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Recap: My 2011 Newport Folk Festival

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.

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NPR Music, God bless it, has most of the weekend’s performances available for streaming right here.

Newport and the three D’s (Dawes, Delta Spirit, Deer Tick)

The Middle Brother Gang: Taylor, John, Matt

I’m just back from an epic family vacation that took us from the Valley of the Sun to Boston, then to New York City, and then on to Newport, Rhode Island for my (and my family’s) first Newport Folk Festival.

First off, it was great to have the opportunity to meet some of the people I’ve gotten to know through this web site, and through the internet music community I’ve been immersed in for the last several years. In Boston, I met Mike Heyliger, denizen of Popblerd. In NYC, I met my Ickmusic collaborator Michael Parr (who, unbeknownst to many, I had never met), his lovely wife Christine, and Dennis Corrigan aka @IrishJava. And finally, in Rhode Island, I met up with Ken Shane, senior music editor of Popdose, who was also behind the Newport Folk Festival’s social media presence, handling NFF’s Twitter & Facebook postings throughout the festival weekend.

As I expected, meeting these folks was nothing like meeting a person for the first time. Say what you will about the internet, but you really do come to know people through mediums like music blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Rdio, Spotify, and whatever social platform Google is trying lately (Buzz, +, etc.). It’s a connection of the like-minded: the shared passion for music, and its marriage with technology in the 21st century. These are exciting times to be a music fan – of course, all of this access to music and those who perform and follow it can be overwhelming, to say the least. But it sure is fun to navigate through it all with people like these folks. So Mike, Michael, Christine, Dennis, Ken – great to meet you all in person. Now you all know what a sexy beast I am in real life.

So in Newport, the music portion of the vacation took hold. My family, they’re good sports. They know that I’ll do my best to work in a music angle to every outing, near or far. This summer, it was the Newport Folk Festival. Highest on my list of must-see’s were Delta Spirit, Middle Brother, and M. Ward, backed by Dawes. Over the last couple of years, I’ve gone rather bonkers for the “D” trifecta: Deer Tick, Delta Spirit, and Dawes.

Although Deer Tick wasn’t on the festival bill, by no means did that suggest they’d stay quiet for the weekend. The band is from Providence after all. Much to my delight, John McCauley and the band announced three late night gigs at the Newport Blues Cafe – Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Best of all, the club was right across the street from our hotel in Newport. So, for me, the Folk Festival weekend ended up being bookended by two raucous late night gigs featuring Deer Tick and friends…

I missed the early acts on Friday, but when I rolled in at 10:30, Deer Tick was just taking the stage, and they didn’t stop until 1am. They played originals and some cool covers – a few Nirvana tunes (DT has an alter ego called Deervana, and have played entire Nirvana sets billed as them); John Prine’s “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You”, Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home To Me”, and some – uh- others that I didn’t have the foresight to tap into my iPhone (damn Blue Moons).

Deer Tick during Friday's gig

Sunday’s gig was extra cool, featuring an opening set by Dawes, and appearances by Delta Spirit’s Matt Vasquez, M. Ward (for a brief guitar solo on the last tune of the night, “La Bamba”), Joe Fletcher, and my new favorite, Jonny Corndawg – a wild, young countryfied singer from Virginia – and a close bud of the Deer Tick clan. His debut is due later this year, but he does have a Daytrotter session under his belt, and is featured here on Songs: Illinois (I didn’t get him either, Craig, till I saw him perform).

The closing sets of my Sunday Newport Folk Festival were Middle Brother, Dawes, and M. Ward. I’ll have more about the festival itself soon in another post, but the good vibe that was evident in MidBro and Dawes’ sets continued on to the Newport Blues Cafe on Sunday evening. It’s so interesting to note the contrasts between the three “D” bands themselves, and the front men from each who make up Middle Brother. You have Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes – the introspective, sensitive one. You have Deer Tick’s McCauley – unrefined, raw, gritty, laid back, taking it all as it comes. And then there’s Delta Spirit’s Matt Vasquez – wild, carefree, and caretaker of a primal scream that can shake the rafters. Matt was clearly the MidBro member feeling the least amount of pain on Sunday night. Everyone was having a great time, but Matt was having a GREAT time. His lead vocals on two Nirvana covers backed by Deer Tick (“Negative Creep” and “Senseless Apprentice”) were a highlight – whipping the small club into a crowd surfing frenzy.

