Author Archives: Ira Mayer

About Ira Mayer

Wrote about music and theater in the late 1960s for the Rockaway Wave as part of a column about high school. Graduated to the Village Voice Riffs column freshman year in college, and wrote about traditional American music (what used to be called folk) as well as rock and roll, cabaret, and jazz for four years there. Served as pop music critic at the NY Post for 13 years, and wrote a column about home computers that ran right next to Dear Abby. Having also written for Record World, Music Week, Billboard, and others, founded EPM in 1988 to cover the business side of entertainment. Today, is an independent consultant, public speaker, writer, and educator.

50 Years On: Ira Mayer’s Folk of All Ages

Click here for the Spotify playlist.

In 1967, I was a student at Far Rockaway High School in Queens, New York. I was participating in anti-Vietnam War marches, with Phil Ochs’s sister, Sonny Ochs, who lived nearby, leading the requisite sing-alongs; spearheading a program to convince the community that permitting a Phoenix House drug rehab center in the area would be beneficial to the neighborhood; and walking past Sam Goody’s house nearby — yes, Sam of the then-small New York area Sam Goody record chain — who appeared to be pressing records in his garage. The sting of Mrs. Fink berating our 5th grade class at Beth El Day School for not having insisted our parents takes us to the March on Washington to hear Dr. Martin Luther King was still fresh. I wasn’t going to let these latter-day movements pass me by.

Clearwater 1969

On the Hudson River sloop Clearwater, at Newport, RI, for the 1969 Newport Folk Festival. From left, Gordon Bok, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Len Chandler, Lou Killen, Pete Seeger, Jimmy Collier. Photo © Ira Mayer

I was already a pop culture junkie and opera lover, attending concerts at Izzy Young’s tiny Folklore Center, by then on Sixth Ave. in Manhattan (now in Sweden), Carnegie Hall, Brooklyn College, the Brooklyn Academy of Music and elsewhere. Apart from maintaining a journal, I started reporting on my escapades in the Rockaway Wave, which had bestowed a weekly column on me to write about high school. That happened to be the year of a city-wide teacher strike (two weeks in the fall of ’67, and then May through November of ’68). I had space to fill, and music and theater fit the bill as far as I was concerned. Conservative as the editors no doubt were personally, they left me to my (de)vices and published my early reviews.

That’s about when I started compiling my own songbook, pulling together the civil rights, anti-war and general social commentary songs that drove a budding liberal’s heart, guitar and banjo. I transcribed the lyrics by hand from LPs I purchased from the 25-cent cut-out bins at discount department store E.J. Korvettes, and, at substantially higher prices, at Sam Goody’s; at G. Schirmer’s, which specialized in sheet music but where you could listen to an album in a private, phone booth-size “room” before purchasing; and at Discophile, a basement record shop on W. Eighth Street in Greenwich Village known for its classical music imports.

Transcribing the lyrics meant picking up the tone arm on my turntable and putting it back down dozens of times for each song, then playing each back and editing. Occasionally I was lucky, and one of the songs was published in Sing Out! or Broadside, two earnest left-wing “folk music” magazines — though what constituted “folk” in a newly energized world of singer-songwriters was an on-going debate. Sing Out!, founded by Pete Seeger, Irwin Silber and others, and Broadside, run by wife and husband anarchists Agnes “Sis” Cunningham and Gil Friesen out of their apartment on the upper West Side of Manhattan, were open to anything left of left and an antidote to fan magazines such as Hit Parader, which published the lyrics to AM radio’s top 40 hits. There were also songbooks featuring early works of Tom Paxton and Phil Ochs.

When I arrived for freshman orientation at Hunter College, part of the City University of New York, in the summer of 1970, one of the elevators had just been tear-gassed as part of an anti-war protest. I’d entered from the Lexington Ave. side of the building so didn’t realize the school had been evacuated and my fellow students were all on the median on Park Ave. I wrote about the experience and mailed the article to the Village Voice, a weekly “alternative” newspaper. They weren’t interested. But shortly after, Bernie Klay, who ran the Sunday afternoon bluegrass and old-timey music concert series at the 23rd St. McBurney YMCA took me aside before a Doc Watson concert.

