For its 59th year, the Philadelphia Folk Festival has dared to reinvent itself as a multiday, multifaceted virtual event that’s streaming all day Aug. 14-16 at folkfest.org — with live sets by 169 artists on three stages and a vast, temporary archive of nearly 1,000 past performances, all in high-quality digital sound and images.
That’s audaciously more ambitious than other festival-in-place offerings like this summer’s Newport Folk and Falcon Ridge festivals, which have been mostly rehashing past years’ highlights for free on YouTube (with a virtual tip jar for musicians and presenting organizations).
Daily admission is $25 to watch Philly Folk Fest content on an internet-linked smartphone, tablet, computer, or connected TV. You can switch devices as the weekend goes on, but you can only run one stream at a time with your sign-in name and password. A $75 weekend pass adds access to some preshow content.
The archived treasure trove, recorded at festivals between 1983 and 2019, includes 887 main stage performances that haven’t been shared publicly before, except in snippets shown at the festival. Daily ticket buyers will have access to the archives starting on their ticketed day. Anyone purchasing a weekend pass can start digging in right away.
Then, post-fest, all that music history will still be accessible through Aug. 24, along with replays of the 2020 concert sets.
“We’d love to establish a permanent online repository, but the extra week of viewing, post-fest, was the most streaming time we could negotiate with our online production hosting company [Mountain View Staging] and the talent,” said festival director Lisa Schwartz, who’s running the show and booking talent this year along with her son Justin Nordell, executive director for the Philadelphia Folksong Society.
(To catch the highlights before time runs out, it’s good to start with the really big-budget anniversary-year festivals — the 25th, 40th, or 50th — for sets by the likes of Arlo Guthrie, David Bromberg, Elizabeth Cotton, Tom Paxton, the Roches, Trombone Shorty, and Judy Collins.)
Hewing to tradition, the online fest will have a virtual merchandise and crafts “tent,” and even a camping zone. Regulars are being encouraged to congregate via Zoom in their own virtual campsites — rentable for $30 ($25 for PFS members) and accommodating as many as 100 visitors each.
The core of the festival runs from noon on Friday, Aug. 14, to 10 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 16, with overnight sleep breaks. For weekend pass holders, the party starts Thursday night with a “campground” show featuring the Celtic band Elephant Sessions and the first of three nights of “campfire” open-mic sings.
Among the headliners this year are Richard Thompson, Los Lobos, Josh Ritter, Rhiannon Giddens, Billy Bragg, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Ben Gibbard, Tom Rush, Chris Smither, Allen Stone, Natalie MacMaster, and Ivan Neville.
Buzzworthy rising stars include champion bluegrass picker and singer Molly Tuttle, rustic musical chameleon Shakey Graves, vocal heart-stoppers Aoife O’Donovan (a neo Joni Mitchell) and Courtney Marie Andrews, and Philly’s fast-ascending folk/soul belter Devon Gilfillian (an ‘XPN fave). Curly Taylor and Zydeco Trouble is one of several party bands that bring special fun to the mix.
Eric Bazilian of the Hooters will be streaming an acoustic set on Saturday at noon from his “home away from home” in Stockholm, Sweden. “They asked, so of course I said, ‘Yes.’ Never even inquired if I was going to be paid. Doesn’t matter. To be able to say I played the ‘Martin Guitar Main Stage’ at the Philadelphia Folk Fest is payback enough.”
He plans to play “some fan favorites and some fresh ones from a soon-coming solo album, done up as ‘folky’ as I can, and introduce a Philly artist I’ve been working with, Alexis Cunningham, in some long-distance duets.”
A tribute will be paid Friday at noon to festival cofounder and emcee Gene Shay, who died in April from coronavirus complications. John Prine, another COVID-19 victim, will be remembered in a tribute Sunday at 3:25 p.m.
The bookers have upped the global music component with contingents from eight countries, including the Great Gambian Griots. The festival will also have its first concerted spotlight on LGBTQ and nonbinary folk performers, including prime-time Saturday entry Trixie Mattel and “country queer” songwriter Paisley Fields. Of this year’s 169 artists, 94 identify as female and three as nonbinary.
The 2020 festival has been hyped less than usual on the long-kindred radio station WXPN-FM, with on-air plugs largely limited to brief community calendar notations. Even Folk Show host Ian Zolitor managed to get through last Sunday night’s two-hour session without a single mention of the happening — not even of the tribute to his mentor and predecessor Shay.
“I’ve not really been doing much promoting at all on the show these days,” Zolitor said. “And no one from PFS or the festival reached out to ask for special promotion.”
Will the Philadelphia Folk Festival also fade away from live-festival programming, after the coronavirus epidemic has passed? Attendance had been falling off for several years, even before COVID-19.
“We have every intention of producing our 60th annual Philadelphia Folk Festival and continuing our legacy as the longest continuously run music festival in North America,” Schwartz said. “I think we’ll keep the digital, no matter what, whether we get over this epidemic or not, in part to continue serving the longtime festivalgoers who now have trouble making it up the hills, and also for the sake of export development.”