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Festival Review: CoS at Newport Folk Fest 2012

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    newport folk 2012 e1343677928898 Festival Review: CoS at Newport Folk Fest 2012

    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 couldn’t 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 I’d 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 (it’s 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 Reunion’s washboard-and-banjo country stomp to Alabama Shakes’ soulful blues to tUnE-yArDs’ wild indie looping.

    newport folk 3 Festival Review: CoS at Newport Folk Fest 2012

    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 Jacket’s 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 didn’t 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 don’t know if these pictures and notes would have survived; my great thanks go to you.

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    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.

    -Ben Kaye
    Assistant News Editor

    Friday, July 27th

    megafaun 3 Festival Review: CoS at Newport Folk Fest 2012

    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 couldn’t 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 Band’s “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 Megafaun’s 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 summer’s eve, they couldn’t help from losing the PA a little, an unfortunate outcome that Blitzen’s 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 I’ll 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.

    blitzen trapper 7 Festival Review: CoS at Newport Folk Fest 2012

    Photo by Ben Kaye

    What was most interesting about this Friday night Newport Folk Fest set is that it wasn’t 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 weren’t the dead giveaway, the stage setup was. In three NFFs, I’ve 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 Wilco’s night, and they certainly made the most of it.

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    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 “I’m 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 didn’t 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.

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    Photo by Ben Kaye

    The first of many to pay tribute to the 100th anniversary of Woody Guthrie’s birth, Wilco opened their show with “Christ for President” off 1998’s 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 Wilco’s 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

    Saturday, July 28th

    apache relay 3 Festival Review: CoS at Newport Folk Fest 2012

    Photo by Ben Kaye

    Apache Relay – Alex and Ani Harbor Stage – 11:30 a.m.

    Amidst some heavy humidity, a standing-room-only crowd still showed up for Apache Relay’s set, which opened the Alex and Ani Harbor stage on Saturday. The Nashville troupe didn’t disappoint, putting on a solid set of roots rock. Frontman Michael Ford Jr. easily steals the show with his ragged, heady voice, breaking and twanging at times to enhance the band’s Americana with a rustic edge. As attractive as he sounds, it’s hard not to fix your eyes on the big man with the guitar, Mike Harris, all lovable cool with his shades and shaggy beard. Ben Sollee joined the band for a few numbers, including “The Watering Hole”, the first of many cameos throughout the fest. Songs like “American Nomad” and “Power Hungry Animals” were standouts, and the band was just what the festival needed to get in the mood for the weekend to come. -Ben Kaye

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    Photo by Ben Kaye

    Preservation Hall Jazz Band with Del McCoury and Tao Seeger – Fort Stage – 12:40 p.m.

    The iconic New Orleans outfit Preservation Hall Jazz Band was introduced as a group that had done things on the Newport Folk stage that had never been done before, and with promises to continue that legacy. Those who witnessed the afternoon set were not let down. The band playing their own numbers and jazz classics as band members alternated vocal duties would’ve been enough, but there’s always something more at a Pres Hall show. Country legend Del McCoury came out for a few numbers, including his “Careless Love”. Festival regular Tao Seeger also made an appearance for a pair of Portuguese language numbers, which added a nice international flair to the day’s events. The highlight of them all was when both musicians joined the band with yet another Ben Sollee appearance for a swinging version of the spiritual hymn “I’ll Fly Away”. Everyone on stage was pure smiles, and the sheer enjoyment was reflected right back at them from the faces in the crowd. -Ben Kaye

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    Photo by Jake Cohen

    Deer Tick – Quad Stage – 1:40 p.m.

    With their tough to categorize folk/country/rock hybrid, a return slot at Newport Folk for these local Providence boys seems obvious (especially after their now-legendary late night parties in 2011, and soon to be legendary aftershows this year). However, Deer Tick’s sound on their most recent recording, 2011’s Divine Providence, has started to match their live sound in bars and clubs: harder and with more distortion, more raw vocals from guitarist John McCauley, and more rock. Towards the end of their set, McCauley announced, “Considering this is a folk festival, we figured we’d play a rock song,” before launching into a spirited cover of Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline”, which followed the band’s original take on ’50s blues rock. It was an ironic comment given that Deer Tick had just delivered a set of countrified, rocked-out tunes off Divine Providence like “Clownin Around” and “The Bump”, during which fellow Middle Brother/Delta Spirit frontman Matt Vasquez appeared to jump on the keyboard bench and shout lyrics along with audience. Yet they reminded the crowd of their folksier roots with the fingerpicking electric guitar of “Houston, TX” from Born on Flag Day, which still transcended traditional folk norms with McCauley’s grungy, pinched vocal. – Jake Cohen

    alabama shakes 7 Festival Review: CoS at Newport Folk Fest 2012

    Photo by Ben Kaye

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    Alabama Shakes – Fort Stage – 2:00 p.m.