Bernie, like Izzy Young at the Folklore Center, had been letting me in for free as “press” thanks to my high school column in the Wave, taking care of me as they took care of many others, I would eventually learn, from the meager receipts of the concerts they produced that would attract anywhere from 12-150 people.

“Ira, it’s very nice that these reviews you write are in the Rockaway Wave, but how about trying the Village Voice or somewhere people will see them?”

“Who do I send them to?”

“Diane Fisher. 80 University Place. She’s the editor of the Voice music reviews.”

I wrote a review of the Doc Watson concert that Sunday afternoon and took it over to 80 University Place, where I pushed it under the glass door (the paper was closed weekends). That Wednesday I bought the Voice as I usually did — only this time, there was my review.

I went to something the following week (a Joan Baez concert, if memory serves) and pushed the review under the door the next Sunday. Wednesday came, and nothing. So I wrote another review (Michael Cooney, I think). And that Wednesday the Baez and Cooney reviews ran.

Was there an every-other-week pattern here? Who knew? I figured I’d see if one more review runs and then call and ask if I could get some money for transportation and tickets to concerts where I couldn’t get in for free. Living at home and commuting to Hunter, I checked in with my mother from a pay phone one afternoon.

“Ira, there’s an envelope here from the Village Voice. It looks like it might be a check.”

“HOW MUCH IS IT FOR?”

“I didn’t open it.”

“Of course you did. HOW MUCH IS IT FOR?”

“ $60.”

Was that for one review? Two? Did they count that second time I got published as one or two reviews? Was this coming out to $60 per review? $30? $20. I kept writing, putting the envelope under the door, eventually working out that it was $60 per “published occasion,” no matter the number of concerts. Driving from Belle Harbor in the Rockaways to Hunter on the upper East Side I wondered if I could get a press license plate that would let me park anywhere. (No.)

Two years went by of my reviews running initially every other week and ultimately weekly before I decided to press my luck and go meet Diane Fisher, my editor.

“Hi, I’m Ira Mayer,” I told the secretary. She started laughing. “What’s so funny?”

“You’re a real person! All this time we assumed you were a pseudonym for some other writer here, and that the checks we were sending out to Rockaway were to support some woman! I’m not going to announce you — just go in and tell Annie who you are.”

Twenty-one year old heart thumping, I introduced myself. I don’t remember much of the conversation, just that my mentor was very supportive and encouraging, and if I was going to Europe for the summer to music festivals, I should send what I wanted. No promises it would run, but when I got back she made clear I could continue what I’d been doing, writing about traditional American and international folk music, folk-rock, jazz, and, yes, rock and roll, learning about the music as I did so, as we all — the writers mining all this new music for inspiration and a living — did. Which was great, especially since by then I was contributing record reviews to the Sunday New York Times and a few other publications, as well as serving as business manager and sometime reviewer at the Hunter Envoy, the college newspaper where I made some lifelong friends.

It was another two years before Annie Fisher and I spoke again. In 1974, the Village Voice was sold by its founders to Clay Felker, who founded New York Magazine. The Voice’s founding editor and publisher, Dan Wolf and Ed Fancher, respectively, were going to be fired, she told me, and “when Dan is out, I’m out, and when I’m out, you’re out. Ross Wetzsteon [then the theater editor] is going to take over music and he hates the way you write.” Annie Fisher, wherever you are, thank you for an incredible start.

Fast forward.

In the late 1970s, I was hired by a collectibles company to come up with a list of the 100 Greatest Folksongs. Beyond the list they paid me for, the project never got off the ground, but it inspired me to look at that collection of protest songs I’d put together in the late ’60s. Maybe that could be issued on LP.

Mike Nadler, my lawyer then and still, never shy to give it to you straight, said, “The only one who will make any money on this is me. The rights clearances for what you want are complex, and Dylan and Peter, Paul & Mary don’t license recordings to others. Period.” End of dream for another 40 years. Today, it’s Spotify to the rescue. Of the 72 songs in that original collection, bound in a clip binder with a Work for Peace bumper sticker on the cover, 70 are on Spotify and on this playlist.