Delta Punk: Matt Vasquez with Deer Tick
Matt Vasquez with Deer Tick

Although the festival itself had its great moments- and I’ll cover them soon – it was the two late nights with Deer Tick & Friends that really made my weekend extra special. I was seeing Deer Tick for the first time, and on their home turf. The opening song of their debut album, War Elephant, is “Ashamed”. I liked the tune as is, but seeing it performed in Newport on Friday and Sunday, with the crowd wailing out in unison, “Ohhh–oooh-Ohhhhhhhh”, was one of those thrilling moments that make the live music experience so great – and make the songs you hear on the album so much better.

Sweet! It’s on YouTube. This captured it perfectly, because, well, this was it:

After Friday’s gig, I went up to John and thanked him for a great set, and since he’s a huge John Prine fan (like myself), I thanked him for keeping Prine’s music out there as well.

Telling him I came all the way from Arizona, John replied, “Welcome to my home state.” It sure was a great welcome, and ushered in a hell of a weekend in Newport, Rhode Island.

Deer Tick | Delta Spirit | Dawes | Middle Brother

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zrrwckzksig&w=480&h=390

[Ick’s Pick] Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows: Songs of John Prine

I discovered the treasure trove that is the music of John Prine back in the early 90’s, during my last year of college. The Missing Years about knocked me on my butt, with its witty wordplay, catchy cadences, and gorgeous melodies. The album led me directly to Great Days: The John Prine Anthology, which gave me a crash course in this American treasure, the postman turned folk singer from Maywood, Illinois.

In reading the liner notes of the new tribute album, Broken Hearts &Dirty Windows – Songs of John Prine, I found out that Justin Vernon (of Bon Iver) had the same experience – growing up in Wisconsin and happening across the Anthology; getting to know John Prine through classics like “Sam Stone”, “Paradise”, “That’s The Way That The World Goes Round”, and “Hello In There.”

With the release of this fantastic new tribute album, it’s clear that Prine has had a similar impact on a host of younger artists – and it’s interesting that the artists on this record rank among some of my current favorites: Conor Oberst, My Morning Jacket, Old Crow Medicine Show, Deer Tick, Drive-By Truckers… it makes sense now: we’re all rooted in Prine’s music, and as they’ve matured and made music of their own, its these same roots that have pulled me into their music.

The common theme is humble, genuine, gritty, homegrown American music.

The standouts for me on this record include Deer Tick’s “Unwed Fathers”, featuring the sandpaper vocals of John McCauley and the sweet accompaniment of Liz Isenberg; Josh Ritter does “Mexican Home” from 1973’s Sweet Revenge. Ritter takes Prine’s uptempo version. and slows it way down – exposing the song’s melancholy core:

“My father died on the porch outside
On an August afternoon
I sipped bourbon and cried
With a friend by the light of the moon
So its hurry! hurry! Step right up
It’s a matter of life or death
The sun is going down
And the moon is just holding its breath.

Drive-By Truckers do their thing, taking The Missing Year‘s “Daddy’s Little Pumpkin” and shifting it into overdrive; My Morning Jacket also do a Missing Years tune, “All The Best”, which Jim James and Prine recently performed on Letterman (worth a look); the Avett Brothers pick what I think is the perfect song for them: “Spanish Pipedream”; and Old Crow Medicine Show take the beautiful “Angel from Montgomery” and add their old timey flavor to it.

The big surprise for me was the album’s finale – “Let’s Talk Dirty in Hawaiian” as performed by Those Darlins, a female trio from Murfreesboro, Tennessee. First off, it’s one of Prine’s most hilarious songs, the innuendos flying left & right. And then you add a sexy rhythm, an island feel, and the sensual and sassy singing of Those Darlins. Play this at a BBQ this summer, it’ll be a guaranteed hit. It’s such a fun ride, and a fitting finale to what amounts to a great tribute to good ol’ John Prine.

New Music from Deer Tick, Grace Potter & the Nocturnals, What Laura Says

It’s Tuesday, June 8th – also known as a good day for new music in my world. Have a look at this trifecta of aural goodness.

