Folk music and Frisbees: Philfest ushers in summer

Scott Ostrin, Columnist

Summer arrived Saturday afternoon at Philfest on Northwestern’s Norris East Lawn. The event, co-sponsored by A&O Productions and Students for Ecological and Environmental Development, focused on bluegrass, folk and relaxing for a couple of hours. There were booths delivering an environmental message, a bicycle-powered milkshake maker (consistent with the message, but weird nonetheless), footballs and Frisbees and an overall chill vibe. Some students reveled over the music, but all listened to the performances with at least a passive interest.

But if students weren’t jumping up and down, that’s because the music set the mood. Having missed the first performer, I came in time for Todd Kessler’s set. Although he apologized for his band not being able to swing by, I think his solo, guitar-in-hand-and-harmonica-in-mouth folk music much better fit the mood of the event anyways.

Postured as Bob Dylan, but with a voice more like James Blunt,Kessler’s pleasant folk songs captured the narrow band between upbeat folk and soulful lows, all without the additional accoutrements of a band. I did find it funny that amidst Frisbee and football tosses, Kessler threw in this lyric: “someday you’ll be a man/you ain’t got no bills to pay/you’re gonna wish you stayed that way/stay here while you can.” Come on dude! Don’t harsh the vibe. Maybe I was the only one listening to the lyrics, though. His yearning to capture the moment fit in nicely with the lazy-day air, I guess. Maybe don’t bring up the bills just yet.

Next up was the headliner, The Deadly Gentlemen, the five-piece bluegrass/folk/dance hall band complete with mandolin, banjoand upright bass. The group opened with energy, complete with fast-fiddlin’ viola and deft banjo-picking. There was a moment between the banjo and the guitar and the sweeping bow work on the bass where the sun peaked above the clouds at the perfect moment.

With enough time in between their setup and the end of Kessler’s, the quicker pace of The Gentlemen’s music hit a sweet spot in the afternoon. The band got most dancers going with some old hall style boogie-woogie, which was really the type of music I was expecting on a beautiful day like Saturday. Students did square dances, kicks and pulls to celebrate the music. One or two even pulled out the worm during guitar and bass solos.

The dancing had to die down after a certain point. This is supposed to be a chill day with students doing chill things after all. The Deadly Gentlemen recognized this, and played their song “Moonshiner,” a song about a man who just can’t quit his liquor. Perhaps another prophetic song about NU students? Eh, I can toast to a song about moonshine, even if I may miss the point in the process.

My only inhibition about the folk and bluegrass genre is the sameness trap it tends to fall into. These particular genres are about particular sounds and particular rhythms. It takes great creativity to distinguish yourself song-to-song in these genres, which the two acts did for the most part. But even when the songs did start to melt together, I didn’t think it was really an issue. After all, you’re there for the music and the football and hanging with friends and the weird smoothie bike. So what if every now and then a song sounds similar?

To cap this off, I thought I’d give another student’s perspective. At one point, I overheard someone say, “This is boring as s—.” Don’t fret! What was his next sentence, iPhone notes? “I’ve been vaping all day, though.” If that’s not a successful festival, I don’t know what is.

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Twitter: @scottostrin22