The Newport Folk Festival has changed. That change is most apparent in the makeup of the festival audience which these days appears to be people in their teens and 20’s. Producer Jay Sweet has clearly skewed the music to appeal to this younger crowd, and without doubt his efforts have been successful on a financial basis. The festival sells out these days before most of the acts are even announced. Whether this is the proper long term strategy for the festival or not, well, that’s up to people smarter than me to decide.
Since I am not one of those younger people who the festival is produced for these days, I can’t deny that there is a feeling of having been passed by. No matter what my concerns might be in this regard however, the festival still provides plenty of great music, in the most perfect setting imaginable. If I’m counting right there were five stages this year, including a kid’s stage, all set on the grounds of historic Fort Adams, which is itself set on a peninsula that reaches into Narragansett Bay.
The first thing you have to come to terms with at Newport is that you can’t see it all. The way the schedule is set up you’re going to miss artists that you want to see, or only be able to see a portion of their sets. Sometimes the conflicts are nearly impossible to resolve. All I can write about is what I did manage to see and hear over the three days of the festival and leave the coverage of the rest to writers who were in places that I wasn’t.
As I mentioned, the festival was three days this year. The opening Friday wasn’t quite as full a day as Saturday and Sunday, but there was still plenty of music. And although it rained, it never turned into the kind of deluge that could make the day difficult. I ran into drummer Griffin Goldsmith of Dawes on Friday afternoon. I knew that Blake Mills, who was an original member of Dawes, would be playing soon, and the presence of Griffin and his bandmates at the festival confirmed that Dawes would be his backing band. I’ve been reading and hearing a lot about Mills in recent months, particularly about the guitar playing skills he put to work backing people like Lucinda Williams.
Mills did not disappoint. His guitar work was breathtaking and his ethereal songs seemed just right for the rainy afternoon. The sympathetic, spare backing from Dawes was just right. I know that other bands have featured two strong songwriters and guitar players, but seeing Mills and Taylor Goldsmith together onstage made me realize why they couldn’t, and shouldn’t, be in the same band. And I mean that in a good way. Each is so talented that they would have only gotten in each other’s way eventually. The way things are, they both get to shine in their own setting.
Next up was Phosphorescent, which is the name that Brooklyn songwriter Matthew Houck has given to his project. His songs are catchy, anthemic things, with choruses just right for singing along. It was an enjoyable performance that was just a little too tame to reach true greatness.
Closing out Friday was the Old Crow Medicine Show on the main stage. You could tell that these guys have been at it for awhile. Theirs was one of the most professional acts I’ve ever seen at Newport, and at times that professionalism bordered on schtick. But it was impossible not to enjoy their high energy on stage, and their virtuoso playing. They also set the tone for the weekend of banjos and fiddles that was to follow.
I guess I should say this right here. I have no use for the new folk movement, which I have taken to calling faux folk. I subscribe to the opinion that if most of these bands had been around in the ’90s they would have been wearing flannel shirts and playing grunge. Louis Armstrong once famously said that it’s all folk music, and who am I to question Louis, but this stuff just smacks of cashing in to me.
There are exceptions however. The one new band that everyone was talking about at the festival this year was the Lone Bellow. They were in everyone’s top two or three artists that they saw at the festival. I concur. After hesitating for awhile, I sat down a listened to their album a couple of months ago. I was impressed then, and the live performance did not let me down. I don’t like to compare bands to other bands, but the comparison to Fleetwood Mac is too obvious to let go. I’m not saying that they sound exactly alike, just that the music of the Lone Bellow has that kind of feel for me, and the band has a chance to reach that kind of level.
RI singer/songwriter, Joe Fletcher hosted a program at the Museum Stage called “Nashville To Newport.” I wasn’t able to be there for all of the artists, but I made it a point to catch a set by Amanda Shires. The Texas native, now living in Nashville and hence the connection, gave a delicate, wistful performance featuring songs from her new album Down Fell the Doves, which is one of the year’s best. At the end of her set she was joined by her husband Jason Isbell for a song.
It was back to the main stage for Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls next. I’d heard a lot about Turner, but never really heard him. There was something that sounded interesting about him though, so I made it a point to catch his set. I’m glad I did. Turner’s music was high energy with a real punk attitude. Only the acoustic guitar he was brandishing on songs like “There Is No God” kept it remotely in the realm of folk music.
Then followed the most interesting set of the weekend. I call it interesting because while the music from Father John Misty was excellent, it was what former Fleet Fox J. Tillman said from the stage that was truly fascinating. He got the proceedings off to a lovely start by halting the first song midway through and questioning why he had been invited to the festival in the first place. In his view the answer was because he is white, has a beard, and had some acoustic guitar on his album. Later in the set Tillman took some of the Prius and fedora acts that I referred to earlier to task for not taking the “God damn responsibility to say something with [their] damn songs.” Then he gazed at his surroundings and inquired of the audience whether they would be camping out that night, or returning to their yachts.
