50 years later, Newport Folk still delivers

A review of the Newport Folk Festival at Fort Adams State Park on August 1 and 2, 2009

, Staff Writer

The Newport Folk Festival returned to Fort Adams Park this past weekend for it’s 50th anniversary. The weekend, which showcased folk in all of its many manifestations, was a welcome celebration of a variety of music. Since the journey through the three different stages was far from linear, here are some observations from two days on the waterfront (you can hear pretty much the entire weekend here):

– Pete Seeger is a badass. The 90-year old led the crowd in singalongs both nights in what was being called a "hootenanny," if that’s what you call singing in the rain with some close musician friends and thousands of fans. Seriously, 90-years old and playing banjo, singing "This Land Is Your Land" or "When the Saints Go Marching In". Sure, he had some help from his grandson Tao, but that only served to make the moment more memorable, like something was literally being handed on at this, the 50th Folk Festival. Where The Who hoped to die before they got old, Seeger did them one better.

– Joan Baez also still has it going on. You can read a full review of her Lowell date here instead of her more brief but still solid set on Sunday.

– One of the top festival moments was Gillian Welch’s rendition of Jefferson Airplane’s "White Rabbit". After asking the sound guy "How much reverb do you have out there? Can you make it sound like I’m in a batcave?" Welch and her partner plowed through a "psychotropic" version of the classic that had the more classic members of the audience up out of their lawn chairs. Even the members of Fleet Foxes were impressed.

– Speaking of Fleet Foxes, one of the festival’s most perfect moments came toward the end of their set as their hit song "White Winter Hymnal" was played over a warm sunny backdrop. The rest of the set wasn’t bad either, with "Sun It Rises" serving as a fine introduction from the band to the big festival stage. The set was frequently calm and exact, but some new songs were fairly rollicking and "Ragged Wood" was definitely rollicking. After so much sun, "Blue Ridge Mountains" served as a pleasantly jarring minor key comedown. All in all a fine showing from one of the most anticipated bands.

– The Campbell Brothers have soul, but it was the lone sister on stage that really made it happen. Singer Katie Jackson complemented the sacred steel that the band is known for very, very well. It was a high powered form of the blues with plenty of gospel elements, and the band took long, meandering trips through compositions that resulted in plenty of solo time for each talented member. A wailing lap steel take on Sam Cooke’s "A Change is Gonna Come" was the high point in the midst of lots of other highs. A fitting Sunday afternoon gospel set.

– Perhaps the only singer that topped Jackson was Mavis Staples, who imposed her will on her tent for a solid hour. Her slow burn soul saw her get a lot of mileage out of preaching and repeating words in an endless variety of expression and emphasis, especially on "Wade in the Water", where she simply repeated the four word title with passion over and over. There wasn’t a more compelling personal performance all weekend. To close out the set her and her band took on "The Weight" and absolutely killed it, keeping everyone involved through every verse and garnering a well deserved standing ovation.

– Neko Case showed that she can do it the folk way ("Things That Scare Me") but that she’s far more exciting when she goes the New Pornographers pop way ("People Got a Lotta Nerve"). No matter what she was playing, her voice was absolutely stunning in a way that was reminiscent of female voices in 80’s pop music but applied to good stuff. If that makes any sense.

– The festival organizers scored big by landing Josh Ritter. Unfortunately, they erred by giving him the early spot on Sunday’s main stage. Ritter and his bandmates proved to be excellent, taking a detour through The Beatles’ "Ob-la-di Ob-la-da" mid "Lillian, Egypt" to the delight of those who planned ahead and bested the oppressive traffic. A joyous version of "Snow Is Gone" proved that the band was there to rock more than they were to folk, and "To the Dogs or Whoever" capped things off with Ritter playing on an amp and his drummer playing standing up. The band thanked the crowd, who at that point were also standing up, and the organizers for "a dream come true" and definitely showed why they deserve to be back next year, only in a later time slot.

– Hometown bands did just fine down in Rhode Island. Deer Tick helped close out Sunday on the smaller waterfront stage, but it was The Low Anthem that got the biggest home field advantage. A rapt audience filled the tent to overflow and waited with baited breath for every delicate composition from the band’s recent release Oh My God, Charlie Darwin. See the band in Fall River or Plymouth later this month and see what the fuss is about.

– Guy Clark was good in his storytellers role, but his buddy Verlon Thompson was great. Seriously, nobody at the festival played guitar like him. His song "Everywhere…Yet" stunned the crowd in its quality, and "Joe Walker’s Mare" was country storytelling at its best. Did I mention he could play the guitar? Really it was great to see Clark up there playing and singing in his old school Texas-folk voice, but Thompson was electrifying.

– Also electrifying was the acoustic sounds of David Rawlings Machine, which also featured Welch, absolutely captured the crowd’s attention during their side stage set. "Big Rock Candy Mountain" got the bluegrass on as Rawlings soloed away in staccato runs that sounded Jack White-enough to impress any rock fan. "Queen Jane Approximately" was drawn out and blown up big enough to garner one of the few, if the only, encores of the weekend. The two made sure to make the encore count, playing an interestingly harmonized "Jackson" and updating things from Carter/Cash.

– The best show of the weekend goes to The Decemberists, who took a break from playing The Hazards of Love to bring Newport some old and new favorites. The band’s nautical themes played well with the setting, and lead singer Colin Meloy did not pass up the opportunity. After stating that it was "the perfect afternoon / evening for a song about joint suicide" the band launched into "We Both Go Down Together", which was indeed received very well.

Since the Hazards of Love tour was in full swing the band was accompanied by guest vocalists Becky Stark and Shara Worden. Wardon helped out on "Yankee Bayonet Song", but she literally stole the show on "The Wanting Comes in Waves" with her Janis Joplin wail and her AC/DC stage moves. Stark was more demure, swaying around the stage to "Isn’t It A Lovely Night".

The band also decided it was a perfect time to debut some new songs, one which was fairly good and is probably called "Down By the Water". The aptly titled tune had a bit of a CCR rolling river vibe that the next, an "attempt at a copper mining tune" eschewed for a more pronounced stomp – it was pretty awesome. After the epic "Wanting" (Newport folk gone metal) Meloy introduced an "autobiographical" song, which turned out to be "Chimbley Sweep". That humor kept up throughout as Meloy and Chris Funk played each others’ guitars for a solid two minutes, drawing things out while Meloy joked "do not underestimate how long I can do this." The solo ended with Meloy coaxing imaginary fire out of his acoustic then dousing it with Sierra Nevada.

"O Valencia" was pure and beautiful, while "A Cautionary Song" included a set theatre adaptation of Dylan going electric that took place in the middle of the crowd. It was a semi-hilarious interlude that showed a band enjoying their time at Newport as much as the crowd. As things ended with the singalong of "Sons and Daughters", with band and crowd chanting "Here all the bombs fade away", it was hard to imagine a more perfect setting. A festival where people went for the music, respected it loud and quiet alike, and simply enjoyed what was happening whether they knew the band’s well or not. After 50 years, it’s good to see that Newport is still getting it right.

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