Not all the songs on the playlist are the versions I was listening to back then, but the songs themselves are. And, reflecting the period when this originally came together, it’s heavy on Paxton and Ochs. These were songs of solace and hope and determination and humor and beauty and defiance. We would sing and march our way to a better world.

Reading the unthinkable the news of today we need these songs, this spirit, as we did then.

I’ll be adding new playlists over time. Your suggestions, preferred versions, reminiscences, questions and your own shared playlists are invited in comments here and at ira@iramayer.com.

© 2017 Ira Mayer.

Tomer Gewirtzman: Breathtaking Power & Tenderness in YCA Debut Recital

NEW YORK, NY; December 15, 2016—For well over a decade Riva and I have attended half a dozen Young Concert Artists concerts annually. Winners of the YCA competitions, 16-24, are presented in their NYC recital debuts, typically at Merkin or Zankel Halls.

All of these musicians have been supremely talented, but every so often attentiveness morphs to a point where you can feel everyone in the hall holding their breath for the evening, aware that they are witnessing a particularly special emerging talent. Israeli pianist Ran Dank, in 2009, had that effect. Bulgarian violinist Bella Hristova a year later did the same, and we’ve since heard each of them in other settings performing with sensitivity and poise and great, great musicality.

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Tomer Gewirtzman

As of Tuesday night, add Israeli-born/New York-based pianist Tomer Gewirtzman to that heady list. In a program of Couperin, Liszt, Corigliano, and Schumann, this strikingly tall young man with incredibly fine, long fingers (even from the balcony it was clear his fingers must be three times the length of mine) seemed to pet, stroke and caress the keys as much as play them.

 

There was great strength expended on the Liszt, for instance, but the tender passages were indeed that. And in the Schumann that tenderness was breathtaking. Gewirtzman, however, invokes the sounds of silence, too, in pauses and breaks, and on this night the audience responded in kind, exhaling and applauding only after the most proper of intervals.

Remembering Oscar Brand

BROOKLYN, NY; OCTOBER 5, 2016—In the late 1960s/early ’70s I took a course on New York City Street Songs with Oscar Brand and Theodore Bikel at the New School for Social Research (as the full name was known then). Learning to think of jump rope songs as “folk music” changed the way I thought of “folk music” forever. And you can’t think of Oscar without recalling all the bawdy songs, many of which he recorded and which he periodically performed in concert. When our son was a poli sci major at GWU I gave him a copy of Oscar’s album of election songs that went back to the Revolutionary War era, a distillation of his book on the subject and the years of free Presidents’ Day concerts he gave at the Great Hall of Cooper Union.

Oscar passed away at 96 last Friday.

The range of Oscar’s musical knowledge was astonishing—he also wrote two Broadway musicals—but so was his gentle soul and gentlemanly way. He would roam an audience when it wasn’t his show and come over to say hello to anyone he recognized, never waiting for others to come to him, partly, no doubt, canvassing for guests for his weekly WNYC radio show, which ran continuously for 70 years with the same host. Continuously until the week before he died.

I still have my notes from that six-session class. Not to mention wonderful memories of many short conversations, performances, and radio shows. Oscar, may you and Theo be singing in the sky by and by…

For more complete obits, see: The Observer, The New York Times and WNYC, the latter with links to further resources at the station.

Marie & Rosetta: Up Above Their Heads They Heard Music, Indeed. So Will You

Marie & Rosetta is a stirring and often rousing musical biography of the life of gospel popularizer (and rock and roll predecessor) Sister Rosetta Tharpe. The work focuses on Tharpe’s relationship with her protégé Marie Knight, who Tharpe pulled from Mahalia Jackson’s backup choir and with whom she performed for three years. Kecia Lewis and Rebecca Naomi Jones as Tharpe and Knight, respectively, belt out the music true to its origins. Playwright George Brant struggled to find an ending, and it’s a little distracting the way the two stars have to mime playing their piano and guitar to (admittedly excellent) off-stage accompaniment, but those few awkward minutes do nothing to diminish the impact of the songs or the story. Directed by Neil Pepe. Runs through October 2 at the Atlantic Theater Company’s W. 20th Street house, NYC.

What’s My Opinion Worth, Anyway?

