Words and Photos: Gerry Hardy
Oh here we go, the moribund traditionalists are on again about the lineup not being “pure” enough for folk, adulterated this year by interlopers such as rockers Gogol Bordello and Elvis Costello ( both listed as acoustic), Wanda Jackson’s rockabilly, the Decemberists and Delta Spirit.
A closer read revealed that the headlines in fact referred to this year being the first time in its 52-year history that the Festival had sold out, 10,000 tickets for each of the two days. And this was two weeks in advance in a year that saw weak ticket sales nationally for concert events.
All this was due in no small way to Festival producer Jay Sweet and his team’s keen ear, strong musical sense and dedication to making the festival an event that looked both forward and backward. Sweet handpicked 36 acts in a mix that included old timers Ramblin’ Jack Elliot (79) and Earl Scruggs (93) alongside first timers The Civil Wars, Tegan and Sara and Sallieford. Pete Seeger (92) continued his unbroken streak of Festival appearances, sitting in for brief appearances with many of the younger acts.
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There was no mistake, the meaning of “folk” was being redefined right there in Newport Harbor. Eugene Hutz spoke of Gogol Bordello’s roots in Russian and Eastern European folk traditions. David Wax draws much inspiration for his music from years spent living and studying traditional music in Mexico, certainly the first artist to bring to Newport the traditional Mexican quijada (donkey jawbone), ably handled by bandmate Suze Slezak.
Colin Meloy with The Decemberists find success bringing new interpretations to the traditional English folk ballad, updating earlier English folk artists like Renaissance and Fairport Convention. The Felice Brothers continue to hone their brand of Americana-noir music, now incorporating synthesizers and horns into their set.
Gillian Welch gave as good a definition as any of the new folk; “if we did our jobs well, they’re going to prove to be folk songs. That means folks like ‘em.” As with years past, the stages were laid out in a roughly triangular pattern with a large common backstage quad area that encouraged artists to come early and stay late, mixing with one another, both onstage and off. Typical was Elvis Costello’s detour over to shake Ramblin’ Jack Elliot’s hand, James Felice giving Low Anthem’s Jocie Adams a quick accordion lesson, impromptu jam sessions, Emmylou Harris and Chris Thile onstage with Elvis Costello, Decemberists’ Colin Meloy telling the crowd he had just come from catching Mavis Staples set on another stage, then calling up Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch to join him. Particularly nice to see was Wanda Jackson at 73, after her exhausting set of country, gospel and rockabilly, hang around to watch Elvis Costello.
Perhaps Costello’s performance, more than any other, stretched (ignored?) the folk tradition. No longer with his country/bluegrass Sugarcanes, Elvis pumped it up with a rocking set backed by his original band, The Imposters in the least folky set of the weekend.
The Carolina Chocolate Drops snagged a spot on the main stage at this year’s festival. Their interpretation of African-American string band music was well received, updated with New York beatboxer Adam Matta mixing it up with Dom Flemon’s jug beats. The tradition continues and grows.
Justin Townes Earle gave a stellar understated performance, delayed from his cancelled appearance last year, when personal problems kept him off the road for several months.
One of the pleasures at a festival is discovering new music, and this one was like Christmas in July. There was Pokey Lafarge; his exacting devotion to the spirit of old-time country, blues and swing music and demeanor suggest that perhaps Sweet and Co. had found him asleep, Rip Van Winkle style, in the old Fort Adams battlements and put him onstage.
Brown Bird clearly won the rookie appearance of the year award, their set marred only by being put opposite David Wax Museum’s return appearance, this year on the main stage, making for a difficult choice. Sallieford won over the early arrivals in her set opening the quad stage on Saturday.
I wasn’t able to get to the River City Extension set, but walked past several times on the way to other stages and saw the crowd on its feet responding to an energetic set.
The Civil Wars, the duo of Joy Williams and John Paul White, blended their voices in the sweetest harmony since Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons, mixing originals from their recent album and boldly tackling and successfully covering Billie Jean and reinterpreting Leonard Cohen’s Dance Me to the End of Love. Their set was compelling enough for me to skip both the other closers, M. Ward and Emmylou Harris.
Most surprising for me was the absolutely raucous, free wheeling set delivered by Middle Brother, the super of sorts group composed of members of Deer Tick, Dawes and Delta Spirit. They were joined by other members of Dawes ands local cohort Jonny Corndawg for a set that careened all over. Showing the attitude of a band with nothing to lose, (Newport may be their last opportunity for collaboration), members came onstage in various assortments of dated Bermuda striped shorts, Wal-Mart t-shirt and a Gilligan’s Island captain’s cap. They gave it everything with abandon, trading vocals and careening about the stage, each urging the other to dare something new and bolder. At one point, Matt Vasquez leapt the stage over the barrier gate and ran through the crowd high fiving, ending by grabbing a front row fan’s hand for an energetic hoe down dance before leaping back over the rail to finish the song.
Mavis Staples most aptly brought the past into the present. Her fiery delivery of Pop Staples Staple Singers songs of deliverance, both spiritual and earthly, brought church to the quad tent. Through the force of her powerful voice, augmented by the tightest band in Newport that weekend, she gave as honest a performance as any I imagine she gave when Pop Staples was still leading the band. Staples, continuing the Staple Singers sixty one years of performing, warned the audience “I hope the tent don’t fall down, cause we getting ready to blow!”
If you were not one of the fortunate few to be in Newport last weekend, many of the performances are archived at NPR.org.