Like the clockwork of Groundhog’s Day, the Philadelphia Folk Society’s annual Philadelphia Folk Festival has a reason and a season: in the pocket of late summer that is the lazy near-end of August. For the 56th Philly Folk Fest – Aug 17 to 20 at Old Pool Farm – the lineup doesn’t get any lazier as some of this primal musical form’s finest practitioners will make their way to the woodsy wilds and camping facilities of Upper Salford Township, PA.
Here’s a weird one to start with: the rustic musical marriage of two Philadelphia theater artisans (Aaron Cromie, Emily Schuman) whose acoustic-based originals touch upon what they say is “love, loss and moving forward in a complicated world.” Though they performed as part of 2016’s Fringe Fest with an epic space opera, “Exile 2588,” Chickabiddy’s newly-released debut album, “Songs from Exile,” is as grounded as moss.
Taj Mo: The Taj Mahal & Keb’Mo’ Band
Individually, these legends – old and young – of African American folk could fill any hall in the area. Together, however, on stage, with each man’s bands playing music from their collaborative album, “TajMo,” to say nothing of songs from the Great Folk Songbook – anything can happen.
A leather-bound book couldn’t contain the volumes or the feel of all that David Amram has brought to world music and the diversity of folk music. This multi-instrumentalist goes back to Beat Gen days, having backed “On the Road” author Jack Kerouac, as well as 20th Century folk’s dawning by hanging with Woody Guthrie. He’s played across generation gaps and genres with Odetta, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Nina Simone, Allen Ginsberg, Dizzy Gillespie, Steve Earle and Langhorne Slim. And if you’re looking for him in the crowd, he’s always got bells and whistles hanging from his sturdy formidable belt.
If modern folk-blues was looking for its Nina Simone – a smart lyricist with a dramatic voice – it would be the lady of the Deep South, Queen Esther, with her vibrant, soulful four-octave range and a funky sensibility to match.
The high voiced, Rock n’ Roll Hall of Famer with the Hollies and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young is a British folkie at heart who has spent the last several seasons travelling, troubadour-like with just himself and another guitarist. Plus, long before Al Gore’s brand of “inconvenient Truth,” Nash was griping harmoniously, about killing ozone layers, harming whales and saving the Earth that we have, so far, screwed up badly.
Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams
Another set of musician-singers who have worked with Dylan (and Paul Simon and Emmylou Harris, and Mavis Staples and Levon Helm) the pair began making beautiful soulful folksy music together since the 1980s. Heavy on his powerful, yawning pedal steel guitar and her dulcet tones, these marrieds make a beautiful noise.
There’s a lot of dirty, electric, neo-blues sounds (think her pal, Jack White) in Samantha Fish, an old school singer and guitarist who likes her folk music frank and on the punk rock side. Album such as “Wild Heart” (2015) and her more recent release “Chills & Fever” are proof that Fish loves folk that’s done in the gutter grungy, but with a soulful, doleful twang.
Like Graham Nash, Wesley Stace hails from Great Britain. Unlike Mr. Nash, Stace has a sense of ironic distance that’s tough to beat, what with spending the other half of his career in the arts writing novels such as 2014’s “Wonderkid” and 2008’s “by George.” Plus, he lives in the area now, so give him a lift home after the gig.
Vita and the Woolf
This is the sound of something way out of place when it comes music at a folk fest. Jennifer “Vita” Pague has this plush operatic voice and “the Woolf” – drummer Adam Shumski – makes rhythmic, electronic pop whose music and duo name steals from the real-life relationship between authors Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf.
If you really want to go out on a sonic limb, you’ll investigate the art-folk theatrical freak-out of singer/songwriter Janet “Sylvia” Bressler, her bassist/daughter Ruchama Bilenky and a handful of musicians playing hammered dulcimer, uilleann pipes and big progressive rock guitar styling.
There are a lot of solo folk-rock Philly veterans playing #56 – Dani Mari, Skip Denenberg – but for our money, Ben Arnold is the gruffest, the scruffiest and the one bringing the most R&B nuance to his catalog of self-penned tunes.
If you go:
The 56th annual Philadelphia Folk Festival
Aug. 17 to Aug 20
Old Pool Farm
Clemmers Mill Rd. & Salford Station Rd.
$10 to $260