BROOKLYN, NY; August 18, 2016—I was 18 in 1970 when I started writing about music for the Village Voice, often covering  what is now referred to as “Americana,” but was then just known as “folk music.” Much of what I wrote about was pretty rarefied: Blind Alfred Reed, Aunt Molly Jackson, Michael Cooney but also John Denver, Doc Watson, and then lots of rock and roll. Yes, I pretty much saw and listened to, and often reviewed, every musician and band out there between 1970 and 1990 when I stopped writing for newspapers.

But back in the early 1970s, when I went to interview Sandy and Caroline Paton, the founders of Folk-Legacy Records in Sharon, CT, they were taken aback at what I drove (a Camaro—they were expecting a VW bug) and my age (“You write as though you’ve been listening to this music for years!”) Similarly, it was two years after I first started writing for the Voice before I met my editor, Diane (Annie) Fisher (if you’re out there, thank you for getting me started!). I’d been putting my reviews and articles under the door at 80 University Place — the Voice’s home then — on Sunday afternoons, and buying the paper on Wednesdays to see if they’d run what I’d written.

I was in college, at Hunter, and didn’t even realize the Voice was going to pay me, but they did! When I finally mustered the courage to go meet the editor, her  assistant wouldn’t announce me. “We assumed Ira Mayer was a pseudonym for one of the other writers here, and that those checks we were sending to Rockaway Beach were supporting some woman! Just go in and introduce yourself.”

What I was learning was the importance of writing authoritatively; that, and doing my best to write in proper English and to deliver on deadline, got me into The Sunday New York Times for several years back then, too and about a decade later as pop music reviewer and feature writer for the New York Post for about 13 years.

Yes, I listened widely, read a great deal, had been playing piano for at least 10 years by the time I started, and had taught myself guitar and banjo, and took some accordion lessons. But would any of that count for expertise in an era where anyone (even me) can blog? What’s anyone’s opinion worth, anyway? Or mine?

Here’s Tom Nicholls, a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, on The Death of Expertise, as published in The Federalist: “I fear we are witnessing the ‘death of expertise’: a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laymen, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers — in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all.” (Thanks Michelle Dollinger for the link to Nicholls.)

Sampling Newport Folk Festival 2016: Patti Smith’s Lightning Amid New Voices

If anyone wondered just how Patti Smith would close the Saturday concert at the Newport Folk Festival, where the guiding principle is “speaking truth to power,” it was with one lightening jolt after another. And I don’t mean the kind that lit the sky shortly after her sun-drenched set ended.

Patti Smith Newport 2016 sun drenched stage

Sun-drenched Newport Stage for Patti Smith’s dusk set.

Who else would even dream to open with Dylan (“Boots of Spanish Leather”), recite an Allen Ginsburg poem (“Footnote to Howl”) and then sing her own “Dancing Barefoot” — for starters? There was Seeger’s “If I Had A Hammer” (which she said she learned at 14 in bible camp and had never sung publicly before) followed by the Stones’ “This Could Be the Last Time.” There were Prince’s “When Doves Cry” and John Lennon’s “Power to the People.”

If each of those covers was absolutely true to the spirit of the original, each was also completely redefined by Smith and her band. By then you could only wonder if she was going to smash her guitar at the end of the closing “My Generation,” which sequed into a (literally) slashing “Rock and Roll Nigger.”

You could see the strings hanging off the tuning pegs when Smith was done. Instead of smashing the instrument, though, she brought this Newport Folk Festival set full circle: In the tradition of Woody Guthrie, whose guitar was inscribed, “This machine kills fascists,” and Pete Seeger, whose banjo bore the words, “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender,” Smith hoisted her electric guitar in the air shouting, “This is OUR weapon. The greatest fucking weapon of my generation!”

Patti Smith Newport 2016.1

Patti Smith (arms raised)

The Stones, The Who, Prince, John Lennon — those are the artists whose songs Newport performers would have sung at the after parties in hotel rooms a generation ago. Smith, Lenny Kaye, (seems to me he had a hand in that song selection), Jay Dee Daugherty, and the rest of Smith’s band made them a perfect fit on that Newport stage. But that was only the end of the day, the second of three.

