NEWPORT FOLK FESTIVAL DAY TWO
THURSDAY, AUGUST 05, 2010
The herds amassed earlier on Sunday; a disorganized mob of attendees stretching well into the parking lot had settled into lawn chairs long before the gates opened, and when admitted some ran at top speed, picnic blanket in hand, to secure a spot by the main stage.
Providence's What Cheer? Brigade, who popped up in various places for surprise sets throughout the weekend, started off early to keep the festival goers entertained during the hour and a half between the opening of the gates and the start of the first show. Their ridiculous antics fit well with their super boisterous tunes, which are a mix of rock, traditional brass, and balkan music, all played on a whole lot of horns (and a few drums). Even those weighed down by sousaphones were jumping in the air and running back and forth in a sort of choreographed chaos. When I caught up with trumpeter Neil and asked about how the group fits in with the folk festival, since few would stick their music in that genre, he said a festival organizer described What Cheer? as his "secret weapon." Though dramatic and somewhat mysterious, that seems fitting; Neil added that the group learn some old folk tunes as well as writing their own music.
After watching What Cheer? run in circles for several minutes at the end of their set I was feeling a little dizzy, but I managed to get a prime seat in the shade for Cory Chisel and the Wandering Sons and quickly recovered. They turned out to be probably the most poppy act I saw, with their folky side being mostly in the country sound of the guitar and the beautiful harmonies added by keyboardist Adriel Harris.
The Punch Brothers (not actually brothers) are a super talented bunch with traditional bluegrass skills they use in both classic and unorthodox ways. They often challenge genre boundaries with surprising covers, as they did with the Strokes's "12:51" early in their set. Definitely an interesting take on the track, but after that they stuck to mostly originals. Lead singer and mandolinist Chris Thile had the audience hooked with his personable demeanor and kept them amused with his spastic movement whenever in the throes of musicianship.
April Smith and The Great Picture Show's show was carried by April's vocals, which are strong and unusually warm with an occasionally discernible southern accent, set over a rhythm-heavy backrop. Their particular brand of folk-pop-rock is charming and upbeat, percussive with an old-timey sound brought by horns, strings, and the early jazz drumming. When I tracked her down after her set April said she originally wrote more solidly pop/rock tunes, but settled into folk after being inspired by big band and ragtime music.
The Avett Brothers lived up to very high expectations, packing the mainstage for a show whose energy remained dangerously high through grungy power-pop and cheesy folk ballads alike. From the very start with opener "Tin Man," Joe Kwon ran around the stage with his cello as though playing the violin and belted every word at what appeared to be the top of his lungs, despite not having a mic. Every member of the band seemed completely dedicated to expressing the message in each song to the girl in question (not every song's for a girl, but nearly), with a ridiculous fervor that seemed renewed between each track. The mood went back and forth between mosh-worthy and conducive to lighter-waving, but never dropped the audience's energy; an audience favorite was the super-intimate, almost acoustic rendition of "Last Song to Jenny," while a personal favorite was "Colorshow," which probably warranted the most intense shouting of the whole set. They opted for a mellower one to close, with "I and Love and You," leaving the audience screaming in vain for an encore.
Though I only caught a few tracks from each The Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three, since they overlapped with the Avett Brothers, I was impressed by both. They went to a different piece of history than most of Newport's bands, bringing a healthy dose of early 20th century jazz in with the usual banjo-heavy folk.
The Felice Brothers rocked harder than expected, their intensity garnering further Avett comparisons. Their popularity was definitely underestimated, as the small harbor stage space had no hope of containing the fans, who were doing some serious dancing, without blocking all paths. At 2008's folk fest a power outage forced them to play a completely acoustic set standing amidst the audience in the mud, and while that was reportedly pretty stellar, having electricity at their disposal was certainly not a detriment. The fact that both shows were considered among the best of their respective festivals is a pretty cool statement about the versatility of the Brothers's music and musicianship.
Again I caught only a piece of a great sounding act because there were just TOO MANY good options: Elvis Perkins in Dearland was a last minute addition, subbing for Justin Townes Earle after an untimely hand injury, and definitely proof that mishaps can be turned into wonderful opportunities. What I heard was soulful, delightfully uncontrived folk pop.
The festival's impressive, peaceful civility finally wore off by the time Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros got to the stage. The shoving and elbowing began in earnest, but everyone had packed in so tight that even the most brutal attempts to move closer were unsuccesful. Though at 5'6" I had no hope of seeing the band, I'm told they were quite active, with frontman Alex Ebert jumping down into the audience several times. Their set, one of the most solidly current of the weekend, was driven by laid back rhythmic guitar parts and vocals traded off between Ebert and Jade Castrinos, punctuated by detail created from various bells and whistles. When they finally played "Home," the second to last song, it was apparent that every listener had been waiting eagerly for the opening chords. The chorus was still repeating over and over in my head when the crown dispersed and I managed to get room to breathe, and wandered over to the mainstage for the last act.
Levon Helm, former drummer for The Band, finished off the weekend with a set of classics performed with the help of a ton of the weekend's other artists, including members of the Felice Brothers, Edward Sharpe, and Richie Havens, among others. He left most of the singing to others, his voice apparently not what it once was, sticking to the drums himself. A performance of "The Weight," outdoors at dusk, was one of the most perfect summer moments I can imagine. That left me pretty unchangeably content, but the show went on to finish with Dylan's "I Shall Be Released" before everyone slowly disappeared into the night.
George Wein's Folk Festival 50 was a fantastic and diverse mix of bands gathered to celebrate (cheesy but true) folk music. Over and over I heard different variations on the same theme. April Smith told me she loved playing the festival because "you can tell [the crowds] really want to be here," echoing the sentiment expressed by Chris Thile of the Punch Brothers during their show, when he thanked the fans for really coming to listen to music, unlike fans at other festivals who show up for, "well... I don't know what they're there for. But it's not to listen to music. So thanks." And in regards to their music, musicians all seemed to have started with some sort of rock 'n' roll, and then at some point become enchanted with some particularly outstanding old piece, and set about trying to learn from it. For A.A. Bondy the inspiration was a Mississippi John Hurt video, while the bassist and washboard/harmonica player from Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three said they had just started listening to and playing older and older styles til they got to where they are now, adding "it's about keeping it alive." There's no requirement or pressure to keep the classics exactly as they were, and no shame in covers... if you ask the more modern musicians, they tell you it's about learning from the past and then making it your own. You know the saying, "learn the rules, then break them." The way all the musicians independently arrived at their respect for folk is a huge common factor between them, and that respect translates into a pride that sometimes manifests itself as an outdated, forgotten form of patriotism capable of staying alive and legitimate through the likes of the Bush administration; Pokey told the audience, "This is a folk festival. We play American music." The Newport Folk Festival absolutely oozes musical history, and though 2010 had no clearly game-changing moments (a la electric Bob Dylan 1965) it still feels like very much an important factor in both the preservation and evolution of a huge category of music. -selden paterson
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Pictures: Newport Folk Festival: Sunday