The Newport Folk Festival began in 1959, and is probably best known for launching Bob Dylan’s career and as the site of his notorious 1965 performance, where he went electric and changed the face of both folk and rock music. This past weekend, nearly 18,000 people descended upon Fort Adams, an 18th Century military base situated on the pristine shores of Newport, Rhode Island, for the 51st performance of this historic concert. It was my first time at a music festival, and the relaxed air of the folk fest proved to be a great introduction to the festival experience.
On Saturday morning, my friends and I departed Providence behind schedule and anxiously drove across the state, hoping to make it in time for Blitzen Trapper’s set. We drove through the quaint Newport streets, passing mansions and battling traffic, finally making it to the scenic hilltop that hosted the festival. As we entered the gates, we heard the first chords of “Furr” and excitedly ran to the Harbor Stage, arriving just in time to see our favorite song. The memory of the day’s shaky start melted away as we stood in the blissful aura of the crowd, watching the Seattle folk rockers finish up their set.
We left the Harbor Stage satisfied that we had caught “Furr,” and began wandering around, scouring the numerous vendors for free food (thanks CLIF) and just taking in the gorgeous sites. After watching snippets of sets by the foot-stompin’ O’Death, the incredible mandolin and banjo based bluegrass of Sam Bush, and the soulful Brandi Carlile, we settled back down at the Harbor Stage to watch one of my favorite artists, Jim James of My Morning Jacket (performing as Yim Yames). As James took the stage, replacing Sam Bush, the average age of the crowd was cut in half, as its size nearly doubled. People drifted off between sets and we snagged seats about 12 rows from the stage, watching the bearded James, dressed in a stylish maroon suit and sunglasses, set up.
After a few minutes, James began his set with the Monsters of Folk tune “His Master’s Voice,” and I gazed admiringly, pretty much like this, as he stood alone on the stage, plucking his acoustic guitar and singing like an angel. The crowd seemed to share my adoration, as everyone sat enraptured by James’ intimate performance, only breaking their silence for an occasional hoot or holler as he showed off his vocal range and an explosion of applause after each song. He continued his beautiful, heartfelt set with an unreleased song called “Wonderful (The Way I Feel),” and the My Morning Jacket songs “Look at You,” “Tonight I Want to Celebrate With You,” and “Bermuda Highway.” At this point, he took a moment to remember his friend, cartoonist and musician John Callahan, who had passed away the week before, dedicating the performance to him and playing a cover of Callahan’s song “Summer Never Ends.” He continued with “It Beats 4 U” and a very subdued version of “What A Wonderful Man,” both of which carried a new gravity in light of James’ earnest tribute. Continuing the festival's collaborative tradition, he called up his friends Ben Sollee and Daniel Martin Moore, who recently released an album to raise awareness for mountain top removal, which James produced. They added a cello, bass, and drums to James’ acoustic guitar, picking up the pace on the next few songs, before ending the stellar set with knockout versions of “Smokin’ From Shootin’” and “Gideon.”
As the sun shined on our smiling faces, we hurried over to the Main Stage to watch Andrew Bird, who stood on the huge platform all by himself, playing his violin, surrounded by the bevy of other instruments and equipment he would use during his set. Bird started off by playing what he called “musical ideas,” bits and pieces of music that weren’t really fully formed songs yet. We ended up making our way towards the front of the stage, and stumbled upon a small group of people dancing off to the side, in front of the press tents. We immediately joined in, jumping around joyously and uninhibited, as Bird was accompanied on stage by Calexico, and launched into “Plasticities,” “A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head,” and “Tables and Chairs.” People stared at us. And laughed. And took pictures. But we didn’t care. It was one of those special moments that music festivals seem to induce, where strangers come together, and yell as loud as they can that “oooh there will be snacks there will.” We tried to get other people to join, and attempted to orchestrate a group clap, but the crowd seemed more content to just lounge around on the lawn, only half paying attention to Bird’s impressive set.
As the day wound down, and the sun began to approach the sailboats on the horizon, we decided to check out one more band before leaving. As we approached the smaller Quad Stage, Dawes had just finished their set, but, continuing the day’s good fortune, they asked, “Anybody wanna hear one more?” and came back out for a rare encore. I had never heard of these guys, but they instantly won me over with their uplifting anthem, “I Got a Feeling,” and sent me off with my favorite song of the day, which is still stuck in my head. After the first stanza, front man Taylor Goldsmith called his father, a musician and former member of Sweathog, onstage to help him belt out the catchy refrain. The crowd joined in, chanting elatedly as Taylor strummed his guitar and hopped around the stage with childish excitement, seemingly thrilled at how the crowd had embraced his band. Dawes was a real pleasant surprise and, after seeing their rousing performance, I discovered that this California band released a beautiful album last summer called North Hills, filled with warm harmonies reminiscent of fellow Laurel Canyonmusicians Crosby, Stills, and Nash. They are definitely one of the most promising young bands on the Americana scene, and Goldsmith has joined forces with a couple of other rising folk stars, from Deer Tick and Matt Vasquez from Delta Spirit, and is slated to release an album with them sometime this year.
This wasn't a huge music festival, and I only saw some of the band's on just one of the two days, but it was still one of my greatest music going experiences. During his set Jim James mused at “what a miracle it all is,” asking “how can things be so great?” Wonderful music, perfect weather, and lots of cheerful people, all set against a picturesque backdrop, can make things great, and the Newport Folk Festival was nothing short of that.