George Wein’s Newport Folk Festival is not like most American music festivals. While its predominant purpose is to showcase a collection of noteworthy acts for its patrons, like most music festivals, there are certainly a few things that set it apart from the stinky, sweaty, drug-filled cesspools that also fall into the category.
Perhaps it has something to do with the FOLK of it all. After all, folk music generally draws a pretty homogeneous group of, well… folks. These people are commonly mellow, much like the music they listen to. They want nothing more than to sit on some grass, drink some frozen lemonade, try on some hats, make their own banjos, and soak up the beautiful New England scenery. Thus, the organizers of the concert feel that they can invite these warm individuals to a nice location without the fear of them tearing it to shreds.
Located at the gorgeously scenic Fort Adams, in Newport, Rhode Island, glimmering, clear blue water surrounds the small vivid green peninsula. Look out from the fort towers and you’ll see hundreds of beautiful boats rocking along the water. Weirdly enough, there was almost no on-stage banter regarding the nautical backdrop. Not even an “I’m on a Boat” reference from Richie Havens. Come on!
The place is remarkably clean; as in I don’t feel like I have to take a shower the minute I step foot on the premises, nor after I exit them. The people typically don’t smell like sewage systems and the air is fresh with ocean mist. It’s nice, which is hard to say about many other gatherings of the same sort. Sure, Bonnaroo is a great place to hear lots of quality music, but it’s filled with all sorts of stenches, it tends to get destroyed as the weekend progresses, and it’s not the best place to bring your family.
In many ways, The Newport Folk Festival is the grandfather of music festivals. It’s been around for a long time, it’s wise, and it likes things just the way they are. Though the acts are a mixture of contemporary and older folk music, people are going to sit for all of it, whether it’s the punk-bluegrass fury of O’Death or Jim James’ angelic croon. You just don’t mess with the order of the place.
At the main stage, the Fort stage, people sit on the lawn and calmly listen to the performances. There’s a small standing area, but it’s never too crowded. It’s mostly people laying back on blankets and reclining in beach chairs. The other two stages, Harbor and Quad, are small tents with a limited selection of fold out chairs. You have to get there early to get a your buns on one, and there’s no standing up front. If you don’t have a seat, you watch from the sides or the back. That’s just the way it is.
On top of that, each day only lasts for about seven hours. It starts mid-day and ends in the early evening. It’s just nice. There are lots of conflicts, which is a downer, but it keeps the day short and sweet. It’s a nice little festival, with all the ingredients for a pleasant weekend bobbing your head by the water.
And then there’s the actual music . . .
Saturday, July 31st
Harbor Stage, 12:50 p.m.
Day one started off with Portland, Oregon’s Blitzen Trapper. Their jangly, off-kilter blend of Americana and alternative rock was a captivating way to start the day. A lot of the time, Eric Earley’s songwriting is the kind that can go unnoticed without a keen ear. On record, some of it just kind of sneaks by you. He’s usually singing about seemingly arbitrary objects and places that don’t necessarily strike a chord with every listener. Sure, there are the “Furr”s and the “Wild Mountain Nation”s, but many of the other songs have such similar melodies, tempos, and lyrics, that it’s hard to really get into them.
To some extent this was proven true with some of the song selections, but for the most part, live, his musicianship and songwriting skills are all up in your grill. When the band performs, the compositions really take on a new life. Earley doesn’t just play these songs, he embodies them. Whether he is hammering and pulling an acoustic guitar’s strings, screaming into a harmonica, pounding on a keyboard, or going all Stephen Malkmus on his SG, he’s in it to win it. With gorgeous vocal harmonies around every corner, brilliant rhythms, and shimmering synthesizers, the guys make sure you leave with your moneys worth. From the tender, acoustic bestiality of “Furr” to the Zeppelinesque rock of “Destroyer of the Void”, the Trapper were sure to remind us that this was the place where Dylan went electric.
Quad Stage, 2:10 p.m.
After trying on some hats and getting some Clif Bar samples, I made my way through one of the fort’s archways to find the Quad stage, the most tucked away of the three. There I witnessed the ramshackle, antebellum bombast of O’Death. Bearded frontman Greg Jamie sounds like Will Oldham just hitting puberty, which lends itself nicely to the group’s progressive, hardcore bluegrass instrumentation, a sound that rips out shards of its influences (from Bill Monroe to Gogol Bordello), throws them in a burlap sack, and breaks through the seams. When things get mellower, Jamie’s voice smoothes out, but at their noisiest, his howl can also sound like a dying soldier’s. With a drummer that could have just escaped from the gallows, just prior to his scheduled execution for murder, a fiddle player who could pass for Jeffrey Dahmer, a bassist who might have also played in Slayer, and a banjoist who wants his banjo to be an axe, these guys know how to party.
