The word “legend” is sorely abused and overused by music journalists, just as the word “genius” is. I am as guilty as anyone else, but I have an excuse ready to go. The older you get, the more legends your life seems to take on. People who were just great musicians when you were younger take on a sepia-tinged status with the fog of time. Now that I’ve said that, I have to ask a more or less rhetorical question: how does a writer avoid using the word “legend” when he attends an event at which there are performances by Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Guy Clark, Arlo Guthrie, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott? Legends all, no matter what era you came up in.
They called it Folk Festival 50 this year, but the event was a celebration of the of the birth of the Newport Folk Festival. It’s a long, twisted story, but a few months ago there was a real possibility that the great event would not live to see its 50th birthday. Then the man who started the whole thing in the first place, George Wein (who also established the Newport Jazz Festival in 1954), stepped in to make sure that his baby had life. Wein had sold the rights a few years back, and the subsequent owners had failed to meet some of their obligations. As a result, Wein returned, but he still hasn’t won the right to use the name that he honored for so many years. Hopefully that will change soon, and next year it will become the Newport Folk Festival again.
You may have heard of Newport, R.I., or even paid a visit. It is one of America’s playgrounds, famous for its great mansions, and as the home for sailing’s America’s Cup for many years. The city sits on a peninsula, surrounded by Narragansett Bay, and Rhode Island Sound. There are beautiful water views in every direction, and the city takes full advantage of its location. On the northern end of the peninsula sits Fort Adams. The Fort was established on July 4, 1799, and has been home to the festival since it was revived after a 15 year absence in 1985.
I’ve been to a lot of festivals, and I can’t think of a more beautiful venue. There are three stages. The main, or “Fort” Stage uses the fort’s northern wall as a backdrop, and performers have a great view of the bay as they play. Thousands of people gather on the wide lawn with their blankets and beach chairs. The “Harbor” stage is smaller, and enclosed within a tent filled with seats. The “Water” stage is the smallest, and also covered by a tent. Naturally the more well known performers tend to appear on the big stage, but you’re likely to see great performances in all three venues. Artists who appear on the Water or Harbor Stage one year may move up to the Fort Stage next year. The Avett Brothers are a good example. They played the Harbor Stage last year. This year, with a new Rick Rubin-produced album due in September, they starred on the Fort Stage.
The weekend, which was full of tough choices in terms of who to see, began for me at the Harbor Stage, where Ramblin’ Jack Elliott was celebrating his birthday. The knowledgeable fans that filled the tent and overflowed out the sides began a spontaneous rendition of “Happy Birthday” before the now 78 year-old even got to his stool. At 78, Elliott was not the oldest performer who would appear that day. Ramblin’ Jack delighted the crowd with his renditions of songs by Tim Hardin, Woody Guthrie, and the Carter Family. Guthrie’s presence is always keenly felt at this festival.
Next it was off to the Fort Stage for Billy Bragg. Though I’m a long time admirer of his music and his politics, I’ve never had the chance to see him perform live. I’ve heard stories about his propensity to drone on endlessly between songs, and while he certainly did do his share of talking, what he said was, for the most part, witty, and welcome. The highlights of his set were the beautiful “I Keep Faith,” from last year’s Mr. Love & Justice, “The Space Race Is Over,” which first appeared on Bragg’s 1996 album William Bloke, and a stunning version of Woody Guthrie’s (there’s that man again) ” I Ain’t Got No Home In This World.” My favorite Bragg moment however was when he said that he was sorry that all the people out in the harbor were unable to afford a ticket, but he was glad that they were able to pull their yachts close enough to the stage to watch the show for free. Vintage Bragg.
Last summer, North Carolina’s Avett Brothers created a sensation at the festival. Their set was a romping, stomping party, full of the frenetic sawing at instruments, and lots of leaping about. Since then, they’ve been signed to a major label, and as I said earlier, they have that Rick Rubin-produced album coming out next month. You notice little things when a band signs with a major. Suddenly the wardrobe is a bit more premeditated, and there’s a little less leaping about, and more focus on the music. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just a thing. I’m glad they made it to the Fort Stage this year, because the Avett Brothers are a band that should be seen by as many people as possible. The two brothers, Seth and Scott, play guitar, banjo, and handle the vocals. Occasionally one of them will get behind the drum kit, or sit at the keyboards. Their friend Bob Crawford plays upright bass, and joining them on cello each time I’ve seen them (four times in all now) is Joe Kwon.
Their set this time included such gems as “Murder In the City,” from the Second Gleam EP, the raucous “Kick Drum Heart,” from their new album, and three songs from their 2007 album Emotionalism, “Paranoia In B Flat Major,” “I Would Be Sad,” and “Go To Sleep.” The Avett Brothers are on their way to bigger things. Keep an eye on them.
