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Top 12 Signs of a Modern Newport Folk Festival

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newport 2013

I’ve come to acknowledge the Newport Folk Festival is my personal curse. Two years ago, my then-girlfriend was with me, and a bad lobster roll led her to the most harrowing food poisoning incident I’ve ever witnessed. Last year, with deadlines looming and an hour-and-a-half drive ahead before I could get to work, my car died. This time, as I went to copy over my final day of photos and begin the long, frustrating, enlightening, reflective process of whittling down three days of unparalleled experience to a 3,000 word commentary, my MacBook’s display went red, then black, then dead. (I write this now from an Apple Store in Dedham, MA while my hard drive is backed up and diagnostics are run). It seems that I can’t go down to Newport without something putting a black mark on my weekend.

But I’m going to be back next year. And I’ll be back the year after that, and the year after that, and as long as the current trends at the festival continue and as long as I’m able, I’ll go back to the Fort.

Newport Folk Fest sunset

Photo by Ben Kaye

Over the last few years, the conversation surrounding the festival has changed. People are talking about the New Newport Folk Fest, the resurrection, the new heydays. A lot of that has to do with festival producer (and Paste Editor at Large) Jay Sweet. Following its years of tribulations, the event was placed in Sweet’s hands, whose audacious vision brought acts like Wilco, My Morning Jacket, and The Avett Brothers to share the stage with legacy icons like John Prine, Arlo Guthrie, and the late Levon Helm.

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Photo by Nate Slevin

This year, perhaps more so than any year past, the festival embraced its modern status. The open space reserved for dancing and standing in front of the main Fort Stage was expanded to the full width of the stage. There was no “legacy” act atop the bill; instead there was Beck. After-parties raged till the bars closed every night. What Sweet and the folks behind the Folk have done has pumped new life into the festival, the kind of young-blooded-ness that gave the experience its spark in the first place. Now in its 54th year, that spark has ignited a fire that lights the waters of Brenton Cove as brightly as ever.

Curse or no curse, we are witnessing the modern reign of Newport Folk Festival. One needs only to look at this year’s event to see it.

The Newport House-Backing Band, Dawes

Dawes w_ Blake Mills 1

Photo by Ben Kaye

In years past, Dawes has not only shared the bill with Conor Oberst, M. Ward, and Jackson Browne, but also shared the stage as the acts’ backing band. This year, their only slotted appearances at Newport were at a pair of after parties, yet they still popped up to support a fellow folkster. On Friday, they helped Blake Mills give new life to tracks like “Don’t Tell Your Friends About Me” and a beautiful version of Mt. Egypt’s “7”. To their eternal credit, Dawes let him shine, never upstaging or out playing him. And while that’s a fairly easy feat considering Mills’ smooth finger picking and fret work, it’s also become just part of their role in the NFF family. Mills introduced introduced his former Simon Dawes bandmates as “my band,” but the Goldsmith brothers and crew have really grown into Newport’s backing band.

Sennheiser unplugging Newport, and unveiling new headphones

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Photo by Nate Slevin

At the Paste Ruins in the back of the Fort Adams Quad, Paste and Sennheiser set up a small stage for festival acts to deliver intimate acoustic sets which later find a home on the magazine’s website. But fans could enjoy the performances live by donning a pair of wireless Sennheiser headphones to receive a live-mixed feed straight from a multi-tracked sound board, providing a listening experience akin to a Silent Disco with live music. Sennheiser had a similar set up over at the Museum Stage, where they mic-ed the PA system and handed out headphones to compensate for the crowd-to-space disparity. The audio company took the opportunity to unveil their new Momentum On-Ear line of high-performance, high-style headphones. Folk music and cutting-edge technology don’t necessarily seem likely bedfellows, but then again, this is the place where Dylan plugged folk in 50 years ago; now, in their own way, Sennheiser’s unplugging it.

Amanda Palmer covering NWA

Amanda Palmer Neil Gaiman 3

Photo by Ben Kaye

Prior to taking her full set at the Harbor Stage, Boston native Amanda Palmer played to the crowd at the Paste Ruins. Palmer’s presence at NFF alone was a sign of the New Newport, but her Ruins setlist would’ve made even Dylan cock his head. With naught but a red ukulele and an unfailing smile, she opened with a partial cover of NWA’s “Fuck the Police” as an introduction to her song “Do You Swear To Tell The Truth, The Whole Truth, And Nothing But The Truth, So Help Your Black Ass”, which features lines about her being a blow job queen in high school. Then her author/nerd-God husband Neil Gaiman came out to playfully stumble through a duet of “Making Whoopie”. Did I mention I was sitting next to her parents the whole set?

John McCauley, the Captain of Newport

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Photo by Ben Kaye

As Dawes has become the unofficial house-band for NFF, John McCauley of Deer Tick has become its captain (Captain Tipsy, as Ramblin’ Jack Elliot dubbed him). In one form or another, he’s been on the bill for three years straight. His presence on the Fort (and at the after-shows – more on that later) has become an expectation, almost a requisite.