    Last year, we CoSigned Alabama Shakes for their CMJ performance at the Bowery Ballroom. More than half a year later, these rising hot shots have gained swift fame on the heels of their debut Boys and Girls and the undeniable single “Hold On”. At their main stage set, they played the track second, a sign of pure confidence. Most young bands would stick such a well-loved song near the end of their set, but Brittany Howard and her ace crew know songs like “I Ain’t the Same” and “You Ain’t Alone” can hit home even harder. New cut “Making Me Itch” (as Howard explained with a grin, “We’re gonna play a new song ‘cause we’re in Newport”) was further proof these soulful blues rockers aren’t going to be a one-trick pony. They stormed the Fort like veterans, unintimidated to be on such a storied, esteemed stage so soon into their career. As their repertoire grows and their game continues to tighten, expect to see a prolonged reign. -Ben Kaye

    first aid kit 1 Festival Review: CoS at Newport Folk Fest 2012

    Photo by Ben Kaye

    First Aid Kit – Alex and Ani Harbor Stage – 3:00 p.m.

    You really can’t help but smile when sisters Klara and Johanna Söderberg (of First Aid Kid) come on stage and start giving directions to their drummer in Swedish. “We are two Swedish sisters and a Swedish drummer from Sweden,” was how they introduced themselves. It might be easy to get distracted by the quaint banter and the striking beauty of the pair, even in their overtly hippie garb (they looked somewhat more comfortable in jeans and flowing t-shirts when they guested at Conor Oberst’s set on Sunday). Let the charm and good looks divide your attention, however, and miss one of the most talented duos working in the choral folk genre. Their magical harmonies in close thirds combine into a chill-inducing single sound, their songs full of whimsy and reverence for their inspirations, and their beauty captivating. Okay, so it’s really easy to get distracted by their beauty. Sensing the importance of Newport for the genre they call home, both sisters frequently commented on how excited they were to be there, name-dropped a host of folk legends in their country-ish “Emmylou”, and covered Joan Baez’s “Diamonds and Rust”. The appearance by First Aid Kit’s pal Oberst for his verse in “King of the World” was an easy highlight in what was already a stellar performance. -Ben Kaye

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    Photo by Jake Cohen

    Dawes – Fort Stage – 3:25 p.m.

    Dawes continued Saturday’s alt-country theme (which really began Friday night with Wilco) by delivering a set of straight-ahead rock songs liberally dusted with country and folk flavors. Despite the presence of two thirds of Middle Brother (no Delta Spirit) and honorary fourth Brother Jonny Corndawg, Dawes used their time on the main stage to showcase their sound without any sit-ins or guests. That is, aside from Matthew Vasquez, who could be seen singing along to “Fire Away” backstage and joined the band onstage for “When My Time Comes”. This was more than made up for when Dawes became both Conor Oberst’s and Jackson Browne’s backing band the following evening. The band worked their way through their catalog without really charging up the audience until the anthemic and powerful “When My Time Comes”, with lead singer Taylor Goldsmith and Vasquez leading a sing-along. New song “From a Window Seat”, about “sitting on a plane too long when the fear sets in,” added a bit of honky-tonk to their sound and gave fans a taste of what may be ahead for the band’s Americana stylings. -Jake Cohen

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    Photo by Jake Cohen

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    Ben Sollee – Museum Stage – 4:30 p.m.

