Last weekend, instead of hanging around for the Xponential Music Festival in Camden or the Mad Decent Block Party across the river at Penn's Landing, I headed north to the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island.
I'd never been. In the lineup of iconic American music festivals that were 1960s flashpoints, there's Woodstock, Altamont and, to a lesser extent, Monterey, where Jimi Hendrix lit his guitar on fire and Otis Redding introduced himself to "the love crowd."
And then there's Newport, where Bob Dylan strummed his acoustic stuff in 1963 and 1964, and then broke violently with his past by plugging in and going electric in 1965. That was a watershed event in both Dylan's career and the cultural (and countercultural) history of the '60s, and it's what Newport is still most closely identified with.
There was plenty of other significant stuff that went on at Newport Folk back in the day, from Joan Baez rising to stardom in 1959 (the very first year of the fest, which was born five years after the inaugural Newport Jazz Festival) to blues greats like Muddy Waters, Son House, Skip James and Mississippi John Hurt finding a new audience there, as well as at other key folk revival gatherings. (The Philadelphia Folk Festival started three years later in 1962 but, unlike Newport, has never missed a year since. It will take place this summer, as always, at the Old Pool Farm in Upper Salford near Scwhwenksville, from August 16-18.)
It wasn't the history that drew me to Newport, though. It was this year's lineup, and the rave reviews I'd heard from friends and colleagues about the intimate, easy going vibe of the three day event, which is not a camping festival and is capped at 10,000 people per day. (That's a couple thousand fewer than the PFF typically pulls in.) And also the setting, in Fort Adams State Park in Rhode Island, overlooking a sparkling harbor dotted with bobbing sailboats and kayaks and gliding seagulls.
What's was most enticing about Newport Folk, which is a good 300 mile drive from Philadelphia - was that despite its illustrious lineage (see the backstage crossroads signs of the "Late Greats" who played there pictured above) the fest is in no way stuck in the past.
This year's headliners were Old Crow Medicine Show and Feist on Friday, the Avett Brothers and Jim James on Saturday and Beck and The Lumineers on Sunday. And the undercard played like a who's who of contemporary Americana, with lots choice singer-songwriters in the mix: Andrew Bird, Felice Brothers, Michael Kiwanuka, Jason Isbell, Iris DeMent, Colin Meloy, Blake Mills, The Lone Bellow, Justin Townes Earle, Tift Merritt, Cold Specks, Houndmouth, Bonnie Prince Billy and Dawn McCarthy, Dawes. The list goes on, and on Sunday included outliers such as Northern African Tuareg trance guitarist Bombino (who told the crowd "It's a long way from the desert, but it feels like home'), and Ramblin' Jack Elliott and Michael Hurley (of the Holy Modal Rounders) the two worthy elder statesmen generations older than most of the other performers and audience members, who were mostly in the 21 to 35 age range.
The festival is strongly branded with NPR Music. So frighteningly so that during Justin Townes Earle set on Saturday afternoon I stood next to a woman with the NPR logo tattooed on her arm. (Temporarily, I hope.)
Justin Townes Earle.
The really good thing about that is that, though, is that NPR either broadcast or streamed much of the festival live, and they'll do it again this weekend with Newport Jazz, which features headliners Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Robert Glasper, Terence Blanchard and Esperanza Spalding. And as this week has gone on, videos of individual songs and streaming files of entire sets by Newport Folk artists have been going up on the NPR Music site, so you don't have to just take my word for who was good and who wasn't. You can check it out for yourself, right here.
My personal highlight list on Friday included rockabilly stylist McPherson and moody country-rock of Phosphorescent, whose leader Matthew Houck was in Camden two days later where, my sources tell me, he sat in with My Morning Jacket at the Susquehanna Bank Center on a Velvet Undergound cover at the Bob Dylan headlined Americanarama fest. I was also keen on the dry, tongue-in-cheek suit and tie wearing duo Milk Carton Kids, moreso than the Seattle chamber-folk band Hey Marseilles, who were pleasant enough, but they've got a long ways to go before stepping outside the Decemberists-Arcade Fire-Death Cab for Cutie box they've built.
Sharper than that were bruising Boston folk-rock band Kingsley Flood, whose spirits would not be dampened by drizzling rain as they opened the main stage on Friday afternoon. Their album Battles can be streamed and downloaded here. They play Johnny Brenda's on Sept. 13.