That doesn’t mean the crowd takes him for granted, however. At his solo set on the Quad, fans provided the call backs for “The Bump” (which McCauley offhandedly altered: “You’re in my sorta town… You’re at my function”), sang spiritedly along to “Ashamed” and a finale of “Goodnight, Irene”, and obliged McCauley in his usual litany of covers (“Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”, Ritchie Valens’ “We Belong Together”, The Shivers’ “L.I.E”).

John McCauley 5

Photo by Ben Kaye

Instead of indulging in guests as he does at the official after-shows, the good Cap’n kept it personal on the Fort. First came his girlfriend, Vanessa Carlton, to duet on “In Our Time” from Deer Tick’s upcoming Negativity. Later, to the uproarious approval of the audience, McCauley called on his mother for an impromptu cover of Jimmy Buffett’s“Margaritaville”. “Thank you for supporting my son and Deer Tick!” she called after her performance. The crowd’s applause sent gratitude right back at her.

(Interesting side-note: almost simultaneously over on the Harbor Stage, Amanda Palmer brought her father out to cover Leonard Cohen’s “One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong”. See what people mean about the Newport family?)

Phosphorescent’s two keyboard and a drum pad

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Photo by Ben Kaye

Matthew Houck’s brand of folk has often been pegged as being an albeit talented derivation of road-weary icons like Will Oldham and Neil Young. Incidentally, that’d make him a perfect fit at Newport. Recently, though, his Phosphorescent moniker has taken that desert droptop and driven it up into the cosmos on fumes of electronics. That exploration has led to an array of effect peddles under his feet, and a drum pad and two keyboardists surrounding him. The snaps of the pad reverberated through the swirling guitars of “Ride On, Right On”, and the dueling synths on “Song for Zola” whirled off into the rain. But the mystic sounds spun the spirit of Newport just fine, bringing the crowd to their feet. “Well, shit,” Houck said after “Zola”. “That was fun.”

Frank Turner’s straight punk rock show

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Photo by Nate Slevin

While Langhorne Slim and the Law impressed with their punk-rockabilly country rockers songs, England’s Frank Turner completely surprised with a straight up punk show. As the band tore through shakers like “Four Simple Words” and yell-alongs like “If I Stray”, they revealed themselves as a sort of English, folksy Against Me!. In typical folk fashion, “Try This At Home” espoused the beauty and oneness of music with lyrics like, “And there’s no such thing as rock stars/ there’s just people who play music/ and some of them are just like us/ and some of them are dicks;” in atypical folk fashion, “Glory Hallelujah” denounced religion with lines like, “There is no God/ so clap your hands together.” In a way, Frank Turner was what Gogol Bordello’s 2011 set might have been if the latter had plugged in.

Shovels & Rope’s folksy White Stripes routin

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Photo by Nate Slevin

If Jack and Meg had gone more Carolina country than Tennessee blues, they’d have turned out like Shovels & Rope. Husband and wife duo Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst occupy the same instrumental roles as the Whites (occasionally swapping), but ho-downs like “Kemba’s Got the Cabbage Moth Blues” and the folky honky tonk of “When I” give them their corn-fed feel. The comparison isn’t just in the female-male drum-guitar duo setup, though. “Just because this is a folk festival doesn’t mean we can’t play rock n’ roll, right?” Trent asked as they started “Cavalier”; the cheers and stomping feet coming from the crowd gave a pretty empathic answer. I once Deap Vally was the all-girl band the world of guitar-drum duos didn’t know it was missing; it had no clue it needed these folk rockers.

Father John Misty’s rock-star antics

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Photo by Nate Slevin

Whenever you saw Jay Sweet near Father John Misty, the producer wore the sheepish grin of a friend who brought their rowdy cousin to the party: part love, part embarrassment. During his Saturday set, Father John remarked how his dream had always been to “shit on a cultural institution”, and he set about doing just that. Whether it was mocking his own presence on the bill (“I just got invited here because I’m white and I have a beard and there’s some acoustic guitar on my album”) to arguably half the rest of the bill (“If you play an acoustic instrument and wear a vest, there’s an obligation the music you claim to make”), he spent his set sticking it to his surroundings. It all came literally crashing down at the end when he stood atop his drummer’s kit and began tossing aside mic-stands and symbols, much to the chagrin of the festival crew who frantically tried to save their equipment. Those who know Misty’s schtick laughed and cheered, but there were certainly those thrown off by the antics, especially since the music was so soulful.

