A Fan’s Notes: Newport Folk Festival 2011

Written by A Fan's Notes, Music

Ken Shane was back at the Newport Folk Festival this year — but this time, he wasn’t just there as a journalist.

I moved to Jamestown, RI back in January after living in NJ for nearly my entire life. It was an interesting and occasionally difficult transition, but one of the best things about the move was my new proximity to Newport. From my living room window I can look across Narragansett Bay and see Fort Adams, the site of the annual Newport Folk Festival.

All through the long winter, and on into the spring and early summer I stared out there and dreamed about the festival, which has been my favorite weekend of the year for quite awhile now. In the past I’ve covered the event for Popdose, but for the 52nd Newport Folk Festival there was an additional wrinkle for me.

Given my proximity to Fort Adams, getting involved with the festival itself seemed like a natural next step. I contacted festival producer Jay Sweet during the winter, and offered my services. A week or two before the festival, Jay gave me a job. He asked me to be part of his social media team, handling the Facebook and Twitter feeds prior to and during the festival.

The Newport Folk Festival was founded by George Wein in 1959 as a sort of companion the the Newport Jazz Festival, which he had started five years earlier. As George outlined in a pre-festival staff meeting, Newport may not be the biggest festival, but it is the best. Keep in mind that when he started these festivals there were no popular music festivals. This year, for the first time in its glorious history, the Newport Folk Festival was sold out.

While Newport doesn’t compare to a Bonnaroo or Coachella in size, it is easily their equal on a prestige level. The proof of that is the major artists who keep turning up for less money than they would normally get to play for a crowd that is smaller than the ones they usually play for. Of course there is something to be said for the regal treatment that the artists get from festival organizers and the adoration that they get from as knowledgeable and appreciative group of festival-goers as you are likely to find anywhere.

One of the drawbacks, alright the only drawback of my festival involvement is that I didn’t get to see as many artists as I usually do. So while my access was improved, my attendance was somewhat diminished as a result of my duties. That is not to say however that I didn’t get to hear a lot of great music. It’s hard not to when it’s all around you.

There are three stages at the Newport Folk Festival. There’s the main or Fort Stage, the newly upgraded Quad Stage, and the Harbor Stage. Beginning at about 11:30 each morning, and continuing until 7:00 p.m., these stages play host to a dizzying array of music. The stages are set in and around Fort Adams, which is surrounded by Narragansett Bay, providing panoramic views of white sails on blue water, and a breeze when it’s most needed.

Louis Armstrong once famously said “All music is folk music. I ain’t never heard no horse sing a song.” Those are words to live by as far as the organizers of the Newport Folk Festival are concerned. So if you think that all you get at the festival is two day of banjos and acoustic guitars, think again. While there is plenty of acoustic music, it is far from the entire story.

My weekend began on a hot and humid Saturday morning with a visit to the Harbor Stage for a performance by the PS22 Chorus. You may have seen this group of kids from Staten Island on television. They are known for their energetic and uplifting versions of indie and classic rock standards. The crowd loved them. How could you not? The standout was a killer version of Adele’s “Rollin’ in the Dee.”

James FeliceThe first of several difficult decisions came next. The Felice Brothers, who I have called America’s greatest band, had graduated to the Fort Stage. Meanwhile NJ was being represented by River City Extension on the Quad Stage, and Typhoon, a band I wanted to check out, was on the Harbor Stage.

I caught some of the Felice Brothers set, and they did not disappoint despite their elevated surroundings. They never do. By the time I got over to the Quad Stage, River City Extension was finishing up their set, but it was clear that they’d done their job because the crowd was in a near-frenzy. Sadly, there was no Typhoon for me this year, though I heard positive reports on their set.

Whenever there was a break in the music, I headed back to the press room to update the Twitter and Facebook feeds with the latest festival happenings.

Gogol Bordello was next on the Fort Stage, and people raved about them, but I chose to see Freelance Whales on the Quad Stage. I had listened to their album on Spotify and I liked what I heard. Their live performance was no less assured as they delivered a nice set of indie-rock tunes ala Death Cab For Cutie.

Delta SpiritI hung around the Quad Stage for next act because there was a big star next to their name on my list. I first saw San Diego’s Delta Spirit in Philadelphia last year, and I was very impressed. I was completed unprepared for what I saw at Newport however. Led by Matthew Vasquez, the California guys just blew the roof off the place. Theirs was without a shadow of a doubt my favorite set of the weekend.

I was still adrenalized when I headed over to the Fort Stage to catch the end of Earl Scruggs’ set. The ancient banjo legend doesn’t get around very well anymore, but he can still play the banjo. I was grateful that he chose to include “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” perhaps his best known song, in his set.

