The Newport Folk Festival is many things. Now in its 54th year, it is at once backward-looking but always forward-leaning. It is often charmingly intimate and occasionally overwhelming. But in taking a seagull’s eye-view of the affair, it is assuredly interesting and endlessly enjoyable – a true treasure of an American music festival.
For the first time in its illustrious history, the festival ballooned into three full days of music (previous iterations simply had Friday night ‘kick off’), with both Saturday and Sunday selling out in short order. Held at a decommissioned military fort with expansive views of Newport Harbor and the postcard-perfect Pell Bridge, and buoyed by an eclectic lineup of acts and an energetic – if not exactly diverse – audience, the Newport Folk Festival once again replicated its recipe for memory-making magic in 2013.
Behind the beaming smile of Brooklyn-based, Alabama-born Matthew Houck is more than a bit of road-weariness. Or as he puts it, “I am happy but I write terribly sad songs.” Thankfully in Newport, he didn’t bear his burden alone. Armed with a bassist, a pianist, an organ player, a drummer and a percussionist, Houck’s lonesome trials were fleshed out to full-on cathartic chorales. Houck’s delivery and vocal inflections were perfectly punctuated by his reluctant hero delivery and his talented surrounding cast. The entire set was fantastic, but the highlight belongs to the one-two combo of “Song for Zula” and “Ride On / Right On,” which brought the Quad Stage crowd to its feet.
John McCauley began Deer Tick as a one-man act, so his solo acoustic performance was more than a stripped-down operation, it was a veritable return to roots. And given the fact he grew up 45 minutes north, and now boasts a residency on the festival’s board of directors (“It basically involved Jay Sweet calling me now and then and asking me some weird question, and me giving him an even weirder answer. It seems to running pretty smoothly.”) the performance was more of a homecoming celebration.
McCauley dipped into his catalog, digging out gems from both 2007’s War Elephant (“Art Isn’t Real (City of Sin),” “Ashamed”) and the burgeoning Deer Tick discography. Once a guitar string broke, things took a turn into the unexpected, but culminated in a cameo from his mother for a spirited “Margaritaville.” It was a touching moment that harkened back to the festival’s familial roots (and even overshadowed an appearance from Vanessa Carlton), but with McCauley on the mic the surprising becomes sublime.
The genre of folk has never been more blurred at the edges than it is currently, and bleeding that edge into more dastardly territory is Langhorne Slim. Armed with an acoustic guitar and bearing an anchor tattoo, Slim looked right at home ripping up the main stage on Saturday morning. Equally irrepressible and irascible, his visceral voice played well with his backing band The Law, particularly on both the back-and-forth bits of “Cinderella” and on slower numbers like a cover of “You Are My Sunshine.” They certainly kept the early morning crowd engaged.
Father John Misty
The chances of this set surfacing on NPR’s customarily-comprehensive recap of the Festival seem slim. Shame, too, as it was one of the weekend’s highlights. J. Tillman’s Lauren Canyon-on-LSD shaman-ship was in full glory as he plucked pearls from his debut album under the Father John Misty moniker, Fear Fun. Sporting a shirt featuring various birds, Tillman appeared to be flying on a different plane during his between-song banter (“Is this festival a camping thing? Or do you all just return to your yachts?”; and a searing but somewhat tongue-in-cheek takedown of the other artists on the bill), but beneath the veneer was honest craftsmanship and honest-to-goodness jams. Google a live version of the gonzo, out-there atmosphere of “Writing A Novel” for a small sampling of Tillman’s enigmatic energy and wish you were there.
In a festival setting that sometimes lends itself to ramshackle spontaneity, Jim James took the main stage with a polished set, featuring tracks from Regions of Light and Sound of God. Resplendent in a plush purple suit that seems to have become his signature, the My Morning Jacket frontman (and longtime festival proponent) was cool, smooth and soulful. He shred a Gibson Flying V, swooped up a saxophone for a solo, and otherwise twisted and tango-ed his way to a memorable performance. The consummate showman, James delivered a gut-wrenching version of “A New Life,” which featured a pause of about 30 seconds before the song’s final climax.
One of the best additions to the festival’s programming has been opening up the underutilized museum space at Fort Adams. Last year saw capacity crowds queue up to hear Rodriguez and this year the programming in this space was among the weekend’s most popular. On Sunday, Decemberists bass player Chris Funk led a series of workshops and invited several of the acts to participate. Shirking the afternoon sun, and an uncommon lull of inactivity between acts, I popped into the workshop space just as The Lumineers were being introduced. In such an intimate setting, not unlike the small, sweaty clubs the band cut their teeth, songs like “Stubborn Love” and “Slow It Down” spun to life. Of course, just a few hours later, the group took to the festival’s main stage and delivered an energetic performance to the enthusiastic masses, but this stripped down performance remains a highlight.
In a welcome change of pace, soul singer Michael Kiwanuka plugged in and turned the main stage crowd on with gems of jams like “Tell Me A Tale” and other tracks from his debut, Home Again. With a voice built for smoky clubs, there was some question as to how the crooner’s sepia-tinged songs would translate to an outdoor venue, but buoyed by a funky backing band, Kiwanuka was a perfect palate cleanser on a sunny Sunday afternoon.
It is always interesting to see how artists reinvent their repeat appearances at the Newport Folk Festival. Making his second appearance in Newport, Bird stripped down the bells and loops – but thankfully kept the whistles. Flanked a guitarist and an upright bassist, and frequently accompanied by the ebullient Tift Merritt, Bird’s performance was simple but cerebral, folksy but fun. Bird cherry-picked some chestnuts from Hands of Glory, which translated superbly well to the quad stage setting.
With each passing folk festival, producer Jay Sweet seems to pick at least one artist that makes you question the connection. This year, he did the trick a few times, but the off-center pick that struck the best chord was Bombino. Born in Niger, addressing the crowd in French and his native tongue of Tamashek, Bombino blessed the small harbor stage with groovy, almost hypnotic riffs and unassailable energy.
Most Popular: Dawes, who was serving as a back-up band practically all weekend long.
Best Dressed: Freak-folk legend Michael Hurley
Most Valuable Player: Chris Funk, who spearheaded the aforementioned “Folk With Funk” workshops, played bass on Decemberists side-project Black Prairie, and backed bits of Colin Meloy’s solo set.
Best Sign: #NewportLovesLamb, dedicated to the lead singer of Brown Bird who recently underwent treatment for leukemia. Fans and artists took pictures with the sign as part of a get well soon art project.
Most refreshing (tie): Berklee Gospel & Roots Choir on Sunday morning, and free Del’s Lemonade in media tent.
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