Newport Folk Festival | 08.01 & 08.02 | RI

Words by: Bear Connelly | Images by: Jim Brueckner

Newport Folk Festival :: 08.01.09 & 08.02.09 :: Fort Adams State Park :: Newport, RI

Newport Folk Fest 2009
The Newport Folk Festival is one of the longest running music festivals in America, and this year she celebrated her 50th anniversary (the festival did not take place from 1971-1985) with a huge array of artists spanning generations, countries and languages. The deep historical context of the festival resonates highly with the artists that play here, making it quite a destination for musicians and fans of the greater folk world. Dylan went electric here and Joan Baez played the first ever festival in 1959. NWFF is located at Fort Adams State Park, a defunct Naval base nestled in the harbor of the sailing mecca of Newport, Rhode Island. The festival has three stages, the main stage sitting right in front of the fort overlooking a huge lawn that leads to the ocean, and two tents containing smaller stages also along the water. Thousands of people attend each year, setting up blankets and lawn chairs and basking in the sunshine and music for two days every August. Due to the location, boats are encouraged to pull up close and drop anchor and listen to the music while swimming and playing in the water. This is truly a festival you need to see once in your life, if not many times.

As always there were so many great bands playing that I kind of felt like a chicken running around with his head cut off in order to see them all. For some artists, I only caught a couple songs, like folk legends Baez (whose voice has sadly lowered in register over the years) and Arlo Guthrie (who is an amazing storyteller) to Joe Pug (a young working class, Dylan-esque folkie from Chicago belting tunes like "My Father's Drugs" with a Midwest snarl). With a festival as diverse as Newport – acts range from Mavis Staples to Brett Dennen, 23-year old John McCauley (Deer Tick) to 90-year old Pete Seeger - there was something for everyone.

Here are some of the highlights from this year's event, and you can also listen to all these sets at npr.org.

Ben Kweller

The Avett Brothers :: NFF 2009
As I walked in to the festival I headed straight for the first music I could hear. I stumbled in to the Harborside Tent to find Ben Kweller playing with a stripped down version of his band. There was Ben, decked out in a sleeveless NYC t-shirt, jeans and boots (which reminded my of that classic John Lennon pic) with a drummer and a dobro/pedal steel player. Kweller cranked through tunes like "13," which was apparently written about a night out in Block Island, an island off the coast of Rhode Island, and "Gypsy Love" with a great sense of enjoyment at being at this historical festival. He even tried out tunes that he normally plays on piano in the spirit of guitar driven folk music. The highlight of his set was a crowd sing-along version of "Falling" dedicated to Kelly, a girl who worked at the festival that asked if he would play it, despite the lack of a piano on stage.

The Avett Brothers

I haven't really listened to The Avett Brothers but with the electricity of their live shows you don't really need to in order to enjoy them. The North Carolina natives brought their brand of psych-emo, energetic folk-grass to the festival for the second time in as many years. The band ran through live staples such as "Paranoia in B flat Major" and "Ballad of Love and Hate," along with new tunes off their upcoming album I and Love and You like "Kick Drum Heart" with little disparity for a newcomer. Read: their new tunes kick as much ass as their old ones.

Tom Morello/The Nightwatchman

Given the fact that Tom Morello is a Harvard educated, political junkie, effects infused shredder, I was perhaps most curious to see what he had in store for a folk festival. Morello, armed simply with a nylon string guitar (that had "Whatever It Takes" scrawled on it in black marker) and his rustic baritone voice played songs such as "Dogs of Tijuana" and "One Man Revolution." Morello also mentioned how excited he was to play at the same festival as the legendary Pete Seeger. He dedicated his tune "The Road I Must Travel" to Seeger, who Morello believes is "a living body of justice-ness and righteousness," and is glad that "in a world of passport carrying jackasses there are people like Seeger to balance it out."

Gillian Welch

Gillian Welch :: NFF 2009
Fan favorite Gillian Welch delighted the main stage crowd yet again (in the three years I've been, she's been there every time) with a nice mix of songs from her entire repertoire. Apparently she and her partner, Rhode Island native Dave Rawlings, had to get a police escort from Boston just to make their set after a five-hour flight delay at LAX. Welch joked that she felt "Like Mirabelli getting escorted to the Sox game in order to catch Wakey a couple years back," referring to Red Sox catcher Doug Mirabelli's return trip to Fenway after being reacquired mid-season. Although sleep deprived and unkempt, they didn't let the jetlag stop them from delivering angst melting tunes like "Orphan Girl," "My First Lover" and "Look at Miss Ohio," the latter featuring a blistering solo from Rawlings, who is perhaps the tastiest guitarist in Americana music today. Midway through the set, she debuted her haunting version of Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit" to the crowd's enjoyment.

