Newport Folk Festival 2012 (Day 1): 28 July 2012

[23 August 2012]

By Raymond Lee

Just off the beach, at the terminus of an avenue where some of the country’s most affluent families live one can find the venue for the annual Newport Folk Festival set inside Fort Adams State Park. As opposed to the infancy of most of the summer’s festivals Newport has some history behind it, and not just because the Fort dates back to the Revolutionary War. As far as festivals go, Newport’s only real contemporary is Woodstock—with the small exception. Newport had a decade jump on its eternally popular cousin in addition to running almost consecutively since then. Other than stamina, the greatest difference between this and the majority of summer festivals is size. Despite the acts drawn here, the four stages and the ample spread of the fairgrounds, the number of tickets available can only be described as modest. The firmest number available during the last weekend of July was just over six thousand.

The festival’s longevity is due in large part to the fact that groups often compete to play it. The Newport Festival Foundation is a non-profit organization that relies on donation from members and fans in addition to ticket sales and simply cannot offer the sums generally expected with a summer festival. But musicians are not businessmen, and a common sentiment amongst performers has been the sense of history surrounding the event.

Officially founded by present year attendee George Wein with the support of everyman hero Pete Seeger, Newport has hosted more than its share of legendary acts. An unknown, unbilled Joan Baez appeared as guest of Bob Gibson in ’59. Several years later her plus one was the equally unknown Bob Dylan. Mr. Dylan would go on to give one of the most infamous performances in the festival’s history, nearly starting a riot by going electric to debut one of his best loved songs, “Tambourine Man”. Other notable events include Johnny Cash introducing future Blade cast member Kris Kristofferson and more recently a purely acoustic performance by none other than the Pixies.

As the gates opened for day one, history and heritage were very much on the forefront of the audience’s collective mind. So it was striking to discover the oldest member of the day’s first break-out performance was 14. Without doubt the youngest group, brothers and New Jersey natives the Sleepy Man Banjo Boys might also be the most accessible act to play either day. With appearances on Letterman, the Grand Ol’ Opry and the Today show, their exposure is easily enviable to those acts everywhere twice or treble in their years still struggling to garner a national audience. Concerning their short set of folk and bluegrass standards, ironically played on a stage known as the museum, there was nothing heart wrenching or impactful about their music. The Banjo Boys are simply prodigies with licks more impressive than their respective ages. They are babes that ultimately can’t be blamed for milking the novelty to its full extent. 

The music with teeth came afterward. Johnny Corndawg may also be exploiting a kitsch demographic, but one tends to feel less uneasy about screaming “Fuck Yeah!” from the audience after his lead guitarist Robert Ellis drops a lead to make you weak in the knees. This country crooner could be considered something of a patriarchal figure to a connected web of up and coming acts stretching from alt/country via Hayes Carll, through roots Americana as performed by Shovels and Rope, to dirge rock in the form of Deer Tick. Perhaps someday there will be a ‘seven degrees’ game variation featuring this marathon running, long haul truck driving balladeer.

While most groups focused on blending the traditional genre of folk music with more modern prototypes such as rock or country, the Spirit Family Reunion delivered a decidedly gospel tinged version without flagging a single BPM. The fresh faced Brooklyn natives did more to get a sluggish audience moving in their forty five minute set than any previous act, and for a timeslot where foot tapping and hand clapping was as excited a response as an audience could muster, the reaction to their set meant near hysteria. Like a strong black cup a joe, the Spirit Family Reunion woke the crowd up and got blood flowing, serving as the perfect combination for the follower Deer Tick.

If there’s anything Deer Tick wants from you, it probably is blood. There’s something dark and evil and unabashedly self-destructive about Deer Tick’s music that transcends the dusty old hard format and connects with so many. Rot all to radio imposters, these Rhode Island native sons could be considered the only true protégé to the style and content of nineties industry changers Nirvana. Despite the crowd’s early forties median age, and the family friendly nature of the event Deer Tick did not shy away from questionable song material. Covering topics such as alcohol/drug abuse, casual sex and a track sung from the first person P.O.V. of Chicago’s most famous serial killer, no less delivered through a biting distortion and the howling whisky drenched vocals of front man John McCauley the band’s set was a breath of fresh air from finger picking hard luck narratives.

A stellar day only got better with the Alabama Shakes. One of the best parts of the Newport Folk Festival was the seemingly flawless transition from one act to the next. Whereas larger festival eat up chunks of the day and disrupt continuity transferring large crowds across acres from one stage to the next, Newport’s purposely limited attendance and iPod-like stacking of acts facilitated a steady, near constant release of elation. Music is often designed and organized to utilize peaks and valleys in an attempt to manipulate emotions. If Deer Tick served as a high plateau, it was only to provide a glimpse of the snowcapped heights of the Alabama Shakes.

