The Newport Folk Festival is unique among music festivals because for the last few years it has sold out before the lineup was even announced. It speaks to the level of trust that the festival producers have built up among their audience, and this year’s festival demonstrated once again that the trust is well-placed.
The first thing you have to face when attending the Newport Folk Festival is that you’re not going to see everything. There are three stages, and the festival planners have intentionally built conflicts into the schedule in an effort to get people to move around and check out as much music as possible. It’s a noble goal, but as a result concert-goers are often faced with the prospect of seeing partial sets, or missing some sets altogether.
The three-day festival opened on Friday, and the day got off to a great start with an appearance by the new soul sensation Leon Bridges. I’m not the first one to make the comparison between Bridges and Sam Cooke, and I won’t be the last. It’s not that Bridges sounds the same as Cooke, there’s just something about his smooth, easy style that is reminiscent of the soul giant. Bridges drew a huge crowd to the festival’s second (Quad) stage, and there is little doubt that he’ll be ready to graduate to the main stage at future festivals.
The Arizona-based band Calexico followed with a set in which their blend of rock, country, Americana, and Tex-Mex music was on full display. The band played a selection of songs from various stages of their career, with the highlight coming when they were joined by Sam Beam of Iron & Wine for “He Lays in the Reins,” the title track of a 2005 album that they collaborated on.
Beam returned for the next set along with Ben Bridwell of Band of Horses. The pair are childhood friends going back to a time in South Carolina before either one of them was playing music. They have recently collaborated on a new album called Sing Into My Mouth which features the duo covering some of their favorite songs. Sade’s “Bulletproof Soul” might have seemed like an odd choice, but Beam and Bidwell pulled it off effortlessly. They also paid tribute to festival founder Pete Seeger with their closing selection, “Coyote, My Little Brother.”
This year’s festival featured a new wrinkle. There was a “surprise” built into each day’s schedule on the main stage. It was a period of time when something would be going on, but no one knew exactly what. As you might imagine, secrets being hard to keep, work got around early in the day that My Morning Jacket would be Friday’s surprise, and the speculation was spot on. The band, led by Jim James who has been deeply involved in the festival for the last few years, played a whirlwind set that had the crowd on their feet and rocking.
The announcement that Roger Waters was going to headline the festival on Friday piqued a lot of curiosity, and yes, some disgruntlement among traditionalists in the folk crowd. No one really knew what he was going to do, or who he was going to do with it. Part of that secret also got out early when word spread that not only would My Morning Jacket be playing their own set, they would be backing Waters for his.
Waters only brought along one musician of his own, but he made a great choice in guitarist G.E. Smith. Waters opened his set by playing piano, something he said he had never done in public before, on a new song called “Crystal Clear.” He delighted Pink Floyd fans with powerful takes on “Mother,” the title track from “Wish You Were Here,” and “Brain Damage/Eclipse,” the finale of Dark Side of the Moon that reverberated through the festival grounds as the moon rose over Newport.
As much as I admire John Prine, and Waters’ desire to get into the spirit of the folk festival, Waters’ slow, lengthy take on Prine’s “Hello in There” nearly brought his set to a crushing halt. He carried on though with a lovely tribute to Levon Helm, another festival favorite. “Wide River to Cross” featured fine vocals from Amy Helm. Bob Dylan was on many people’s minds over the weekend, it being the 50th anniversary of Dylan’s legendary electric set at Newport, and Waters acknowledged the buzz with a powerful version of Dylan’s “Forever Young” to close his set, and day one of the festival in fine fashion.
The first act I wanted to see on Saturday was Madisen Ward & the Mama Bear. They were playing on the festival’s smallest (Harbor) stage, and they proved to be a more popular attraction than the festival’s planners imagined. The crush of people around the stage resulted in a gridlock condition that was uncomfortable. I managed to hear a couple of songs, and I liked what I heard, but it was simply not an optimal way to listen to music and I moved on.
Two years ago Jason Isbell played one of the best sets I’ve ever heard at the Newport Folk Festival, so it’s fair to say that his return was eagerly anticipated. On first listen, Isbell’s new album Something More Than Free seemed to be a more subdued effort after Southeastern. To be honest, I was a bit disappointed. But he and the 400 Unit transformed those songs in a most appealing manner in their live version. So much so that I went back to listen to the album again, and this time I thoroughly enjoyed it.
“24 Frames” and “Speed Trap Town” were standouts from the new album, and “Stockholm,” “Cover Me Up,” and “Super 8” burned bright from Southeastern, and Isbell included a stirring version of “Alabama Pines” as the penultimate song in his set. His set was, once again, my favorite of the weekend, and it was clear from the audience reaction that I was hardly alone in that opinion.
Following Isbell’s set it was time for Saturday’s surprise performance. By the scheduled time it was well known that James Taylor would be filling the slot. Taylor played the festival in 1969, but his set was cut short when he left the stage so that festival founder George Wein could announce the moon landing. Taylor had returned to the festival in 1997, but it made for a better story if he was said to be continuing his truncated set from ’69.
