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Festival Review: CoS at Newport Folk Festival 2011

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    newport small Festival Review: CoS at Newport Folk Festival 2011There is something truly indelible about George Wein’s Newport Folk Festival. You walk the grounds and you walk through history; my father walked these Newport streets in 1965 to hear Bob Dylan plug in (the venue was different, but the streets were the same). The main stage looks out from Fort Adams State Park at the Pell Bridge stretching over glistening Newport Harbor with its fleet of sailboats, kayaks, and yachts, perfection in the setting sun. There’s a feeling of ultimate unity – ultimate folkness – between audience and artist, both sharing in the warm knowledge that this weekend will be scrawled in the ledger of music history.

    This year had particular significance. Narrowly avoiding cancellation when sponsors walked away from the 2009 50th anniversary celebration (the number is a bit disingenuous; the festival took a hiatus between 1971 and 1985), the festival returned to non-profit status this year under the Newport Festivals Foundation, Inc. banner. In addition, now in its “52nd” year, the festival experienced its first-ever complete sellout. 10,000 hungry folk fans took the water taxi across the harbor or wound around Harrison Avenue to attend each day.

    Under nearly cloudless blue skies and despite the cruel heat doing its best to boil the good out of you, the venue really seemed to bring the best out of everyone. Whether contemporary risers or established legends, musicians brought their finest to the Fort. They couldn’t escape the magic of the place, love and passion flowing through every note sung or strummed. Covers and cameos were standard, tributes to music’s past, present and future.

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    The crowd’s appreciation and respect weren’t reserved for the performers, though it surely washed over them in waves. I’ve never seen a venue left cleaner at the end of the day, nor so many smiles and hugs shared by complete strangers – I myself partook in more than a few. Despite the odd segregation of the split main (Fort) stage crowd, with its square standing section on the right roped-off from the sea of beach chairs and blankets on the left, the sold-out crowd commingled as much as the bands. Indie-leaning youth danced with old-fashioned maturity to Emmylou Harris and Delta Spirit alike.

    newport festival 11 Festival Review: CoS at Newport Folk Festival 2011

    Photo by Nate Slevin

    And there was still so much I missed. I’ve heard tales of Trampled by Turtles doing incredible things on the Quad Stage (I caught their encore cover of “Where Is My Mind?”), and The Devil Makes Three was a highlight for many. The story of John McCauley leading a score of artists through an amalgamation of “Goodnight Irene”, “La Bamba”, “Twist & Shout”, and “I Wanna Be Sedated” at the Backstage Benefit BBQ on Saturday night is already mythical. I never even made it to the newly added Lego DUPLO Kid’s Stage.

    Yet it doesn’t bother me. The festival provided more than a fair share of fulfilling experiences. As Taylor Goldsmith said amidst Middle Brother’s set, “It’s not about what’s new or what’s different – it’s about what’s good, and folk music.” There was plenty of both to go around, and anyone in attendance should feel lucky to have witnessed what they did. I know I do.

    -Benjamin Kaye
    News Writer

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    Saturday, July 30th

    PS22 Chorus – Alex and Ani Harbor Stage – 11:30 a.m.

    ps22 chorus 2 Festival Review: CoS at Newport Folk Festival 2011

    Photo by Nate Slevin

    When people say the festival is getting younger, they’re usually referring to the audience, not the musicians. The inverse was true as the first notes of 2011 came from the voices of some of the youngest performers ever to take a Newport stage: a group of 11-to-12-year-olds from Staten Island. The PS 22 Chorus, an ever-graduating group of youth led by one Mr. B on keyboard, performed strong renditions of songs the typical middle-schooler wouldn’t even recognize. The audience was enthralled by the kiddy karaoke. Opener “Energy” by Austra roused true emotion, Mr. B pointing to one crowd member and ribbing, “No crying. I see you.” Soloists shined, like Roseli confidently tackling Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer”, generating applause at every big note. Of course, they’re still just kids, often looking like another bored choir practice, some lazily half-doing hand choreography or omitting it entirely. But by the time they closed with Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep”, the crowd was on its feet, showing the blooming performers a lot of love. Hopefully, some of these kids keep it up after graduation, because there’s certainly something special in the mix here.