That Saturday, though, was especially filled with revelations:

  • Ruby Amanfu, who has plenty of other credits as a songwriter and backup voice on Beyonce’s latest album, and as half of the duo Sam & Ruby, won two mid-set ovations early in the day.
    Ruby Amanfou Newport 2016

    Ruby Amanfu

    The first was for a cover of Dylan’s “Not Dark Yet,” the second for Irma Thomas’s “Anyone Who Knows What Love Is.” Talk about lightening — the charge that electrified the Harbor Stage crowd was palpable, as were Amanfu’s tears in response to this spontaneous combustion.

  • Country rocker (emphasis on the rocker) Margo Price was spitfire pure and simple. Sirrius (and former WFUV) DJ/host Meg Griffin termed Price a mix of Brenda Lee in voice with the outlaw spirit of Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. Spot on.
    Margo Price Newport 2016

    Margo Price

    Price looked to be having so much fun on that stage it was hard to imagine the classic grande dames of country such as Loretta Lynn or Tammy Wynette having ever been that charged up. Different eras, different performance styles, but this was thrilling. And that was a set that followed by minutes her guest appearance with the unadvertised Kris Kristofferson during the Texas Gentlemen’s set.

    Jesse:Ira w:Meg Griffin Newport 2016

    Sirrius’ Meg Griffin with Jesse Mayer (right) and me.

    There she cut loose on Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee” with a performance that was a clear nod to the classic Janis Joplin version. (I missed the Texas Gentlemen set, but “Me and Bobby McGee” is on Youtube.)

  • I only heard a few songs each of Nathaniel Rateliff, Lady Lamb, John Moreland, Graham Nash, Del McCoury and David Grisman (touring as Del & Dawg) The Banditos, and Rayland Baxter, but I’m cuing each up on Spotify and trolling the Youtube video clips from Newport. Walking into the festival Saturday morning, with rockabilly and electric country catching you from three stages simultaneously (The Banditos, Rayland Baxter and the Cactus Blossoms were on the three main stages) just put you in the right mood from the get-go.

Friday had its share of musical highlights, but perhaps the most gratifying was arriving at this magical setting on a postcard-perfect day and seeing festival founder George Wein, now in his 90s, touring the grounds on a golf cart-like utility truck and being greeted with rolling rounds of applause from the crowd. I’ve been to the festival regularly in recent years (the first time in 1969, though it was on another site then), but the setting stuns you each time. One of the members of The Staves even commented from the main Fort Stage, from which the artists face the Newport Bridge and harbor, that it was difficult to concentrate on the music with that view.

Musically, [Niko] Case/[k.d.] lang/[laura] veirs — have strong individual voices that blend in different combinations, and strong individual songwriting skills. Still, it was lang’s cover of Neil Young’s “Helpless” that threw the crowd into a tizzie.

I’d seen Aiofe O’Donovan when she’s performed impromptu with Sara Watkins and Sarah Jarosz (they’re known as I’m With Her, a name that preceded the Hillary Clinton slogan). But her solo set was a beautiful amalgam of Joni Mitchell if she’d had Irish roots and were given to thinking in harmony.

St. Paul & The Broken Bones are more high energy indie rock with a core of soul; lots of crossover in their fans and those of Nathaniel Rateliff.

Speaking of soul, the relatively little-known 20-year-old Atlanta rapper and soul singer Raury came out to an audience primed to love him. Part of that is probably attributable to the All Songs Considered interview with festival director Jay Sweet that aired on NPR (and was released as a podcast) a few days before the festival.

Asked by host Bob Boilen why Raury was on the bill, Sweet recounted the last conversation he’d had with Pete Seeger, one of the founders of the festival: Newport was built on artists who, as noted above, “speak truth to power,” and Raury, said Sweet, while not what Seeger (or most of us) would term a “folk artist,” fits that mold.

The set was high on energy and equally high in positivity and community-building. The audience greeted him with a huge ovation that clearly wasn’t expected or he wouldn’t have opened with a relatively gentle song at which point everyone sat back down. They were on their feet again soon enough. He needs time to develop that performing persona, but this was a breakout occasion for an audience willing to fit him into a different context.