Mavis Staples

One of the more historical acts at the festival was the gospel stylings of Mavis Staples and her energetic band. Staples' set included a rousing rendition of The Band's "The Weight," which she sang at The Last Waltz with The Staple Singers 30 years ago, and "Why Am I Treated So Bad," her father's song written after a conversation with Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Low Anthem

Hometown heroes number one (Deer Tick being number two) played their first set of presumably many to come at Newport after a whirlwind summer that saw them playing all over the world, including sets at Bonnaroo, Hyde Park and Roskilde Festival (read about Roskilde here). Since releasing Oh My God Charlie Darwin on Nonesuch (and Bella Union in Europe) the band has been touring relentlessly and it shows. The once awkward folkies that could barely play their secondary instruments - there is a clarinet, French horn, upright bass, drums, organ, acoustic and electric guitars and crotales on stage, with all three members rotating between them for each song - have tightened their sound to captivate the audience, which overflowed the small Waterside Tent they played in. The band played some new, unreleased tunes that held water alongside older gems like "Ballad of Broken Bones" and "To Ohio." The highlight for me came with their take on the traditional "Don't Let Nobody Turn You Around" that featured guitarist/singer Ben Knox Miller on drums, Jeff Prystowsky on upright bass and clarinetist Jocie Adams showing off her electric guitar chops, all of which showcased the band's growing versatility.

Iron & Wine

Fleet Foxes :: Newport Folk Fest 2009
Sam Beam played a solo acoustic set on Saturday afternoon to a packed Harborside Tent. Beam, whose wispy vocals and percussive yet intricate guitar picking was a perfect soundtrack for a sunny afternoon on the water. He started his set off with a cover of Postal Service's "Such Great Heights" that quickly turned into a group sing-along after he forgot the words to the chorus. Next came the stomping "Woman King," which induced some of the crowd (mostly seated) to dance. Beam had great stage presence, talking about how "beautiful but distracting" the view from the stage was and handling catcalls like a woman in the crowd who yelled, "I want to live in your beard... because it seems like a warm place to sit," with a quick wit. Beam closed his set with the fan favorite (and Twilight soundtrack hit) "Flightless Bird, American Mouth," which left the audience standing and cheering for an encore. Beam sheepishly walked back on stage to deliver "Sunset Soon Forgotten," a wonderful finger picking tune off Our Endless Numbered Days.

Fleet Foxes

I was really interested in checking out the Fleet Foxes, one of the past two years' biggest hype bands. I really like their harmonies and arrangements on the album and wanted to see if they could pull it off live. Well, they killed it. Unfortunately, their small discography lead to them basically playing their album and EP in their entirety. However, getting a main stage slot at Newport is quite a feat for such a young band. Songs like "White Winter Hymnal" and "Oliver James" oozed lush melodies and dispersed waves of their "baroque harmonic pop jams" amongst the festival-goers and aquatic onlookers.

The Decemberists

The Decemberists :: Newport Folk Fest 2009
Saturday's headliner (other than Pete Seeger, who closed both nights as more of an honorary guest) brought their literary folk rock to the main stage for the first time. Armed with a plethora of vocalists and rare instruments (like the hurdy-gurdy), the band ripped through a greatest hits set - they've been playing their folk opera, The Hazards of Love, in its entirety most nights this tour - including "The Crane Wife Part 3" and upbeat closer "Sons and Daughters." Mid-set the band's Decemberists Family Players acted out a scene from the Festival's storied past - the day Dylan went electric. Four people represented festival founder George Wein, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and a squirrel to act out a scene inspired by Seeger's famous comments after hearing Dylan go electric ("Damn it, if I had an axe, I'd cut the cable right now") referring to shutting down the sound system.

