Preview | Newport Folk Festival

Words by: Jeffrey Greenblatt

Newport Folk Festival :: 07.26-28.13 :: Fort Adams State Park :: Newport, CT

This weekend the granddaddy of all music fests – the Newport Folk Festival – will get under way with three days of roots, folk, funk, soul and rock or what can basically be defined as quintessential American music. For the 2013 installment, Newport Folk has grown in size by officially expanding to a three-day format. The fest, which will once again be streamed live on NPR featuring both audio and video, had essentially sold out well in advance for the third year in a row. That was before a single artist on the lineup had even announced - a testament to fans’ knowing that they could once again count on seeing an exceptional assortment of acts. This year's edition of the Newport Folk Festival officially kicks off on Friday afternoon at roughly 2:25 p.m. with a set from Hey Marseilles, and will wrap up around dusk on Sunday night, with a fest-closing set from Beck.

Founded in 1959 by George Wein as an offshoot of his already successful and well- established Jazz Festival, and possibly most famous as the place where Bob Dylan shunned the folk world when he went electric in 1965. The festival fell on hard times and was forced into taking a 14-year hiatus starting in 1971 before it was revived in 1985 – and has been thriving ever since with its eclectic lineups that have featured everything from folk to funk to New Orleans brass-bands to arena-sized rock.

Over the years the iconic fest has hosted a veritable who’s who of musicians from Joan Baez to Johnny Cash to Muddy Waters in its classic years, and more recently has seen the likes of My Morning Jacket, Fleet Foxes, Neko Case and even Trey Anastasio log time at the Fort's tents and stages.

This year’s lineup is no slouch either, featuring the likes of the Avett Brothers, Feist, Beck, The Felice Brothers, Deer Tick's John McCauley, Phosphorescent and Feist. With so many bands that I’m genuinely excited about seeing over the course of the weekend, (which includes Father John Misty, who I had the pleasure of writing about for the lineup reveal) I thought I’d focus on three from each day, that I’ve got my eye on and that might be a little bit under-the-radar…

Day One - Friday, July 26

The Milk Carton Kids - Quad Stage, 2:35 p.m.

With Newport organizers once again stretching the boundaries of what you think folk music is, The Milk Carton Kids harken back to the fest's early days. The duo of Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan's music is steeped in a sound straight out of the Greenwich Village pass-the-hat folk revival of the early 1960's. Armed with just acoustic guitars, the pair combine top-notch finger-picking with stunning honey-sweet vocals that evoke both the Everly Brothers and Simon & Garfunkel, as well as contemporary folk heroes Gillian Welch & David Rawlings. If you're looking to gently ease yourself into the festivities, you're going to want to find yourself a seat or a patch a grass at the Quad Stage to sit back and enjoy what will be a lovely set of acoustic folk tunes, and likely include some quality stage banter to boot.

JD McPherson - Fort Stage, 3:35 p.m.

You may think you've hopped into Doc Brown's DeLorean and headed straight to back to Newport, RI circa 1955 if you swing by the Fort Stage around mid-afternoon for J.D. McPherson. The singer-guitarist is one of the more interesting acts on the bill, as he lays down music that is completely immersed in sounds of 1950's R&B and early rock & roll - think Dion & The Belmonts, Fats Domino and Buddy Holly - and unlike anything else at Newport this year. McPherson and his band expertly and faithfully put a modern spin on the roots of American music. I'm fully expecting to see ladies in bobby socks and saddle shoes wearing poodle skirts, and guys with greased-back hair and a pack of cigarettes rolled up in their sleeves. Heck everything might go from color to black and white for his set.

Old Crow Medicine Show - Fort Stage, 6:30 p.m.

Long before it was cool to play acoustic foot-stomping Americana music, there was the Old Crow Medicine Show. The Nashville-based band, which has been around since 1998, could arguably be credited with planting the seeds of the genre’s current boom – thanks in part to the popularity of their “breakout hit” "Wagon Wheel." Last year the band welcomed back founding member Critter Fuqua for their first album since 2008, delivering a modern Americana classic steeped in bourbon-soaked bluegrass, dusty country and traditional Appalachian folk sounds. While there has been a question about the authenticity of the newer generation of roots acts, OCMS are undoubtedly the real McCoy. Old Crow has toured and shared the stage with a number of the acts playing at Newport this year, so don't be surprised to see plenty of sit-ins throughout the weekend both during their set and with any number of other bands.

