George Wein's Folk Festival 50 drew the crowds to Newport, RI this weekend with an incredible lineup built from its usual mix of major current acts, nigh-legendary veterans, and pleasantly surprising up-and-comers. Despite the festival's shockingly civil, family-friendly nature, I emerged from the weekend feeling at least somewhat like a dirty hippie, with a sore neck from using a rock for a pillow and fairly sure my feet would never be clean again.
When I say family-friendly, I mean it. A tent near the entrance is designated "lost child station," the music ends around 7:30 in time to catch an early bird dinner, and musicians and attendees alike span easily three generations. Elbowing and shoving are rare, common courtesy runs rampant, and artists' respect for one another is visible. They blend in with the mere mortals as they wander around the festival to catch their favorite acts, and their eagerness to play together, learning each other's tunes and sharing their own knowledge, is demonstrated through countless collaborations, some impromptu and some planned, throughout the weekend &mdash a tribute to the history and nature of folk music.
To get to the heart of the matter: over two and a half days, more than thirty bands ranging from straight-up old time to alt-rock with a taste of folky inspiration took to the three stages in Fort Adams State Park. Let's recap chronologically, starting Saturday:
played a set of laid-back melodic songs about love and loss, a mellow kick-off for the weekend. He stepped up the rock 'n' roll a few times, throwing his harmonica in an act of punk rebellion and stomping around for a minute, but the audience favorite was somber ballad "Slow Parade."
Meanwhile Blitzen Trapper
was playing one of the more upbeat shows of the weekend, really getting the audience moving (into the fire lanes). They started heading towards a more acoustic sound as the set went on, until the band left frontman Eric Earley to play a few songs solo &mdash then, as soon as they came back, they got electric again and stepped the energy back up to the top.
was one of the festival's out-of-nowhere treasures, bringing a seriously unique voice with the genre they (accurately) call "folk/metal." They used insane traditional instrumental skills to make a sound usually compiled from very different pieces, and brought the only headbanging seen all weekend. The rawness found in both genres served as a bridge between the two, and O'Death left the audience awed and a little confused.
looked ready for prom in a purplish suit complete with buttoneer, but despite the very weather-innapropriate garb lived up to super high expectations. Not talking much, he remained a sort of mysterious character behind sunglasses and didn't seem to reveal much of himself, but played through an incredible set made up mostly of My Morning Jacket songs, as well as a few of his own. The MMJ tracks sounded different but no worse sans-band, highlighting the intensely echo-y characteristic of their music.
set was one of those that seemed to fall comfortably in between the indie-rock and old-time, with a polished, strings-filled sound. The majority of their audience was strewn across the grass with eyes closed, but definitely in a stupor born of relaxed contentment rather than boredom.
took to the stage solo with his violin, his voice carrying clearly to thousands gathered around. Occasionally his singing turned to half-talking, &mdash such as on "Why?," during which he addressed questions to the festivalgoers and answered on their behalf &mdash making for a very natural, honest vibe, and his unparalleled whistling prowess was demonstrated to its fullest. He switched up the instrumentation a bit during the set but kept it pretty minimal. While his tunes are clearly not all modern pop, they were among the least obviously folk-based at the festival, expanding the genre's definition a little.
, cited as an inspiration by nearly every artist at Newport, was accompanied onstage by clawhammer banjo player and tour mate David Holt. Holt did most of the talking, telling stories about Doc's life, since he was far too humble to talk about himself. When Watson spoke up he told jokes and tales of ghosts, quietly witty with a quick but charming sense of humor. He played a few songs solo in the middle of the set, pausing in between each to give the music's background and tune his guitar. Watson maintained his laid-back demeanor and slow, steady vocals (which sound almost exactly like his voice on fifty-year-old recordings) throughout passages of insane flatpicking, improvising solos and trading fours with grandson Richard. Perhaps the most extreme in the festival's trend of super polite rock stars, Watson expressed his frustration with his guitar's refusal to stay in tune with a hearty "dadgummit," proclaiming that he wouldn't cuss, and later mentioned that the audience seemed a little young for "Whiskey Before Breakfast" &mdash but played it anyway. He went through original songs as well as classics like "In The Pines," during which he demonstrated an impressive, crystal-clear falsetto. Often pioneers of musical styles or techniques, as Watson is for flatpicking, are quickly surpassed by later, more creative artists, and though they still deserve respect they lose relevance. Watson's music, though, remains a powerful force of its own as well as a factor in so much of folk today, and is a terrific stand-alone show.
Day one concludes with John Prine
, another respected old timer. He had the audience singing along to his hits, on the country side of folk, but the high point of his set was when he played a song which he apparently wrote with the intentions of creating a horrible song his producer would hate &mdash but "after playing it a couple hundred times, I started to like it." Both hilarious in a self-referrential, folk-mocking way and not-actually-that-bad, the song about whistling 'n' fishing was a light-hearted addition to a solid set.
Whew. That's a lot of folk, and we're only halfway there. You can hear most of the sets over at WFUV
. And hold tight for recap pt. 2, including the schedule-defying What Cheer? brigade, plus the weekend wrap-up with some wise words (aka, not mine) on folky folk stuff. -selden paterson
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Pictures:Newport Folk Festival: Saturday