Words by: Andrew Bruss | Images by: Amanda Albion
Newport Folk Festival :: 08.02.08 – 08.03.08 :: Fort Adams State Park :: Newport, RI
The Newport Folk Festival has an incredibly rich history, and although its current incarnation is quite distant from the festival where Bob Dylan plugged in his electric guitar, the ideas and philosophy behind the event have very much stayed the same. Headliners such as The Black Crowes and Jimmy Buffett and the Coral Reefer Band aren't exactly the troubadours that once topped the bill, but underneath the bigger ticket sellers was a lineup consisting of talent whose tunes and performances were very much in the vein of the folk music that launched this fest in the first place.
| Newport Folk Festival 2008|
Acts like Stephen Marley & Damian Marley and ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro aren't exactly playing folk music, but artists like Kate Taylor (sister of James), Gillian Welch, Richie Havens and a solo acoustic set by Jim James of My Morning Jacket offered up a modern, 21st Century application of the art form.
Saturday :: 08.03.08
Saturday's lineup started off with overlapping sets by Jakob Dylan and Richie Havens. Havens' set on the main stage was highlighted by an opening cover of Bob Dylan's "All Along The Watchtower," followed by a handful of his solo material before he closed his set with a shortened version of The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again" that featured Havens adapting that tweaky synth riff with some articulate finger picking.
| Trey Anastasio :: Newport Folk 2008|
Following Havens' performance, Trey Anastasio dished out a set chocked full of his former band's material that's sure to add to the rumors of a reunion tour in the making. Alone onstage with nothing more than an acoustic guitar, Trey started things off with "Brian and Robert," followed by "Farmhouse" and continued moving through more and more Phish staples like "Bouncing Around the Room," "Waste," "Wilson" and an encore performance of "Chalkdust Torture." The general take on the setlist was that Trey understood full well that nobody was interested in hearing "Shine" or "Mister Completely," and given the enthusiasm he exhibited onstage, it's pretty fair to say he was just as eager to dish out the older stuff as his fans were to be hearing it.
While Big Red was getting nostalgic on the main dubbed the Fort Stage, Steve Earle and spouse Allison Moorer were getting busy at the second largest performance space, the tented Harbor Stage. During this set, torrential rains broke out, which wound up complicating set times and logistics for the rest of the day. Following a set that featured everything from bluegrass licks to an onstage DJ, Earle commented to JamBase that he liked playing Newport Folk. "The tradition itself is great, and it's really a dead end out here, so I just like to watch the looks on the rich people's faces when the hippie bus comes to town," said Earle.
While Earle was performing to a crowd taking shelter under the tent, American Babies began playing a on the smallest Waterfront Stage prior to a Fort Stage performance that neither the crowd nor the band anticipated them playing. Given the intensity of the rain, things on the Fort Stage were put on hold and Stephen and Damian Marley's set was pushed back. Tom Hamilton, frontman of American Babies commented to JamBase, "It was weird using the Marley's gear. We played our set at the small stage, which was fantastic, and then as I walked off the stage, Jay Sweet, who is involved in putting on the festival says, 'Do you guys want to play the main stage because the Marley's aren't even here.' Hamilton added, "It was fucking awesome, fucking rocking out there in the rain. This is my absolute favorite festival that I've ever played. The audience is amazing."
| She & Him :: Newport Folk 2008|
Joe Russo, drummer of American Babies, in addition to the Benevento/Russo Duo, commented, "I would rather be playing here than a lot of other festivals. For American Babies, this is exactly where we need to be. We're not a jam band."
As the rain kept coming down, the audience in front of the Fort Stage was significantly diminished, and as a result, the majority of the attendees found themselves trying to pack in under one of the two smaller tents. She & Him, a neo-folk act consisting of modern day troubadour M. Ward and actress Zooey Deschanel, played to an enthusiastic crowd at the Harbor Stage while Martha's Vineyard native Willy Mason played to an overcapacity crowd on the Waterside Stage.
Over the years, the promoters of the Newport Folk Festival have had to make plenty of sacrifices to stay commercially viable. The lineup is far from as traditional as it once was, and the incorporation of corporate sponsorship is something many attendees frown upon. And given the changes the festival has seen over the years, a change in its target demographic was sure to follow. Baby Boomers looking to take part in a staple of '60s culture were in constant conflict with the behavior and tendencies of the younger generation, who view Newport Folk as just one of many great lineups this summer. One of the most noticeable conflicts was the arranged seating. Following She & Him, Jim James was set to take the stage for what turned out to be one of the most memorable performances of the weekend. While younger fans got as close to the foot of the stage as possible, the Boomers in the back were consistently shouting, "Down in front!" only to be rebutted by their younger counterparts responding, "Stand up! It's a festival." Although Boomers may feel a certain entitlement to having their way given the festival's history, the weather necessitated shelter - in any way, shape, or form it could be found - and given the fact that the tent was packed with seats, hundreds of people were left watching James' set in the rain outside of a tent that was at best, half capacity by general admission standards.
| M. Ward & Jim James :: Newport Folk 2008|
Although the seating situation was a cause of confrontation, Jim James met everyone's expectations in dishing out one of, if not the, single most memorable performance of the weekend. With My Morning Jacket's most recent release, Evil Urges, debuting at #9 on the charts, it seems like solo sets by the group's frontman will become less and less frequent. As a result, his performance brought that much more anticipation. Taking the stage in a brown suit, he began toying around with an Omnichord before moseying into "Tonight I Want To Celebrate With You." Throughout the set he kept toggling between the Omnichord and his acoustic guitar, and pal M. Ward gave him a hand on six-string duties during "What A Wonderful Man," "Golden" and an untitled tune James told JamBase will appear on a project the two are working on with Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst and Calexico. As James continued to plow through a set of My Morning Jacket tunes, he brought things to a climactic finish with "Gideon" and a tweaked-out take on "Anytime" that closed the set with a spastic loop on his Omnichord.
| Chris Robinson :: Newport Folk 2008|
Following his set, James commented to JamBase, "[It] was a good time. It's weird because it was a tent in the rain, but it feels like every time I play it rains, so I'm used to it by now." As far as the contrast between his solo performance and a My Morning Jacket set, he said, "It is [different] but it isn't. It's a different thing, but it's kind of the same. I like it always. It's our thing, because we're all about variety."
With James' set in the past, the only acts left for the day were Cat Power and a headline performance by The Black Crowes on the Fort Stage. Plenty of people had left early due to the weather, and as a result, the crowd in front of the Fort Stage was a fraction of the crowd Trey saw earlier in the day. Regardless, the Crowes kicked things off in a way that paid tribute to the festival and its history. Rather than diving head first into their brand of "freak 'n' roll," the Robinson Brothers came out on their own, each wielding an acoustic guitar to start things off with Bob Dylan's "Girl From North Country" followed by "He Was A Friend of Mine," a folk staple played by everyone from Willie Nelson to The Byrds.
Following their acoustic mini-set, the rest of the group joined them to tear through a chunk of new material off their recent release, Warpaint, such as "Whoa Mule," and "Goodbye Daughters of the Revolution." Their set peaked with the ever-popular "Jealous Again," before they wrapped things up with a version of "Thorn In My Pride" that featured an extended guitar solo and some serious blues harp work by Chris Robinson.
Continue reading for Sunday coverage...