I didn’t hear it, but Kristofferson did a surprise hour-long set at the tiny (and only indoor) Museum Stage Friday, as did Joe Ely and Terry Allen, who I did see and who were lots of fun. Hadn’t seen Ely in years — still a great songwriter, strong voice and presence.

Also enjoyed the few songs I heard from Canadian Basia Bulat. Look forward to listening more.

Sunday was less intense for me. The challenge of the Newport festivals (the jazz fest was the following weekend) is in curating. You can’t hear everyone, even if you’re willing to just hear 2-3 songs by each artist.

This was one of those days I probably should have stuck with anything I liked and not wandered as much. (Of course if you do that you suffer FOMO repeatedly.) And so I will follow up with the following, none of whom I knew before the festival beyond some of them having been on the Newport 2016 Spotify playlist:

  • The Strumbellas, who play alt-country with a little bluegrass.
  • Hayes Carll — a songwriter; I probably heard more people anticipating his set than anyone else at Newport.
  • Glenn Hansard, an Irish songwriter who was previously with The Frames and The Swell Season, who updated Woody Guthrie’s “Vigilante Man” with a few barbed swipes at Donald Trump.
  • Middle Brother, featuring John J. McCauley III of Deer Tick, Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes, and Matt Vasquez of Delta Spirit, and reunited for this festival for the first time in about five years.

Phil Cook Presents the Southland Revue was really a vehicle for the Blind Boys of Alabama, a gospel outfit that has been playing the festival for decades. No matter the time of day or much of anything else, they whip a crowd into a frenzy, and did so here.

The Preservation Hall Jazz Band plays both festivals (as did Norah Jones this year, and Mavis Staples and before she was a solo act the Staples Family in the past). Their set at the Folk Festival was driving and celebratory, and as with the Blind Boys, their consistency is quite amazing even as the lineups morph over time.

I caught a few minutes of Elvis Costello, who was solo but with various guests; a fan of his albums and the diverse styles he’s embraced over the years, I’ve been indifferent about Elvis at Newport in the past (as in 2005 when he did a country set), and so it was again.

Similarly, I understand why the Alabama Shakes are so popular, but there’s something in their recorded as well as live sound — a feedback-y distortion — that I find really irritating and that’s definitely part of their identity. Brittany Howard is an incredible singer, but by the end of the day the irritation factor sent me packing.

Sorry I missed: I’m not a big Ryan Adams fan, so I skipped his set, which wasn’t standard issue — he performed with the Infamous Stringdusters, a latter-day bluegrass band. The full set is online and great fun. Also, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, and probably many of the people on the Museum Stage who I didn’t or couldn’t get in to hear (it was often full with lines waiting to get in when there was more music to be sampled elsewhere).

I drove up to and back from the festival listening to Phil Ochs. Yes, I listened to others, too, in the car, but given what’s going on in the world, the political conventions, the lineup at the festival (which is increasingly indie rock—not a negative, just pointing out), and my ’60s roots, I wanted some advance guarantee that my worries would be addressed.

Listen to Ochs sing “Too Many Martyrs” or “Welcome to California,” to pick just two, and tell me they aren’t as relevant to Black Lives Matter and migrant workers, respectively, today as they were 50 years ago. And “The Power and the Glory” is still anthemic in the “This Land Is Your Land” mold.

If anyone would have been likely to channel Ochs’s spirit, it would have been Father John Misty — who’d been booed in Philadelphia a night or two before his performance at Newport for offering an angry diatribe and little music. At Newport he tempered the diatribe with a full, albeit dispirited but intense acoustic set.

He bemoaned the conflict between commenting on politics and entertaining as a performer. “I’m not overtly political,” he said as he began his set. “But I’m starting to feel guilty about that. There’s something to be said that engaging in the system [entertaining] is tacit acceptance of a system that perpetuates the underclass.…” And then his first song began, “How much oil does it take to make a record?” I only heard a few songs before moving to the next stage; I’d expected him with a band, as on his recordings (which I like), but found the solo versions too dirge-like even if he was doing the Phil Ochs of “Here’s To The State of Mississippi” proud.

Newport Folk Festival 2015 Goes Roots-y (But Hasn’t It Always Been So?)

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.