Just off the beach, at the terminus of an avenue where some of the country’s most affluent families live one can find the venue for the annual Newport Folk Festival set inside Fort Adams state park. As opposed to the infancy of most of the summer’s festivals Newport has some history behind it, and not just because the fort dates back to the Revolutionary War. As far as festivals go, Newport’s only real contemporary is Woodstock- with the small exception Newport had a decade’s jump on its eternally popular cousin in addition to running almost consecutively since then. Other than stamina, the greatest difference between this and the majority of summer festivals is size. Despite the acts drawn here, the four stages and the ample spread of the fairgrounds, the number of tickets available can only be described as modest. The firmest number available during the last weekend of July was just over six thousand.
As the gates opened for day one, history and heritage were very much on the forefront of the audience’s collective mind. So it was striking to discover the oldest member of the day’s first break-out performance was 14.
Without doubt the youngest group, brothers and New Jersey natives the Sleepy Man Banjo Boys might also be the most accessible act to play either day. With appearances on Letterman, the Grand Ol’ Opry and the Today show, their exposure is easily enviable to those everywhere twice and treble in years still struggling to garner a national audience. Concerning their short set of folk and bluegrass standards, ironically played on a stage known as the museum, there was nothing heart wrenching or impactful about their music. The Banjo Boys are simply prodigies with licks more impressive than their respective ages. They are babes that ultimately can’t be blamed for milking the novelty to its full extent.
The music with teeth came afterward. Jonny Corndawg may also be exploiting a kitsch demographic, but one tends to feel less uneasy about screaming “Fuck Yeah!” from the audience after his lead guitarist Robert Ellis drops a lead to make you weak in the knees. This country crooner could be considered something of a patriarchal figure to a connected web of up and coming acts stretching from alt/country via Hayes Carll, through roots Americana as performed by Shovels and Rope, to dirge rock in the form of Deer Tick. Perhaps someday there will be a ‘seven degrees’ game variation featuring this marathon running, long haul truck driving balladeer.
While most groups focused on blending the traditional genre of folk music with more modern prototypes such as rock or country, the Spirit Family Reunion delivered a decidedly gospel-tinged version without flagging a single BPM. The fresh faced Brooklyn natives did more to get a sluggish audience moving in their forty five minute set than any previous act, and for a time slot where foot tapping and hand clapping was as excited a response as an audience could muster, the reaction to their set meant near hysteria. Like a strong black cup a joe, the Spirit Family Reunion woke the crowd up and got blood flowing, serving as the perfect combination for the follower Deer Tick.
If there’s anything Deer Tick wants from you, it probably is blood. There’s something dark and evil and unabashedly self-destructive about Deer Tick’s music that transcends the dusty old hard format and connects with so many. Rot all to radio imposters, these Rhode Island native sons could be considered the only true protégé to the style and content of nineties industry changers Nirvana. Despite the crowd’s median age of early forties, and the family friendly nature of the event Deer Tick did not shy away from questionable song material. Covering topics such as alcohol/drug abuse, casual sex and a track sung from the first person P.O.V. of Chicago’s most famous serial killer, no less delivered through a biting distortion and the howling whisky drenched vocals of front man John McCauley the band’s set was a breath of fresh air from finger picking hard luck narratives.
A stellar day only got better with the Alabama Shakes. One of the best parts of the Newport Folk Festival was the seemingly flawless transition from one act to the next. Whereas larger festival eat up chunks of the day and disrupt continuity transferring large crowds across acres from one stage to the next, Newport’s purposely limited attendance and iPod-like stacking of acts facilitated a steady, near constant release of elation. Music is often designed and organized to utilize peaks and valleys in an attempt to manipulate emotions. If Deer Tick served as a high plateau, it was only to provide a glimpse of the snowcapped heights of the Alabama Shakes.
No other featured act contains the capacity for massive success as the Shakes, and despite the buzzword the band has become, they did nothing short of deliver. Rightfully playing the main stage, the group featured songs from their only release in addition to debuting new unreleased material. Inciting hip shaking and sing alongs from a previous silent and still crowd, the raw power contained within their genre bending, throw back rock and emotive, gut wrenching vocals of singer Brittany Howard possessed the entranced audience. From obscurity to Newport in the span of a year, after glimpsing the talent of the twenty three year old Ms. Howard you couldn’t help but shake your head walking away from the set wondering what the hell you’ve been doing with your life.