The Low Anthem are a band from nearby Providence, R.I., so it stands to reason that they would attract a pretty sizable crowd. They were placed on the Water Stage, and not only was the tent filled to capacity, there were fans 20 deep on both sides and at the rear of the tent. Despite the fact that it was very difficult to see them from my vantage point, their set was one of the best that I saw all weekend.
The Low Anthem set included the ethereal “To Ohio,” from their recent Oh My God Charlie Darwin album, and “Yellowed By the Sun,” from their 2007 album What the Crow Brings. This is another great young band that bears watching. I’m sure the massive audience response to their set, both in numbers and enthusiasm, will find them moving up to larger stages in the coming years, both at Newport and elsewhere.
It was a day filled with favorites for me, and I was really looking forward to seeing Gillian Welch and David Rawlings again. They never disappoint, and this performance was no exception. Gillian has a knack for silencing a huge crowd, despite the fact that it’s just her and David up there, and they’re playing acoustic instruments. Her songs are so plaintive, and so intensely rendered that they demand your full attention. Set highlights included “My First Lover,” Red Clay Halo,” and “Miss Ohio.”
It’s worth noting one other special thing about Newport here. This is, by and large, and folk festival. The music is often quite subdued. I’m sure you’ve had the experience, as I have all too often, of having people talk while music is being performed, ruining your enjoyment of the moment. That doesn’t happen at Newport. There is such a high level of respect for the musicians that audience, no matter how large, listens carefully. I found this as welcome as the sea breeze that blows into Newport on a hot summer day.
Mavis Staples was another artist that I’d been looking forward to seeing. The veteran soul and gospel singer has not lost a single step, or one bit of her fervor. Backed by a great band, she knocked the crowd in the Harbor Stage tent out with intense renditions of “Wade In the Water,” “Eyes On the Prize,” and “Too Close To Heaven,” before closing with her classic version of “The Weight.”
Last year’s Fleet Foxes album won accolades all over the world from critics and the public alike. I wasn’t as enthusiastic. To me it all seemed a little too wispy. I couldn’t get a handle on the songs. I just didn’t get what all the commotion was about. Friends had told me that they were also great live, so I was looking forward to their Newport set, ready to be convinced.
I think they played very well. I was particularly impressed by their vocal harmonies, which are beautifully arranged and sung. I’m still not sure if I get it, but I’m going to keep listening to Fleet Foxes and hope that one day I can jump on the bandwagon.
My favorite set of the day was the one by Austin-based songwriter Sam Beam, better known as Iron & Wine. Though I was certainly aware of him, I was totally unfamiliar with his music. Not anymore. Beam played a beautiful set. Accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, he had the overflow crowd at the Harbor Stage tent hanging on his every word, as he performed one beautiful song after another. I noticed that a lot of the other musicians on the bill were there to catch his set, something I’ll discuss more later. It’s easy to understand why. Sam Beam is a consummate songwriter. It’s hard to pick just a few songs from a set of standouts, but there was a new song called “Godless Brother In Love,” and there was “Resurrection Fern,” “Sodom, South Georgia,” “Upward Over the Mountain,” and so many more great ones.
I’m not sure what to make of the Decemberists. I appreciate their ambition, and their inventiveness, but it all leaves me a bit cold. Perhaps someday their most recent album, The Hazards of Love, will be heard as a historic concept album, but right now, I find it a bit overbearing, and a lot boring. When I saw them play the whole album at SXSW earlier this year, they did not hold my attention. It was all too serious, and yes, pretentious. Their Newport set was better because they played music from other stages of their career, and even put on a little skit about the day Dylan “went electric” at Newport. It wasn’t really funny, or well received, but at least they were trying to have fun. I think Colin Meloy and his band have something in them. I thought they were on the verge of realizing it with their 2007 album The Crane Wife. Let’s see what they come up with next before consigning them to oblivion.
What better way to close out the day than an appearance by this festival’s patriarch, the 90-year-old Pete Seeger? He is certainly beyond criticism, or any insight that I might be able to provide. He’s one of those artists who you need only to be in his vicinity to understand his power and charisma. He took the stage with his grandson Tao, and admitted early on that his voice wasn’t what it once was. If that was true, there was not one person there who cared. And then the guy opens his set with “Turn, Turn, Turn.” What’s left to say? It was time to head home and rest up for Day Two.
NPR did an amazing job of covering the festival. You can stream or download complete sets at their site, see photos, read bios, and more. Just go to: Folk Festival 50 on NPR
Look for my coverage of Day Two, coming soon.