Musicians Weigh In On What Makes Newport Folk So Special

By Scott Bernstein Jul 31, 2013 9:30 am PDT

We’ll have a full review and photo gallery from last weekend’s Newport Folk Festival up soon, but in the meantime we wanted to share an essay from JamBase contributor Andrew Bruss with photos by Amanda Ryan Albion. Bruss spoke with many of the musicians who performed at Newport Folk ’13 about what makes the event so special.

Selling out in advance of a lineup announcement helped make this year’s Newport Folk Festival among the most commercially successful in its 50+ years of existence. This was also the first weekend Promoter Jay Sweet booked three full days of music versus the traditional Saturday and Sunday schedule. From a fiscal standpoint, the festival is stronger than it has ever been, and there were some rough years. Sure, Coachella has accomplished the same pre-lineup sellout feat, but those ticket-buyers are paying for the hope of seeing an act like Daft Punk or Dr. Dre play their first performance in a decade. When Newport Folk Festival attendees purchase their tickets before an artist announcement, it’s because of the location they have already been assured.

Fort Adams was built with its hundreds of cannons to reach out into the Atlantic ocean, at the southern tip of the island, with the goal of keeping the British navy out of the Northeastern Atlantic corridor. The Kings Fleet knew the threat it posed and never confronted it, leaving Fort Adams intact and the State Park that it became to provide the perfect space for the celebration of American folk music once a weekend, every summer, for decades.

More than any of the start-up McMansion festivals of the past few summers, or even its worthy contemporaries, Newport Folk Festival takes place in a space that is always on the top of the bill. It didn’t matter to ticketholders if Beck, The Avett Brothers, Feist or Jim James of My Morning Jacket were going to be performing (they did), folks trusted the organization to put together a number of fitting acts to fill the hallowed walls of Fort Adams with music for a weekend.

Kingsley Flood played on Friday to a crowd front man Naseem Khuri said he was thrilled to be apart of. “Everyone is here for the right reasons,” he said, joking that, “We were playing yesterday and I was looking from the stage and didn’t know if I should focus on the people in front of me or the yachts out in the bay. I kept picturing battleships, fighting off the British.”

Joe Fletcher curated a nearly five-hour concert at the Museum Stage Saturday afternoon that featured nearly a dozen of his peer-performers from Nashville, bringing their Appalachian traditions to the harbors of New England. In regards to the space, the native Rhode Islander commented, “This fort and location is one of the most ideal for a festival and the size is perfect. Eight thousand people a day at four stages, nothing overwhelming, you still can’t see everyone you want to see but the size and location are what’s made it lasted. The fort goes along with the endurance of the festival itself. It’s the backbone of it all.”

Chris Funk, guitarist for The Decemberists, wasn’t on the bill, but hung out for the weekend, sitting in during Decemberists’ front man Colin Meloy’s solo slot with the rest of his band mates for a mini-Decemberists concert. Funk also played banjo during Beck’s weekend closing headlining slot. Beck described the unrehearsed jam with Funk, as well as other performers from throughout the weekend, as an “honest Newport Folk Jam.” Funk wasn’t even expected to be on site but still wound up performing more than other top-bill acts. He told JamBase a lot of this has to do with the space and the vibe of the festival. “[The space] feels smaller…It’s more intimate and feels more centrally located. The land isn’t that big here. The artists have dressing rooms, but [they’re] all just hanging out because it’s just so beautiful [here]. There is a history of that in folk, whether or not this is a true folk festival anymore, I think it’s pretty close to what it was and think that’s the history of the festival. It’s a place for people to come together to celebrate. [Newport Folk Festival feels] like a celebration of song craft, [more] than a festival based on commodity. It feels more like a celebration of a coming together.”

When Jim James was asked what makes Newport Folk so special, he had a very different answer: “Chris Funk and myself just had the first annual Newport staring contest. It was unanimously a success. They’re already calling it the greatest success in the history of the festival. Jay Sweet said it moved the whole Dylan [going electric] thing down to #2.”