Taylor was joined by a small band that included his wife Kim as a background singer. Interrupted by sound problems several times, Taylor played a short set that was heavy on classics like “Something in the Way She Moves” from his first album for Apple Records, the touching title track from “Sweet Baby James,” and “Carolina On My Mind.” His fine new album, Before This World, was represented only by the album’s leadoff track, “Today, Today, Today.” Taylor was in good humor, and it was the kind of gentle, well-crafted performance that his fans have come to expect.
Once in awhile a performer comes along who just burns the festival to the ground. Sturgill Simpson was that artist this year. His incendiary set was high on passion, high on intensity, and high on volume. Simpson’s brand of outlaw country simply blew the large crowd assembled at the Quad Stage away. The set featured songs from Simpson’s acclaimed album Metamodern Sounds in County Music including “Turtles All the Way Down,” “Life of Sin,” and “It Ain’t All Flowers.” Special mentioned must be made of guitarist Laur Jaomets an Estonian who was, in a word, astonishing.
The day closed with a headlining set by the Decemberists on the main stage. I’m not going to pretend I’m a huge fan of this group, but they were immensely popular with the festival crowd, and to these ears it sounded like they carried off their set very well. Day two was in the books.
Day three of the festival was the day designated for commemorating the Dylan appearance in ’65 despite the fact that the actual anniversary had been Saturday. As part of the celebration, Elijah Wald, who has written a new book called Dylan Goes Electric appeared for a discussion of the seminal event. Wald was joined by George Wein, Bill Hanley, the legendary sound technician who did sound that night in ’65 (as well as at Woodstock and other places), John Cohen of the New Lost City Ramblers, and Bob Jones, who was Wein’s right-hand man for many years.
It was a fascinating conversation to say the least. In the end though, one thing remained clear: you can ask any number of people who were there that night about what exactly took place, and you’re going to get any number of stories. There was booing, there wasn’t booing. The sound was bad, the sound wasn’t bad. Pete Seeger was going to take an axe to the sound cables, or he wasn’t. Wald works to resolve these issues in his new book, but I wonder if there will ever be a universally accepted version of what happened that night.
Also on hand at the Dylan seminar, as it would be at the festival-closing finale later in the day, was the Stratocaster that Dylan played on that night 50 years ago. The guitar was recently sold for nearly a million dollars.
The first time I ever saw the Felice Brothers was at the Newport Folk Festival in 2008. A storm blew through the festival grounds that day, and there was no power to the stage that the Felice Brothers were scheduled to appear on. Undeterred, the Brothers jumped down off the stage and delighted the crowd with a raucous, muddy, acoustic set. In other words, they took lemons, and made lemonade. They won a lot of new fans that day, including me.
I’ve seen the Felice Brothers several more times over the last seven years, including subsequent Newport sets. No matter who else is playing, at what time, I will not miss the Felice Brothers. When people consider the current tsunami of “folk” groups, they should consider the fact that the Felice Brothers were there first. They are the real deal, a great American band, and the heirs to the tradition of the Band.
The Felice Brothers set at Newport this year disappointed only because it was too short. Their set included favorites like “Whiskey in My Whiskey,” and “Frankie’s Gun,” along with “Cherry Licorice,” and “Lion” from their most recent album, Favorite Waitress. The set closed somewhat uncharacteristically, with the beautiful but mournful “Mating of the Doves.”
Blake Mills returned to the festival this year. Working with two sidemen, Mills dazzled the crowd again with his impressive and innovative guitar skills. Nods to Bob Dylan were common over the weekend, but none were more impressive than Mills’ take on the bard’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece.”
All weekend the talk was about who would perform as part of the ’65 Revisited set that was scheduled to close the festival. Neil Young and Bono were mooted. Some people though Dylan himself would be there, although I can’t imagine anyplace he would be less likely to appear. As it turned out, there were no superstar surprises, but that’s not to say that there wasn’t some great music.
Gillian Welch and David Rawlings opened the proceedings with a stunning take on “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Willie Watson offered an impressive version of “All I Really Want To Do,” and then was joined by Welch and Rawlings for “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” and “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue.”
The reins were turned over to Dawes for a torrid “Maggie’s Farm,” the song with which Dylan had opened his electric set in 1965. The band’s Taylor Goldsmith got to play the Dylan Strat on that one, and as amazing as it was to see, it must have been even more special to play. Al Kooper was on hand to lend authenticity to the proceedings, and other guests included the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, First Aid Kit, and Deer Tick. Robyn Hitchcock introduced “Visions of Johanna” by saying “it’s perhaps the greatest song ever written, that’s all.” It was a given that “Like a Rolling Stone” would be played, but it was anything but a throwaway, and hearing Kooper’s Hammond featured on it, as it was on the original, brought chills on a hot summer day.
Another standout was “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)” performed by the assembled cast. The closing song, made possible by the presence of Preservation, was a raucous take on “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35.” The entire set was appropriately focused on that amazing 1965-1966 period in which Dylan released three of the greatest albums ever made, Bringing it All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde. Despite the absence of any of the rumored stars, no one could have left the festival grounds disappointed.