Newport Folk Festival

Pending some sort of miraculous discovery of the current location of my Canon Powershot’s USB cord, this post will remain picture-free for now.

Yes, there were plenty of harmonicas, and a banjo or two, but the lineup at the George Wein’s Folk Festival 50* was more of a mix of old and new acts that defy categorization than a folk festival in the stereotypical sense.  Sure, Pete Seeger headlined, and the folk tradition was clearly an inspiration for many of the acts, but, really, this festival was just a gathering of musicians who still write their own songs and sound pretty damn good without all the synthesizers and reverb.

We only made it to the Saturday session, because $75×2 plus lodging in Newport, RI isn’t exactly a cheap holiday.  Lucky us, the day was gorgeous and sunny, without too much humidity. It was perfect for sailing, so all the boats were out, which gave Billy the chance to tease the ticket-evading yacht owners perched just off the Fort’s shore for saving their pennies in this wretched economy.  The crowd was surprisingly diverse: families with little kids staked out the shade tents or slathered on sunscreen, a respectable amount of gray hair, local accents (is there a RI accent?), bikini-clad teens, and hipster wannabes all made an appearance in the park that day. I’m not sure what we were, except sunburnt by the end, but the music was worth it.

Tift Merritt was lovely and charismatic, but I spent most of her set (and Gillian Welsh’s) wondering why all female folk singers seem to have red hair and, after a while, a somewhat uniform sound. Can anyone hazard a guess?  Billy Bragg was refreshing after that, and James appreciated a taste of British wit.  He’s more of a storyteller than most of the other performers, so you sort of felt more like you were sharing a beer (or herbal tea, as it were) with him at a local pub than connecting with a giant TV screen.  Once his set was done, we wandered over to listen to Ben Kweller finish up his performance. He is really very small — I mean surprisingly so — but his performance was lively, and as James said, he plays songs that suit him. I highly recommend checking him out (and if you’re in the need of a song to sing at the top of your lungs on a road trip somewhere, Fight is an excellent choice).

The Avett Brothers were playing back on the main stage, and the crowd seemed pretty happy about that, so we thought we’d check them out.  We made it through three songs before we realized we didn’t want to hear anymore… Yes, they sound different, and yes, different is cool (or something), but honestly, they just seemed like they decided singing folky tunes in this semi-angry screechy way would get them a record deal. I guess it worked.

At the Harbor tent, Tom Morello: The Nightwatchmen was playing, and after about half a song, I realized I had had enough egotistical male posturing for one day.  So we wandered over to Waterside, where The Low Anthem was setting up.  This was fortuitous, as The Low Anthem was probably the best find of the festival, at least for me.  They’re Providence locals, have quite a following, and are intense, but in a good way. They play some pretty funky instruments and experiment with styles and sounds in a way that makes me think they’re going to stay around for a while.  So yes, go check them out — the shows are archived, so you have no excuse.

After that, we checked out the Yacht museum for a bit of shade, and wandered over to Iron and Wine.  As much as I love Sam Beam’s music, this wasn’t the place to hear it. They had the mike turned down too low, the crowd was oppresive, and mostly, all we could hear was wood cracking and security guards yelling as people tried to climb over the fence to get just a little bit closer. They should have put him on the big stage, because the vibe just wasn’t right.  We gave up and went back to the main stage, but not before he played a couple of my favorites.

The Decemberists were next, and were a little more upbeat, though the lead singer doesn’t seem to be all that interested in performing anymore. He prefers playing mind games with the audience and repeating the same tired bs stories at each show to actually sharing something with the crowd, which is a shame, because otherwise, it would be a good show.  Oh, and the fluttery strawberry blonde girl they feature on their current album is crap, but maybe she just had too much caffeine and happened to think “hey, it’s a folk festival — where else can I wear a fluttery white hippie costume and dance around like I’ve lost a few too many brain cells to acid back in the day.” I know I’ve had days like that. Well, maybe not the costume part.

We left after that, to make the long drive home.  But not before a slice of pizza and a walk by the infamous Newport mansions.  I warn you: traffic is bad. Walking is much, much nicer.

*aka the Newport Folk Festival, when the lawyers aren’t around

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