Day Two - Saturday, July 27

Hurray For The Riff Raff – Quad Stage, 11:45 a.m.

Barely into her twenties, Hurray For The Riff Raff front woman Alynda Lee Segarra’s life story is the living embodiment of a folk song. Her weird and winding tale is something straight out of a Jack Kerouac novel. At just 17-years-old she ran away from her home in the Bronx to hop freight trains across the country, found herself playing washboard in a band of fellow travelers and eventually landed in New Orleans where she taught herself to play the banjo and began writing songs on her own. Segarra has channeled those experiences into her music, with wise-beyond-her-years lyrics set to country-infused folk-blues, all punctuated by her cooing warbly vocals.

Houndmouth – Harbor Tent, 1:35 p.m.

Houndmouth are the new kids on the block. Formed in 2011 and hailing from New Albany, IN the four-piece act may look too fresh-faced to being singing road-weary tales about drug deals, running from the law and excessive whiskey drinking. Yet they sound completely believable as you get instantly drawn in by their big, rollicking, modern Americana sound. Much like The Band, the members of Houndmouth liberally share lead vocal duties from song to song, while fantastically blending divergent harmonies, on a mix of Southern rock, soul, folk and roots.

Shovels & Rope - Quad Stage, 2:30 p.m.

Both the White Stripes and the Black Keys proved with authority that you could play ferocious blues-based rock as a simple two-piece consisting entirely of guitar and drums. Shovels & Rope are out to show people that you can also play raw foot-stomping country- folk with the same minimalist setup. The husband-and-wife duo of Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst lay down a particular infectious brand of ramshackle Americana powered by Hearst’s booming Southern-drawl drenched vocals, that draws influences from rowdy honky- tonk to classic country to Delta Blues and everything in between. After listening to the band’s debut you can imagine Shovels & Rope playing an imaginary roadhouse where skinny- jeaned Brooklyn hipsters mingle effortless with Southerners wearing cowboy hats.

Day Three - Sunday, July 28

Cold Specks - Quad Stage, 11:45 a.m.

While there are any number of candidates to walk away with the distinction of "break-out artist," from this year's edition of Newport Folk, I've got my money on Al Spx, who goes by the stage moniker of Cold Specks. With a haunting and sultry voice, the singer- songwriter offers up something that she has dubbed "doom soul" - which breaks down as something like equal parts folk, gospel, blues and slow-burn soul. With songs that begin with simple ethereal vocals and build into epic crescendo, Cold Speck will be taking everyone to church with her early Sunday slot that will likely have many praising her talent by its end.

Ramblin' Jack Elliot – Fort Stage, 1:55 p.m.

With a lineup stacked almost exclusively with contemporary acts, it’s easy to overlook the fact that there is genuine folk royalty on the bill - Ramblin’ Jack Elliot.The singer- songwriter could be considered something of the missing link between the old-weird-America of dust-bowl ballads and Appalachian folk music and Greenwich Village’s politically charged scene – holding the distinction of having toured with Woody Guthrie and mentoring a young Bob Dylan. Fusing traditional folk sounds with blues, Cowboy songs, bluegrass and country music, Elliot has influenced everyone from Dylan to Townes Van Zandt to the members of the Grateful Dead, to acts like the Felice Brothers to Justin Townes Earle to the Old Crow Medicine Show. At 81-years-old he is one of the last of the original folk troubadours, so don’t overlook his main stage set.

Bonnie "Prince" Billy & Dawn McCarthy - Harbor Tent, 5:40 p.m.

It’s unfortunate that The Everly Brothers aren’t as fawned upon by the current generation of music fans as the acts that were heavily influenced by them. The duo, who are arguably the most successful recording duo of all-time, were known for their close harmony singing which fused early rock and roll with country and folk. As a way of paying homage to the work of Phil and Don Everly, the duo of Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Dawn McCarthy, who grew up listening to the Everlys’ music, released the 13-track tribute What the Brothers Sang, that digs deep into the Everly's catalog. The pair, who have a long history together and whose vocals blend expertly, have taken the Everly's oft-slick sound and dragged it through the dusty back roads of modern Americana.

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[Published on: 7/23/13]

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