Folk Concert Review: Newport Folk Festival 2012

I’m sure organizers are not losing a lot of sleep over controversies about the definition of “folk” music since festivals are selling out.

By Charles McEnerney

Photos courtesy of Sean Hafferty/5342 Studios and Ryan’s Smashing Life.

Of Monsters and Men at the 2012 Newport Folk Festival. Photo: Sean Hafferty

For my music interview podcast series, Well-Rounded Radio, a few years ago, I interviewed George Wein, the co-founder and producer of the Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals and Jay Sweet, the co-producer of the Newport Folk Festival. I returned again this year for the 53rd annual folk festival on July 28th and 29th and will be attending the 58th annual jazz festival from August 3–5, 2012.

In early 2011, Wein created the non-profit Newport Festival Foundation. During a slow economy, with corporate dollars being held tight, the festivals were struggling for title sponsors. Evolving to a non-profit organization was a strategic move to help keep the festivals going long into the future.

This year, the Newport Folk Festival sold out its July dates back in April, so the idea that title sponsors aren’t lining up to reach the more than 10,000 attendees milling about at Fort Adams State Park is pretty dumbfounding. The folk festival has multiple sponsors who have returned, though. Smart local companies like Alex and Ani are taking advantage of the opportunity to reach the thousands of people coming through Newport.

Of course, selling out an event of this size also means there’s going to be a lot of people . . . for some, maybe too many people. While the folk crowd is very low key, and I never got any sense of aggravation from attendees, there is the reality of waves of bodies moving back and forth between the four stages, food booths, beer tents, etc. If you don’t stay put at one of the stages and prefer to traffic back and forth, it can get exhausting just navigating by, through, and around everybody else.

There were more than 50 acts performing over the course of the two and half days; in addition to the Saturday and Sunday dates, a Friday evening show was also added with Wilco, Blitzen Trapper, and Megafaun.

The six acts that really impressed me this year follow:

Spirit Family Reunion from New York City felt as close to the kind of music you would hear at a religious revival as you might get at Newport. Using guitars, banjo, washboard, percussion, bass, and group singing, their songs felt like they were going to sweep up audience members with each chorus and inspire a sing-along, even if they’d never heard the song before. Hear their first release on Soundcloud.

Of Monsters and Men is from Iceland and released their first album in the US this spring on Universal Music, one of the few last major labels, no less. Their quiet to dramatic sound worked great at the festival, and their audience grew throughout the set. Perfect for fans of Arcade Fire, Edward Sharpe & Magnetic Zeros, or The xx.

Patty Griffin at the 2012 Newport Folk Festival. Photo: Sean Hafferty

Patty Griffin is a Maine-native who also spent time in Boston’s folk scene but is now based in Austin, Texas. I was a huge fan of Griffin’s first few albums (Living with Ghosts, Flaming Red, 1,000 Kisses) but was less moved by her last few releases. Still, live at Newport, with just a guitar in hand and her spellbinding voice, she reminded me what I love so much about her delivery. Both powerful and fragile, her performance built an impressive rapport with the audience at the Fort Stage, the largest of the four stages.

Alabama Shakes has had their fair share of buzz over the last year, but they delivered at Newport with a performance that was perfect for a summer’s day. Singer/guitarist Brittany Howard has a soulful voice and hook-filled songs, the latter stuck in your head for hours—or days—later.

Tune-yards features Merrill Garbus, who grew up in southwestern Connecticut (and lived around New England including Massachusetts and Vermont). Now based in Oakland, California, Newport was a return to New England for her and she clearly was having fun performing closer to her roots. Garbus plays ukulele, percussion, and handles the vocals, recording and looping all these sounds together with a live bassist and two saxophone players. Most people I know who have heard Tune-yards have assumed the singer is an African male. If you haven’t heard Tune-yards, you’re overdue.

Blind Pilot is a Portland, Oregon-based group with three albums out. The band first gained notoriety in 2008 when they toured the US west coast via bicycle as a duo, but they’ve added four more members over the past few years and have added a more pop side of their folky sound. In a more just world, Blind Pilot would be all over mainstream radio. The band’s performance at the Harbor Stage was engrossing, especially hard given it is an outdoor venue with people moving about on all sides.

Tune-yards at the 2012 Newport Folk Festival. Photo: Sean Hafferty.

The Guthrie Family reunion also made a stop at Newport (see my notes from the recent Green River Festival) to celebrate Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday.

One has to wonder what Woody Guthrie would have to say about Newport the city, though. He never performed at Newport Folk Festival (unlike his good friend Pete Seeger, who was one of the co-founders of the festival) and likely wouldn’t have felt much at home there. Still, it is good to see Guthrie’s memory being remembered by so many musicians at the festival. Frankly, we need more musicians in any genre of music who are able and willing to take on political issues, as Guthrie did during his career.

The festival added a fourth stage this year with the Museum stage, inside the Museum of Yachting (this is Newport, after all!), but with limited space in this venue, there was an intimidating line-up to get in for pretty much every show. I tried to attend the very first show at 11:30 a.m. on Saturday morning, but there was a wait already. I would have loved to see some shows there, but given the volume of the crowds, it was a challenge to get in the door. For me, if there’s music playing at one of the three other stages, it made it hard to stand in line. It’s a great idea to add another stage, though.

Alabama Shakes at the 2012 Newport Folk Festival. Photo: Sean Hafferty

Discussed quite a bit over the last few years (mostly since Jay Sweet began helping program the festival) has been the concept of “what is folk music?” Sweet expanded the scope of the styles represented at the festival, and you can’t argue with the festival’s more recent success. I’m sure the festival organizers are not losing a lot of sleep over the definition of “folk” music given that festivals are selling out.

This year the people at the gates did get attendees through more quickly; last year I remember there being a 40-minute wait to get in, and everyone around me was getting grumpier by the minute. It was great to see the process go so smoothly this year.

This weekend is the Newport Jazz Festival, and tickets are still available, so it’s not too late to head to Newport!

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