Final Thoughts On The 2011 Newport Folk Festival

It’s taken over week, but we’ve finally got our thoughts in order (you can see all of our pics here) concerning 2011’s Newport Folk Festival. Before we dive in and try to break down each days experience though, I’d like to let you in on a little secret: without exaggeration, the Newport Folk festival is possibly the best festival running in the country right now.

Sure, it’s smaller (only 10K people this year, which was a sell out for the first time in the festivals history). And sure you may not see the biggest, most hyped new favorite band there. But what you will see is music created for people who truly love music BY people who truly love music. You see, unlike other larger festivals that often end up feeling more like a showcase for whatever band is being pushed at the moment than an actual meeting of the musical minds, at Newport the musicians simply came to play.

Sit ins with other bands abounded and backstage partnerships were made hourly. There was a sense of community, a “we’re all in this together”-ness that permeated each and every set of the weekend, and made for a thrilling 2 days of music. Even better, if a band wasn’t playing, they could often be found watching as part of the audience. And aside from the occasional pat on the back or handshake and congratulation on their set, they were able to simply carry on like any other festival attendee.

On Saturday, bands like Freelance Whales took the stage and delivered riotous sets that couldn’t be considered folk by any stretch of the imagination, but it didn’t seem to matter in the least. Bands like Delta Spirit (not folk), The Felice Brothers (OK…maybe a little folk), and Typhoon (awesome, but again...not. folk.) each conquered their respective stages with an energy and a passion that wowed and won over even the most uninformed/unexposed members of the crowd. At every stage, throngs of people packed in to see what was coming up next. Hell, before the Tegan and Sara (folk-ish?) set - which was plainly fantastic by the way - the organizers had to call in the fire marshall to clear the aisles of a giant mass of adoring fans whose love for the duo didn’t seem dangerous, but, you never know.

The point I’m trying to make is that in large part, the festival has become an explosion of music in every shape and form that defies the boundaries that a little label like “folk” might lay upon it. And just in case we didn’t get that point, the organizers saw fit to have The Decemberists, otherwise known as indie rock GODS, close out the first day. Delivering a, quite literally, commanding performance (Colin Malloy managed to get the boats in the harbor to all blow their horns in time with one of their songs) the band rocked the audience like they were playing the Pitchfork Festival. Sure, they might have dipped their toes into the folk pool when they brought Gillian Welch and David Rawlings to sing on “January Hymn” and "All Arise", but for the most part this was epic arena rock writ large.


"Colin Malloy urging the crowd to rock harder"

As the band left the stage and the sun began to set over the Newport Bay the look on the festival goers faces as they shuffled toward their cars seemed to all ask one question: “How the hell do you top this?”

By taking off the training wheels, that’s how.

With performances from Rhode Island’s own Brown Bird, David Wax Museum, Carolina Chocolate Drops, The Cave Singers and Wanda Jackson all packed into just the first part of the day, Sunday moved along and breathed its own unique energy. Sadly, we missed the benefit BBQ that took place after the Festival closed Saturday night, but from all indications, the events that took place, which included Deer Tick’s John McCauley wearing a bear costume to duet with Gillian Welch, definitely helped to set the tone for the rest of the festival.

Total.Bluegrass.Annihilation.Any trepidations that any of the performers might have had the day prior were gone, and so to see Chris Thile and Michael Daves practically set the Alex and Ani stage on fire with their virtuosic, roughneck bluegrass, immediately followed by a secret (and drunk) Middle Brother set in the Paste ruins (essentially a room in the Fort Adams that was used by Paste Magazine to film individual performances over the weekend), which was then immediately followed by Dawes closing out the Middle Brother set proper, felt not only natural, it was almost expected. In fact, sets were popping up all over the grounds and for the most part you were either there to see them or not. It made for a remarkably and genuinely fun afternoon, and by the time an acoustically billed Elvis Costello “plugged in” with The Band’s “This Wheel’s On Fire”, you didn’t know what to expect next. And quite frankly, you didn’t care.

But it had to end sometime, and the organizers rightfully picked Emmylou Harris to do the honors. Effortlessly steering the festival goers out of the wonderful chaos that had occurred throughout the day, Harris did what she does best and provided more than a few joyful, contemplative moments to send the crowd home with. Ending her set, and the festival, with a Pete Seeger led (finally!) sing-along of “Turn Turn Turn” and “Where Have All The Flowers Gone”, the weekend came full circle with just about every musician who had played that day, regardless of their folkiness, lending their voice to the words that rang true, no matter what style of music they are delivered in. It was a touching moment from one of the men who made this festival and further demonstrated that, musically speaking, no matter how far out there you get, you can always come back home at the Newport Folk Festival.

And that’s it, at least from our vantage point There’s a lot I might have left out or even missed (Sallie Ford and PS22, we apologize but a flight cancellation on Friday caused us, sadly, to arrive after your sets), but in the end the Newport Folk Festival is more about how the experience as a whole adds up. And this weekend added up to a whole lot of greatness, but don't take my word for it. Head on over to NPR.org, where they have kindly archived just about every performance from the weekend, and hear it all for yourself.


See ya next year, Newport!

Newport, we were sad to leave ya, but you can be sure we’ll be seeing you again next year. And the year after that. And the year after….yea…you get the point.

 

Some highlights of the weekend:

  • I had never seen Typhoon and honestly wasn’t too keen on their album. But when we literally ran into the beginning of their set, but they blew me away. It goes without saying that a 14-piece band is going to be powerful, but filter that power through great songs, and you’ve got a winner here.
  • Gillian Welch and David Rawlings set was expectedly impeccable, but truly unforgettable none the less.
  • Being 4 feet away from Mavis Staples when she brought Colin Malloy on stage to perform “The Weight”, and then having her look directly at me and smile. There’s real magic in that woman. I just had no idea how much.
  • Brown Bird…remember this bands name, because it’s all fans of acoustic/folky music are going to be talking about in the coming year. Masterfully intelligent songwriting and playing made for a ridiculously entertaining set that I can’t wait to catch again.
  • Middle Brother Paste Session – it’s a shame more people didn’t get to see this as it was happening, but it really was sort of the lynchpin to the energy of the whole day, and they popped the proverbial cork on this one.
  • M Ward – always great, but with Dawes as his backing band his set moved into legendary territory. Which brings me to…
  • Dawes. I’m not a huge fan of their records, but DAMN can those guys play. And not only that they seem to be able to fit in with anybody. It’s now perfectly clear why Robbie Robertson picked them to be his backing band earlier this year.