Newport Folk Festival a hit for all generations

A review of the Newport Folk Festival at Fort Adams State Park on July 30-21, 2011

, Editor-in-Chief

The Newport Folk Festival sold out in advance for the first time in its 52-year history this year. It was a remarkable achievement for a world renown festival that has experienced a rebirth of sorts in recent years. With a diverse lineup that paired contemporary favorites with old veterans and indie rock bands with singer-songwriters, this year’s festival had a little something for everyone.

Attendees who packed Fort Adams State Park to its capacity could check out an array of acts across three stages for over eight hours each day. From headliners Emmylou Harris, Elvis Costello, Gillian Welch and The Decemberists to rising acts like Middle Brother, The Civil Wars, David Wax Museum and The Cave Singers, there was great music at every turn. The festival, which was founded by George Wein 1952, also made a point of spotlighting its rich history throughout the weekend with performances by legends Earl Scruggs, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and Pete Seeger, all of whom performed at the first festival.

For many, especially this reporter, the options presented a daunting but exciting challenge. With that in mind, here are some of our reflections from a weekend packed with sunshine and awesome music.

Best Headliner – The Decemeberists
:  Returning for their second stint as Newport headliners (the first being 2009), The Decemberists lived up to the billing with a thrilling 75-minute set that hit all the right notes.

Best Cover – Trampled by Turtles covering The Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?”: Encoring with one of the Massachusetts-bred indie rock hereos’ best songs, the veterans from Duluth, Minnesota surprised and won over a whole of bunch of new fans with this unique bluegrass rendition.

Best Collaboration – Mavis Staples and Colin Meloy of The Decemberists covering The Band’s “The Weight”: One of the best things a festival can provide is unique collaborations that would otherwise not be possible. This year’s Newport Folk Festival thrived with many artists joining each other’s sets. Just minutes before his own band was to headline the main stage, Meloy joined Staples inside the Quad for a rousing take on “The Weight”. Just two songs in to her 70-minute set, it also helped fuel a thrilling set from Staples.

Artists Most In Demand – Pete Seger: A Newport Folk Festival co-founder and performer, the 92-year old folk icon was spotted all across the festival grounds on both days. He was a special guest for a few sets and even connected with the youngest of fans at the Lego’s kid stage, a new addition to the Newport Folk Festival. He fittingly closed the festival out on Sunday by leading a sing-along with many of the weekend’s performers on “Turn Turn Turn” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”.
Best Use of Special Guests – Elvis Costello: As previously mentioned, of the best attributes at Newport was the sense of community amongst the artists performing over the two days. Midway through his Sunday evening set, Costello welcomed The Secret Sisters on stage for a pair of songs, then Chris Thile for another pair, the second of which – “The Scarlet Tide” – also included headliner Emmylou Harris.

Breakthrough Artists – Civil Wars:

Best Comeback – Wanda Jackson: After suffering through a show in Boston that was ultimately cut short earlier this year, the 73-year old singer returned to the area and proved she still has it. Backed by a strong band, Jackson’s vocals were fine. For the most part, she rocked a solid set of rockabilly classics but also sang a cover Amy Winehouse’s “You Know That You’re No Good” from her latest release, The Party Ain’t Over.

Best Unplugged Set – Tegan and Sara: Newport has expanded its offerings beyond your standard folk acts over the past decade, but not all the rock acts that perform, go unplugged. Canadian duo Tegan and Sara did return to their “folk roots” and delivered acoustic set packed with greatest hits and fan favorites.

Song Most Likely to Entice a Dance Party – Gogol Bordello’s “Start Wearing Purple”: The Gypsy folk-punk rockers brought their Saturday afternoon set to a lively close with “Start Wearing Purple”, enticing many in the crowd to let loose.

Worst Conflict – Elvis Costello vs. Middle Brother on Sunday: Any time you attend a festival with multiple stages, you are bound to get conflicted when certain acts perform at the same time. Newport was no different and for me, I mostly settled to checking out a little bit of everyone’s set. No conflict was worse than on Sunday when Middle Brother rocked the Quad Stage just as Elvis Costello hit the main stage. Both were more than on their game and delivered two of the weekend’s best sets.

Most Memorable Set – Middle Brother: So who was more memorable? Tough call, but Middle Brother definitely left attendees screaming for more. The indie rock supergroup of sorts, featuring the frontmen of Deer Tick, Delta Spirit and Dawes – absolutely rocked their set and nearly blew the roof off the jam packed Quad Stage tent. Taylor Goldsmith remained on stage for a unannounced mini set with his band Dawes, before his Middle Brother bandmates returned to help close out the part with Dawes’ “When My Time Comes”.

Biggest Surprise – The Imposters:  Elvis Costello was billed as a solo acoustic act but when he hit the Fort Stage on Sunday evening, he was joined by his usual bandmates, The Imposters. It was very pleasant surprise as Costello and The Imposters plugged in for a set that started with a fitting cover of The Byrd’s “So You Want To Be A Rock ‘N’ Roll Star”.

Best Spot to Watch The Main Stage Without a Ticket – The Harbor
: Wanna see a main stage act but no ticket? Just befriend someone with a boat, or better yet, a yacht and sail up to the harbor alongside Fort Adams. Still no luck? We saw plenty of folks in canoes, who paddled their way over to enjoy the sweet sounds from the main stage. Even Colin Meloy gave them a shot during Saturday’s headlining set from The Decemberists, enticing all the boats that filled the harbor to all use their air horns at the same time.

Best Way to Relive the Newport Folk Festival – NPR Music’s Archive: Thanks to the good folks at NPR, almost all the sets from this year’s Newport Folk Festival are streaming on demand. Listen Here.

Most Deserving of a Thank YouGeorge Wein: The man who founded the festival in 1952 and rescued it from nearly going under just a few years ago, deserves the most appreciative thank you. He and his dedicated staff have ensured a New England tradition will continue for many more years and for that, we are entirely grateful.

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  1. Pingback: Newport Folk Festival a hit for all generations | Christopher O'Hare | I Hate Me Too

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