The last couple of weeks has been a whirlwind of activity for me and my family. It was our first vacation out East as a family – stops in Boston and NYC, and our first visit not only to the great state of Rhode Island, but to the storied Newport Folk Festival.
Staying in town at the Newport Harbor Hotel, right on the water, made for an ideal location. Especially since it’s located right across the street from the Newport Blues Cafe, where Deer Tick & Friends entertained all weekend.
On Saturday, we took the water taxi across the harbor to Fort Adams State Park, where the festival is held. On Sunday, we unwisely chose to drive our rental car. Yeah, not recommended if you don’t like sitting in a parking lot for an hour.
At any rate, the festival itself was a blast for all of us. The only down side was that I missed a lot of acts I would have loved to see, but there were conflicts with other artists. So sadly, I I completely missed Elvis Costello (who brought along the Imposters), Emmylou Harris, the Cave Singers, Mavis Staples, Trampled by Turtles (speedgrass!), among a few others.
But what I did catch made up for it. Here are some of my top moments from my first, and not to be my last, Newport Folk Festival:
M. Ward | A lot of people would question my sanity for attending the Newport Folk Festival, and missing Emmylou Harris’s closing set. But it had to be done, because M. Ward was stacked up against her, playing inside the Fort Adams Quad. Matt Ward roped me in a few years ago when I heard Post-War, and when he came out on stage alone with his guitar, and – after an instrumental warm up – launched into Post-War’s “Eyes on the Prize”, I knew I’d made the right decision. The first 30 minutes or so of M.’s set was very intimate, and about as downtempo as it can go. “Poison Cup”, a slowed down version of Bowie’s “Let’s Dance”, “Sad, Sad Song”… and one of the highlights of his set, a cover of Daniel Johnston’s “Story of an Artist” – a song I was not familiar with, but was absolutely moved by, especially with M.’s flourishes on piano. Dawes joined in for the last few songs of the set, including spirited versions of “Never Had Nobody Like You” and “Roll Over Beethoven”. There’s something very zen and calming about M. Ward. It was a great set.
Delta Spirit [Full set on NPR] | Having discovered Delta Spirit’s music early this year, and going cuckoo for their latest release, History From Below, their set at Newport was my #1 must see of the weekend. Matt Vasquez and the band did not disappoint. Only 4 of the 13 songs in the set actually came from their latest album. Half a dozen came from their first release, Ode To Sunshine, and the rest were new tunes. The band has been recording their third full length this summer in a Woodstock, NY church. The live tunes from ‘Ode’ were great for me – I haven’t spent near enough time with the album, and the songs were great live. In particular, “Trashcan” and the set finale, “People Turn Around”, the anthemic chorus having the whole crowd singing along. What a great band.
Pete Seeger in the Lego ® Duplo KidZone tent | With my wife and two young daughters in tow, we quickly discovered the shaded comfort and entertainment of the Lego Duplo KidZone tent (ideally placed next to the Magic Hat Beer Pier!). Among the arts & crafts & Legos was a small stage for short performances for the kids while the main stage was between acts. The primary act “in residence”, if you will, over the weekend was Elizabeth Mitchell & You Are My Flower. They welcomed such guests as The Low Anthem, Freelance Whales, and the PS22 Chorus from Staten Island. But we were also treated both days to the legendary Pete Seeger – 92 years old and still going… It was a privilege to sit front & center with my kids and listen to stories and songs from a folk icon like Pete. Among other tunes, we were treated to “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain”. I captured some of it…
Middle Brother [Full set on NPR] & Dawes | As the clock ticked on Sunday afternoon, it was time to uproot the family from the KidZone tent and make our way within the walls of the Quad to catch Middle Brother’s set. For the uninitiated, Middle Brother is made up Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes), John McCauley (Deer Tick), and Matt Vasquez (Delta Spirit). Their debut record, Middle Brother, was released earlier this year. I’ve gotta say, I hadn’t spun the album too many times up to this weekend, but after hearing the songs live (with Dawes as the backing band – these boys are busy), I’ve gained a newfound appreciation for the album. The set was loose, wild and fun – no surprise with this cast of characters. My favorites: “Portland”, sung by McCauley (a Replacements cover), “Blood & Guts” sung by Goldsmith, and “Middle Brother” with special guest Jonny Corndawg. The emotional peak came between Middle Brother and M. Ward’s sets, when Dawes performed a couple of their own tunes (since they were backing both acts, there was no equipment change needed). The song was “When My Time Comes”, from their first record North Hills. With McCauley and Vasquez joining into sing, and the knowledgable crowd eating it all up, singing along at full tilt, it was truly a moving moment – a highlight of the weekend.
The Felice Brothers [Full set on NPR] | This band from the Catskills definitely has their own unique thing going. And with their latest album, Celebration, Florida, they’ve really taken off into another realm, with a really creative bend of folk and electronic sounds. So it was cool to see them live on the main stage. The opener, “Murder by Mistletoe”, set a perfect tone. Mellow, mysterious, and featuring the vocals of singer Ian Felice – a voice that probably gets compared most to Bob Dylan, but has another edge to it as well.
Carolina Chocolate Drops [Full set on NPR] | I got up nice and close for this set on the main stage. The CCD’s are an old time string band keeping traditional African American music alive – we’re talking 19th and early 20th century African-American music. Bringing that 21st century flair is a new member, beatboxer Adam Matta. He teamed up with singer Rhiannon Giddens for a scatting / beatboxing exhibition they called “diddlybox”. It was cool to hear that interspersed among the old time jug n’ banjo tunes like “Baby Ain’t Sweet” and “No Man’s Mama”. Rhiannon has a beautiful, powerful voice, and the other main Chocolate Drop Dom Flemons is a character, interjecting lots of humor into his performance. Cool stuff.
PS22 Chorus | I have to mention my kids’ favorite. PS22 Chorus is made up of 20-30 5th graders from a Staten Island school. They sing contemporary hits, with a few of the boys and girls taking lead and really belting out some impressive vocals. Our family favorite was their version of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep”. Not only did PS22 play the Harbor Stage, but they also made it over to the KidZone tent where my kids sat front and center and watched them perform, including “Rolling in the Deep” – a song that firmly implanted itself in our brains all weekend.
David Wax Museum [Full set on NPR] | This was one of the pleasant surprises of the festival for me. DWM combine American and Mexican folk music, with guitars, a horn section, violin, and even a young dancer in a traditional Mexican dress performing a zapateado – basically on top of a mic’ed box, tapping the percussion with her feet. Lots of latin rhythms, and a very fun, high energy performance to take in.
It was the first sellout in the history of the festival, 10,000 people strong. Walking around, I sensed not only a very easygoing, friendly vibe, but also the sense that I was surrounded by avid music lovers like myself. I sure do love being among the like-minded – those who live & breathe every note of the music they listen to.
Newport was an A+ experience, one I hope to repeat some year soon.
NPR Music, God bless it, has most of the weekend’s performances available for streaming right here.