No other featured act contains the capacity for massive success as the Shakes, and despite the buzzword the band has become, they did nothing short of deliver. Rightfully playing the main stage, the group featured songs from their only release in addition to debuting new unreleased material. Inciting hip shaking and sing-alongs from a previous silent and still crowd, the raw power contained within their genre bending, throw back rock and emotive, gut wrenching vocals of singer Brittany Howard possessed the entranced audience. From obscurity to Newport in the span of a year, after glimpsing the talent of the twenty three year old Ms. Howard you couldn’t help but shake your head walking away from the set wondering what the hell you’ve been doing with your life.

If every well executed buildup deserves an equal and opposite breakdown the next offering must have been deliberately chosen. Like ABBA before them, they are an unknown outfit from the mythical land of Sweden, a country which resembles now in my mind a fairy tale place if only for the beauty and talent of First Aid Kit’s sister act. Imagine two of the most beautiful women you’ve ever seen playing sincere and seductive loves songs over luxuriant female vocal harmonies and there exists a decision to be made: Not whether the music is any good—because it’s excellent in the vein of Cocoon—but which sister you’re more in love with, the guitarist or keyboardist. This is the dilemma currently faced by Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes fame as he takes the group on tour this summer.

If First Aid Kit set the pace for silly romantic day dreams, Iron and Wine expertly executed the feeling. This author is not so doss as to deny the importance of Our Endless Numbered Days, but unlike most of the music consuming world I never bought into the hype surrounding Mr. Beam. But that was before I saw him live. It’s easy to construe Iron and Wine as a Williamsburg coffee house darling, but in truth the performance was not only enjoyable, but displayed a duality of nature I never would have suspected. Perhaps certain acts border the realm of cliché for a reason. In support of more recent projects, Sam Beam and backing band played variations of their set list choice, purposely avoiding studio versions from the discography. “Jesus the Mexican Boy”, a deep cut off an early obscure album, was played as an upbeat, almost jazzy number, and the set clearly avoided the weepy heart-sparked sentimentality often displayed in recorded tracks. Most surprisingly, Mr. Beam paid homage to the festival and the folk derivative that has propelled him to success by covering the much loved classic “Long Black Veil”, in addition to other golden age folk-western standards.
The day’s headliner, the Guthrie Family Reunion, was the perfect night capper for a day leaving one delirious from sonic joy. Fronted by Arlo, Woodstock ’69 performer and direct lineage to folk legend and one of the early twentieth centuries most admired figures, Woody Guthrie, the Family Reunion delivered pure, unashamed roots folk between some of Arlo’s better known period work. Arlo presents something of a contradiction in terms for a folk singer. No one with even the basest knowledge of music history would claim he came up the hard way like either his contemporaries or predecessors, and even the hits he had were something of the silver spoon variety. However, to claim there’s no legitimacy to the man’s music is a gaff. Much unlike Jacob Dylan or Hank Williams III, Arlo’s music has hovered close enough to the essence of the genre to maintain integrity while placing his own definable if not popularly successful touch upon it.

While the audience enjoyed radio favorites like, “Flying into Los Angeles”, there was a certain hint of the setting sun and ever after that could not be denied. After all, the performer is well into his sixties, and it’s not hard to imagine most of that odometer as being city miles. It’s untrue to draw correlations between Guthrie’s current station and say, Cash’s serial American recordings, but it’s hard to behold the flowing white mane on a man generations have grown up with holding the perpetual image from his youthful, rebellious “Running Down the Road”, in mind’s eye. And I might be sentimental, but I couldn’t help but hear something of a similar theme in the Family Reunion’s gospel numbers.

Over-all, the first day of Newport presented a multitude of high quality acts in the short span of some six hours. For the eight performances Popmatters chose to dissect, there were sixteen others our word count just couldn’t justify. A wealth of discovery was inherent in addition to nationally revered artists, and it all came off without flaw or technical failure. To say the first day of the Newport Folk Festival functioned like a well-oiled machine is accurate but clichéd. What’s more succinct, more vocative of the festivities, would be to say that Newport might be the best kept secret on the summer festival circuit. While larger, better known events often take a day to build momentum or work out kinks, Newport started out like a ball afire, and if day two can sustain the momentum there’s little reason to wonder at the festival’s fifty plus year lifespan.

Visit NPR’s official 2012 Newport Folk Festival site to listen to streams of many performances from this year’s festival.

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