    I hadn’t planned on staying for the entirety of Ben Sollee’s intimate Museum Stage set, but I also hadn’t planned on being so blown away. Sollee advances the cello past its classical music origins and onto another level entirely. “How to See the Sun Rise” began with layered long tones in the lower register of the cello, over which Sollee crafted a beautiful, lamenting melody with hints of Appalachian nostalgia, and then he broke out on the chorus playing boogie-woogie with aggressive bowing. He even strummed the instrument on “It’s Not Impossible”, and got a funky groove going along with drummer Jordan Ellis. On “A Few Honest Words”, Sollee shows a social consciousness that harkens back to the folkies of early ’60s Newport, passionately singing in his clear voice, “We don’t choose our leaders/ They choose themselves.” He’s even “ditched the van” to ride his bike from venue to venue on recent tours. In the spirit of Newport collaboration, Sollee brought out Sara Watkins to sing and play fiddle on “Prettiest Tree on the Mountain”, and Apache Relay joined in on Paul Simon’s “Obvious Child”. In that same spirit, Sollee kept popping up onstage throughout the weekend, making him the sit-in MVP of Newport 2012. – Jake Cohen

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    Photo by Ben Kaye

    Guthrie Family Reunion – Quad Stage – 5:35 p.m.

    Here was the brightest candle burning in honor of Woody Guthrie’s 100th anniversary. At its height, for a rendition of “This Land Is Your Land”, there were no less than 20 Guthries on the Quad Stage (yeah, some were babies held by their parents, but they still count). The set opened with Sarah Lee Guthrie performing the Woody-penned “Folk Song”, followed by Cathy Guthrie leading the fam in the hilarious “Shit Makes the Flowers Grow” from her band Folk Uke (“I didn’t think I’d have to play any of my songs,” she remarked, “because they’re not really appropriate folk songs.”) The man everyone was waiting to see, Mr. Arlo Guthrie, came out for the third number, “Dead or Alive”. He filled the set with his loving tales of family and mischief, often referring to his late father and recalling his lessons. A highlight in a prime set showcasing folk music’s first family came when the band covered Wilco’s “Airline to Heaven”, spliced in The Allman Brother’s “Jessica”, and seamlessly went back into Wilco. -Ben Kaye

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    Photo by Jake Cohen

    City and Colour – Harbor Stage – 5:40 p.m.

    City and Colour frontman Dallas Green explained that he was performing as a solo guitarist and returning to his singer/songwriter roots because, as he was told, “it’s not that kind of a festival.” Funny, especially on a day that featured Deer Tick, Dawes, Blind Pilot, and headliners My Morning Jacket. Yet when he launched into the chorus of “Sleeping Sickness”, he highlighted his clear, passionate tenor, free of the full-band treatment on Bring Me Your Love. His voice is reminiscent of Justin Vernon, but with more immediate emotions and more power in his natural range. Mostly, his voice has tremendous soul, and the lack of a full band allowed the audience to concentrate on that intensity. “Sing it if you know it,” he implored the crowd, and it seemed like plenty did. -Jake Cohen

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    Photo by Ben Kaye

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    My Morning Jacket – Fort Stage – 6:05 p.m.

    Anyone expecting a rip-roaring My Morning Jacket set to tear the Fort Stage to pieces was probably pretty foolish. I freely admit I can be a fool sometimes, and my expectations for this set are just another example. (Note to self: always quell expectations – always). Of course MMJ weren’t going to go into a set of “Holdin’ Onto Black Metal” or “Rocket Man” covers – this is Newport! The pale suits were a fitting wardrobe choice, and it only makes sense they’d tailor their setlist to the scene, as well.

    That’s not to say they didn’t play excellent songs, like “It Beats 4 U”, “Victory Dance”, and the always powerful “Dondante” (a brief loss of sound during the sax solo but a small hiccup); it just took a minute to adjust to what was not going to be your typical marathon MMJ rock show. It was still an impressive outing from Jim James and crew, who barely spoke save for one big “Hello!”, instead letting the music and the guests say it all. Guest appearances came in two separate one-two successions, but the cover of The Band’s “It Makes No Difference”, dedicated to the late Levon Helm and featuring guests Brittany Howard and Clint Maedgen of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, followed by “Smokin’ from Shootin’” with Ben Sollee and a screaming Conor Oberst, hit hardest. As far as solo aspects went, “Welcome Home” from the band’s iTunes Sessions made a rare, and possibly first ever, appearance right at the start, a tasty treat for MMJ diehards.

