[show review] Newport Folk Festival

The Newport Folk Festival is a music festival built for music lovers. Steeped in history, it could almost get by on name alone. Almost. It tried that and failed somewhat when it found itself in debt and struggling to survive just a handful of years ago. But in the past few years it has been reinvigorated to the point that it is practically bursting open at the seams. The revival has coincided with and/or helped nurture a renaissance in young folk music around the country, and even across the globe, which has only helped to increase the buzz. It’s a true chicken and egg situation where everyone is a winner. Bands, promoters, and of course in turn, we the fans.

So much music, so little time, and such a small space. The promoters have stuffed the small grounds at Fort Adams State Park with as much music as it can handle. As you walked from the main stage at the Fort overlooking the bay and the beautiful Pell Bridge, around to the Quad Stage on the interior of the Fort, you could hear the uninterrupted sound of music the entire way. The music from the main stage slowly faded out and gave way to sounds wafting out of the open windows of the newly minted Museum Stage, which then blended into the Harbor Stage. As you ascended the ramp into the center of the Fort the Quad Stage sounds took over. All that and they still managed to squeeze unscheduled music into every nook, whether it be the Paste Ruins nestled in a room inside the Fort, where a small audience could listen in on wireless Sennheiser headphones, or the Kids Tent outside the Fort Stage where musicians gathered for impromptu sets hosted in part by children’s singer Elizabeth Mitchell. Not to mention the random busking appearances from the likes of Jonathan Tolchin, the Graverobbers and others. So much to say, if you wanted to just find a quiet corner to be alone with your thoughts, tough luck. There was nary an inch of the festival grounds not completely consumed in music.

In my twitter feed during the festival, I saw many tweets stating, ‘if you miss such and such a set you’ll truly be missing out.’ ‘If you’re not at this stage I’m at right now you’re at the wrong stage.’ Etc, etc. Those sentiments were lost on me. At the Newport Folk Festival this year, and for the past few years in fact, there truly wasn’t a wrong turn. If you were missing one band it was only because you were seeing a different band. Chances are, they were pretty damn great too, because the secret is, there aren’t any bad bands invited. The festival is carefully curated to the point that every single musician there is there for a reason.

What exactly defines folk music is a much debated topic. Traditionalists would like you to believe it must involve acoustic instruments and a strong voice toward a worthy cause. But, like in most facets of the world, traditionalists are unhinged from reality. Folk music, like most genres, is an ever evolving format without a hard definition. In my estimation folk music is more about the spirit than any one particular sound. The spirit of collaboration, respect, family, and perhaps most importantly, honesty. This spirit was ever present not only in the music and musicians at the festival, but also in the entirety of the festival itself. The way the festival is run from the moment tickets go on sale until the last note is played is like an extension of the music. It all seems to come from the same place and to serve the same purpose.

Ben Sollee, cellist extraordinaire and member of my coveted top ten albums from 2011, was one of the folk heroes in 2012. Ben made a comment during his set at the Museum Stage that musicians at Newport don’t just roll out the carpet during their set and then roll it back up and call it a day. He said that collaboration is an important and integral part of the festival and the musicians enjoy interacting with each other. True to his word, he embodied the spirit of collaboration more than any other musician at the festival. He sat in with anyone and everyone during their sets and invited numerous musicians on stage during his, including all of The Apache Relay for a beautiful rendition of Paul Simon’s “Obvious Child.” Collaboration was a constant theme throughout the weekend. During a fantastic set being put on by Alabama Shakes, I commented, “I would love to see her sing one with My Morning Jacket tonight!” Where else but at the Newport Folk Fest would such a statement become fulfilled? True enough, Brittany Howard climbed on stage later that evening to belt out an amazing rendition of “Makes No Difference” with My Morning Jacket.

Which brings us to the second part of my definition for folk music: respect. And it was out in spades. The musicians’ influences came out strongly in favor of folk traditions through the covers they played. Whether it be the aforementioned Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Johnny Cash, or Joan Baez, some good old classic folk music had it’s time to be heard. Unless we’re talking about the more traditional sounding Punch Brothers, who went in the opposite direction and took on bluegrassy versions of modern classics like Beck’s “Sexx Laws” and Radiohead’s “Kid A.”

A larger theme emerged in the respect category to pay homage to two folk legends: the recently departed Levon Helm, and the legend of legends Woody Guthrie, who has been celebrating his posthumous 100th birthday all year. The love for both started on the “extra” Friday night show with Megafaun covering the Band’s “Look Out Cleveland” and Wilco playing a bevy of Guthrie tunes from their Mermaid Avenue albums throughout their set. In more planned tributes, a set by New Multitudes gave more life to Guthrie’s lyrics with new music, and Guthrie’s descendants, including son Arlo and granddaughter Sarah Lee played a loving set of music in his honor dubbed the Guthrie Family Reunion.

This also covers the third part of my folk definition, family. Though in that case being a literal example, it also shone through in the general spirit of collaboration. Seeing musicians as fans of their fellow musicians, and being a part of an audience that truly felt connected to each other through a common purpose made this evident. Saturday night’s My Morning Jacket set was curtailed due to a massive storm that came through the area. Being stuck under a small shade tent with a group of total strangers for a couple of hours as the clouds opened up with torrential rains only added to this sense of community.

The overlying definition of folk music to me is honesty. What each and every musician had in common on the Newport Folk Fest stages was a sense of truth and honesty to their music. Whether it be just a voice and a guitar, a brass band, or a full on electric rock outfit, these musicians were making the music the way they wanted to, when they wanted to. Not beholden to a set of rules to fit in, or a trend to latch on to in order to succeed, the music is true. Folk is almost punk in that way, or vice versa I suppose. Folk was the original punk. A band like Tune-yards, for example, is almost without category, what genre is it? Folk is as good a fit as any. In fact, when she sang “My country, ’tis of thee / Sweet land of liberty / How come I cannot see my future within your arms?” it may have been the folksiest statement, not written by Guthrie, made all weekend.

Stream sets from the 2012 Newport Folk Festival at NPR