Back in the day, the Newport Folk Festival was filled with musicians who put their very lives on the line for their beliefs. Many of them participated in the civil rights struggle. Others were branded as Communists and unable to find work. While not as important as those issues, Bob Dylan risked it all and changed the world at Newport in 1965. These days it’s all pretty homogenized, and too bland for my liking. J. Tillman was a breath a fresh air, asking the right questions, and saying things that needed saying. My first reaction was that he’ll never be invited back. I hope I’m wrong.
From the most interesting set of the weekend, it was off to the best set of the weekend. In fact Jason Isbell’s set was one of the best I’ve ever seen at Newport. With the 400 Unit providing powerful backing Isbell blasted through songs from his new album Southeastern including “Flying Over Water,” and “Super 8,” and broke hearts with “Elephant” and “Cover Me Up,” from the same album. He reached back to his time in the Drive By Truckers for “Decoration Day,” and after he’d done all that and more he closed with a brilliant take on the Stones classic “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking.”
With his new found sobriety Isbell has a chance at becoming a giant in the music world. There is very little he can’t do. The next night I saw him play a solo acoustic set in a very different environment and it was equally impressive. This story covers a number of different artists who appeared at the festival this year, but when the dust settled it was really all about Jason Isbell for me.
There were a couple more acts for me to catch on Saturday. I’ve seen Trombone Shorty before, and there’s no question about the musical talent that he has put together in his band, but the Newport set was sadly lacking any kind of dynamic range. It was all out, all the time, and that gets old really fast for me. I was looking forward to seeing Justin Townes Earle because I think he’s a great songwriter and performer. I’ve seen him a number of times and I’ve never been disappointed. Unfortunately this time I was. For some unknown reason he just seemed distracted during his set.
This year the folks at festival asked different fans and writers like myself to write introductions for the artists as they were introduced to the lineup. I was given the Wheeler Brothers, a band from Austin with which I was unfamiliar at the time. So I was interested in catching their set that opened the day on Sunday, and I’m glad I did. The guys offer a very appealing blend of folk, rock, and country, and it’s easy to see what they sell out all their shows back home.
One of the artists I looked forward to seeing most this year was Michael Kiwanuka. I’ve really enjoyed the recorded music I’ve heard from him, and I was hoping the live performance would match that quality. I needn’t have worried. Kiwanuka brought along a crack little band for the occasion and together they did a great job of rendering his delicate, acoustic songs. I was surprised but gratified to note that much of the large audience that had assembled in front of the main stage for his set was familiar with his music, and appreciative of the performance. Kiwanuka is really the perfect kind of act for Newport. He’s got folk roots, but his sound is unique and there’s nothing phony or pretentious about him.
The Felice Brothers were making their fourth appearance at the Newport Folk Festival this year. Not only are the guys from upstate New York one of my favorite bands, I think they’re one of America’s best bands. Keep in mind that they were around before this latest wave of Mumfords and Lumineers and such.
You could say that the Felice Brothers influenced some of the faux folk bands, but if they had those bands would be a lot less faux. As it was the Felice Brothers delivered another powerful, raucous performance that had people singing along at the top of their lungs one minute, and weeping in their beer the next. No one will ever accuse of the Felice Brothers of being anything other than completely real, and even J. Tillman would have to agree that their songs are filled with meaning and emotion.
I’m not going to pretend that I’ve been a huge Beck fan from the beginning. Nonetheless I was interested to see what he was going to do at Newport since no one, not even the festival organizers, seemed to know. In the event, he arrived on stage with a small band and exhibited more personality than I expected him to have. His music has always seemed kind of detached to me and frankly I expected him to be too cool for the room. The all black outfit in the middle of summer did nothing to alleviate that fear, but he was cool. The music was cool. It made me want to listen to him more, and isn’t that the point after all?
So whither goest the Newport Folk Festival? It’s a tough question, but one that needs to be answered, and soon. The title of an insightful article that Gavin Paul wrote for songlyrics.com says it all — Newport Folk Festival 2013: Is Folk Dead? The festival is clearly at a crossroads, trying to maintain the tricky balance between financial security and artistic integrity. How will it all shake out? Only time will tell.
Photos in order of appearance: Old Crown Medicine Show, Amanda Shires, Jason Isbell, Michael Kiwanuka, The Felice Brothers, Beck
Black and white photos by Kyra Kverno. Color photos by Nicole Vanasse