Just moments after the closing act of the previous night a torrential rainfall caste an uneasy outlook for Newport’s day two festivities. However, with dawn came blue skies and birds, a light breeze played across gentle waves lapping at the shores of Fort Adams State Park. Sail boats with pompous names positioned themselves in shallow coastal waters some hundred yards off coast in eager anticipation of the finale.
Die Wunderkinder, the Sleepy Man Banjo Boy’s performance from the day before had been so popular, and the image of the prodigies so striking they were brought out as second day openers for a short twenty minute set. Again, their choice of material remained deeply entrenched in the traditional, and without benefit of lyrics or singing of any kind one couldn’t help but find themselves bored if the musicians were middle aged. Between applause and the striking of following numbers the barely audible sighs and muted curses of aging bearded musicians registered in face of the preteen maestro brothers.
Up next and severely under appreciated time-slot wise was Trampled by Turtles. There is something to be said about the acoustic group’s last album, Stars and Satellites. After a close listen, it is hard not to think the entirety of the album is focused on suicide. There are references on nearly every track with lyrics, and even the entirely musical numbers are tinged with a minor key banjo pattern, or else a disparaging fiddle wail to leave one questioning how desultory a topic can be so powerful as well as entertaining. On stage the group played as if the performance would be their last, fiddler Ryan Young’s eyes screwed up tightly, swaying in oblivion and dipping so low his bow nearly struck stage to exchange leads with mandolineer Erik Berry. Guitarist Dave Simonett’s veins bulged from his face and neck in a desperate attempt to sing in time to the furious pace set by his band mates. The intensity was not lost to the crowd, and though I think few were familiar with the group before set, many have become fans since.
Fandom is something of a delicious topic for the next, most highly anticipated performance. Mystery surrounds seventies folky Rodriguez. If you asked ‘Who?’ it is only because you live in North America. Jesus Rodriguez dropped a single in the late sixties and then two poorly selling albums in early seventies on labels that themselves folded into obscurity. But the story doesn’t end here, unbeknownst to the artist along with all the Western world, his music became highly successful in the southern hemisphere, where for twenty years Rodriguez’s albums were re-issued, selling well and creating a folk lore around the man unequaled in American music until the aftermath of Neutral Milk Hotel’s Aeroplane Over the Sea. It was rumored in South Africa he was dead while in New Zealand the popular story was he’d gone crazy. In Zimbabwe, the musician was elevated to cult status and many believed the music couldn’t come from a mere mortal.
The simple fact was Rodriguez believed he’d given music a shot and failed, so he returned to a demolition job and started a family. It took the digital age and a chance search engine entry by his daughter two years shy of the millennium to uncover his fame on the other side world. In all that time he’d never received a single royalty, but the international success of recent documentary Searching for Sugar Man by Swedish director Malik Benjelloul has brought something of a bloom to Rodriguez’s popularity, along with fair dues in recent records sales.
While Rodriguez may be long on history, his follower was not. The Head and the Heart’s entire discography runs just short of forty minutes. Needless to say they played every single song from their self titled Subpop debut, and then to fill up their hour time slot featured new material off a yet to be released project. Their performance was nothing short of stellar however it’s hard to watch the act without thinking female vocalist Charity Rose Thielen as being sorely under utilized. Her arresting contribution at the crescendo of “River and Roads”, combined with her powerful verbosity in backing the male counter parts creates a want to hear her tackle an entire track. Crowd reaction between songs was more than appreciative, outright clamorous for the folk venue setting, and never more than those numbers featuring Ms. Thielen’s wonderfully succulent and opulently feminine vocals.
The Head and the Heart presented a hard act to follow, but it was nothing outside the abilities of young veteran Conor Oberst. Mr. Oberst might be the most intensely loved yet deeply despised musician in modern circles. With lyrics like, “I wanted to die young with my true love, instead I ended up a millionaire,” along with critical, and let us not forget popular, success it’s easy to understand why. With regards to Mr. Oberst and the various group associations he’s entertained over the last twenty years there are two types of people. Those who reference the man mockingly, and those who reference him reverently. The Newport crowd fell securely into the latter category, and while photographing from the pit it was hard not to laugh at the girl in the front row openly and at times loudly weeping as she shouted, “I love you Conor!” between songs.
Such distractions aside, Mr. Oberst’s set was a compilation of Bright Eyes and solo material. His stage prescience was minimal, sitting stock still at stage center and hiding behind jet black aviators it would seem he was closer in age to acts like Jackson Browne or Arlo Guthrie than his early thirties contemporaries. Taking stock of fifty years of precedent Mr. Oberst understood collaboration was in order, bringing out the beautiful young ladies from First Aid Kit to sing back up and then members of Dawes and Chris Wilson to cover Bright Eyes standards.
Last but certainly not least featured another act from the cold hinterlands of Sweden. And since everyone’s so keen to draw parallels with Dylan, it serves to mention The Tallest Man on Earth’s intensity of lyrical and musical stage delivery in spite of his waifish figure. With a gaze to ignite the ships out in the harbor Mr. Matteson does more with six strings to incite crowd reaction than most five or six piece touring groups. Fingers afire and pacing the stage like a convict in his cell, the Tallest Man on Earth only approached the mic to unleash the hell hound growl of his ground glass vocals. Looking through rather than at his audience, it isn’t hard to detect the young man’s ambition. Despite lack luster reviews of his last album, which it should be noted contained the fan displeasing presence of a backup band a la Dylan’s early Newport Folk Riot incident, his solo performance contained all the passion and desperation of a caged animal, leaving the audience dizzy with wonder at how powerful a sound can erupt from a single man and wooden box.
Day two of Newport presented something of a sonic strangle hold. From the opening of gates to the last dying chords of the Tallest Man on Earth there was little room for an easy breath. The day’s offerings weren’t meant to entertain so much as to elevate and excite. With stellar acts playing to a minimal audience, it’s a wonder the Newport Folk Festival doesn’t receive the same buzz so many other summer festivals do. The genre may be considered largely extinct, a throw back to a time before the digital age when qualities like musicianship and lyricism truly mattered, but Newport proves there is no shortage of musicians capable and more than willing to carry on the legacy of the innumerable predecessors before them who have since slipped into the realm of legends. Newport doesn’t pay homage to the genre of folk music, rather it propels it.