The 51st Newport Folk Festival ended on Sunday with 35 acts over 3 days. When all is said and done, you could argue that this is no longer a festival about folk music, but two of the elder statesman that appeared this year—Richie Havens and Levon Helm (of The Band fame)—served as an inspiring bridge between generations of American musicians.Reviewed by Charles McEnerney, Host + Producer, Well-Rounded Radio
Started in 1955 by George Wein with an original board of Theodore Bikel, Oscar Brand, Pete Seeger, and Albert Grossman, the Newport Folk Festival is one of only a handful of annual music gatherings that has a level of mystique and prestige for both musicians and music fans. After having started the Newport Jazz Festival in 1950 (hear my recent interview with festival impresario George Wein on Well-Rounded Radio), it took a few years before a second festival began gracing Newport. Wein also has a terrific biography out by Da Capo Press.
Both festivals take place at Fort Adams State Park, a few miles outside downtown Newport on a peninsula with a view of Narragansett Sound and the Newport Bridge. With boaters (okay, maybe yachters) drifting by, ocean breezes and seagulls about, it has to be the most relaxing festival venues these days.
As has often been the case through the years, the term “folk” doesn’t imply that everything you’re going to hear is going to be a guy or girl sitting with an acoustic guitar (or, God-forbid, the new Dylan), and 2010 was a great case in point with everything from bluegrass to indie rock to Mexican to jazz to country to soul.
Under George Wein’s leadership, co-producers Bob Jones and Jay Sweet (hear my 2009 interview with Jay Sweet on Well-Rounded Radio currently curate the festival’s performers. The festival has evolved over the years and, in many ways, has recaptured its place among one of the most prestigious festivals in popular music.
As various local or regional festivals have sprung up across the US over the decades, Newport has always held a level of cache that not many festivals hold. Perhaps because of its duration in an industry not known for longevity or perhaps thanks to Bob Dylan performing electric here, which has taken on a high (excessive maybe?) level of importance, for any up-and-coming artist, saying you played Newport is sure to raise you up a few rungs.
The festival kicked off Friday night at the posh International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, not far from those famed mansions along Bellevue Avenue. Sarah Jorosz’s solo set showcased her bluegrass and country influences from her debut album, Song Up In Her Head and Tim O’Brien’s bluegrass music and song-stories brought the audience his take on his father, parenting his own children, and similar personal tales. Finding a comfortable spot between humor and sincerity, O’Brien ended with “More Love,” a song made popular by the Dixie Chicks.
Steve Martin, best known to audiences for his career in comedy, Saturday Night Live, feature films, and playwriting, also recently released an album of bluegrass music on Rounder Records with The Crow. Martin performed, with wonderful comic relief between songs, with Steep Canyon Rangers. Having a comedian as a front-man of your band is not a bad thing, and Martin’s comedy has the right touch of disarming the audience before he wows them with his banjo playing.
On Saturday I saw a little bit of everyone as I roamed between the three stages: the Fort, Harbor, and Quad stages, the last of which was located inside Fort Adams, a first for the attendees of the Newport Folk Festival who may have long wondered what it looked like inside.
My three favorite acts of the day were The Low Anthem, Horse Feathers, and Andrew Bird. All three operate in a relatively quiet realm of modern music, and they all held their audiences in the palm of their hand during their sets.
Providence’s The Low Anthem has to have the best public relations story of the festival: its members were volunteers at the Newport Folk Festival two years back, helping pick up trash for festival organizers. In 2009 they played the Harbor Stage; this year they played the Fort, or main, stage. They were also signed by Nonesuch Records, who re-released their second album, Oh My God, Charlie Darwin. Their mix of Ben Knox Miller’s haunting vocals and an atmospheric sound that shows a love of folk, blues, gospel, and country makes for a powerful combination.
Horse Feathers are from Portland, Oregon, and their third album, Thistled Spring, was recently released by Kill Rock Stars. With a combination of acoustic instruments‚ guitars, banjos, drums, cello, and violin, they create a fragile sound that also held the crowd close. Newport’s crowds tend to be pretty respectful of the artists and music, so you don’t get a a lot of gabbing during sets, which is always a good thing.
