(Ramblin’ Jack Elliott)
Awesome views, great people and amazing music – it doesn’t get much better than the Newport Folk Festival. Our colleagues had told us that by the end of the festival “everybody is family” and gosh darn it, they were right. By the time American Songwriter were on the ferry leaving the festival – you can get there by boat! – we had formed some great new friendships and found some wonderful new bands. Our big complaint: too many tough choices. The line-up was wall to wall with artists we wanted/needed to see and in our attempt to relish all of them we put a lot of mileage on our shoes. Not a bad problem to have! Here’s our day-by-day review for one of America’s best festivals.
Kingsley Flood – We had never heard these guys before but we were gobsmacked – GOBSMACKED – by the Boston band’s soulful, folk rockin’ shimmy on the Fort Stage. We heard echoes of X’s sun-scorched punk, moments of Muscle Shoals groove and some gnarly fuzz bass, which was the last thing we thought we would hear at a folk festival. It was great way to kick off our fest and their new album Battles made a great soundtrack for the ride home.
Milk Carton Kids – Now this is what we were expecting out of a folk festival: classic sounds that could have come out of Greenwich Village during the Kennedy administration. The Milk Carton Kids specialize in gorgeous vocal and heart-rending melodies, but if the folk thing doesn’t work out for them they’ve definitely got a career in stand-up comedy waiting for them if they want it. But the folk thing will work, if the overwhelming reaction at the Quad stage is any indication.
JD McPherson – “I keep seeing seagulls in my peripheral vision and it’s freaking me out!” We couldn’t agree more, JD! For dive-bar dwelling night creatures like ourselves being so close to nature is a bit confusing, but it certainly doesn’t distract from McPherson’s expertly executed traditional rock and roll. The rain, on the other hand, seemed to throw the band off their game, but by the time he got to the chorus of the jump-blues killer “I Can’t Complain” (“I stay pretty dry in the rain,” natch) the Fort Stage was on fire.
Mountain Goats – This may just be us projecting our tastes on the festival programming, but it sure seems like there were a lot of band that came out of the punk/D.I.Y. scene on the bill. The Goats probably had the highest proportion of green hair and nose rings in the audience and that’s a-ok with us.The rain had gone from inconvenient to oh-shit-get-the-ark,but that didn’t seem to slow down John Darnielle or his fans at the Harbor Tent, the latter of whom were totally soaked and totally stoked.
John McCauley – We’ve seen the Deer Tick frontman do some crazy things – like that time he lit his pubes on fire at a karaoke bar – but the thing we never expected was Ol Johnny Boy singing “Margaritaville.” With his Mom. It totally caught us – American Songwriter and Mrs. McCauley – off guard but it was one of the most beautiful moments of the festival and the first standing ovation of the mostly-seated festival. When songwriter Vanessa Carlton joined him on stage to sing “In Our Time” from the upcoming Deer Tick album Negativity the entire tent swelled with lovey-dovey vibes. (Also, that happened to be the moment we met Vanessa’s mom. She’s a nice lady!) McCauley is generally regarded as The Festival Mayor and the response as he performed proved he won’t have any trouble winning re-election – from the rowdy singalong to “The Bump” to the girl screaming “You’re bringing me to tears!” there was a lot of joy and excitement in the Quad tent.
(Hurray for the Riff Raff)
Hurray for the Riff Raff – More like hurray for the sunshine! After spending Friday completely water-logged it was amazing to roll into Fort Adams’ Quad Stage surrounded by blue skies and smiles. And that Hurray for the Riff Raff – whose Louisiana swamp-folk may be our generation’s answer to Bobby Gentry – were our first set of the day made it all brighter. We had never seen HFRR in such a big space and we were awestruck by their ability to upscale their intimate sound.
Rayland Baxter – While one of our favorite moments of the festival was riding in Baxter’s van and watching the band rock out to the recently passed of JJ Cale (it was pretty sad/sweet) his set in the Harbor Tent is right up there. Starting off solo (there were so many people and yet it was SO quiet) before bringing out violinists Odessa Rose and Kristin Webb and Steelism, the hardest workin’ sidemen at the festival, Baxter had the crowd eating out of his hand. As we’re used to hearing Baxter battle over crowded bars, being able to hear him amongst the rustle of sundresses and awe-struck whispers was pretty magical.
Joe Fletcher’s Nashville to Newport – This was our Saturday headquarters – mostly because we didn’t have to wait in line to get into the Museum Stage. And there was a line out the door for the entire three hours that Nashville artists like Bobby Bare Jr., Shelly Colvin, Steelism (backed up by Dennis and Robbie from Deer Tick), Andrew Combs and Rayland Baxter were trading licks and swapping out members. Honestly, it was sort of tough to figure out when one band finished and another picked up. Well, except for Fletcher, the Deputy Mayor of the festival – that dude was everywhere! – who had his hometown crowd on its feet as he closed out a badass show backed by Pennsylvania upstarts Toy Soldiers.
Frank Turner – When English folk-punk Turner sang “There’s no such thing as rock stars/only people that play music” he may have written the best summary of the shindig ever. Newport has a very egalitarian vibe, an open aesthetic that doesn’t put a lot of barriers between musicians and fans and Turner’s fist pumping anthems and double kick-drum blasts really drove that message home. When else are you going to see a bunch of old ladies pogoing and chanting “There is no god” arm-in-arm with a bunch of drunken frat boys? As one of those frat boys said, “this is pretty fucking awesome.”
Jason Isbell – Crying in public: It happens sometimes. Thank god we were wearing sunglasses inside the Harbor Tent. But it’s tough to not get emotional seeing the amount of success that former Drive-By Trucker Isbell has had in recent months and to see the love and adoration being lavished on him from the audience. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again, Southeastern is one of the best albums of the year and songs take on a new joi d’vivre in the live setting. Who knew that songs about recovery could be so fun? It was a set of humility, humor and the best humanity has to offer. And he played “Decoration Day,” which might be our favorite Truckers song of all time.
Jim James – JJ’s appearance on the Fort Stage was the third time in as many months that we’ve seen Jim James play. We knew what to expect and we were not at all disappointed. In fact, James and his band sound exponentially better than the last time we saw them which was better than the time before that which was better than just about any live show we’ve seen this year. So there you have it: Jim James is an unstoppable force. The band dug in deep, churning out glorious prog-soul/future-funk from James’ solo debut Regions of Light and Sounds of God, creating an internet-era gospel vibe that stirred our souls and shook our asses.
Justin Townes Earle – One of the overarching themes for this weekend was watching artists we’ve seen dozens of times play some of the best sets of their career. JTE is definitely one of those artists and turned in a set at the Harbor Tent that was lively and loose, that sparkled with energy and shimmered with summery Southern vibes. Also, his suit was really snazzy and might have earned him the “Best Dressed” award for the festival. He covered a pretty wide swath of his back catalog but with new arrangements and a remarkable amount of country boogie. And based on the number of complete strangers that wanted to talk with us about the set afterwards, we’re sure we weren’t the only ones that walked away impressed.