Drummer David Rogers-Berry’s set looks like it was just excavated from the flooding of New Orleans. As he hammers away on the fractured crash cymbals and water-stained toms, a substantial scar running down his left tricep, he hits with such fury and power that at any moment he could splinter his stick and stab one of the other members to death with its remainder. After a few minutes with this band, that wouldn’t even be shocking. I mean, the guy does occasionally point at a crowd member and yell his head off at them. People were virtually moshing in their seats. Those folding chairs felt like a prison.
Harbor Stage, 3:25 p.m.
My Morning Jacket is a good band. Jim James is a great frontman. This is why it was such a treat to get the chance to see James’ isolated talents on a small outdoor stage. And he delivered. Not only did he sound great, but he even played some My Morning Jacket songs, and not all bad ones, either. You know how usually when you hope for something out of a solo gig, it usually doesn’t go that way? Well, this was like the opposite of that. This was one of the few examples of a guy doing pretty much exactly what his fans wanted out of him. There were some great acoustic renditions of MMJ songs in there, most of which came from Z (“It Beats 4 You”, “Golden”, “Bermuda Highway”, “What a Wonderful Man” “Gideon”). There were some Evil Urges songs too, but I guess that’s alright. “Smoking From Shooting” is one of the better songs on that mediocre album, and he played that. Then there were some new songs performed with a full band, which included Ben Solee and Daniel Moore. The cello added a new dimension of lushness to both old songs and newer ones, elegantly matching up with James’ full-bodied croon. He’s got the voice of a whiskey soaked angel, and he certainly uses it. Highlights included a solo acoustic “It Beats 4 You”, an obscure cover of John Callahan’s “Summer Never Ends”, and the untameable howl of “Gideon”. Also, yay for digital omnichords! (see “What A Wonderful Man).
Fort Stage, 4:30 p.m.
Andrew Bird can either be mind-numbingly boring or extremely exciting to watch. If you’re far away, like most people were at the main stage at Newport, it just kind of all mooshes together. His free-form, all over the place performance style doesn’t necessarily suit a festival where people aren’t all listening intently. I guess that’s kind of a silly way to judge a performance, but it’s true. It requires a great deal of concentration to fully appreciate. He sings every song almost exactly the same, so when you’re not paying too close attention, they all sound that way. But, if you actually look at what is going on, it’s pretty astounding. The live looping always comes together perfectly, with Bird whistling his way to a verse and bowing through a chorus. His Doppler inducing amplifier also makes one of the coolest sounds in live music. It wooshes by, as his baroque moan chants each line. His set included a few songs with the help of Calexico, who I regrettably missed earlier. Their mariachi meets Americana instrumentation was definitely a warm welcome to the otherwise sparse, solo affair. Bird concluded the set with a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Oh, Sister”, potentially his most beautiful set selection. Though even live looped violin and a beautiful voice can get monotonous, it’s pretty hard to deny how well Bird pulls it off and how good it all sounds in the end.
Fort Stage, 6:05 p.m.
John Prine has been around for a long time. But, age has been kind to him. He’s still going strong. Despite some health complications over the years, the guy still sings his quirky, yet sentimental country damn-near flawlessly. He’s a modest, often self-deprecating man, with lyrics that can at once induce laughter and tears. There was probably a good deal of both on Saturday. Switching off between solemn, fingerpicked ballads and funny, upbeat strummers, he made sure to defend his legacy. The guy also wasn’t afraid to tell the crowd that most of his songs are all the same three chords. Those three chords sound great, so I guess it doesn’t really matter. With a career-spanning set, that sadly left out the affecting “Sam Stone”, Prine reminded us all how a good song sounds. He also brought up Jim James to perform “All the Best” to cap things off. Well done.
Sunday, August 1st
The Avett Brothers
Fort Stage, 1:50 p.m.
