee-leck-e-tricity" to get full flavor on)! , played, like Jimmy's, on a 1939 Montgomery Ward $12.75 Gibson guitar, of which Roy claims to have two (I don't know - I'm just telling you what he said, and he gets to make up stuff if he wants to).
The program book was, as per usual at Philly, filled with afternoon workshop options that could have had you wandering all across the hillside, from the Crafts to the Tank Stage, down into the Dulcimer Grove - home to Dave Gillies Give-and-Take Jugglers and kids' music with Rik Palieri on bagpipes and Annie Wenz teaching them to play drums, and this year to a Dance Stage and a Story-Telling Stage (picture Stretch Pyott and Utah Phillips trading off tales of bosses they have known), and further back, thro the woods, to the Camp Stage and Cajun music from Charivari swapping sets with Nickel Creek's dazzling Newgrass and Tempest's Irish pub-rock. Great stuff everywhere you turned.
Being ourselves ageing hippies we sought the shade of the trees lining the side of the hill nearest the crafts booths - just below the Sing Out! Magazine stand - spread out our just-in-case orange plastic poncho, and waited for the sun to swing down behind the trees, alternately exposing us to and then sheltering us from its blazing rays, and let the festival come to us for a while. That's why we heard Utah again, trading stories with Roy Bookbinder, still tickling his Gibson, about pegleg hobos, dancers and bluesmen they've known along the way, Utah suggesting possible additions to the program, like folk mud wrestling, Rosalie Sorrels versus Dave Van Ronk, for example - his money'd be on Rosalie, obviously - and Rik Palieri as MC, after Roy's departure, drawing Utah into "Hallelujah I'm a Bum," interspersed with Utah's stories of Frying Pan Jack apologizing for squeezing a lady's canary into his drink in mistake for a lemon, once he realized lemons don't have legs, and his Socratic instruction of a neighbor who berated him for front-porch sloth and indolence - "Whyncha get a job, then you can sit on your front porch and enjoy yourself?" "Whaddya think I'm doing now?" And all the rueful wage-slaves on the hillside laughed mournfully along, oh well.
(left to right)
Utah Phillips, Rik Palieri and Roy Bookbinder
And then there was Lila Downs. We saw her in Oaxaca last February, wowing a huge auditorium with her three-octave voice and her tight band (led by Paul Cohen, her husband/artistic director). Her new CD, Border/La Linea, on Narada Records, features the Woody Guthrie medley, "Pastures of Plenty/This Land is Your Land" (with her own "Land," a paean to Mexican immigrants) that partially explains Fred Kaiser juxtaposing her with Arlo Guthrie and his family band, Xavier, in the Saturday Afternoon Martin Guitar Stage Concert.
Lila Downs on Crafts Stage
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That medley was the centerpiece of her set on Saturday afternoon, flanked by "Corazoncito Tirano," a melancholy lovesong to a distant lover, and Woody's "Deportees," as the ode to Mexican braceros he meant it to be. "Soy Mariposa," ("I Am A Butterfly") was a lovely showcase for the tight, expert band, which includes Celso Duarte's brilliant Paraguayan/Mexican harp, Paul Cohen's smooth, floating sax and a myriad of indigenous percussion instruments, as well as for that supple, expressive voice, inescapably the focus of a fascinated audience.
Where were we? Joining in on the cheering for Nickel Creek's Chris Thiel, as he mixed Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" with the old children's song, "The Fox"? Watching those bloodhound eyes of Chris Smithers get deeper and deeper, ever more distant, as he rolled thro the blues of "No Love Today"? Standing at the top of the hill with Lisa Gutkind to hear Eileen Ivers' electric blue fiddle come pouring out of the speakers, as her guest dancers from the Golden School of Irish Dancers skipped lightly across the night-time stage? Settling back on the afternoon hillside for the Liverpool Judies' journey thro English country music, "from the Copper Family to Steeleye Span"? Listening to Laurie Lewis and Tom Rozum twining their way thro "Dixie Darling"? Joining in the marathon Cajun two-stepping to Charivari's twin-fiddle zydeco music? Tripping over Janis Ian's Gregorian choir as they swarmed from her guitar's wa-wa pedal? Mellowing over Tom Rush's song to his daughter - "Come on baby, let's dance the night away" - or laughing over his bemusement about now having both a cellphone and a beeper - "For a folk music emergency?" - or enjoying his having a "senior moment" with cotton-wool-bearded Dave Bromberg onstage? Or jumping up into his Bo Diddley the Gunslinger imitation on "Who Do you Love?" as if the years had never passed since Club 47 was next door to Cahaly's Grocery on Mt Auburn? Or standing, in congregation assembled, for Richie Havens - in polka-dotted silken gown - to bless us all in the name of St Christopher, patron saint of cosmic travelers, before Judy Collins brought the hillside to a lined-out "Amazing Grace," and then sent us out the gates with her encore, a sweet song of mourning for her departed son Clark?
The notes in the little Kerouac memo-books help, of course, but the bodily rush of the entire experience is, in the end, what counts, this year as always at the Philadelphia Folk Festival. If you were there, you know what we're talking about. If you weren't - well, there's always next year in Schwenksville.
from the 40th
Philadelphia Folk Festival
Cyd Cassone and Ruthie Foster
Randy Cormier and Abe Guthrie of Xavier
Tony Triska and Jennifer Kimball with Wayfaring Strangers