The Newport Folk Festival is the best kept secret on the summer festival circuit. Proof of this lies in the anticipation that brews for it in the sleepy hamlet of the self-same name. Despite the rain, the unseasonable cool, and the low hanging clouds, crowds prowled the streets in groups of two’s and three’s, locals some, but for the most part well-dressed out of towners and industry folk looking to tie one on before the weekends onslaught.
It doesn’t take much imagination to piece together why so many national level acts not found on the festival’s billet would congregate the night before the show at the Blues Cafe. Rhode Island natives Deer Tick once played the same pre-festival show regularly in the years before they broke into the mainstream. Now, not only are they on the billing, but John McCauley was recently appointed to Newport’s board.
Newport doesn’t pay very well in relation to other festivals, and neither do they pack in much of a crowd. Tickets sold out within some few weeks of going to market, only about six thousand were available, but there’s the rub. Newport holds an allure for musicians, who in many cases compete to play. Organizers don’t pay much nor are they constantly expanding the grounds and bringing in corporate sponsorship- they don’t need to. Newport is a buyers market.
So perhaps it was future ambition on the part of the groups taking stage at the Blues Cafe in scenic, historic downtown Newport. Folk firecracker and opener Christopher Paul Stelling took stage to the greeting of a capacity crowd. Delivering slices from this year’s breakout False Cities, between repeated references to an all night cross-country rip from Minnesota, picking at that hollowed box C.P. stared through rather than into the crowd. The young virtuoso confused the audience by alternately encouraging boisterous behavior and dryly insisting they “shut the fuck up.” Oddities might be Stelling’s strong point: the insistence on a one-man-band singer song-writer delivery of a form of music that’s long since been considered exhausted, finger picking etc, but for him it works, and it worked for the audience too. On closeout “Fathers and Son’s” the uninitiated crowd spontaneously provided back up chorus vocals. Keep your eye on this CP Stelling, he just might be somebody someday.
From muted appreciation of the folk genre’s finer points to the whoop and holler of any south-western juke-joint honkytonk Joe Fletcher and the Wrong Reasons turned the scene on its head, putting fire in the bellies of those now loose from the booze and the folk. Fletch and the boys are similarly odd, coming up the hard way as working musicians in a dead medium. The country-blues based Americana act comes straight from the depths of the heartland… and of course by that I mean just up the street in Providence. Still, if there ain’t the hard luck soul of the country troubadour in their breakout commercial and critical success Bury Your Problems, then I’ll give the devil my head. What’s worse is the hot licks surfacing from guitarist Greg Burgess, they cut through the 1, 4, 5 rhythms and the drunkard’s poetics of Joe Fletcher’s lyrics with all the fury of a hell hound’s howl. Fletcher’s vocal delivery and Burgess’s fiery leads compliment each other to such effect the two elements act almost en tandem, trading off space and focus like the call and response of a brimstone Southern Baptist congregation.
Like your auntie’s bi-polar disorder the mood took a 180 once again when the Low Anthem took stage. Few groups have progressed in so many different directions concurrently. Over the years the Low Anthem have encompassed elements of the art house, the cinematic, ambiance, and most recently and frighteningly, the pop format. In addition to the sheer volume of instruments employed over the years the group’s taken on two new members: Mike Irwin on horns and strings, and Tyler Osborne on guitars. And much like their career, the group played tracks from every direction they’d ever taken, interspersing long, drawn out dreamy numbers between nearly country twanged four chord proto-pop, using swelling crescendos to crush the audience, breaking down rock n’ roll numbers into atypical signatures, making songs seem as if they were falling apart, being stretched out further than the guitar/bass/drum format was ever meant to allow- and through it all it appeared as if they were enjoying themselves more than the audience.
If the big names playing the festival proper can pass off half the energy, creativity, or soul displayed in the pre-game Blues Cafe show, there’s no reason to believe Newport ’13 won’t live up to its title as Best Kept Secret.