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Festival of the Year: Newport Folk Festival

on December 10, 2015, 12:00am

Photography by Ben Kaye

Newport Folk Festival is unlike anything else. That’s clear enough when you note the 50-year legacy of history-altering performances and the pantheon of artists who have played during those decades, including this year. When you look at what it’s actually accomplished in the context of both its storied past and the current climate, however, it’s clear Newport Folk is doing something no other festival in the country is even capable of.

After struggling to maintain relevance for years, NFF has enjoyed a recent resurgence largely credited to event producer (and newly named Executive Producer of the Newport Festivals Foundation) Jay Sweet. Sitting next to Sweet at New York’s Ace Hotel lobby bar for over an hour, I only manage about five questions. The rest of the time I’m listening to an impassioned stream of consciousness where thoughts are cut short by tangents, or stories meant to exemplify points twist out into excited fanboy chatter. Phrases like “paradox of compounding expectations” and “you either get it, or you don’t” are repeated like mantras. He actually has to gather himself on three separate occasions because his eyes well with tears. Never once does he talk about what he’s done to help Newport become what it is.

“I think it was just holding up a spotlight on what was already there,” Sweet tells me, the closest he comes to taking credit. “The way I look at it is the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is an amazing place, but everything there that symbolizes it is behind two inches of plexiglass, and people have to go in and dust it off.” Newport, he says, is equally important to America’s musical heritage, but it’s living and breathing; you can walk around it, take part in it, and witness as it births new legends. It’s where Johnny Cash introduced Kris Kristofferson to the world and where Roger Waters played piano in public for the first time ever — backed by Lucius, My Morning Jacket, and G.E. Smith, no less — 46 years later. And you can be there for it.

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Upon coming aboard in 2009, Sweet saw his job as reminding people Newport is a place where history happens. He secured his post by writing a now infamous 18-page game plan explaining why the festival needed to survive and how to do it. “I think you’ve seen it if you’ve been to Newport — that’s my playbook. To try and get it to where nothing is bigger … than the words Newport Folk. That is the headliner.”

His goal has undoubtedly been achieved, and ticket sales prove it. Newport doesn’t do press releases or purchase ads, and they only announce their tickets onsale via social media and their website. Sweet adds, “You have never even seen a poster that said, ‘Here’s the lineup.’ You know when we do it? We [announce our lineup] the Monday after the festival … No one’s ever caught that.” Even pre-artist announcements, it’s now a given that the passes will sell out almost immediately. In fact, tickets for 2016 went up on December 2nd; three-day, two-day, and Saturday and Sunday single-day passes sold out within 24 hours. The first artist on the bill won’t be revealed for months.

Getting to this point meant cultivating a unique festival culture. Your Bonnaroos and Coachellas can delight with packed lineups, comedy tents, and Ferris wheels, and that’s fine — it’s what makes them great festival experiences. Newport, on the other hand, is a great music experience because, quite simply, there’s nothing else. With three major stages, two minor ones, and a gorgeous view of Newport Harbor, the only draw is what you’re going to see and hear. Even better, the small site means you can theoretically see part of every performance on every stage, without running. People purchase tickets before knowing who those performers even are because Sweet and Newport have built trust by forming a Family, both among and between artists and audiences.

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A prominent member of that Family is Deer Tick’s John McCauley, frequent performer, host of the annual Newport Blues Cafe after parties, and part of the Board of Advisors alongside My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, Sara Watkins, The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy, and others. “I don’t know if it was always like this, but you see a lot of the same people every year,” McCauley says via email. “It’s really a festival for music lovers; there’s no other bullshit on premises, just music.”

With that music-first atmosphere, it’s a place where Watkins says artists feel at home and collaborate naturally, as if they were friends playing in a kitchen. “It’s just something that happens because you’re having a conversation with instruments, and it just happens to go very well.” She adds that Fort Adams’ old, stone walls between the stages mean there’s almost zero sound bleed, so you can hear all those collaborations too. And surprises are endless; ’65 Revisited featured more artists that weren‘t announced than were, including Lucius, who were everywhere.

It doesn’t stop at performing, either. Past performers often attend just to see their friends play. James Taylor once asked to dock his boat in the Fort’s harbor so he could watch Jackson Browne and Emmylou Harris. Last year, Beck flew cross-country to see Jack White, a concept that simply flabbergasted actor Joaquin Phoenix. When he asked Beck why he’d traveled all that way just to watch his friend play, Beck answered straight, “It’s Newport.”

Audiences have the same response. Sweet calls it a “psychographic.” Regardless of age, gender or other data point, the folks who come to the Fort are respectful, appreciative, and yearning to embrace good music. Sweet recalls White trying to figure out what made NFF different. His response: “No one paid to see you play.” “I said, ‘Nobody paid to see you, but even if they don’t know you, that audience listens. Not only do they listen, they want to be blown away. They are the most willing audience, and if you do your thing, they will be the fiercest, most loyal people in New England.'” This year, there was equal excitement for up-and-comers like Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats and someone like Sufjan Stevens. Crowds were packed from openers like Joe Pug right through Roger Waters.

