The Newport Folk Festival is one of a kind,” said Chris Thile of bluegrass band the Punch Brothers. “And it’s one of the best kinds.” Thile encapsulated the spirit of one of the most unique music festivals that perennially enchants its audience. Set on the picturesque Narragansett Bay in historic Newport, Rhode Island, the festival brought together folk musicians from a variety of genres to enchant the sold-out crowd. The acts ranged from New Orleans jazz to acoustic singer/songwriter to indie rock, but each band captured the essence of folk with their genuine, earnest, and heart-felt shows.
Early on Saturday afternoon, The Preservation Hall Jazz Band brought the crowd at the main Fort stage to their feet for a rousing dance party. The New Orleans group featured impressive musicianship, with many of the members taking brief but well-crafted solos or trading fours. It is no wonder that the group has been around since the 1960‘s and it was great to hear the roots of American music at the folk festival. The ensemble featured the traditional “second line” drumming and call-and-response playing between the trumpet, trombone, and clarinet. There is something wonderfully familiar about the way the band plays, but the musicians never cease to bring new flare to their performances. Dressed in dapper suits with the sousaphones proudly decorated with their name, The Preservation Hall Jazz Band did a tremendous job combining the new with the old.
The day continued with Rhode Island natives, Deer Tick, who also sponsored three nights of after parties at the local Newport Blues Cafe. The group performed songs ranging from country-folk to rowdy rock and roll and featured the instantly recognizable vocals of lead singer John McCauley. McCauley both croons and croaks, transforming relatively conventional rock songs into idiosyncratic ballads and memorable jams. The raw call-and-response blues tune “The Bump” from Divine Providence showcased the rowdiness of the group and the pleasure they seem to get from rocking out with each other.
Over at Newport’s newest venue, the Museum Stage at the Museum of Yachting, Frank Fairfield played his old-timey fiddle and banjo. His performance transported the lucky 100 or so listeners to the roots of American music. Dressed in a Depression-era button down, Fairfield performed with such authenticity that it was hard to believe that he was a contemporary musician. His voice has a timeless quality, mixing Johnny Cash with Woody Guthrie. He was also one of the true virtuosos at the festival, enchanting the audience with complex fiddle riffs and intricate banjo plucking.
Dawes first rocked the Fort Stage on Saturday afternoon and reappeared many times throughout the weekend with other acts. Hailing from Los Angeles, California, the group plays Americana folk-rock with spirit and enthusiasm. Lead singer Taylor Goldsmith plays with Deer Tick’s McCauley and Delta Spirit’s Matt Vasquez in Middle Brother and brought up Vasquez to jam with the group. The highlight was the heart-felt rendition of “When My Time Comes” off their 2011 release Nothing is Wrong, which was one in a series of full-audience sing-alongs at the main stage.
The spirit of Woody Guthrie, who would have been 100 years old this year, permeated every performance, especially that of the Guthrie Family Reunion. The group featured Woody’s son Arlo as well as his own children and grandchildren in sing-alongs and classic Guthrie tunes. In the middle of the set, the group invited on the youngest members of the family for the tune “Take Me to Show and Tell”. Some of the kids made up their own lyrics and Arlo himself sang a satirical verse himself, with the line, “Don’t take me to show and tell”. In the Guthrie style, Arlo regaled the audience with great stories including one about his wife getting arrested for possessing paraphernalia at an airport before introducing his classic “Coming into Los Angeles”.
Headliners My Morning Jacket ended their performance ten minutes early due to the torrential downpour, thunder, and lightening that drenched the sold-out crowd, but not before they rocked out on the Fort Stage. Jim James, with his larger-than-life stage personality led the group through old and new songs and welcome on stage Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst and the Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard among others.
Sunday continued the spirit of Newport with myriad collaborations and evident camaraderie among the artists, but the day really belonged to folk rocker Jackson Browne. Browne not only headlined the festival, but also collaborated with everyone from Sarah Watkins to Jonathan Wilson to Tom Morello. He humbly helped set up equipment and took to the side of the stage to let the younger generation of artists shine. During his set, which closed the festival, he was the grandfather inaugurating in the future artists of folk music. In one of the most unlikely collaborations of the day, Browne led Dawes, Watkins, Wilson, and Morello in his classic hit “Take It Easy”. This was just what the soaked audience needed as they danced and cheered despite another evening of rain.
Also playing with his friends on Sunday was Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst. Oberst started his set with some solo acoustic songs including the touching “First Day of My Life”. Oberst’s tenor voice has a sincere, almost haunting quality that adds passion to his folk tunes. For the Bright Eyes song “Lua”, Oberst invited up on stage the Swedish women of First Aid Kit, who harmonized with him. Next up were the festival favorites Dawes and Jonathan Wilson for the tune “Moab” who provided to be much more than just a backing band for Oberst. Oberst seemed to be most free and happy performing with his friends and really let loose for the rest of the set. For “At the Bottom of Everything”, Oberst rocked out with Jim James and invited up First Aid Kit, Dawes, and Jonathan Wilson up again to close out the set with “Make War”. Oberst truly captured the spirit of Newport by combining acoustic folk with heartfelt collaborations.
The afternoon was packed with lively performances including the progressive bluegrass artists, Punch Brothers. The festival featured two of the original members of the folk bluegrass group Nickel Creek with fiddler Sara Watkins performing solo and mandolinist Chris Thile with this latest group. Punch Brothers go beyond bluegrass in their performances, mixing elements of folk, rock, and art rock into their compositions. Their level of musicianship far exceeded most bands, but in a fun and tasteful way. Thile smiled seductively while shredding incredibly complex progressive bluegrass tunes with his Punch Brothers and bassist Paul Kowert led an impressive rendition of Radiohead’s “Kid A” and a tune off the band’s latest release, Who’s Feeling Young Now? The group artfully switched between avant garde tunes and rowdy bluegrass songs, which brought the entire crowd under the Quad stage tent to their feet as the rain came down outside
In addition to Sweden’s First Aid Kid, Of Monsters and Men and The Tallest Man on Earth represented the Scandinavian invasion, hailing from Iceland and Sweden respectively, and enchanting audiences with their English language indie folk music. Of Monsters and Men played upbeat and earnest renditions of their tunes, including their radio hit “Little Talks”. The voices of Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir and Ragnar “Raggi” Þórhallsson complement each other beautifully. Even when they are singing in unison, their sweet timbres lend an innocent and earnest quality to their songs. Kristian Matsson, aka The Tallest Man on Earth is touring for his 2012 release, “There’s No Leaving Now” with his powerful solo acoustic guitar playing. Matsson mesmerized the audience with songs from his first album as well as newer songs including the poetic 1904. It is difficult for anyone to perform a solo set, but Matsson does so with such conviction and style that he keeps up the energy of a full piece band on his own. The poetry of such lines as “Once built a steamboat in a meadow, cause I’d forgotten how to sail” in “The Garden” inspired the entire crowd to silence full of awe.
Seattle’s The Head and the Heart continued the earnest vibe with their indie rock rich with harmonies. The group performed songs from their first self-titled album as well as new unreleased tunes. Through songs like “Down in the Valley” and “Rivers and Roads”, the three singers complemented each other beautifully with tight harmonies and passionate vocal delivery. The Head and the Heart pulled back the tempo of many of their songs, which allowed them to settle into a groove, experiment with some lyrics, and add new instrumental parts. The band played a happy and inspired set on the Fort stage, adding to the groups who brought people out of their lawn chairs and onto their feet to participate in the beautiful festival.