Dave Rawlings Machine

For those of you who don't know, David Rawlings Machine is just him and Gillian Welch but with reversed roles. They play his songs instead of hers and he sings lead vocals to her harmonies. These two are amazingly captivating with just two guitars and voices. Rawlings, known as a producer and session guitarist mostly, ran through wonderful cover songs ranging from Bright Eyes' "Method Acting" to Dylan's "Queen Jane Approximately," Ryan Adams' "To Be Young (Is to be sad, is to be high)" (which he co-wrote) to "Big Rock Candy Mountain." The set was so fierce that the late morning crowd called for an encore, which is usually reserved for headlining acts. Dave answered the call with a foot stomping, hand clapping cover of Johnny Cash's "Jackson."

Neko Case

Neko Case :: Newport Folk Fest 2009
Also known in the indie world for her work with the New Pornographers, Neko Case has been churning out great alt-country albums on her own for years. Supporting her latest, critically acclaimed album, Middle Cyclone (JamBase review here), Case played the main stage on Sunday. She barreled through songs from her whole repertoire including "Wish I Was the Moon," "Hold On Hold On" and her roaring new single "This Tornado Loves You." Not only does Case have one of the best lovesick howls in the business but her backing singer Kelly Hogan (who has also sung with Andrew Bird, The Minus 5 and Edith Frost) provided a nice layer on which Case could stray more and show off her pipes. After a standing ovation from the crowd, who spent her set in lawn chairs, Case ripped through a stellar version of The Shangri-La's "The Train from Kansas City" as an ode to female groups of yesteryear.

Deer Tick

The second hometown favorite of the festival was the fast-rising Deer Tick. The band took the stage while leader John McCauley III stated, "I don't know what an acoustic guitar is. Give me one and I'll try to plug it in. Let's do it like Dylan did!" before launching into the raucous "Easy" off the band's latest album, Born on Flag Day. Before their second tune, "Little White Lies," a fan from the mostly seated crowd asked, "Can we stand up? We just want to dance." After the okay from security, chairs were moved out of the way and the littlest tent of the festival gave birth to its biggest dance party. Deer Tick plowed through their songs showcasing new, full band arrangements to previously mellow acoustic songs on their albums. Even when the solo song "A Song About A Man" was played the rest of the band sang three-part harmonies, where the last time I saw them they just left the stage. After a guest spot from singer Liz Isenberg on "Friday the XIII" and a cover of John Prine's "Aimless Love," the band brought down the house with a rockin' take on "La Bamba," which seemed very genuine and relevant despite coming from a 23-year-old white kid from North Providence, RI.

Elvis Perkins in Dearland

Pete Seeger :: NFF 2009
Playing the festival for the second time, the singer-songwriter and his energetic, multi-instrumentalist band (they all play horns and some other primary instrument) closed down the Harborside Stage on Sunday. Half the band attended Brown University and his bassist was from Newport, so there was kind of a homecoming vibe to Dearland's set. Despite suffering some tragedies within his own family (his dad, actor Anthony Perkins died from AIDS, while his mom was on board one of the planes that hit the World Trade Center), he is able to sing positive, "live in the moment" style songs that shine bright lights on to the dark zones of the human mind. Perkins, who understands the gravity of playing at such a storied festival, treated the crowd to his own gems like "Chains Chains Chains" and "Shampoo" while mixing in covers like "Weeping Mary" and "Four Strong Winds." Set closer "Doomsday" had Elvis singing: "Man, I went wild last night.../ I don't let doomsday bother me/ Do you let it bother you?"

Pete Seeger

It's a rare opportunity to see a living legend these days. I felt this way when I saw Ray Charles. Pete Seeger IS folk music. Marking both his 90th birthday and the 50th anniversary of the festival he helped create, Seeger treated the crowd to a sing-along set that started with the help of his grandson Tao Rodriguez-Seeger. Pete played "Turn Turn Turn" and "Midnight Special," saying the lyrics before each line was to be sung so no one in the crowd had an excuse to not sing. It was great to hear the stories behind all these songs - this man knows who wrote the songs we all know as "traditional"! Midway through his sunset set, Seeger invited "every musician who played today" on stage for huge group versions of "Guantanamera," "If I Had a Hammer" and the obvious closer, "This Land is Your Land." Never again will I see Colin Meloy singing with Tom Morello, Ben Kweller sharing a mic with The Low Anthem's Jocie Adams or Seeger himself singing with Gillian Welch and Ramblin' Jack Elliot. It's moments like these that make the kinship, history and stature of this festival what it is today.

Final Song led by Pete Seeger featuring everyone!
Continue reading for more pics of Newport Folk Festival 2009...


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