    my morning jacket 8 Festival Review: CoS at Newport Folk Fest 2012

    Photo by Ben Kaye

    The dark clouds predicted by weather reports all day started rolling in heavy during the set, and while the wind whipped about James’ already wild hair, the crowd headed for the exits early. Unfortunately, long lines for the water taxis and parking lot shuttles meant most everyone was caught in the downpour. Or perhaps this was fortunate, as those heartbroken they had to bail early likely ended up seeing more of the set. In the end, though, no one saw the whole thing, as officials called the performance off due to the severe threat of lightning and torrential rains, leaving “I’m Amazed” as the last number. It was one of the punchier cuts of the night, and who knows if that would have led to that “Black Metal” appearance or the classic “One Big Holiday”. Though it arrived a bit short and soggy, the performance was no less of a well-structured and delivered package. -Ben Kaye

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    Sunday, July 29th

     Festival Review: CoS at Newport Folk Fest 2012

    Photo by Ben Kaye

    Sleepy Man Banjo Boys – Fort Stage – 11:00 a.m.

    I remember last year thinking how great it was that the kids of the PS22 Choir had a chance to play a Newport stage, reflecting the downward trend of attendees’ ages. But those kids couldn’t hold a candle to the Sleepy Man Banjo Boys. The Mizzone brothers– Tommy (guitar), Robbie (fiddle), and Jonny (banjo)– are 14, 12, and ten years old, respectively. And they didn’t just play the main stage this year, they held it down. With their uncles providing backup music, the trio plucked and bowed the hell out of their strings, putting on a display of bluegrass virtuosity that would’ve been impressive from men twice their age. Yes, when you hear it coming from kids your gut reaction is to inflate the positive appraisal. Fact is, the kids opened the Fort Stage at one of the most venerated festivals in the country, if not the world, and killed it. Just try taking that away from them. -Ben Kaye

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    Photo by Jake Cohen

    Sara Watkins – Fort Stage – 11:40 a.m.

    Teenage bluegrass phenom Sara Watkins has grown up, but thankfully she hasn’t lost the skills that made former band Nickel Creek so stupendous: her child-like, innocent voice that could be mistaken for Alison Krauss and her ultra-fast bluegrass fiddling. Continuing the more bluegrass-oriented Sunday lineup, Watkins delivered both haunting ballads and kickin’ fiddle tunes. She showed off the magic of sibling harmonies on “Take Up Your Spade”, sung in tandem with brother Sean (also a Nickel Creek alum), while Jackson Browne lent backing vocals to the country shuffle of “You and Me”. Watkins pounded through an Everly Brothers tune, “You’re the One I Love”, with Head and the Heart’s Charity Rose Thielen tackling the difficult harmony vocal (Fiona Apple gets this honor on Watkins’ new album, Sun Midnight Sun). Watkins showed that Newport is all about collaboration and genre-bending, adding a drummer and electric guitar at one point for an all-out rock melee. -Jake Cohen

    dawes Festival Review: CoS at Newport Folk Fest 2012

    Photo by Ben Kaye

    Dawes – PASTE Ruins – 12:30 p.m.

    If you ventured over to those hay barrels stacked opposite the Quad stage within the confines of Fort Adams, you likely stumbled upon a group of people wearing Seinnheiser headphones, standing on tippy-toes as they peered over each other into one of the fort’s galleries. One of the most wonderful additions to NFF, the intimate acoustic shows played in the PASTE Ruins could be heard best through a set of headphones. With Joe Fletcher wailing away on the Quad, Dawes and Ben Sollee took on a cover of George Harrison’s “I Dig Love”, with drummer Griffin Goldsmith pounding overturned trash barrels with percussion mallets. It became a three-member Dawes crew for “So Well”, and then singer Taylor Goldsmith performed “Moon in the Water” solo. Goldsmith’s voice is a rival to Jackson Browne’s, and it really got to shine in these close quarters. -Ben Kaye

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    Photo by Ben Kaye

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    Joe Fletcher and the Wrong Reasons – Quad Stage – 12:35 p.m.

    After being entranced by Dawes’ beauty, I got pulled into Joe Fletcher’s rollicking country rock. Ripping into American honky-tonk styles, Fletcher’s coarse and smokey voice delivers down-on-your-luck tales in Johnny Cash fashion. There’s a bit of a wry streak in there, too, with lines like “Bring down the flag/ raise the fifty dollar bill”. Visually, he’s like a John McEnroe/Luke Perry hybrid with an Americana makeover. He kicked like a dog through entire songs, like a cover of Bob Dylan and The Bands’ “Crash on the Levy” or new solo cut “Florence, Alabama”. Though at times he seemed a bit dead in the eyes, there was a lot of dark passion in his songs, and he’s worth checking out for fans of Deer Tick or Cash alike. -Ben Kaye

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    Photo by Jake Cohen

    Trampled By Turtles – Fort Stage – 12:40 p.m.

