If anything, the final day of the 2010 Newport Folk Festival was even more beautiful than the day before, and Newport Harbor was at the height of its midsummer glory. Arriving early has its benefits, as not only were we able to avoid the traffic that builds up later in the day, we were also treated to an ad hoc performance by What Cheer? Brigade, a 19-piece brass band from nearby Providence that somehow mixes elements of Balkan, Bollywood, Latin, and New Orleans music into a wonderfully uplifting stew. What Cheer?’s job was to wander the grounds over the weekend, turning up here and there, and whenever they did, it was a delight.
Tao Rodgriguez-Seeger opened the day’s performances with a nice set on the main Fort Stage. Last year Seeger performed at Newport with his then 90 year-old grandfather Pete. This year Seeger appeared with his own band and deftly carried the torch for the folk music tradition that his grandfather has passed down. It should be noted that he also wasn’t against cranking it up with a little bit of that rock and roll energy that Pete so famously railed against at this very festival in 1965. In any event, it was a well put together set that featured “El Coritaro,” a song influenced by Seeger’s Nicaraguan childhood, and closed with Pete Seeger’s emotional anti-war plea “Bring ‘Em Home.”
After that, it quickly became time to make some tough choices. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings were up next on the Fort Stage, while at the same time my friend April Smith was to appear on the Quad Stage. There was nothing I could do but split my time. I haven’t been much of a fan of Sharon Jones’ recordings because I think that they lack fire. I’ve heard great things about the live show though, and I was hoping it would supply that energy that I’ve missed on the albums. I was not disappointed. Jones is one of those force of nature performers who just grabs you the moment she takes the stage, and never lets go. The Dap-Kings proved to be completely up to the task of supporting her as she alternately begged, pleaded, demanded, and cajoled her way through a classic retro-soul set. I was disappointed that I couldn’t stay for the whole thing, but highlights of what I did see included “Without A Heart,” and the title track from her latest album, I Learned the Hard Way. Incidentally, it’s this kind of programming that keeps the Newport Folk Festival fresh, and prevents it from becoming just a bunch of guys with beards sitting around strumming acoustic guitars, although they’re there too if that’s your thing.
A quick walk over to the Quad Stage got me there in time to see the start of April Smith’s set. April was a fixture in the Asbury Park music scene until a recent move to Brooklyn, but she’s still considered to be one of us. There were four or five other people from the Asbury Park scene at the festival, and we all gathered around the stage to see how April would do amid such august surroundings. I’m happy to report that she did great. Backed by her stellar band, the Great Picture Show, April delighted the crowd with her powerful voice and her dynamic personality.
Two years ago, North Carolina’s Avett Brothers appeared on the festival’s middle stage. They gave one of the most memorable performances I’ve ever seen at the festival. They were just a blur of energy and good spirits. Last year, after signing with a major label and working on an album with Rick Rubin, they appeared on the Fort Stage, and I was disappointed. Things seem to have changed. Not only had they reigned-in the energy that defines them, even their image seemed to have been cleaned up in a calculated manner. The Rubin-produced album, I and Love and You, had been released in the wake of last year’s festival, and I didn’t like it very much, although I seem to be in the minority in that opinion. With all of this as a backdrop, I was anxious to see what the Avetts were up to this year.
While the energy level of their performance still did not return to what I’d witnessed two years ago, I was able to focus more on the songs this time, and I liked what I heard. Make no mistake, this is a very appealing band that has won many hearts, and continues to do so, at every stop along the road. My only hope is that they stay true to themselves, and this year’s performance was positive in that respect. Set highlights included the lovely “January Wedding,” and the frenetic “Kick Drum Heart.” They closed with I and Love and You‘s beautiful title track.
Next, it was on to the Harbor Stage for a wonderful and wondrous set from New Orleans’ Preservation Hall Jazz Band. The band’s most recent album, Preservation, features guest vocal turns from a number of artists, and several of them were on hand to help them out with their Newport performance. They included Yim Yames (Jim James of My Morning Jacket), Andrew Bird, and Tao Rodgriguez-Seeger. A word about the former; Jim James is not only a regular performer at the festival, he’s one of the most avid festival-goers in the crowd. Every year he’s out and about at all of the stages over the entire weekend, supporting his fellow artists. The most moving moment of the festival came when Tao Seeger introduced the mother of Preservation tuba player Ben Jaffe, who with her husband bought Preservation Hall in the early ’60s and turned it into the world renowned institution it is today. In addition to their work with Preservation Hall, the Jaffe’s were active in the Civil Rights Movement in the south, and the audience stood to show their respect with a long ovation.
The last time the Felice Brothers played at Newport, two years ago, a storm flashed through the area just before their set, knocking out all of the power. Instead of sulking, the band jumped off the stage, and played a now legendary unplugged set for a delirious crowd. This year, with all the power they needed, the Felice Brothers delivered my favorite set of the weekend. The truth is, this band seems able to create their own electricity. Their long and powerful set included four encores, something I’d never seen at Newport before, and the band’s incredible energy did not wane for even a moment. Most of the lead vocals are handled by guitar player Ian Felice, and he has become one of my favorite singers, rendering tales of murder, drugs, and heartbreak in utterly convincing fashion. He is ably assisted by his brother James, who plays accordion and keyboards and provides the occasional lead vocal. Set highlights included favorites like “Run Chicken Run,” and “Frankie’s Gun,” along with the mournful “Katie Dear,” and Take This Bread.” Incidentally, that’s Ian’s guitar stuck in the bass drum in that photo at the bottom of the page.
You could not ask for a more appropriate festival closer than the legendary Levon Helm. Backed by his stellar band, which includes guitarist Larry Campbell and Levon’s daughter Amy, the big band worked their way through a collection of tunes that included Band classics like “Ophelia” and “It Makes No Difference,” as well as a number of rhythm and blues favorites. At the end, all of the weekend’s musicians who were still in attendance were invited onstage for a stirring rendition of “I Shall Be Released.” It was a fitting end to a glorious weekend of music.
Congratulations to George Wein, festival producer Jay Sweet, and all the people who work so hard to put this festival together every year. After 51 years, the Newport Folk Festival is second to none. I can’t wait to see what 52 brings.
A reminder that NPR has archived many of the sets from the weekend on their website.