First off, check out Deer Tick‘s new one, The Black Dirt Sessions (Amazon) now available for only $3.99. Rootsy and gritty rockin’ folk music.

Jamband sexpot songstress Grace Potter & her Nocturnals release their fourth full length record. a self-titled album ($5.99). It seems like I’m am always crossing paths with Grace’s music, and I enjoy it more and more as times passes.

Arizona band doin’ good What Laura Says release Bloom Cheek today ($7.99). Retro psychedelic sounds, Beatles-influenced harmonies; fresh and unique sounds – definitely worth a listen.

New Deer Tick: 20 Miles

Rolling Stone’s Rock & Roll Daily blog tipped me off a few days ago to a new album from Providence, Rhode Island’s Deer Tick. The new album, The Black Dirt Sessions, will be released on June 8th. Born on Flag Day, their 2nd album, was one of my favorites last year – a collection of raw and earnest roots/country/rock featuring the raspy lead vocals of John McCauley.

In the meantime, RS included a taste from the new one – a catchy one called “20 Miles” – a song that I instantly liked. These guys are in town this week too – another show I’ll regrettably miss. I’ve heard they put on a great live show. Oh well, hopefully I’ll see them at the ACL Festival in October.

Deer Tick – “20 Miles”

[audio:20Miles.mp3]

Check out their last album, Born on Flag Day:

Ick’s Pick: Deer Tick’s Born on Flag Day

Deer Tick is a band that I tracked down because of all the buzz – on the blogs, on Twitter, in the pages of Rolling Stone. I guess I assumed they’d be too “indie” for my tastes, but never judge a book by its cover. What I found instead is the best damn country album I’ve heard all year. No, not Country with a capital C, but country in a raw, dirty, gritty sense – stripped down and real.

The deal sealer for me is the raspy voice of one John Joseph McCauley III. Yeah, I’m a fan of the raspy voiced singers – the Bruces, the Prines, the Earles (and add to the list lately Mr. Ryan Bingham). So hearing a new band that plays with some kick and some twang, with a lead singer that’s anything but smooth & polished – but rough around the edges – that’s always what I’m happy to find.

McCauley and his band mates are only in their early 20’s – but the feel of their latest record, Born on Flag Day, sure doesn’t sound like it came from a bunch of guys fresh out of their teens.

With new music, you tend to have those “oh, this sounds like ___” moments – and this record certainly does have its derivative moments: “Houston, TX” has a bass line reminiscent of the Dead’s “Friend of the Devil”. “Song About A Man” brings Dylan to mind. And the gorgeous 60’s style ballad “Stung” sounds like a country cousin of “You Belong To Me” – if the cousin drank whiskey and raised hell.

There are a lot of standout moments for me on this album…

The opener, and maybe the most “mainstream” of the songs, is “Easy”. Feedback gives way to a twangy guitar solo, the first verse, and lets loose with an explosive chorus: “And you don’t know how easy it is / No you don’t know how easy it is / You were never there/ No never there”.

The late night tavern feel of “Little White Lies” – starting off with a slow tempo, the lazy pedal steel, and launching into an uptempo stomper. Great harmonies by Liz Isenberg.

“Friday XIII”, a catchy shuffle of a tune with some great vocal tradeoffs between McCauley and Isenberg – that traditional banter a la classic Johnny and June Carter Cash. The effects on McCauley’s vocals make me visualize one of those classic old mics from the Elvis days. In fact, those vocal effects show up throughout the album. Sort of a distant echo.

“The Ghost” has one of the more classic country vibes. The rhythm and vocal delivery are punchy and fun. One of my favorites right now…

Hidden in the latter half of the last track, “Stung”, is an intimate, impromptu version of “Good Night Irene” (starting around the 6:00 mark). Beer cans are crackin’, rowdy friends are hollerin’… but the by end, everyone’s singing along, enjoying themselves – and McCauley has them right where he wants them. A lot like the album…

Hear: The Ghost (mp3)

Buy this album: Born On Flag Day

Randoms:

  • Deer Tick has has been covering John Prine’s “Unwed Fathers” (including this week’s stop in Phoenix, which I missed). And I hear they cover the Boss too.
  • I think I’ve nailed down McCauley’s voice: a mix between Eddie Spaghetti of the Supersuckers and Serge Bielanko, (formerly) of Marah. Anyone?