George Wein started the Newport Folk Festival in 1959, and though economic difficulties caused the festival to close down in 1971, it was revived in 1985, and it’s been running continuously ever since. One of the great joys of the current festival is to see Mr. Wein, who turns 85 in October, in attendance at various performances, still intently focused on the music.
The weather for the 51st annual Newport Folk Festival weekend could not have been more ideal. The humidity that has plagued the northeast this summer was gone, and temperature had moderated to a reasonable level. The festival is held at Fort Adams, which housed generations of this nation’s soldiers from 1824 until 1950, and sits in the middle of Newport harbor. The fort is surrounded on three sides by the majestic Narragansett Bay. On a beautiful August day, it is a venue that knows no equal in my experience.
There are three festival stages, and they were newly configured for the this year’s festival. The main stage, known as the Fort Stage, remains the same, but for the first time the festival’s smallest stage, now called the Quad Stage, was moved into the open-air space within the fort’s walls. This was a big improvement because in the past it has been difficult to get a good vantage point for some of the more popular bands that played on the festival’s third stage. More problematic was the festival’s middle stage, known as the Harbor Stage, which often features some of the best artists of the weekend. This year the Harbor Stage was moved to a new location, and I’m not sure that it worked very well in terms of allowing the most people to get the best view of the stage. But one great thing about this festival is that adjustments are constantly being made to make it better.
It’s always great to see a local band make good. Two years ago the Low Anthem, from nearby Providence, attended the festival as volunteers, helping with the recycling efforts. Last year they played on the smallest stage, and this year they made it all the way to the Fort Stage. They proved more than worthy of the promotion with a beautiful early set on Saturday that featured songs from their 2009 album Oh My God Charlie Darwin. The Low Anthem perform a low-key brand of folk music that features ethereal melodies, haunting vocal harmonies, and the sounds of an eclectic collection of offbeat musical instruments that they have collected on their travels around the country. Theirs was one of the most pleasing sets of the weekend.
I moved on to the the Harbor Stage to catch some of Blitzen Trapper’s set. I’d heard a lot about the band, but frankly, didn’t feel they were anything special, so I went over the the Quad Stage, where I caught some appealingly frenetic folk music from the New York band O’Death, who pleased the crowd with selections from their most recent album Broken Hymns Limbs & Skin including including “Fire On Peshtigo,” “Angeline,” as well as some newer songs.
Then it was back to the Fort Stage for a set I’d been looking forward to from Arizona’s Calexico. I’d only been able to see part of their set when they appeared at the festival last year, and I made it a point to see their entire set this year. They did not disappoint. Calexico, led by Joey Burns and John Convertino, create music that speaks eloquently of their southwestern home. They are heavily influenced by the mariachi music that is so popular in nearby Mexico, as evidenced by the two trumpets that are incorporated into the band’s lineup. In fact, the high point of Calexico’s set was the lovely “Across the Wire,” which they dedicated to their fellow Arizona musicians who are struggling the state’s new immigration law. Other highlights were “Inspiracion,” a new song called “News About William,” and “Victor Jara’s Hands,” which they dedicated to the great Chilean artist.
As you may recall from my coverage of the recent XPoNential Music Festival, I had been mightily impressed by the L.A. band Dawes at that event. I was really looking forward to seeing them again at Newport, so it was off to the Quad Stage for their set. I’m beginning to run out of superlatives about this band, but suffice to say that they played another astonishing set that had the crowd rising in unison, not at the end of a song, or at the end of the set (though they did that too), but in the middle of a song, seemingly pulled to their feet by the power of what they were hearing. Dawes played songs from the debut album, North Hills, including “When My Time Comes,” which is getting a lot of radio airplay, and the poignant “Love Is All I Am.” There was also a stunning version of a new song called “Fire Away,” written about a former bandmate who went astray. It was going to take an amazing set to compete with Dawes for the weekend honors.
Saturday’s headliner was the great John Prine, and his set proved to be a perfect way to end a glorious day of music. What’s amazing about Prine is that whenever I see him perform, I’m always happily reminded of just how many wonderful songs he’s been responsible for. Aided by his stellar guitarist and bass player, Prine delighted the crowd with favorites like “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven,” “That’s the Way the World Goes Around,” “Angel From Montgomery,” and a moving performance of the late Steve Goodman’s “Souvenirs.”
Saturday’s beautiful weather was matched only by the music that had filled the summer air from the festival’s three stages. It was going to be hard for Sunday’s performances to top what I’d seen on Saturday. Stay tuned to find out if they did.
NPR, bless their hearts, not only broadcast the entire weekend, they’ve archived all of the sets on their website.