Deer Tick is a group whose stock has skyrocketed in the past three years, but they’re never far from their Providence, Rhode Island roots. Front man John McCauley hosted an afterhours concert featuring plenty of guests in addition to a solo acoustic set inside the fort. When asked how the Newport gig was different from other shows, he commented, “It’s the only time I have had my mom on stage to sing [“Margaritaville”]. She is a Parrot Head and a Tick Head. It’s a cool gig. It’s in my backyard. I love it. I feel at home.”

The festival’s main Fort Stage is outside the fort itself, with the stone walls behind the stage and the harbor at the back of the audience. On the opposite side of that wall, inside the fort, the Quad Stage has the same wall at its back, providing incredible acoustics and an open field within the fort with green grass, vendors and a ring of brick walls that never allows you to forget the uniqueness of the space. The tunnel going under the wall that separates the stages just might have the best acoustics in the entire park.

The Harbor Stage lies on the western side of Fort Adams’ perimeter, nestled between a few right angles in the outer wall with a majestic view of the harbor on the side. Paul Duskin has been the Harbor Stage manager for over a dozen years and he understands better than anyone how the space contributes to the experience. During Amanda Palmer’s performance, Duskin told JamBase, “The walls of the fort around us, it creates an intimacy that makes the audience and artists very comfortable with each other. It’s the feeling of being in a large room. You can see it right now [pointing to the stage]. It’s acoustic and visuals.” He added, “The attitude of the audience, they’re just so comfortable. The artists…they’re just thrilled, they love it. It’s just so intimate.”

While Fort Adams is a big part in what makes Newport Folk Festival such a blast every summer, the experience isn’t a story about masonry. The attendees are a dream come true for many of the performers. Scott Stapleton of Phosphorescent said, “This crowd is so responsive and nice. A lot of places, they’re too cool for school. This festival seems more about the music than any festival I’ve been to. They are diehard music fans, not just hipsters.”

As far as the attendees, Joe Fletcher was in the same boat as Stapleton. “Everybody is in a really, really good mood here. You play in NYC and you’re facing a jaded audience that sees bands all the time and stands there waiting to be impressed. People here are open to it. This festival draws people who want to find the next thing they want to fall in love with. What seems to transpire every year here is a really incredible environment where people feel good and explore new things and the location itself makes it picture perfect.” When asked what he’d want JamBase Nation to know about the event, he wasn’t shy. “Anyone who loves music should travel here and be a part of the Newport Folk weekend,” He said.

Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers performed a few times throughout the weekend, on main stages and the children’s stage. Nicki’s husband, Tim Bluhm, is a Grambler and the front man for The Mother Hips. While Jim James performed in the background, Bluhm said, “At a festival like Newport, the audience, the people who come are legit music fans who are here to listen to songs so as an artist, you get the sense they are giving you a chance and listening and aren’t just here to hang out and party. They are here to listen to something they haven’t heard before and that’s a big part of what makes this place so special.”

Taylor Goldsmith, front man for Dawes, echoed that sentiment, saying, “It’s going to take you all your concentration to really get [some of the denser lyrics], [and] people are willing to do that. I feel like at most festival it’s more about the entire experience. Here, it’s about just the music itself more than anything.”

Between the people and the location, the lineup is extraordinarily secondary at Newport Folk Festival. No disrespect to the artists but the vibe in the area, and the history of everything around you really breaks down the barrier between artist and attendee.

Like The Overlook Hotel in The Shining, the location of this story is more than a location. It’s a character that plays an integral part in the way the story unfolds. When you’ve got joyful, dedicated music lovers spending their time in a majestic location whose history is worthy of folklore, the tickets will sell themselves. Festival promoters probably haven’t had a chance to look towards booking 2014, but you can bet that Fort Adams will be at the top of the bill.

Words: Andrew Bruss
Images: Amanda Ryan Albion

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