The Newport Folk Festival has weathered many a storm in its 53 year history. It disappeared in the ’70s, nearly went bankrupt in the aughts, and faced a complete dry up of sponsorships. But last year, Newport jewelers Alex and Ani stepped in to become a major backer, the festival returned to non-profit status, and a Board of Advisors (Colin Meloy, Gillian Welch, Ramblin Jack Elliot, Jim James, and Ben Knox Miller) was established. Now, the festival has never been stronger, and even some damp evenings couldnt keep the 2012 edition from being another in a nearly unbroken string of successes.
Newport has always been about bridging past, present, and future (just ask Bob Dylan), but this year’s fest had one of the strongest focuses on modern Americana Fort Adams has seen. Legacy acts were at a minimum, while young up-and-comers and contemporary heroes dominated the bill. This may have led to the markedly younger crowd, which in turn gave the impression of increased energy. Though attendance is still capped at just 10,000, there were more clogged pathways, longer bathroom lines, and standing room was stretched farther back from the shaded tent spaces than Id seen before. Some festival-goers were none too thrilled with those who stayed on their feet, and complaints of down in front were not uncommon. Besides these wet blankets (its a festival, people), bad vibes were few and far between, as artists and fans alike mixed amongst the crowd to partake in the variety of styles, from Spirit Family Reunions washboard-and-banjo country stomp to Alabama Shakes soulful blues to tUnE-yArDs’ wild indie looping.
Photo by Ben Kaye
Thunderstorms threatened to wash out the entire weekend, and nervous festies regularly checked weather forecasts on their phones. Whether blessing or curse, the rain always managed to hold off until right around the headliners time slots. While the rain cut off My Morning Jackets Saturday night show, Jackson Browne continued on undeterred. Nearly everyone I talked to had horror stories from Saturday of either being stuck in the parking lots for hours or suffering through the downpour as they waited in line for the water taxis. I was in the latter group, and I would be remiss if I didnt give a shout out to my three Amazing Grace lifesavers who serendipitously showed up throughout the festival and helped shield my camera from the elements. Without you ladies, I dont know if these pictures and notes would have survived; my great thanks go to you.
But, dampness be damned, this was still Newport Folk Fest. No amount of bad weather could stop the magic from shining through, and while there were no mud-covered performances a la The Felice Brothers infamous 2009 throwdown, there were still too many thrilling shows to possibly catch them all. In fact, the new Museum Stage, while providing a wonderful intimate setting, only added to the conflict-heavy schedule. And really, if your biggest complaint is there was too much to see, that really says it all.
Assistant News Editor
Friday, July 27th
Megafaun, Blitzen Trapper, Wilco – Fort Stage – Friday Night Pre-Show
In 2010, Steve Martin & The Steep Canyon Rangers headlined a Friday night pre-festival show at the International Tennis Hall of Fame. For the 2012 version, the folks at Newport opened the Fort Adams festival grounds for a special performance from three acts you couldnt see with a two-day pass. Opening the separate bill was Megafaun, whose experimental approach to folk proved a mixed bag. While openers Volunteers and a cover of The Bands Look Out Cleveland played fine to the slowly filling crowd, meandering breakdowns in Get Right and the otherwise exceptional closer Real Slow struggled to hold even the few fans standing at the rails.
It could have also been the dampness of the afternoon, as a fine drizzle was present for most of Megafauns set. That became a downpour as set up began for Blitzen Trapper, and the intrepid crew went to work protecting the equipment on stage. Though they did an applaudable job and the weather broke into a fine early summers eve, they couldnt help from losing the PA a little, an unfortunate outcome that Blitzens Eric Earley had some trouble with. Ya hear that dog whistling? he asked, and later commented that that high-pitched sound hurts my head, but Ill block it out. The rain delay forced the band to enact an on-the-spot setlist, which may have played to their favor. Fletcher, Furr, Big Black Bird, and more of their classic rock stories came out, hit after hit. Guitarist Erik Menteer found some more positives after the storm, claiming he liked the sound of his wet tambourine. I might have to start soaking this every night, he remarked.
Photo by Ben Kaye
What was most interesting about this Friday night Newport Folk Fest set is that it wasnt really a Newport Folk Fest set; it was a Wilco show with Megafaun and Blitzen Trapper opening, its own entity onto itself. If the multitudes of fans in Wilco garb werent the dead giveaway, the stage setup was. In three NFFs, Ive never seen a band dress up the Fort Stage until Wilco, lines of white rags hung from the rafters dispersing the lights as foliage does to sunlight, and catching flashes of strobes like lightening in the storm that passed. At a solid two hours, it was also the longest set of the weekend. It all played into the idea that this was Wilcos night, and they certainly made the most of it.
The career-spanning set touched on everything from Box Full of Letters to Laminated Cat to Art of Almost. Super-fans latched on to each note of every song, singing along and keeping hands high in the air, straight back to the road at the top of the main field. A mother-son duo in front of me seemed particularly engaged, shaking their hips constantly (if not a bit awkwardly) and shouting lyrics at one another during Im Always In Love. Jeff Tweedy appeared to enjoy himself too, visibly brightening up during breakdowns and every rock-n-roll moment. Despite early protests that they didnt have time for stories, he even found a few moments to recall an entertaining tale of his meeting the Ramones while trying to enter an 18+ concert when he was just 14.
Photo by Ben Kaye
The first of many to pay tribute to the 100th anniversary of Woody Guthries birth, Wilco opened their show with Christ for President off 1998s Mermaid Avenue. Due to the number done on the sound system by the rain, the first few lines were lost on the crowd. They had nothing to fear, though, as the real tribute came when Sarah Lee Guthrie and her husband Johnny Irion came out to cover California Stars and Airline to Heaven for the encore. Wilco closed with Hoodoo Voodoo, another Mermaid cut. Even though it was Wilcos night, there was a deep hat-tip to Guthrie, and it was just the beginning of a weekend filled with reverence for the late legend of folk. -Ben Kaye