Scruggs was followed on the Fort Stage by the always enchanting Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. Talk about artists who never disappoint! It’s easy to see why so many people look forward to their appearances at Newport.

Mavis Staples

I headed back to the Quad Stage for another one of those artists who was on my “can’t miss” list. Mavis Staples just celebrated her 72nd birthday a few weeks ago, but it was the Newport audience who got the gift. Mavis remains one of the most dynamic, soulful, and outspoken artists you are likely to see in a live setting. Her set featured several songs from her 2010 Jeff Tweedy-produced album You Are Not Alone, but the highlight for most people was when Colin Meloy of the Decemberists joined her for a stirring version of “The Weight.”

While all of this was going on, Pete Seeger was joining Ramblin’ Jack Elliott on the Harbor Stage, and the Decemberists were preparing to close out the first day of the festival on the Fort Stage. It was simply too much for one person to take in, and there were still those social media streams to update.

It wasn’t quite as hot on Sunday, and perhaps a little less humid, but it was still a bright, sunny, mid-summer day on the Rhode Island coast. There was a lot more music left to hear before it all ended.

Brown Bird opened the day on the Harbor Stage. I first saw this duo, who hail from nearby Warren, RI, when they played at the festival lineup announcement event a few months ago, and then again when they opened for RI’s own Low Anthem. They play a compelling, occasionally frenetic brand of acoustic music that really captures the spirit of the festival, and they made a lot of new fans as a result of their performance.

I caught the Carolina Chocolate Drops on the Fort Stage next, and they charmed the crowd with their unique take on traditional folk music. They were followed by rockabilly legend Wanda Jackson whose fiery performance belied the fact that she is 73 years-old. Wanda did songs from this year’s The Party Ain’t Over album, which was produced by Jack White. In between songs, she told stories about Elvis Presley, who she dated long ago. One of the highlights of her set was “Blue Yodel #6,” which found her, well, yodeling.

Justin Townes EarleJustin Townes Earle was forced to cancel his scheduled appearance at last year’s festival due to personal problems, and he was determined to make it good this year. I have seen the enormously charismatic songwriter a few times before, and I had him on my list for this year. His set was confident and assured, and his between songs patter was wryly humorous.

I got to hear some of Amos Lee’s set from my seat in the press room, and then it was time for another really tough choice. Middle Brother was coming up on the Quad Stage, and I’m a big fan of those guys, as well as the three bands, Deer Tick, Dawes, and Delta Spirit, that they draw their members from. The anticipation of the crowd before their set was higher than what I saw for any other artist during the weekend. They had the crowd rocking from the moment they hit the stage.

It was difficult, but I had to tear myself away from their set because Elvis Costello was about to appear on the Fort Stage. I hadn’t seen him since I caught a torrid set at the Capitol Theater in Passaic, NJ back in the late ’70s. His set was billed as solo acoustic but to my delight, the Imposters were in the house with him. In praising the festival he said “Where else can you stand on a stage behind Pete Seeger and watch Wanda Jackson?” Costello’s set included covers of songs by Jesse Winchester and that other Elvis, and classics of his own like “(The Angels Want To Wear My) Red Shoes,” and “King of America.” The Imposters were, as always, one of the most formidable backing bands in the business.

Taylor Goldsmith of DawesToward the end of Costello’s set, I got a text message. It said, simply, “Dawes is on.” There had been a lot of speculation that Dawes would play at the festival. They were there as backup for Middle Brother, a band that Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes is a part of, and for M. Ward, but they weren’t on the festival schedule. I raced to the Quad Stage in time to catch the two songs that Dawes performed at the end of the Middle Brother set, “Fire Away,” and “When My Time Comes.” The band was on fire, and so was the crowd.

Emmylou Harris was coming on to close out things on the Fort Stage. Sadly, I had to miss the the Head and the Heart, and the Civil Wars, two acts that I really wanted to see. Emmylou played with her usual grace and charm, delighting the audience at the end of a long, hot weekend. But the festival’s most moving moment was yet to come.

One of the greatest things about the Newport Folk Festival is the opportunity to see Pete Seeger as he makes his way around the grounds during the weekend. It is, after all, an honor to be in his presence. As George Wein said at the very end of the festival “Pete Seeger was here when we started this festival in 1959, and he’s still here.”

When the Emmylou Harris set ended, Seeger invited all of the musicians who remained to join him on stage where he led them, and the audience in stunning versions of “Turn, Turn, Turn,” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” It was the perfect end to an unforgettable weekend. Now it’s back to staring out my window across the bay and dreaming about 2012.

Pete Seeger and George Wein

All photos by Nicole M. Vanasse