    The name says it all: This band’s sound is like being stomped on by giant reptiles. In a good way. With a huge bluegrass sound from its five string players and a punk rock attitude when it comes to soloing, Minnesota’s Trampled By Turtles graduated to the main stage in 2012 and got the crowd on their feet early in the day. Perhaps as a nod to the gentler side of folk, the band began with a ballad, but it followed with some ass-kicking bluegrass on the next song, the rugged bluegrass harmonies contrasting nicely with the purity of Sara Watkins’ voice. Fiddler Ryan Young dug into a string-splitting solo, red-faced and spazzing out all over the stage. Guitarist Dave Simonett says they formed TBT “as a break from our rock bands” nearly ten years ago, but it’s clear they’ve merely channeled that rock spirit into acoustic instruments, as each member took his own soloing to a frenzied level, much to the delight of his bandmates. -Jake Cohen

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    Photo by Jake Cohen

    Rodriguez – Museum Stage – 1:35 p.m.

    Filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul introduced Rodriguez by explaining that in South Africa, “Rodriguez was as famous and as dead as Jimi Hendrix.” Rodriguez was celebrated by South Africans, who assumed that this artist living in obscurity was dead. Now with a film by Bendjelloul that celebrates this unreal story, Sixto Rodriguez is re-claiming some of the clout he probably should have garnered in the early 1970s. Old and frail as he limped gingerly onstage, he delivered vocals that were full of warmth and youthfulness as he simply accompanied himself on songs from his catalog. Full of wonderful vocal melodies, his songs also contain powerful, deep lyrics, such as the Christian metaphor on “Crucify Your Mind”: “’Cause I was born for the purpose/ That crucifies your mind.” Awkwardly silent between songs and clearly past his prime, Rodriguez might still be able to turn a generation of young listeners onto his classic albums, finally enjoying his long-awaited American success. -Jake Cohen

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    Photo by Ben Kaye

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    New Multitudes – Quad Stage – 1:40 p.m.

    Pulling from over 3,000 handwritten lyrics from the Woody Guthrie archives, Jay Farrar (Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt), Will Johnson (Centro-matic, Monsters of Folk), Anders Parker (Varnaline, Gob Iron), and Yim Yames (aka Jim James) bring Guthrie’s words to life for the first time ever as New Multitudes. The remarkable results were showcased right from the onset, as the supergroup opened with the first four tracks of the self-titled tribute album, one number for each member. While some tracks rock out harder than you’d ever imagine Guthrie going, they all show admiration for the source, especially on the ceaselessly beautiful “Old L.A.”. There’s undeniable musical prowess in all four of them, and their differing vocal qualities all came together in one of the most jaw-dropping shows of the weekend. Farrar may not have been the most engaging (that honor goes to Yames, who rocked out harder here than he did even for MMJ’s set), but his dexterous guitar work and heavy whammy bending were show stealers. If you haven’t checked out this album yet, do yourself a favor and Spotify it; then cross your fingers for that rumored followup. -Ben Kaye

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    Photo by Ben Kaye

    Charles Bradley and His Extraordinaires – Fort Stage – 2:00 p.m.

    “Did you see Charles Bradley’s dance moves?” I overheard a girl say to her friends while leaving the festival. “Oh my god, that was amazing!” Charles Bradley owned the stage like no other artist all day. His style, his routine, and his music are all straight out of the mid-70s funk and soul world, yet he has a freshness even in 2012. Bradley delivered tracks from his album No Time For Dreaming with his hips swaying, pelvis thrusting, and voice sounding decades younger than his 64 years. “Can we go to church?!” he asked before launching into the slow gospel blues of “How Long”, throwing his microphone stand over his back, his own cross to bear across the stage. While his lyrics explore downtrodden themes, his music and his stage presence were pure joy, which is exactly what a soul man needs to do. His cover of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” was a particular crowd pleaser, but then again, every move and every note Bradley delivered was a crowd pleaser. -Jake Cohen

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    Photo by Ben Kaye

    Gary Clark Jr. – Quad Stage – 2:55 p.m.

