Tag Archives: Preservation Hall Jazz Band

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.