Saturday’s festival began with the anxious lull of miles and hours of traffic and ended with chaotic torrential downpour, flash flooding and a lightning storm that would cut My Morning Jacket’s headlining set a few songs short. This however, made the experience all the more memorable.
With four stages of music overlapping in simultaneous performances, it would be impossible to witness everything, but nevertheless, one could try. The previously mentioned traffic made just about every commuter late, we had sadly just missed the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, but we strolled in just in time to catch bits of Deer Tick and more importantly, the Alabama Shakes. Heavy-hearted and soulful, the band delivered a spirited set for a massive audience posted up on the lawn of the main stage. Luckily this wouldn’t be last we’d see of the Shakes.
Seeking a bit of space, we headed over to the Quad to see Sharon Van Etten. Unfortunately, while her sultry croon was spot on, the experience as a whole became a little off-put with her awkward banter. Consistently asking why she was even performing at a folk fest, the comments seemed more disrespectful and snide than appreciative and flattered.
Iron and Wine followed Van Etten, and did so with a bit more poise. Despite a full-band that included an eclectic array of instruments including a clarinet and a pump-harmonium, Sam Beam and company’s set remained at a pleasant hush. Hitting on elements from their whole catalogue, the band even went into a unique rendition of the often covered “Long Black Veil”, first recorded by Lefty Frizzell.
The crowd on the usually spacious Quad had tripled in size for I&W, and it seemed that this year’s Sold Out festival brought a much bigger audience than previous years. Even the amount of vendors in the area had multiplied. Packing up our blanket, we headed to the Harbor Stage to catch the remaining minutes of First Aid Kit. The Swedish sisters who broke through the US market with the help of Conor Oberst, the band seemed to be right at home purveying their foreign folkish selections that, if you were wondering, were in English.
About this time, we had a quick bite and took our place in a lengthening queue to watch My Morning Jacket from the side of the stage. Finding a place in line with the lovely Laura Jean, who had spent the previous night making the band intricate boutonnieres with medallions and ribbon, we were overjoyed to see the band take stage wearing the beautiful arrangements. Patrick Hallahan even drummed the entire set in his specially made floral lei.
The Jacket’s set was, as we had assumed, a true highlight of the festival, and the reason we had come in the first place. Despite the fact that they are known primarily as one of the greatest and intense live rock bands of modern day, Jim’s roots could easily be deemed folkish– and he explored the softer side of his catalogue early in the set to prove it. Beginning with their newest number, “Welcome Home”, from their 2011 Christmas record, the band dove into the “Golden”, “The Way That He Sings”, “It Beats for You” and “Wonderful” which featured Ben Soille on cello and Laura Veirs singing backup. It would be the first of many songs in a set filled with special guest appearances.
Will Johnson of Centro-matic, New Multitudes and Monsters of Folk joined the band for their next selection, a devestating rendition of the always beautiful “Bermuda Highway”.
From there things became a bit more whimsical, and how do you say it… FUN. With Jim rocking a cape, the band broke into “Victory Dance”, the opening track from their latest full-length, Circuital. Imagine Dylan being persecuted for playing electric guitar at this same festival in the 1960’s and think about how strange it is that Jim James is now wearing a cape and sampler around his neck. My how times have changed. A once traditional and hard-nosed genre of music has come been blurred a bit in definition, but has grown exponentially with its tolerrance to change.
From fun to serious, the band segued into “Dondante”, a heavy-hearted and spacious tale about a fallen friend. Following the extended saxophone solo that ended the song, the band paid tribute to another fallen friend, Levon Helm, who was no stranger to headlining the Newport Folk Festival himself. Playing an emotional cover of The Band’s “It Makes No Difference”, the Jacket was joined by Brittany Howard of the Alabama Shakes on backup vocals and Clint Maegden of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band on saxophone.