    Gary Clark Jr. was the one artist a friend told me I had to see. With so many guitarists using a variety of amazing techniques in today’s music world, it’s refreshing to hear a classic blues guitar player. But Clark is a virtuoso in the truest sense, taking the norms and conventions of a style and pushing them to their limits. In style and appearance, Clark is often connected to Hendrix, and there was at least one riff that recalled the verse of “Voodoo Chile”, although Clark doesn’t get nearly as psychedelic. On the fast blues rock of “Don’t Owe You a Thang”, Clark played a complex fingerpicking solo that propelled the music forward, recalling the origins of the blues when you had to be your own bass, percussion, and rhythm guitar. Clark also showed his softer side with a tender falsetto on a sexy, slow groove, still killing it on the intense blues solo, spitting out lightening-fast runs. His set was a potent reminder of the strong historical connection between blues and folk. -Jake Cohen

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    Photo by Ben Kaye

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    Of Monsters and Men – Quad Stage – 4:15

    Something made me stay at the Quad stage after Gary Clark Jr.’s set for Icelandic folk outfit Of Monsters and Men, despite never being wholeheartedly engaged in their My Head is an Animal debut. Okay, it was probably because we nabbed seats and it was a chance to rest the legs a bit before heading to Conor Oberst. Thankfully, they had the opposite effect on me as their homophonic contemporaries, The Head and the Heart, who I find far more interesting on record than on stage. The seven members of Of Monsters and Men hit on easily accessible, warming harmonies (“Dirty Paws”, “Mountain Sound”). Polar opposites physically, dual leads Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir and Ragnar þórhallsson are capable leaders, while multi-instrumentalists Ragnhildur Gunnarsdóttir and Arnar Rósenkranz Hilmarsson, drummer Arnar Rósenkranz and the rest keep an energetic pace that held the audience fast. New number “Beneath My Bed” hinted at little change for their next effort, so while they still may not command my total attention, they’ve at least gained a bit more of my respect. -Ben Kaye

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    Photo by Jake Cohen

    tUnE-yArDs – Harbor Stage – 4:20 p.m.

    Merrill Garbus (aka tUnE-yArDs) found herself stuck in an extremely conflicting section of the schedule, up against Of Monsters and Men on the Quad Stage and Conor Oberst on the Fort Stage. But she still managed to overcrowd the small Harbor Stage with her dynamic and lovably quirky performance. Drawing mostly from her breakthrough album, W H O K I L L, Garbus sent waves of excitement through the crowd, bringing the seated audience to their feet and dancing in the fire aisles on “Gangsta”. Garbus used her ukulele more often than in recent performances, lending a frenetic strumming to “Bizness”, and seemed comfortable and carefree, even joking with the audience to groove their hips a little during the sultry “Powa”, “but not too much. We are in New England, after all,” she joked. While there wasn’t much new to her legendarily electric performance, tUnE-yArDs had the normally relaxed Harbor Stage audience letting loose, dancing around, and reveling in Garbus’s lovably dorky persona. -Jake Cohen

    conor oberst 2 Festival Review: CoS at Newport Folk Fest 2012

    Photo by Ben Kaye

    Conor Oberst – Fort Stage – 4:45 p.m.

    Many expected Conor Oberst’s pre-headlining spot to be largely acoustic, and for the first few songs of the Bright Eyes-heavy set, that was an accurate assumption. After three solo tracks with his guitar (“The Big Picture”, “First Day of My Life”, and “Lenders In the Temple”), Oberst brought out his friends and collaborators First Aid Kit to lend their haunting harmonies to the next two numbers. When the girls took the second verse of “Lua”, the crowd’s cheers drowned out the first lines. But that was the end of the sad and beautiful section of the performance, as surprise backing band Dawes and Johnathan Wilson joined Oberst onstage and began a good ol’ fashion indie rock show. Taylor Goldsmith is always a joy to watch working a guitar solo, but it’s hard to top the face-off he had with Oberst during “Moab”, the two vibrating off each other as they tore into their instruments. Returning the favor from the previous night, Yim Yames appeared to beat an umbrella, flail about, and scream for “At the Bottom of Everything”. With a masterfully arranged, unexpectedly rocking set list and a hit parade of guests, Oberst put on one of this year’s most outstanding shows, and a vociferant crowd wasn’t shy in letting him know it. -Ben Kaye

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    Photo by Jake Cohen

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    Punch Brothers – Quad Stage – 5:35 p.m.