Andrew Bird is in a league of his own. Each of his albums is an amazing listen unto itself, but in concert Bird performs alone, playing and recording his music through an effects box, then building on top of the layers using violin and guitar. Bird’s grasp of American and European styles of violin and fiddle playing is mind-bending. Watching him might feel like he’s showing off if not for the fact that he appears to be throwing it all together as he goes (probably not) and the fact that the songs he’s creating are so unique it’s obvious he’s not just doing it for effect.
Other highlights on Saturday included Calexico, the Tucson-based outfit that beautifully merges traditional Mexican sounds with Americana. With a band of at least 10 members, their sound includes horns, pedal steel, guitars, stand-up bass, and a myriad of wonderful percussion. New York’s Blitzen Trapper mix of indie rock and 60’s pop continues to get a little slicker and fleshed out since their earliest releases.
Saturday also brought out some heavy-hitters in the folk and bluegrass realm, including John Prine closing out the Fort Stage, legendary bluegrass, country, and blues songwriter Doc Watson, and Sam Bush of New Grass Revival. All three sets were packed with long-time Newport Folk Festival attendees and younger audience members, who gratefully seemed to grasp what a great opportunity the festival is to see such legendary performers.
Sunday brought a mix of looks and sounds that brought back America of the 1930s and 40s. The very endearing and funny April Smith and the Great Picture Show from Brooklyn, mixed up her 40s jazz sound with more contemporary influences and terrific stage repartee. St. Louis’s Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three brought its audience a similar look and sound from the America’s musical and fashion past, also done with a astute sense of comedy and charm. Be sure to see them both live if you get the chance.
Boston’s The David Wax Museum won a contest through festival sponsor’s Magic Hat, and opened the Quad Stage on Sunday. By the end, they had won over a huge crowd with their fusion of Mexican and American roots music. Former Providence residents Elvis Perkins in Dearland closed out that stage with a folky set that worked its way up a bit of a frenzy before members of the Providence’s What Cheer? Brigade and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band joined them onstage for the finale—only to all march off-stage for one final song surrounded by festival attendees who were likely sad to see the festival starting to come to a close. What Cheer? Brigade is something of a punk-rock marching band with close to 20 members that performed at random spots around the festival grounds over the course of the two days, helping to keep folks entertained between sets and bringing more Rhode Island touches to the affair.
Other highlights on Sunday included Los Angeles’s outfit Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, whose rising stardom attracted a crowd far bigger than the Harbor Stage could fit, Brooklyn’s Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, whose 60’s soul and energetic stage shows are always a crowd-pleaser, and Glen Hansard of The Swell Season (and The Frames). There were pleas (well, demands, really) to the festival’s security to allow fans to stay in the photo pit in front of the stage to enjoy the show. While such an order from the stage is a common occurrence at a punk or rock show, it was fun to see it happen at this famed folk festival.
The Felice Brothers also put on a rousing set of trashy, roots rock, Ben Sollee‘s calming cello felt right as the festival would down, and the Punch Brothers showed that there is yet another generation of bluegrass fans out there waiting for great live band to see.
When all is said and done, you could argue that this is no longer a festival about folk music, but what I found intriguing was how two of the elder statesman that played Newport this year—Richie Havens and Levon Helm (of The Band fame)—helped to bring us back to the roots of so much of modern American music and reminds us of the impact they have had on a large percentage of roots artists these days. You can clearly hear the influence The Band has had on half of the artists who played this year‚ so what better way to see, hear, and experience how the form is evolving and changing?
For those missed hearing it all in person, it’s not too late to listen to most of the concerts online, courtesy of NPR’s recordings.
Next weekend is the 56th Newport Jazz Festival. Tickets are still available and I’ll be back next week with more highlights from Newport, Rhode Island.
Charles McEnerney has been Host + Producer of Well-Rounded Radio since 2002. Since moving to Boston his day job has included handling marketing at OurStage.com, ArtsBoston, WGBH, and Fast Company magazine.