My plan for Saturday at the Fort Adams site - which was every bit as idyllic as advertised, and probably the most beautiful spot for a music fest I've ever been - was to get to the grounds from my hotel in Providence (40 minutes away) in time for Hurray For The Riff Raff, the New Orleans based folk-rock ensemble fronted by startlingly powerful-voiced Bronx born singer Alynda Lee Sagarra.
A traffic jam trying to get over the picturesque Claiborne Pell bridge put a stop to that, but such is the coziness of the Newport vibe that I wound up running into Sagarra and her manager at the fest, who informed me that they'll be at Johnny Brenda's next week on August 9. You can listen to the band's entire Newport set here, and watch them perform wile being joined by Spirit Family reunion below.
Jason Isbell, with Amanda Shires.
The rest of my Saturday went according to plan, with fringe benefits. The Avett Brothers, who come to the Mann Center in Philadelphia on Sept 14 with Trombone Shorty (who also played Newport) were engagingly energetic as alway in a crowd pleasing headline spot. Jason Isbell, who I have an interview with in Friday's Inquirer in advance of his World Cafe Live show next week, was terrific. Iris Dement, who precded him with a set drawn largely from last year's welcome return Sing The Delta packed a raw, unvarnished vocal punch on home truth songs like "The Night I Learned How Not To Pray."
Justin Townes Earle, who played the XPN fest the next day, (as did Kiwanuka and others, on a Ocean State to Garden state circuit) was just as good. And I had my share of right place right time moments, too, as I caught Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes showing up to sing Dylan's "I Shall Be Released" with southern Ohio alt-country band Houndmouth. And I watched as Decemberists singer Colin Meloy (who was playing a solo set) brought out Black Prairie (the members of the Decemberists without Colin Meloy, who released their own album, A Tear In The Eye Is A Wound In The Heart, last year). Oh my God, it was a Decemberists reunion! The crowd reacted as if the Beatles had gotten back together.
The view from the stage.
Because the setting is so sweet and much of the music, which finds young acts working in tried-and-true forms that wouldn't sound out of step with the sounds heard five decades (or more) ago, the Newport Folk experience felt a little too comfortable at times, lacking any sense of rebelliousness or political content. But just as a I was thinking that, I went to check out Father John Misty.
Misty, the solo moniker of former Fleet Foxes drummer Josh Tillman, is a charismatic frontman, to say the least. He got a grip on the audience with a commanding baritone and acoustic guitar, then jokingly said "Let the Norwegian death metal begin."
And as if also feeling things were just a little too comfortable and the Folk Fest crowd needed a jolt, the singer went on a tirade about how a successful folk artists "wearing a fedora and a vest with two Priuses in the driveway have a ... responsibility to say something that really matters and give up this 'me me me I work in a coffee shop' attitude and talk about how f---ed up everything is. At least once." He paused, and excused himself from this duty on the grounds that: "I'm not a folk artist. i just got invited here because I'm white and I have a beard and there's some acoustic guitar on my album." The crowd was startled, but not about to turn away. He plays Union Transfer on October 22.
On Sunday, I got out of town and headed home, hoping to make it back in time for Americanarama, but stymied due to a traffic monsoon on the Garden State Parkway. Nice things happen when old folkways collide with new technology, however. A glance down at my Twitter feed - when my car was not moving! - reminded me Newport Folk was streaming live on NPR. So through the wonders of the web, I was able to use my iPhone to get an audio and video stream of Beck's festival closing set pumped through my car's sound system.
The video didn't work very well, thank goodness, because eventually the car got rolling. But the audio was near perfect, as Beck brought out Ramblin' Jack for Jimmie Rodgers' "Waiting On A Train," cracked jokes about playing banjo while riding a jet ski, dug into his 1994 Woody Guthrie-esque album One Foot In The Grave and decide to play the luminous "Sunday Sun" after the late afternoon clouds broke over Newport Harbor. It was like being there, even though I no longer was. And it made me think that, in a perfect world, I'd go back to Newport every year.
NPR videos of Avett Brothers, Hurray For the Riff Raff (playing with Spirit Family Reunion), Bombino, and Andrew Bird and Tift Merritt are below.