The Newport Folk Festival, one of the oldest (if not THE oldest) and most successful festivals in the US turned 54 this year. With that much legacy, this festival has a lot to live up to. And with the very definition of “folk” changing, traditionalists are still ready to shake their heads with disapproval to any deviation to the established ways. But it’s not just the genre that’s changing: everything is changing. Festivals have become a major draw for both audiences and bands as a way to gain broad exposure to well-established and up-and-coming bands alike, so it’s with no surprise that Newport is changing as well.
Father John Misty opened his set on Saturday witah a sarcastic rant saying that he’d been invited because he was white, had a beard and played a few acoustic guitars on his record, yet before his performance was even halfway over you could wander to another stage to catch the decidedly un-folky Trombone Shorty. The following day, soul crooner Michael Kiwanuka, delivered a thrilling set, Cold Specks astounded the crowd with herself described “doom soul, and Tuareg guitarist/singer/songwriter Bombino gained a whole new legion of fans with his high-energy guitar rock. All of which is to say, that on the grounds of Fort Adams the term “folk” can indeed mean many different things.
In an interview with Paste Magazine’s Nick Purdy, Newport Folk Festival producer Jay Sweet offered a few insights into how he picks the bands and what he sees as “folk.” One, he wants them. Two, they want to play. Three, the audience wants them. When asked about his dream bands, he was quick to say Bruce Springsteen, who, like this year’s headliner Beck, has not much been recognized for his “folk” music, but Sweet does not see that as an obstacle. Both artists have dabbled in a broad range of styles within their respective genres, some of which could be described as “traditional” allowing them to loosely fit the definition. After Bruce, he wants Joni Mitchell (again), Beck (appearing this year) and Decemberists. And he let us in on a little secret: the festival’s increasing popularity means that it sells out early — about a day and half after tickets went on sale this year — which enables them to put more of the budgeted marketing money towards bringing in bigger and better artists.
One of the obvious risks in bringing in bigger names is that it might draw the festival away from the role it has played in bringing attention to artists like the Kingsley Flood, Black Prairie, Sarah Jarosz, or Hurray for the Riff Raff. While Bruce Springsteen can juggle multiple major festival offerings, or just play his own stadium tour, these up and comers with their roots in folk use Newport as a place to spread the word. The performance of Lone Below is a terrific example. Their performance of “You Never Need Nobody,” captivated an entire tent and stopped passerbies in their tracks.
But that’s a risk Sweet is clearly willing to take, and in the end the only real downside so far is an overabundance of choice. And not only is that a great problem to have, but rarely did a true bottleneck occur while people moved from stage to stage, a reflection of the Sweet’s determination to keep the festival smaller and manageable despite the ever larger headliners Even the downpour Friday afternoon did not slow movement down, nor did it dampen the enthusiasm of the audiences. People danced at every stage, many barefoot in the mud. There was no pretention in the audience, no hipsters, no fashion show: Just rain ponchos, sunscreen, hats and a shared appreciation of great music.
The Mountain Goats’ performance was a perfect example of this spirit. Playing in the smaller Harbor stage, several feet from the downpour outside the tent, the three-member group put on a show filled with songs of regret, anger and the power to overcome adversity. “I will make through this year if it kills me,” rang out during the worst of the downpour, and only spurred on more dancing in the mud from the enthusiastic and unflappable crowd outside the stage tent.
John McCauley, lead singer of Deer Tick and proud native Rhode Island son, and Board member of the Festival took the stage solo, but brought a few special guests up to help out, including his mother, self-proclaimed “Tick-head and Parrott-head” to sing “Margaritaville.” It felt like family to the audience, too. The crowds allowed many artists to walk (mostly) unmolested from stage to stage, but even those that were stopped by fans were happy to talk. Bands showed this camaraderie to each other, too. When they weren’t jumping on stage to support each other, they were back stage, shaking hands, admiring another band’s performance, or just singing along.
And if a band couldn’t get an artist on stage, they often performed a song that was either composed by the missing artist, or one composed for them. Michael Kiwanuka covered Jimi Hendrix’s “May This Be Love” to an utterly moved audience. Sarah Jarosz and her band played Joanna Newsome’s “Book of Right On,” in addition to two Tim O’Brien pieces. Shovels and Rope played “Little Black Star,” a Hurray for the Riff Raff song they themselves had played earlier in the day. For their part, Hurray for the Riff Raff had Spirit Family Reunion on stage, and Andrew Bird had Tift Merritt join him for a few songs. The list goes on and on, but probably the biggest such of the festival was when Beck brought Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Andrew Bird and three members of Black Prairie onstage for a cover of the Jimmie Rodgers classic “Waiting For A Train”
The Newport Folk Festival, much like the definition of folk itself, is obviously in a state of transition, and one that is clearly working. And a large part of that is due to the fact that Newport is quite simply a place where magic happens. Big stages grab big names that may or may not fit the perfect definition of “folk,” but are in some ways are just fun distractions from the overall effort. On the smaller stages and earlier performances, musicians play brilliant sets that become the meat of the debate of what folk is becoming. It’s not a competition, but an exploration in a place without attitudes, where artists let down their guard and support each other wholeheartedly, and have a lot of fun doing it. Most of all though, it’s place where music lovers of all walks can gather together and know that they’re in good hands, because the Newport Folk Festival will never, ever let them down.
All photos by Joy Asico (email@example.com / www.asicophoto.com)