Colin Meloy and The Decemberists’ return from hiatus

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Photo by Nate Slevin

Since the end of their The King is Dead tour cycle, The Decemberists have been on official hiatus. Much of the band went and formed Black Prairie, while Colin Meloy shuffled off to the woods in solitude. Calling Newport “a safe place” to dip his toes back into the water of performing, Meloy chose the venerable grounds to make his return. He brought out plenty of favorites like “July, July!” and “On The Bus Mall”, but his rust would show when he’d forget lyrics or verse orders, like on “The Engine Driver”. He played it off with a smile, saying that the advice he always gives young musicians is “make forgetting the lyrics to your songs part of your charm.” This was also true for the many new numbers he played, including “Philamena”, a sweet, floating love song about cunnilingus, and his opening song, one he called a manifesto with lyrics like “I’m not going on just to sing another sing-along suicide song/ so so long, farewell/ don’t everybody fall all over themselves.”

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Photo by Nate Slevin

Well, he could make the request, but nothing could stop the crowd from jumping to their feet as he invited Black Prairie and Laura Viers on stage and reformed The Decemberists. The cheering was the most deafening of the weekend, loudest by far for Jenny Conlee, who missed the band’s 2011 headlining set as she battled cancer. The group performed just two songs, “Yankee Bayonet” (I Will Be Home Then)” and “Down by the Water”, but it was enough. The simple fact that Meloy had chosen NFF to not only “reform” one of the most popular indie folk acts of modern music but to also announce that they were back together working on new material was a considerable moment for the festival.

Newport After Parties

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Photo by Nate Slevin

When you think festivals with after parties, you think Coachella, Lollapalooza, Outside Lands, etc. The 10,000 person Newport Folk Festival and the tiny ocean town it’s set in don’t exactly beg for rocking late-night sets, but over the last two years, Deer Tick has brought just that. Each night of the fest, they fill the 100-person capacity of The Newport Blues Cafe to the brim with fans and special guests – this year including The Felice Brothers, Langhorne Slim, Jason Isbell, and more. Even cooler, Deer Tick used the final night to premiere their upcoming album, Negativity, by playing it straight through. A sign of the festival’s continued expansion, Dawes took up residency at the Jane Pickens Theater for their own star-studded parties where Jim James, Shovels & Rope, Blake Mills, and Father John Misty all stopped by. Hell, there was an even a pre-party Thursday at the NBC with Joe Fletcher and The Low Anthem. Nothing says vicissitude like a folk festival with a late-night scene.

Old Crow Medicine Shows’ affirmation of the banjo

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Photo by Nate Slevin

If all this talk of modernity has some people worried, rest assured that it’s still Newport Folk Fest. “There’re a lot of places you can play a banjo in this world,” OCMS’s Ketch Secor called out. “Your front porch, a bar. But I say there ain’t no better place on God’s green Earth to play banjo than in Newport Rhode Island at the Newport Folk Fest!” The crowd agreed as the string band rolled into “This Land is Your Land” before their signature rendition of “Wagon Wheel”. Yep, it’s definitely still Newport.

Having Beck as a headliner

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Photo by Nate Slevin

The Avett Brothers rise from small-stage upstarts to headliners is a story Jay Sweet would love to tell you. And while the tale certainly is a major chapter in NFF’s storied resurgence, Beck’s performance to close out the festival is the preeminent example of the festival’s current status. More than the simple fact of the anti-folk artist’s booking, the set he delivered had all the signs of the New Newport.

Following the festival’s cherished protocol, he brought on collaborators Andrew Bird and Black Prairie’s Chris Funk and Annalisa Tornfelt for two (clearly) unrehearsed bluegrass jams. They stayed on for a cover of Jimmie Roger’s “Waiting On A Train” dedicated to Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, who joined the star-struck Beck for the performance. The setlist pulled heavily from Song Reader (“Sorry”, “America, Here’s My Boy”, “Now That Your Dollar Bills Have Sprouted Wings”), and his generally softer songs (“The Golden Age”, “Got No Mind”, “Dead Melodies”). Closer “Sunday Sun” could not have been a more quintessential Newport moment, the rousing chords rising over the water as the actual Sunday sun set above it all, Beck sending his notes straight towards the bright orange sky.

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Photo by Nate Slevin

But he also introduced “Loser” as “a folk song from the 1990s” (yeah, “Loser” was played at Newport). Of Mutations “Lazy Flies”, he said, “ I tried to write a song with as many chords in it as possible; so it’s sort of the opposite of folk music, I guess.” “Modern Guilt” was aided with a drum machine, the same machine that guided the band into a brief “Billie Jean” jam to split “Sissyneck”. The same Yamaha machine that pounded out at top speed as the last sounds of the festival, capping off the alternative hip-hop stable “Where It’s At”.

The set was a bit sloppy at times, with missed timing and loose, rootsy revampings, but those final two songs, “Sunday Sun” and “Where It’s At”, were the perfect juxtaposition of where Newport Folk Festival has been, and where it is now. Mr. Hansen himself summed it all up best amid his finale: “I see all these pictures they backstage of the Newport Folk Festival in the ’60s, the early days. Think about how good it was back then; but it looks pretty good right now. And some day in the 2040s, they’ll be looking back on the golden days of how great things were back in the 2010s.” He’s probably right.

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Photographer(s): Ben Kaye, Nate Slevin

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