Words by: Andrew Bruss :: Images by: Chris Petersson
Newport Folk Festival :: 08.04.07 :: Newport, Rhode Island
While Billy Corgan was smashing it up at the Virgin Festival, and Pearl Jam was rocking out at Lollapalooza, artists like the Allman Brothers and the John Butler Trio were adding another chapter to the decades long history of Rhode Island's legendary Newport Folk Festival.
| Newport Folk Festival :: 08.04.07|
Gone are the days when the festival's ridged, folk-oriented lineup cultivated an environment that actually booed Dylan's first electric performance (7/25/65). In 2007, fiscal difficulties necessitated the festival be "presented" by Dunkin Donuts. However, as much as things have changed, plenty has stayed the same. Even with a lineup that has grown well outside the comfort zone of acoustic folk, the promoters have continued to book artists whose roots are progressive, and whose musical tales are worthy of being heard.
Roughly 15 years ago, the site of the festival was transplanted from a local baseball field to Fort Adams State Park, a site built as a naval facility in 1824. With the stone walls of the fort behind the stage, and the harbor to the audience's backs, the new location provided a beautiful environment that rivals any major American music festival.
As the sun reached the high peak of the day, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals dished out their Bonnie Raitt-meets-Mick Jagger brand of neo-old-school rock 'n' roll. Unfortunately, due to a red eye flight to Newport from the West Coast, the group was exhausted and didn't seem to be packing the energy that earned them a main stage slot after last year's side stage performance. Regardless, from the moment they kicked into "Ah Mary" off their newly released, This Is Somewhere, Grace and Co. put on an authentic set of twanged-out rock tunes that had everyone in the crowd engaged.
| Grace Potter and the Nocturnals :: Newport :: 08.04|
Following Potter's set, the John Butler Trio had everyone wrapped around their finger in no time. The trio has played their fair share of festivals, so to assume that this was just another gig for them would be a fair assumption. However, when JamBase caught up with Butler prior to his performance, he commented, "I'm stoked to be here. It's such a legendary festival. I've wanted to play this one for the last, I don't know, however many years. It just feels good to be here." As for comments about Newport's arguably low-key lineup, Butler was quick to rebut, "It's not quantity, it's quality." Butler performed one of the more qualitative sets of the day. His unique brand of bluesy, folked-out rock gave everyone in the crowd something to chew on.
While John Butler was mesmerizing the crowd with his 12-string guitar, Tom Morello introduced the crowd to his folk alias, The Nightwatchman (read JamBase's Tom Morello feature here). For those of you who may not have followed the project, the Rage Against The Machine and Audioslave guitarist has embraced a Joe Hill-meets-Joe Strummer persona that's abandoned his signature pickup-tweaking guitar tone for an acoustic guitar with the phrase "Whatever It Takes" sprawled across the body.
| John Butler Trio :: Newport :: 08.04|
During the set, Morello made a point to mention that for him, playing Newport was pulling a "Dylan in reverse." He explained that Bob Dylan came to Newport to "go electric," where he came to Newport to leave the amp at home and "go acoustic." This statement spoke to the fact that even though the festival has strayed from its roots, the promoters are still conscious of offering their audience performances that push the boundaries of industry norms. And more than that, they're booking bands that offer a bit of the old and a taste of the new.
The Nightwatchman's set consisted of tunes primarily off of his sole studio album, One Man Revolution, but also featured interesting choices like a 12-bar-blues cover of Rage's "Guerilla Radio" and a set-closing cover of Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land." For a crowd of folks in "What Would Woody Do?" t-shirts, the set closer was a brilliant choice. Roughly one third of the crowd seemed to be Rage Against The Machine fans that would love anything Morello played. However, the majority of the audience consisted of middle-aged folkies, fans of the Newport tradition but not The Nightwatchman. By offering a set-closing tune that the majority could connect with Morello managed to perform one of the most talked about sets of the day.
| Tom Morello :: Newport Folk Fest :: 08.04|
Back on the main stage, following a set of southern grit by the North Mississippi Allstars, the Allman Brothers kicked off their headlining set with an energetic version of "Hot 'Lanta." They quickly took things into overdrive with "Trouble No More" followed by a crowd-pleasing "Midnight Rider." Many Newport regulars found it strange that the Allman's were booked to headline a festival which is primarily a folk outing. But such are the times. With events like Bonnaroo blowing genres wide open and mixing fans of all types, evolution in the festival world has to occur.
After The Pixies headlined Newport in 2004 with an acoustic set, the fact that the Newport Folk Festival was in for a change seemed obvious. And on a weekend when thousands of concertgoers were flocking to Baltimore and Chicago for the Virgin Festival and Lollapalooza, the Allman Brothers seemed to be a good choice. They're clearly more of a jam-rock band than a folk act, however, as the Wanee Festival has proven, they have the draw of a headliner. More importantly, they can sell tickets to Umphreaks while offering the Joan Baez crowd something familiar.
| Haynes & Trucks - ABB :: Newport :: 08.04.07|
Sure enough, every demographic in the audience seemed to appreciate the choice. While kids in tie-dye shirts air noodled to "In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed," the folkies were instantly turned on by the cover of The Band's "The Weight," featuring the North Mississippi Allstars' Luther Dickinson on guitar. As the sun began to set behind the stage, and boaters in the harbor began amassing on the banks of Fort Adams, the Allman's closed with an articulate take on "Revival." The tune demonstrated to everyone in attendance why folks are saying that Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks are one of the best guitar duos on the road. More importantly, it ended the day's festivities on a note that couldn't have hit higher.
Things have clearly changed for the Newport Folk Festival. For those who fear change, the event's modern format could easily be considered an abomination. But, for the more open-minded concertgoer, the festival's current incarnation stands for everything right about the music they promote. Newport has managed to survive for almost 50 years of continuous shifts in musical fads while staying true to their core values. The lineup has changed drastically over the years, and the presence of corporate sponsorship is clearly something that long-time followers met with disdain. However, by standing the test of time, the festival's continual existence gives every up-and-coming festival a run for their money. Even with the changes made in recent years, festivals like Bonnaroo should consider themselves lucky to be in the game for a fraction of the run championed by the Newport Folk Festival.
| The Allman Brothers :: Newport :: 08.04.07|
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