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This is where the “you either get it, or you don’t” mantra comes into play. Some performers are game to play an event where the money may not be the same as a competing festival and the audience may have no idea who you are, because Newport comes first. Preservation Hall Jazz Band came up from New Orleans this year to take part in one song during the closing ’65 Revisited superjam. Taylor himself actually called the festival in May to ask if he could play two months later; other artists were willing to rearrange their sets just to help make it happen.

Understandably, not everyone is so malleable. Through email, James says that in addition to turning Sweet onto new acts, part of the Advisory Board’s job involves “talking among fellow artists just saying how much fun it is to be there, what a great community spirit there is there, and trying to convince new folks to come and experience the sense of community and collaboration.”

Making things tougher, Newport is the anomaly. It’s a non-profit, 10,000-capacity event that puts together a lineup that could stun the bigger guys. Amidst this “arms race” climate that sees companies scooping up events left and right, the smallest festival in the smallest state is a threat. And the bigger guys aren’t above strong-arming the little folks. This year saw an unannounced appearance by My Morning Jacket and the magic of ’65 Revisited, but having them as “surprises” wasn’t necessarily the plan. MMJ had radius clauses to adhere to, and ’65 Revisited moved from an aftershow to a mainstage event because they needed a third headliner.

“In some respects, Newport’s only survived by kinda taking what we’ve been given,” says Sweet. “We don’t write the rules.”

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Sweet has spun these kinds of challenges in a very Newport way, playing them up like typical folk tales. “Isn’t folk about passing down stories through music?” he notes. Having a band like MMJ come out of nowhere to back a legend like Roger Waters is an incredible story, but Sweet acknowledges it’s not the full picture. “My Morning Jacket, Jack White, ’65 Revisited — the reality is, all of that, we had no choice.”

In partially solving the problem of fighting through the noise of larger festivals, Sweet’s inadvertently created the best problem possible: “The paradox of compounding expectations.” Once you have an audience witnessing amazing last-second revelations and seemingly impossible headliners, it becomes anticipated. When word of ’65 Revisited began to spread, people were imagining Bob Dylan with a score of special guests. Sweet wonders what people would’ve thought five years ago. “Name one person at that show [in 2010] that if I had said, ”65 Revisited,’ [they] would’ve said, ‘Oh, it’s gonna be Bono, Eric Clapton, and Bob Dylan.’ People would’ve said it’s going to be Sam Bush.”

Now, Sweet fears the fallout when he really can’t book a White or a Waters or a Neil Young or a Bruce Springsteen. “Look, has Bruce Springsteen been asked? Every single year,” Sweet reveals. “He has an album called The Seeger Sessions; guy’s never played Newport Folk … But I get it. There’s a bigger machine with that guy.” Fans, he’s worried, won’t see it that way.

“I don’t want to rest on my laurels, and I’m always terrified,” Sweet admits. “But at the same time, I just don’t want people to start being like, ‘Oh, how is he going to top that?’ Because my invariable thing is, I am totally fucked.”

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For once, Sweet’s wrong. He’s right about the legacy, the magic, and the atmosphere of Newport Folk Festival. For the most part, he’s right about the crowds, who want to bask in music and little else. “Unlike a lot of other music festivals, people aren’t traveling here to get fucked up on drugs and dance all night,” McCauley says. “It’s just people playing and singing, mostly.” This is why the Family will keep coming back.

Newport is not part of the machine that is leading to festival saturation; it’s salvation from it. Sweet’s the caretaker of a musical haven and international treasure. He’s helped revitalize a place where music is the primary concern, not ticket sales or album promotions. The fans and musicians who get that are endlessly thankful for it.

Besides which, odds are the Springsteens and Youngs of the world will eventually come to Newport. Sweet had to beg Jack White for six years before he agreed to play, and now White won’t stop talking about it. After delivering the greatest headlining set of 2015 — and perhaps NFF’s recent history — Waters reportedly said, “Any artist of my age who’s not played Newport is just simply daft.” You can only ignore artists of that caliber espousing Newport’s glories for so long before finally caving and experiencing it for yourself.

“It’s like you can see the place the world really knows it can be if everyone got together,” James describes, “and so you believe and know that is possible and you really get caught up in the spirit — a spirit that is free and progressive and fighting the good fight.”

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Newport is a different world. You may have seen or played every type of festival there is, from the street fairs to the sprawling farms, the hidden gems to the city center extravaganzas. But until you’ve set foot on the hallowed grounds of Fort Adams and experienced what it’s like to be part of the Folk Family, where artists perform for the sake of music and music alone, among the most respectful and attentive crowd of your dreams, witnessing moments that you know full well will become legend not only because of what’s happening but where it’s happening, you’ve seen nothing.

“Jay always says, ‘You either get it, or you don’t,'” McCauley writes. “I’d hate to be the person who doesn’t get it.”

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