    Chris Thile is no stranger to Newport. He first came to Newport with his band Nickel Creek, and now returns with the Punch Brothers, a slightly more dynamic, genre-bending string band that remains true to the highly disciplined bluegrass ethos but pushes the sound in various exciting directions. Case in point: The band did a spirited take on Beck’s “Sexx Laws”, played a blistering fast bluegrass instrumental called “Flippen”, sauntered on the slow waltz “Next to the Trash”, and rocked out on “Who’s Feeling Young Now?”. Their instrumental prowess was on display during “Flippen” when bassist Paul Kowert flew across the high register of his instrument before leading into an other-worldly Thile solo. Embracing the collective spirit of Newport, the band had tremendous fun onstage with the crowd, taking a shot before the fast closer “Rye Whiskey”. But the real treat came for the dedicated fans who stuck around, as Kowert, Thile, and guitarist Chris Eldridge played an impromptu unplugged jam session on the side of the stage following the main set, encouraging the crowd to sing along on the country classic “Where The Soul of a Man Never Dies”. -Jake Cohen

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    The Tallest Man On Earth – Alex and Ani Harbor Stage – 5:40 p.m.

    The Swedes were packing them in at Newport this year, as first First Aid Kit and then The Tallest Man on Earth had crowds bursting out of the Harbor Stage’s confines. Rhode Island state troopers had to clear out the fire lanes before Kristian Matsson could take the stage, as people refused to move despite the best efforts of NFF staff. The applause began at the first words of his introduction and roared louder as the first strums of “To Just Grow Away”. His slight stature ill befits his name, but Matsson’s presence and talent held up to it all as he stalked the stage, snapping around like a lizard as he stomped about to face all sides of his adoring audience. As the rain began and flashbacks of the previous night’s deluge caused many standing outside the tent to don their ponchos and a few to head for drier grounds, Matsson maintained a level of intensity that made it hard rend one’s self away. New tracks like “1904” played just as well live as older numbers like “I Won’t Be Found”, and if The Tallest Man ever returns to Newport, expect it to be on a much larger stage. -Ben Kaye

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    Jackson Browne – Fort Stage – 6:05 p.m.

    All day long, my wife and I jokingly sang “The Load Out” to each other: “They’re the first to come and the last to leave / Workin’ for that minimum wage!” Like many born in the ’80s, for me Jackson Browne’s cultural cachet involves a few sing-along hits on classic rock radio, providing a link between late ’60s country-rock (The Band) and late ’70s yacht rock (Steely Dan). We weren’t sure what to expect from the man who, aside from his radio hits, has been steadily writing and recording his songs since 1972. Mostly, we were just hoping he’d play “Rosie”.

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    Yet Browne completely avoided his big ’70s rock radio hits like “Rosie”, “Running On Empty”, or “Doctor My Eyes”, crafting a set that was tailored to the folk core of Newport. Songwriting-focused tunes like “A Child in the Hills” and “Call It a Loan” took the “soft” out of his easy listening soft rock and replaced it with a folk and country vibe. Occasionally taking on a bit more of a rock flair, Browne was content to showcase his talents as a lyricist and songwriter, playing lesser-known tunes from across his 40-year career. However, his mellow sound and lack of much recognizable material sent much of the crowd home early, seeking shelter from the storm (sorry, I had to). Those who stayed were treated to Browne’s Woody Guthrie homage “You Know the Night”, a talking blues number over a two-chord vamp whose text was the entirety of a letter Guthrie wrote to his wife, a gorgeous interplay of words and intimacy.

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    Photo by Jake Cohen

    In a culmination of Newport’s collaborative spirit, Browne had the kitchen sink of sit-ins, starting with touring mates Sara and Sean Watkins for most of the set and then bringing out all of Dawes for the folk standard “Long Black Veil”. Jonathan Wilson joined the crowded stage as the expanded band played through a pair of Browne-penned tunes popularized by others: “These Days” (Nico) and “Take It Easy” (The Eagles). The former was returned to its slow country-rock ballad context, with a soaring solo by Dawes’ Taylor Goldsmith. Joined by Tom Morello for some absurd guitar wizardry, the six-guitar attack ripped through Warren Zevon’s “Lawyers Guns and Money” as a closer, which had the rain-diminished crowd going bonkers, and coaxing out a gorgeous sunset at the close of the overcast weekend. -Jake Cohen

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