Except for the history/continuity implied in the existing name, the Newport Folk Festival might more accurately be called the Newport Roots Music Festival, what with The Decemberists, My Morning Jacket, Jason Isbell, and a host of other not-very-folkie acts on the roster.
The irony was lost on no one at this year’s 56th edition of the outdoor festival at Fort Adams State Park in Newport, Rhode Island, that many of the musicians who might be labeled “folk” (as opposed to indie rockers with a roots bent) were relegated to a small indoor location called the Museum Stage. It’s called that because it’s housed in a museum building on the site, but irony is irony.
There were more acoustically-based folk-like exceptions than those on the Museum Stage, of course, and some of them drew mighty crowds and ovations. Mind you, because there are four stages offering music more or less simultaneously, one can at best only hear about a quarter of what’s going on, even with moving between stages to catch parts of different sets. That said, here are some of my personal highlights:
- Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn on the main Harbor Stage, sharing seven banjos between them and playing a sparkling set of traditional (a stunning “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”), gospel, and original songs.
- The Watkins Family Hour, with Sara and Sean Watkins and friends including Fiona Apple at the Fort Stage. In addition to their own electrified string band repertoire, Sara was ubiquitous on the Friday she and the band were at the festival, adding grace notes (and grace) as she sat in with others throughout the day, while Apple delivered a swinging “When I Get Low I Get High.”
- Spirit Family Reunion, a Brooklyn, NY-based band that plays wonderful original old-timey-infused string band music, and brought higher energy and enthusiasm to their set than their wonderful albums would suggest.
- Christopher Paul Stelling, another Brooklyn, NY-based artist (should there be a Newport Brooklyn event?), this one a singer/songwriter with a high tenor and intense delivery that may have been the breakout performance of the festival. (The ovation that followed was hurt not at all by his getting down on one knee and proposing to his girlfriend/harmony singer Julia Christgau right in front of the crowd.)
- James Taylor, returning as a surprise guest for the first time since 1969. (I’ve been back since, but 1969 was my first Newport, as well.) Festival impresario and Paste magazine editor-at-large Jay Sweet introduced Taylor noting that his set in 1969 was cut short because of the moon landing. Indeed it had been cut short, as Pete Seeger came out moments after Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the moon, stuck a piece of paper to the microphone stand with some chewing gum, and sang a song he’d composed on the spot. (I don’t know that that song ever appeared anywhere else again.) Meanwhile Taylor was also on the Sunday afternoon “new faces” bill at the 1969 Festival, along with Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell. That show was ill attended due to torrential rains, but my buddies Howard and Loring stuck it out with me. This half hour set in 2015 dwelled mostly on songs Taylor could have performed in 1969, and if he was a little off-key, it was a sweet set all the same.
At the end of the set Taylor brought George Wein out. Wein is the man who made the Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals into internationally-recognized events, and while Sweet has done the Folk Festival programming for a number of years, Wein, now 89, is still the force behind Newport. Wein explained that he’d been on a cruise that Taylor was performing on, and when the two spoke afterwards, Taylor told Wein that he (Taylor) was aware of what was going on with the Folk Festival, and how it sells out months before a single performer is announced. “It speaks to the integrity of what you’ve created,” Taylor told Wein. Wein responded, “Then why don’t you come play?” And he did. That, too, was sweet — and well-deserved. I can certainly think of no other festival that sells out without announcing a roster.
But the embrace of “roots,” or whatever you want to call it, is what the festival has truly always been about, from Van Morrison to Mississippi John Hurt, The Decemberists to Doc Watson. This year, though, gave the spotlight to a ghost of the past to inform just about every set I saw, as well as those my family reported back to me, our having divided to conquer those four active stages.
This, after all, was the 50th anniversary of the year Bob Dylan plugged in and “went electric.” Whatever the controversies over whether Pete Seeger wanted to ax the electricity, whether the sound mixers needed time to make adjustments since there had been no rehearsal with full audience in the open air, and whether the boos outnumbered the cheers, that performance changed Newport, and folk, and rock and roll forever.
I wasn’t backstage this year, but musician after musician noted that Dylan’s guitar was hung backstage to honor the occasion and, clearly, inspire the musicians. When the crowd roared its approval of alt-country rocker Sturgill Simpson’s highly electrified set, the Kentucky-born singer cracked, “Sixty years ago you would have booed me off the stage.” OK, he had his dates off, but he got the spirit.
Brandi Carlile, who has been embraced by the “roots” community though she seemed on recordings to be very pop to me, performed a high energy set with second guitar and bass, opting to leave the drums at home for this gig. “If you’re a band and the electricity goes out and you’re not a band — you’re not a band,” she told the deservedly adoring crowd. She re-worked songs she’d done in the studio with full band for Newport. “Dylan could do both,” she added, so why shouldn’t others. Special kudos to her for working up a set that fit the moment.
The only real mystery performance (as in why was he on the bill at all, let alone as the Friday headliner) was Roger Waters. Yes, that Roger Waters, of Pink Floyd. Admittedly, he, too, tried to capture the spirit of the anniversary, throwing in Dylan’s “Forever Young” to close his set. But his was a performance that just didn’t gel in and of itself or relative to anything else that appeared on the stages at Newport.
Others that impressed on first hearings of partial sets, in no particular order: Laura Marling, Jose Gonzalez, The Lone Bellow, Jason Isbell, Leon Bridges, Tallest Man On Earth, The Goodbye Girls, a New Orleans/Chicago mini-festival on that Museum Stage that got hotter and hotter (note for next year: not much signage or information about those playing that stage).
Apart from Newport Folk Festival t-shirts, the shirts that seemed to be worn by the most people were from the Grateful Dead farewell shows which had played just weeks before Newport in San Diego and Chicago. The Dead would have been perfectly at home at this Newport festival — they were nothing if not a “roots” band — and groups such as Spirit Family Reunion, Watkins Family Hour, and Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn would have complimented any Dead concert grandly.
The grand finale at Newport, though, paid ultimate tribute to Dylan — who toured with the Dead in the 1980s — with just the right spirit of joy and, in its own way, rebellion. Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings brilliantly anchored a 90-minute salute that opened simply with the two of them doing an acoustic “Mr. Tambourine Man.” They added a host of musicians who’d been at the Festival, performing in other capacities or seemingly just hanging out until called upon for this celebration, and building the electrification slowly but steadily.
Performers included Al Kooper, Willie Watson, Hozier, Deer Tick, Dawes lead singer Taylor Dawes and former Dawes bandmate-now-solo-artist Blake Mills, Robyn Hitchcock (English folk-rocker from the ’80s who introduced his version of “Visions of Johanna” as “the greatest song ever written”), and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
Kooper was the only musician who appeared with Dylan in 1965, and, excuse the aside, a few weeks later he joined Watkins Family Hour at Lincoln Center Out of Doors in New York, where they played “Highway 61 Revisited” in its entirety. The show was live streamed, and a video of it surfaced briefly on Youtube before being taken down by Lincoln Center; hopefully that performance will resurface. It was heartfelt and intense and musicianly and a mini-festival unto itself, with additional guests including Shawn Colvin, Aimee Mann, and others.
By the end of the Dylan tribute at Newport, though, most of the musicians who’d played the Festival that day were on stage, and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band provided the perfect raucous underpinning for “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35.” Wherever Bob Dylan was that night, I hope he got the good vibes as 15,000 fans across generations sang mightily along. “Everybody must get stoned,” indeed.