    Wailin’ Jennys – Fort Stage – 11:40 a.m.

    the wailin jennys 11 Festival Review: CoS at Newport Folk Festival 2011

    Photo by Nate Slevin

    I initially had no intention of catching Wailin’ Jennys‘ set, but after hearing them do a stirring soundcheck of Gershwin’s “Summertime”, I wanted more of those lush harmonies. The trio of ladies didn’t disappoint, providing warm, perfectly keyed notes to the first main stage crowd of the festival. They also proved to be not just great vocalists but great performers, passing instruments back and forth between songs and telling tales to the obliging audience. Before gutsily covering headliner Emmylou Harris’s “Deeper Well”, Nicky Mehta told of how she mixed parenting and practice by playing for her twin boys in their Johnny Jump Ups, the bouncing babies acting as a barometer for a song’s success. “This next song is a winner for them, inspired much height in the bouncing,” she said. “Occasional impact.” Helped out by the fierce viola of a “male Jenny”, band member Ruth Moody’s brother Richard, the group played a sweet set of resplendent folk tunes, dropping a fair amount of reverential covers amongst their own catalog.

    Typhoon – Alex and Ani Harbor Stage – 12:35 p.m.

    typhoon 04 Festival Review: CoS at Newport Folk Festival 2011

    Photo by Nate Slevin

    By noon, it was so hot that you would sweat sitting still, so I was relieved to find seating up front under the tent for the indie musical storm of Typhoon. After forming a hands-in pep-circle onstage as they were introduced, 13 band members took up 13 instruments and went into a cacophonous rendition of “White Lies”. At first the sound was overwhelming, but once it leveled out, the performance was commanding. Kyle Morton led the collective with a powerful voice and confidence that added miles to his stature. Songs like “The Honest Truth” and new number “The Common Sentiment” took full advantage of the mighty orchestration such a large band can bring to a performance when properly utilized. As the final notes of the last song faded, they realized they had more time, and without a word, they all jumped into “Down, Cowboy” with a boisterous breakdown befitting their name. Adding to the enumerable reasons this band separates from the congested Northwest indie-folk scene, I’m pretty sure they’re the only group around that could give emotional resonance to a refrain of the words “kitchen tile.”

    Freelance Whales – Quad Stage – 1:40 p.m.

    freelance whales 14 Festival Review: CoS at Newport Folk Festival 2011

    Photo by Nate Slevin

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    Yes, Freelance Whales have many “folk” instruments in their arsenal, and many of their songs distinctly tilt in that direction. Still, while their synth-pop sounds were more evidence of Newport’s modern proclivities, something didn’t settle in properly at their set. “Elevator, First Floor” (which they later encored at the LEGO Duplo Kid’s Stage with the PS22 Chorus) rang true enough, but others, like “Kilojoules”, felt out of place and, worse, just strange. Part of this is the band’s seeming inability to reproduce live some of the more complicated vocal layers of their debut, Weathervanes. One of that album’s standouts, “Starring”, came off as haphazard, off-timed, and all around weak. This young, buzzing band has some work to do before they come together as a live unit.

    Gogol Bordello
    Fort Stage 2:00 p.m.

    gogol bordello 14 Festival Review: CoS at Newport Folk Festival 2011

    Photo by Nate Slevin

    “I warn you, this band is not for the faint of heart” was the introduction given to one of the most anomalous bands on the lineup, Gogol Bordello. The stage was sparse for a Gogol set: Only five members of the normally nine-piece band sat on chairs. No chair can hold what this band brings, though, even in acoustic form. Frontman Eugene Hütz was up on his feet by the second number, “Wanderlust King”, and shirtless by “Tribal Connection”. They didn’t bound about stage like they would at a plugged-in show or even at other unplugged shows they’ve played. Instead, the set showed respectful understanding of the setting. Their energy remained high, playing their hearts out for what at times felt like a private concert for the packed dance section. “I’m sorry, people over here,” Hütz addressed the lawn chair and blanket crowd on the left. “This music is not really for laying down type of purposes.” After a set consisting of hits from their wealthy repertoire plus new track “General Amnesty”, even the older crowd was out of their chairs and swaying about. “They’re getting the message,” Hütz said. We all did by the end: No matter the venue, these guys put on an incredible show.

    Delta Spirit
    Quad Stage 2:55 p.m.

    delta spirit 06 Festival Review: CoS at Newport Folk Festival 2011

    Photo by Nate Slevin

    A packed Quad proved I wasn’t the only one anticipating a killer set from Matthew Vasquez and his Long Beach crew, aka Delta Spirit, and it’s safe to say no one left disappointed. “Come on, you can get up!” Vasquez beckoned as they took the stage, and within half a second every chair was vacated. The band ripped through “Bushwick Blues”, “White Table”, and even furiously tore down the end of “Ransom Man”. Their fans loved them through and through, dancing about and singing to every song from “St. Francis” to older numbers like “People C’mon”, though there were understandably no crowd vocals for new track “Empty House”. The love was returned with an earnest, impassioned performance song after song. While Vasquez has mesmerizing energy as a frontman, guitarist William McLaren plays his axe to bits, and Jon Jameson is one of the most fun-to-watch bassists I’ve seen in a while, multi-instrumentalist Kelly Winrich may be the unsung hero of the group, bouncing between keys and percussion even in the middle of songs. Together, the band provided one of the brightest highlights of the weekend.

    newport festival 10 Festival Review: CoS at Newport Folk Festival 2011

    Photo by Nate Slevin

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    Tegan and Sara Quad Stage 4:25 p.m.