Levon must have been impressed, because as soon as the song ended, the heavens opened and the rain began. Plastic wrap was quickly draped over equipment and guitar pedals as the stage crew scrambled behind the scenes to keep the show going. Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes joined the band for “Smoking From Shooting”, standing on a chair, yelling spirited backups and headbanging to the beat.
Just two more songs and the set would be cut short. The brass section from Preservation Hall was set to take the stage to join in what the set list referred to as “Carnival Time”, but do to the lightning, the players were escorted to safety, and we in the crowd were soon to follow.
Those of us with press and all-access passes were lucky enough to take cover in the fort while thousands of others began heading to the crowded parking lots drenched and up to their ankles in flash flooding. After waiting for even the smallest sign of letting up, we rolled up our pants, took off our shoes and made a break for it. During a disheartening wait in heavy parking lot congestion, we got word of an impromptu set back at the tent in the Quad and hurried back through the gates. Originally set up to be an after-hours electric set, the generator had failed and all hopes of amplification had gone out the window with the rain. Nevertheless, a handful of people took the stage with guitars, banjo and cello. Sarah Lee Guthrie took charge, eventually joined by a number of others, passing around the guitar and playing traditionals and sing-a-longs for the 50 or so lucky and patient people who stuck around waiting to see something special. THIS was folk. THIS is the spirit that inspired the movement, and here IT was happening, in a secret, unscripted and joyous manner and a pickup setting just like the early days of the genre.
While the rain continued, a quiet Jim James was recognized in the shadows and invited on stage. Always sincere, witty and unpredictable, James followed up the traditional hootenanny with a cover of INXS’ “Never Tear Us Apart”. Stripping down the song and removing any sort of irony, the selection was a far cry from the standards that the others were playing, but with Jim singing it, at that particular moment, the song could be seen at its core for what it was originally intended to be… a really beautiful and simple love song.
Here it is. See for yourself.
Newport Folk Fest: Sunday
After returning to Boston to avoid hotel inflation, I arrived back in Newport only to get stuck traffic of the same stress level. An hour drive became 3 hours by the time I parked. Luckily I was just in time for New Multitudes. A Woody Guthrie tribute band consisting of Jim James, Jay Farrar (Son Volt, Uncle Tupelo), Anders Parker (Varnaline, Gob Iron) and Will Johnson (Centro-matic, Monsters of Folk, South San Gabriel), the foursome took unreleased Woody Guthrie songs from his archive and released them earlier this year in honor of Guthrie’s 100th birthday.
Just like the record, the set was beautifully planned with each member alternating lead vocals and the others singing backup. Ending with the powerful “New Multitudes”, the band seemed to provide the same hope and change through music that Woody Guthrie insisted upon through his life’s work.
Woody Guthrie was and is American Folk Music. He gave purpose to the song, a message to the melody, and without him, there probably wouldn’t even be a Newport Folk Festival.
From here it was onto see Charles Bradley. A tragic life story of survival and persistence, Bradley, despite his love of music, didn’t release any music until the age of 51. Inspired by James Brown, Otis Redding and sounding like 60’s soul without being a revivalist, I caught the last moments of Bradley’s set and a striking renditon of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold”.
The next time slot may have been the toughest of the festival. People would have to choose between Tune-Yards. Conor Oberst, or Carl Broemel. For me the choice was simple. As My Morning Jacket’s guitarist, Carl Broemel’s solo shows are rare. Mostly because he has no time. But with a great solo record released last year, I wanted to see how the performance carried out live.
Performing and recording primarily as a one-man band, Broemel loops lyrics, guitars and pedal steel culminating in meticulous vocal harmonies and instrumental layers. After a handful of songs, Bo Koster of MMJ joined him on keys and Ben Sollee on cello. Still when Broemel was alone, he filled the room as if he were backed by a full band. Ending whimsically with a cheeky-yet-respectful version of “Lollipop”, the rains came again. It seemed like a good time for me to leave. Instead of watching Jackson Browne, I chose to write this until 8am.