The Old Pool Farm in Upper Salford Township will be back in operation as a music venue this weekend for the first time in three years.
The Philadelphia Folk Festival, which began in 1962 and bills itself as the oldest continuously hosted open-air music festival in North America, returns to its Montgomery County playgrounds starting Thursday night.
This year’s headliners include virtuoso acoustic quintet Punch Brothers, led by Chris Thile, Nashville soul and R&B duo The War and Treaty, rap and folk bandleader Michael Franti and hip-hop hitmakers Arrested Development the 1990s. These acts are part of an ongoing effort in recent years to attract younger audiences to replenish a fan base that has aged along with the festival over the six decades.
In 2020, the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the face-to-face folk festival was cancelled. But the fest continued as an all-digital event with livestreamed performances. It also opened up its archives with video clips from its illustrious past, when acts like Mississippi John Hurt, Bonnie Raitt and Fairport Convention were regulars and the Folk Fest enjoyed a similarly high profile with iconic gatherings like the Newport Folk Festival.
Last year, members of the Folk Fest’s loyal community were looking forward to reuniting when it was originally announced that the festival would return as a scaled-down edition for a limited audience elsewhere in Upper Salford. That would have been the festival’s 60th year, but it was billed as “the pocket-sized 59½ Philadelphia Folk Festival.”
But although many Philly-area outdoor festivals such as Made In America and the XPoNential Music Festival last year continued, Folk Fest canceled its in-person plans and went digital again. There was speculation the move could be due to poor ticket sales, but organizers cited health concerns over the spread of the COVID-19 Delta variant.
The recent financial problems of the folk festival were described in detail Report of the Philadelphia Magazine in June by former Daily News music critic and longtime contributor Jonathan Takiff, who reported that the Fest’s nonprofit parent company, the Philadelphia Folksong Society, reported a loss of $386,595 for fiscal 2019, the most recent reported.
However, last year — shortly after the 2021 In-Person Fest was canceled — the PFS received an $869,254 grant from the Shuttered Venues Operator Grant program that provided relief for music and arts venues nationwide that were forced out of business in the early days before the pandemic was vaccinated.
This year, the Folk Fest returns with a full program and a sizeable crowd is expected, with long-time attendees coming together for the first time in three years.
Folksong Society executive director Justin Nordell said Thursday that ticket sales this year were the highest since 2015. “We’re excited to have incredible crowds again,” he said. “This is the 60th anniversary and usually we say ‘Happy Fest’, this year we say ‘Welcome Home’.”
Responding to speculation in the Philly Mag article that this could be the last Philadelphia Folk Festival, Nordell said, “We are very pleased to announce that we are already planning artists for the 61st and 62nd Philadelphia Folk Festivals. So this is not the last; We hope that we will exist for another 60 years.”
There will be music across seven stages, starting on Thursday with the traditional campers-only concert, led this year by Scottish instrumental trio Talisk.
Then things get hectic for the next three days when Christine Lavin serves as presenter in the position of legendary folk DJ Gene Shay, who passed away in 2020.
Headliners and celebrities on Friday include Punch Brothers and Watchhouse, who join forces with Sarah Jarosz as an ensemble calling themselves American Acoustic, as well as Dustbowl Revival and Raye Zaragoza. Also, if you arrive early: Jefferson Berry and the Urban Acoustic Coalition will play on the Tank Stage at 11am and Sug Daniels will be on the same stage at 12:20pm, and Brittney Ann Trabaugh will be playing on the Lobby Stage at 4pm
Saturday is the festival’s funkiest hip-hop day with Michael Franti & Spearhead and Arrested Development alongside old-school folkie Tom Rush, Happy Traum and Jim Kweskin. The Culture Stage features a Philly Songwriters In The Round guitar pull featuring Aaron Nathans, Avi Wisnia, Rachel Eve and Sarah Murdoch.
Sunday ends strong with The War and Treaty, a pairing of superb singer-songwriters in Hiss Golden Messenger and Aoife O’Donovan, and great soulwoman Bettye LaVette. Davina & the Vagabonds are on the Camp Stage at 12:30 p.m. and Los Texmaniacs are on the Lobby Stage at 4:00 p.m
A full schedule is at folkfest.org/lineup/schedule.
There’s one more streaming option this year, with $65 streaming tickets providing access to the festival archives as well as the live fest through August 31st. Various in-person ticket options range from $8 (per day, for children 5-11 years old). ) to $254, 10 a.m., 8/18-8/22, 1323 Salford Station Rd. Harleysville, PA, folkfest.org.