If every well executed buildup deserves an equal and opposite breakdown the next offering must have been deliberately chosen. Like ABBA before them, they are an unknown outfit from the mythical land of Sweden, a country which resembles now in my mind a fairy tale place if only for the beauty and talent of First Aid Kit’s sister act. Imagine two of the most beautiful women you have ever seen playing sincere and seductive loves songs over luxuriant female vocal harmonies and there exists a decision to be made: Not whether the music is any good- because it’s excellent in the vein of Cocoon- but which sister you’re more in love with, the guitarist or keyboardist. This is the dilemma currently faced by Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes fame as he takes the group on tour this summer.
If First Aid Kit set the pace for silly romantic day dreams, Iron and Wine expertly executed the feeling. This author is not so doss as to deny the importance of “Our Endless Numbered Days,” but unlike most of the music consuming world I never bought into the hype surrounding Mr. Beam. But that was before I saw him live. It’s easy to construe Iron and Wine as a Williamsburg coffee house darling, but in truth the performance was not only enjoyable, but displayed a duality of nature I never would have suspected. Perhaps certain acts border the realm of cliché for a reason. In support of more recent projects, Sam Beam and backing band played variations of their set list choice, purposely avoiding studio versions from the discography. “Jesus the Mexican Boy,” a deep cut off an early obscure album was played as an upbeat, almost jazzy number, and the set clearly avoided the weepy heart-sparked sentimentality often displayed in recorded tracks. Most surprisingly, Mr. Beam paid homage to the festival and the folk derivative that has propelled him to success by covering the much loved classic “Long Black Veil,” in addition to other golden age folk-western standards.
The day’s headliner, the Guthrie Family Reunion, was the perfect nightcap-er for a day leaving one delirious from sonic joy. Fronted by Arlo, Woodstock ’69 performer and direct lineage to folk legend and one of the early twentieth centuries most admired figures, Woody Guthrie, the Family Reunion delivered pure, unashamed roots folk between some of Arlo’s better known period work. Arlo presents something of a contradiction in terms for a folk singer. No one with even the basest knowledge of music history would claim he came up the hard way like either his contemporaries or predecessors, and even the hits he had were something of the silver spoon variety. However, to claim there’s no legitimacy to the man’s music is a gaff. Much unlike Jakob Dylan or Hank III, Arlo’s music has hovered close enough to the essence of the genre to maintain integrity while placing his own definable if not popularly successful touch upon it.
While the audience enjoyed radio favorites like, “Flying into Los Angeles,” there was a certain hint of the setting sun and ever after that could not be denied. After all, the performer is well into his sixties, and it’s not hard to imagine most of that odometer as being city miles. It’s untrue to draw correlations between Guthrie’s current station and say, Cash’s serial American recordings, but it’s hard to behold the flowing white mane on a man generations have grown up with holding the perpetual image from his youthful, rebellious “Running Down the Road,” in mind’s eye. And I might be sentimental, but I couldn’t help but hear something of a similar theme in the Family Reunion’s gospel numbers.
Over-all, the first day of Newport presented a multitude of high quality acts in the short span of some six hours. For the eight performances we choose to dissect there were sixteen others our word count just couldn’t justify. A wealth of discovery was inherent in addition to nationally revered artists, and it all came off without flaw or technical failure. To say the first day of the Newport Folk Festival functioned like a well-oiled machine is accurate but clichéd. What’s more succinct of the festivities, would be to say that Newport might be the best kept secret on the summer festival circuit. While larger, better known events often take a day to build momentum or work out kinks, Newport started out like a ball afire, and if day two can sustain the momentum there’s little reason to wonder at the festival’s fifty plus year lifespan.
Just moments after the closing act of the previous night a torrential rainfall caste an uneasy outlook for Newport’s day two festivities. However, with dawn came blue skies and birds, a light breeze played across gentle waves lapping at the shores of Fort Adams State Park. Sail boats with pompous names positioned themselves in shallow coastal waters some hundred yards off coast in eager anticipation of the finale.
In a severely under appreciated time-slot played Trampled by Turtles. There is something to be said about the acoustic group’s last album, Stars and Satellites. After a close listen its hard not to think the entirety of the album is focused on suicide. There are references on nearly every track with lyrics, and even the entirely musical numbers are tinged with a minor key banjo pattern, or else a disparaging fiddle wail to leave one questioning how desultory a topic can be so powerful as well as entertaining. On stage the group played as if the performance would be their last, fiddler Ryan Young’s eyes screwed up tightly, swaying in oblivion and dipping so low his bow nearly struck stage to exchange leads with mandolineer Erik Berry. Guitarist Dave Simonett’s veins bulged from his face and neck in a desperate attempt to sing in time to the furious pace set by his band mates. The intensity was not lost to the crowd, and though I think few were familiar with the group before set, many have become fans since.
