Newport Folk Festival: July 31st – Aug 1st, Newport, RI

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Fort Adams truly is a picturesque ocean-side location in Newport, Rhode Island. The town’s draw for summer tourists exceeds its many events, from jazz to wine festivals to marine and comedy shows. But those events and any others set at the State Park can create a traffic backup well outside the town and onto the iconic Pell Bridge, whose distinct image is incorporated into the Newport Folk Festival emblem. 2010’s incarnation of the Newport Folk Festival proved well worth the time tourists endured in traffic or the effort more savvy locals required to pull their boats up just outside the grounds.

Sunshine and calm winds kept festival goers planted on the grass throughout the two days of music. Those fortunate to situate themselves early on in front of the Fort Stage were able to return as they pleased after strategically leaving blankets, chairs and coolers in their stead. And the two smaller stages, the Harbor and Quad, often gave good reasons to; talented musicians were abound and collaborations between them occurred frequently. Jim James (of My Morning Jacket), Tao Seeger and Andrew Bird were amongst the most frequent migrants.

Some have questioned if Newport is still a true “folk” festival after all these years, and I had suggested it represents a changing of the vanguard and reaches out to a younger generation. And for the most part, after attending my first NFF, I believe it proved mostly true. In the event any artist was not suitable, then it was only a short jaunt to another stage to find something more to taste.

Arriving Saturday just at the tail end of Brandi Carlile, I caught the end of her rendition of “Mad World”. But I made my way back to the smaller Quad stage to catch some of O’Death a gothic-folk group from Brooklyn. The five guys, including Bob Pycior who plays a mean fiddle, performed the melancholic “Grey Sun” and “Down to Rest” but closed out with the rousing “Allie Mae Reynolds”.

ANDREW BIRD / Photo: Sachyn Mital

Andrew Bird’s set on the main stage was particularly notable for being not particularly folksy. One teenage listener, overhead in the audience, remarked that if her mom were here, she would object at calling the set folk. Which is not to suggest Bird does not deserve his place; his earliest CDs were a melodic blend of gypsy folk and some swing band. In his solo set, with his violin looping and whistling, Bird may have been less folksy through songs like “Nervous Tic Motion of the Head” and “Why?”. But when he brought out Calexico to be his backing band, Bird added a dash of organic southwest flavor to his set. The collaboration yielded lively versions of “Scythian Empires” and a full on trumpet arrangement on “Skin Is, My”. Bird humbly confessed he was “quite thrilled” to be in Newport and clearly many were thrilled to have him.

Saturday’s finale, from John Prine, was another strong set of Americana music. He paid tribute to the laughable facets of patriotism in our country with “Your Flag Decal”. And he welcomed Jim James to contribute guitar and verses on his heartfelt song, “All the Best”.

THE AVETT BROTHERS / Photo: Sachyn Mital

Sunday’s lineup had a greater and fortunately the weather remained as pleasant. With the Avett Brothers in full swing by the time I arrived, I caught them play one from their most recent I and Love and You, “Head full of Doubt”. The area in front reserved for a standing audience teemed with fans eager to indulge in each moment. They concluded their set with another one-two punch from the same album, “Kick Drum Heart” and the title track proving the multi-instrumentalists deserved a third go around on the Fort Stage.

Meanwhile on the Harbor Stage, New Orleans’ Preservation Hall Jazz Band filled the tent with their vintage blues and jazz sounds. Like on their newest album, PHJB welcome some fine collaborators to the stage, one after another, including Daniel Martin Moore on the rustic “Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” and Cory Chisel on “Cold Rainy Day”. Andrew Bird revisited “Shake It and Break It” letting his true folk roots fully shine. And Bird was followed by yet another guest, Jim James. He, again looking sharp in a brown suit, yodeled for “Blue Yodal” before being beckoned to do an encore. Then finally Tao Seeger was called forth for the anthem “We Shall Overcome” which proved a triumphant finish to their set.

THE SWELL SEASON / Photo: Sachyn Mital

When I noticed people heading towards the gates during the Swell Season’s set, I thought they were leaving way early to beat traffic. But in a surprising turn of events, following them along, I realized people were packing the Harbor Stage to glimpse up-and-coming freak folk group, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. Sharpe frontman, Alex Ebert led the frenzied tent through a jubilant set including the feisty “Janglin’”, the rollicking “Home” and horn infused “Om Nashi Me”.

The Swell Season also gave a strong performance as the vibrant Irish half of the duo, Glen Hansard, was so gracious and grateful for the opportunity. Though standing fans blocked the view of “ten people”, they were encouraged to stay as Hansard directed security to let them remain for the whole set. The audience swayed along for songs like “In These Arms” and “Low Rising”. Markéta Irglová and Hansard traded off on piano, guitar and vocal contributions throughout the set. The stirring “Falling Slowly” led into finale “Auld Triangle”. Guests Tao Seeger and tourmates, Rhode Island’s own The Low Anthem complemented the band on this Irish tribute to the Liam Clancy.

LEVON HELM / Photo: Sachyn Mital

Sunday’s finale, Levon Helm Band’s Ramble on the Road was sure to be a doozy as the other stages stood quiet leaving any artists available to potentially join in. At first Helm’s band, including Larry Campbell, Teresa Williams, Brian Mitchell, Amy Helm and more, went it alone. They performed a stunning, solemn “Long Black Veil” and another cover, “The Bourgeois Blues”. Later, with the strength of Richie Havens and Glen Hansard, they went into “The Weight”, one of The Band’s highlights. Havens verses were either too low to hear or he wasn’t quite sure of the lyrics unfortunately but the song went over well with the crowd. The grand finale, “I Shall Be Released”, featured like everyone as guests.

RICHIE HAVENS / Photo: Sachyn Mital

It would be inconsiderate to forget wizened sage Richie Havens though as the veteran of the original Woodstock put on a lovely set at the main stage before heading to the merch tent for a meet and greet with fans. He performed a couple covers including “Maggie’s Farm” and “All Along the Watchtower”. Doc Watson and Dave Holt, plus Richard Watson, were very upbeat on the second stage. Watson’s related a story of a haunted stove which made the audience laugh. In between sets Providence natives, the What Cheer? Brigade appeared on the grounds and atop the fort for parades and performances. Calexico’s full set was engaging and entertaining. One girl repeatedly shouted “I love your trumpet” at the band. Nneka was spotted at the ice cream truck with her band after her set. Daniel Martin Moore and Ben Sollee did a few songs and laughed with Jim James while people caught some sun around the Quad stage.

Throughout the lovely weekend, Newport proved folk music is still strong, and a bit more varied than before. For those people who set aside the first weekend of August and for anyone who intends to go in the future, the Newport Folk Festival remains undeniably a lovely family tradition. Just plan for traffic.