    Given an acoustic set, Tegan and Sara had a chance to let their folk-side shine, but it was a show that might not have panned out as they’d hoped. Though they played hits like “Back Into Your Head” and “Nineteen”, a lot of it sounded similar in the stripped-down setting. Slipups and restarts were near constants; Sara stopped “Alligator” abruptly saying, “I fucked up, that’s me, that’s on me.” But what kept the show from awkward nonsuccess was the constant banter. “No? Not again?” Sara asked her sister. “Yeah, no, do it again,” Tegan quipped back. “Do it by yourself, in fact.” Despite the flaws, the packed Quad loved it, prompting Sara to satirically remark, “It’s so hard to start a song when everyone keeps yelling that they love you.” It wasn’t a standout set, but the intimacy they created with their adoring audience was commendable. As was Tegan’s time spent signing every article fans threw over the backstage fence. Their fans honestly love them, and it’s nice to see that love returned with equal sincerity.

    Mavis Staples Quad Stage 5:35 p.m.

    mavis staples 2 Festival Review: CoS at Newport Folk Festival 2011

    Photo by Nate Slevin

    Full disclosure: I wasn’t actually at most of this set. I walked by, planning on just catching a song before moving on. Then Ms. Staples announced a special guest, and out came The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy, and this happened. It was one of those great moments that only happens at Newport, and watching the 72-year-old Staples literally punch out the end of “The Weight” till she was breathless was inspiring. After the song, Meloy wished Staples a happy birthday (it was July 10th) and gave her a warm hug before heading off to his own headlining set.

    The Decemberists Fort Stage 6:05 p.m.

    the decemberists 02 Festival Review: CoS at Newport Folk Festival 2011

    Photo by Nate Slevin

    With a new number-one record nestled firmly in folk stylings, The Decemberists were poised for a triumphant return to Newport, this time as headliners. Colin Meloy led his troupe onstage with a glass of wine held high to the applauding crowd. “Some of you look like you may be over-folked,” he remarked on the sunbaked lot. “But for those of you who are under-folked, we will try to folk you right now.” The joke garnered as many groans as laughs and set the stage for what I’ve come to expect is a typical Decemberists outing.

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    As always, the music sounded fine–great, even. These guys can play exquisitely, there’s no doubt. The setlist was nothing unexpected, relying heavily on The King Is Dead tracks like “Rise to Me” and “Rox in the Box”. They did sneak Meloy’s purposefully dreadful “Dracula’s Daughter” into the middle of “O Valencia!” but quickly abandoned it. “That was a bad detour,” Meloy laughed slightly. “Forget it.” The biggest problem here is that while everything sounds wonderful, it doesn’t sound like a great live show. Little is unpredictable, and nothing really pops with stage presence. “The Rake’s Song” came close with its powerful drumming and refrain and Meloy managing to get just the seated section to clap along was amusing. “Won’t Want for Love” also showed signs of life, but while Sara Watkins has settled into her role standing in for the ailing (and much missed) Jenny Conlee, her voice lacked the haunting quality that makes the track so affecting, and Meloy’s voice doesn’t play off hers as well.

    the decemberists 14 Festival Review: CoS at Newport Folk Festival 2011

    Photo by Nate Slevin

    For the second time this summer, I walked away from a Decemberists show with more memories of their repartee than their songs. Meloy dedicating “This Is Why We Fight” to festival founders Pete Seeger and George Wein for “teaching us that the ‘S’ word, socialism, isn’t a bad word and that we’re all in this together.” Calling “The Soldiering Life” a song about “homoerotic love between sailors” and dedicating it to “that flotilla of yachts over there. Hope you’re having fun and keeping the rosé chilled, because Lord knows mine isn’t.” The stage-farce that was closer “The Mariner’s Revenge”, complete with Chris Funk climbing down the stage rigging to get that one woman who wasn’t doing the moaning and groaning of being devoured by a whale to stand up and go “argh.” While Gillian Welch and David Rawlings coming out for an encore of “All Arise!” and “June Hymn” was a delight, even that was predictable and overshadowed by the tongue-in-cheek performance. In truth, this talented band shines in their humor, and it was an altogether fun show. However, I expect something more than sit-com entertainment from a live show, especially a headlining one in front of a sold-out festival crowd. Entertain me, sure, but put some energy into more than just cheekiness.

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