Some of indie music's most experimental misfits have come out of hiding over the last few months. Dirty Projectors flopped their latest collection of blaring, vocal assaults with the release of Swing Lo Magellan earlier this month. Yeasayer will zoom further into the future with their explorations of inner galactic synths and beats when they release Fragrant World in August. In fact it was only yesterday that Animal Collective teased their fall release when they unleashed "Today's Supernatural" into the wild. A glob of sensory overload AC fans will predictably lap up, even our own writer decided the song might not be fit for the "acoustically lazy". Hmmmm...
Of course bands of this ilk are important. For damn near a decade they've been a part of a spectacular sub section of music culture, capturing a time, a place (the cool kid 'hoods of Brooklyn, LA, Chicago, etc), and a lifestyle of sorts, all while establishing a musical legacy that's the result of fearless rethinking of what a song is and how the masses can consume it. But for every artist feeding their voice and their instrument through miles of cabling, processors, and computers, there's another that has no interest in such experimental tinkering. Some musicians just want to dig up the hollowed roots of American music and get right to the heart of what should be simple, but is actually an oh-so-tricky thing to get a handle on; what are the qualities of a good song?
Even after tromping around Fort Adams at the 53rd annual Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island this past weekend, it's not a question I'm willing to try and answer. Songs are forever mystical things. Why did Patty Griffin's "Making Pies" perk peaks of goose bumps on my forearms late in the day? Why will "Long Black Veil," no matter who is playing it (in this case, Iron and Wine), plant something hollow and melancholy in the pit of my stomach? It's these feelings and emotions that leads folks to Newport, and with four stages interspersed throughout the 19th century fortification (a unique and sonically savvy use of space and competing sound systems), there are non-stop opportunities to seek out the songs and the artists that move you. Buskers too wandered the grounds throughout the day, the sound of banjos, mandolins, and washboards suddenly cropping up in unexpected places. Even kids could get in on the action. Newport featured a children's stage; one Conor Oberst felt compelled to stop in on and play a few songs.
On stage, bands like Wilco, My Morning Jacket, Iron and Wine, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Sharon Van Etten, Punch Brothers, Tallest Man on Earth, Gary Clark Jr, Of Monsters and Men, and many many more played lengthy sets; a nice nod from the organizers for artists and festival goers alike. It was easy to pop in on Honeyhoney's crunchy country rock at the Harbor Stage for a half hour and then stroll over to the Fort Stage to vibe on Alabama Shakes' always impressive, bluesy riffage.
Artists too made the most of the longer performance blocks. There were collaborations happening all over the festival grounds. Experimental cellist Ben Sollee found himself on stage with Laura Veirs and My Morning Jacket during a beautiful rendition of "Wonderful (The Way I Feel)". First Aid Kit brought Conor Oberst out on stage on Saturday, only to have the favor returned in Oberst's set the following day. Dawes and Sunday headliner Jackson Browne also shared some time together...a fitting collaboration considering how similar the two artists are to one another, despite their obvious generational gap.
There were also plenty of nods to folk music's illustrious history as well. First Aid Kit strung together a stunning, picture-perfect rendition of Joan Baez's "Diamonds and Rust." After flying through the first part of their set, LA country pluckers Honeyhoney (apparently not accustomed to the long festival set time) "killed time" with a tender duet of Hank Williams' "Lost Highway." And then, of course, there was Wilco. In honor of Woody Guthrie's 100th birthday, the band's opening night set on Friday featured plenty of cuts from the Mermaid Avenue sessions; their collection of previously unheard Guthrie lyrics the band and Billy Bragg started setting to music back in 1998.
Taking it all in was a crowd of young, old, and everyone in between, all grazing about on blankets and beach chairs, making for one of the most relaxed festival environments I've ever encountered.
And so I return to that "acoustically lazy" comment of ours. In Newport, such a thing does not exist. All due respect to the music and cultural moments bands like Animal Collective and Dirty Projectors have helped to foster, but folk music will always be what's happening in America. Folk music will never be just a moment. Its history trails too far into the past, its future will always unfurl before us. Like the great late Woody Guthrie himself, one day Newport will celebrate its own 100th anniversary. After spending time at the festival this past weekend, I know I'd like to be there for as many of them as I possibly can.
Check out My Morning Jacket's Full Set at Newport Below"
NPR also has plenty of live sets recorded for their archives. Check them out HERE.