Fandom is something of a delicious topic for the next, most highly anticipated performance. Mystery surrounds seventies folky Rodriguez. If you asked ‘Who?’ its only because you live in North America. Jesus Rodriguez dropped a single in the late sixties and then two poorly selling albums in early seventies on labels that themselves folded into obscurity. But the story doesn’t end here, unbeknownst to the artist–along with all the Western world–his music became highly successful in the southern hemisphere, where for twenty years Rodriguez’s albums were re-issued. It took the digital age and a chance search engine entry by his daughter two years shy of the millennium to uncover his fame on the other side world. In all that time he had never received a single royalty, but the international success of recent documentary Searching for Sugar Man by Swedish director Malik Benjelloul has brought something of a bloom to Rodriguez’s popularity, along with fair dues in recent records sales.
While Rodriguez may be long on history, his follower was not. The Head and the Heart‘s entire discography runs just short of forty minutes. Needless to say they played every single song from their self-titled Subpop debut, and then to fill up their hour time slot featured new material off a yet to be released project. Their performance was nothing short of stellar, however its hard to watch the act without thinking female vocalist Charity Rose Thielen as being sorely under utilized. Her arresting contribution at the crescendo of “River and Roads,” combined with her powerful verbosity in backing the male counter parts creates a want to hear her tackle an entire track. Crowd reaction between songs was more than appreciative, outright clamorous for the folk venue setting, and never more than those numbers featuring Ms. Thielen’s wonderfully succulent and opulently feminine vocals.
The Head and the Heart presented a hard act to follow, but it was nothing outside the abilities of young veteran Conor Oberst. Mr. Oberst might be the most intensely loved yet deeply despised musician in modern circles. With lyrics like, “I wanted to die young with my true love, instead I ended up a millionaire,” along with critical and lets not forget popular success it’s easy to understand why. With regards to Mr. Oberst and the various group associations he’s entertained over the last twenty years there are two types of people. Those who reference the man mockingly, and those who reference him reverently. The Newport crowd fell securely into the latter category, and while photographing from the pit it was hard not to laugh at the girl in the front row openly and at times loudly weeping as she shouted, “I love you Connor!” between songs.
Such distractions aside, Mr. Oberst’s set was a compilation of Bright Eyes and solo material. His stage prescience was minimal, sitting still at stage center and hiding behind jet black aviators it would seem he was closer in age to acts like Jackson Browne or Arlo Guthrie than his early thirties contemporaries. Taking stock of fifty years of precedent Mr. Oberst understood collaboration was in order, bringing out the beautiful young ladies from First Aid Kit to sing back up and then members of Dawes and Chris Wilson to cover Bright Eyes standards.
Last but certainly not least featured another act from the cold hinterlands of Sweden. Since everyone’s so keen to draw parallels against Dylan, it serves to mention The Tallest Man on Earth‘s intensity of lyrical and musical stage delivery despite his waif-ish figure. With a gaze to ignite the ships out in the harbor Mr. Matteson does more with six strings to incite crowd reaction than most five or six piece touring groups. Finger’s afire and pacing the stage like a convict in his cell, the Tallest Man on Earth only approached the mic to unleash the hell hound growl of his ground glass vocals. Looking through rather than at his audience, it isn’t hard to detect the young man’s ambition. Despite lack luster reviews of his last album, which it should be noted contained the fan displeasing presence of a back up band a la Dylan’s early Newport Folk Riot incident, his solo performance contained all the passion and desperation of a caged animal, leaving the audience dizzy with wonder at how powerful a sound can erupt from a single man and wooden box.
Day two of Newport presented something of a sonic strangle hold. From the opening of gates to the last dying chords of the Tallest Man on Earth there was little room for an easy breath. The day’s offerings weren’t meant to entertain so much as to elevate and excite. With stellar acts playing to a minimal audience, it’s a wonder the Newport Folk Festival doesn’t receive the same buzz so many other summer festivals do. The genre may be considered largely extinct, a throw back to a time before the digital age when qualities like musicianship and lyricism truly mattered, but Newport proves there is no shortage of musicians capable and more than willing to carry on the legacy of the innumerable predecessors before them who have since slipped into the realm of legends. Newport doesn’t pay homage to the genre of folk music, rather propels it.