The Avett Brothers have a great deal of energy. They soar through their faster songs, pounding on their guitars and banjos with punk fury. For their lusher, slower tunes, they put on the breaks and coo aptly. Musically speaking, they are great at making pop-folk songs. Still, something about them bugs me. Maybe it has to do with how every song is about the word “love” instead of the actual feeling behind it. While those songs are performed impeccably, even ferociously, I can’t believe the phrases or lines being hurled at me, and that poses a problem. The songs are catchy and hard-hitting, but part of what makes folk music great is its ability to fully understand and convey the truest of human emotions, specifically those of the common folk. While these songs tend to be about those emotions, it’s all surface level. They are only about the emotions. I can say the word love, too, but I’ll you’ll know when I mean it. The same is true for the Avett Brothers. They have the passion for performance, but a lot of the time, they’re all talk.
The Felice Brothers
Harbor Stage, 3:30 p.m.
Where the Brothers Avett lack sincerity, The Felice Brothers are convincing enough for us to believe that they actually do drink lots of whiskey, repeatedly break out of jail, and wield shotguns. They’ve got the Catskill mountain sound down, and Ian’s raspy, Dylanesque howl embodies the spirit of the words he sings. They all shout and sing with an energy that doesn’t feel empty. Greg Farley has the stage presence of a rapper, bouncing around the stage with his fiddle or washboard, like a coked-out maniac. They’re tight enough to wow, and just ramshackle enough to feel authentic. They build up lush, textured tunes, rich with dark Americana instrumentation. And, though the band has probably experienced very little of what they write about, the songs work as metaphors for modern emotion. These are love songs under the guise of Southern Gothic imagery. Mark Twain would be proud, but so would Dylan. With The Felice Brothers as evidence, sometimes it takes a lot of lies to tell the truth.
Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros
Harbor Stage, 4:55 p.m.
I had hoped to get a seat for LA’s Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros by getting to the Harbor Stage early. But, right after The Felice Brothers left the stage, nobody moved an inch. The “fire lanes” were even flooded with human beings. This was easily the largest, most excited crowd of the weekend. Cops had to come in and clear out the aisle, as it was a safety hazard. This even prompted a seemingly unprecedented “NO MORE CHAIRS!” chant. Was I waiting for the second coming? When did the Magnetic Zeros become this popular? There were enough girls shouting that it could have been the Beatles’ hitting Johnny Carson. And while Alexander Ebert does look a lot like Jesus, his dirty face and clothes making him look like a righteous nomad, he is just a normal guy with a ridiculously big band behind him. His troupe is more like a good-intentioned cult.
As they took the stage, they lapsed into the soaring “40 Day Dream”, with Ebert howling “I’ve been sleeping for 40 days!” Apparently he had been sleeping, as he claimed to have missed most of the acts on the bill earlier that day after one of his bandmates commented on some of them. The set was a fun one to witness, the nine-piece band all in ridiculously high spirits. It was impossible not to fall in love with Jade Castrinos, as she bashfully pranced around the microphone, tambourine in hand. Every song was received with open arms, but it was definitely “Home” which got the crowd the most excited. The song was destined to be performed for eager fans, the “you” within the lyrics serving as a token of appreciation for the audience. Though he can’t possibly mean it every time, Ebert really does sound like he’s at home wherever he’s with you.
Fort Stage, 5:50 p.m.
Levon Helm is one of the most animated old men alive. The thing is, Helm isn’t even that old. He just looks like an animated skeleton. In actuality, he’s only 70 years old. He’s not young, but he’s not as old as his frail body would make him out to be. As he dances on stage, shaking his bum and holding his mandolin out in front of him, he looks like the happiest little old man alive. He still hits his drum set like he always has, despite his thin limbs. It’s a sight to see. Sure, it is a bit upsetting that he can’t really sing anymore. After all, he used to possess one of the finest voices in all of folk. But when he does, it shows the passion he still has for his songs.
Opening with “Ophelia”, Helm tried his hand at some singing, before ultimately lending lead vocal spots to the rest of his band for the remainder of the set. With a fantastic, talented group of musicians, classic Band songs were all played impeccably, but a lot the times you could forget Levon was even up there, since there were so many other players involved. The set, then, kind of turned into a set of Band covers, except one of the members was actually sitting in. Nevertheless, it’s fun to sing a long to the live renditions of such great classics. It’ll never get tiresome listening to songs like “Long Black Veil”, but it does sound a bit odd having Helm’s daughter sing the song (even if it wasn’t originally written by Helm. It is from a man’s perspective, after all). Either way, the nostalgic performance was a great way to close out a festival that saw dozens of bands deeply rooted in the music Helm penned over the course of his career.
Photography by Nate Slevin.