Newport Folk Festival | 08.02 – 08.03 | RI

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Words by: Andrew Bruss | Images by: Amanda Albion

Newport Folk Festival :: 08.02.08 – 08.03.08 :: Fort Adams State Park :: Newport, RI

Newport Folk Festival 2008
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.

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

Trey Anastasio :: Newport Folk 2008
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.

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.

She & Him :: Newport Folk 2008
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.”

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.

M. Ward & Jim James :: Newport Folk 2008
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.

Chris Robinson :: 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 EyesConor 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.

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…

Sunday :: 08.02.08

Jake Shimabukuro :: Newport Folk 2008
Sunday provided sunny skies, warm weather and attracted a very different demographic than Saturday, and the reason for that was the headlining performance by Jimmy Buffett. The godfather of tailgating sold out two nights in a row at the Comcast Center (Great Woods) just an hour north, so for those who couldn’t get their hands on tickets, this was their only chance of the summer to hear “Cheeseburger In Paradise.”

Although Sunday had fewer scheduling conflicts, it was still filled with quality talent from across the board. Following an introduction by WERS‘ John Parsons, Calexico performed a stellar set on the Fort Stage that was highlighted by a cover of Dylan’s “Goin’ To Acapulco.” The band performed the tune in I’m Not There, the abstract, pseudo-biopic based on Bob Dylan, with Jim James on lead vocals. Fortunately, James chose to stick around for the last day of the festival, and took the stage alongside Calexico for the cover. James later commented to JamBase, “[We] did it because it was in the movie. It was a relatively last minute thing.”

While Gillian Welch followed Calexico on the Fort Stage before a crowd of Buffet fans decked out with lawn chairs and an apparent lack of sun tan lotion, Jake Shimabukuro drove people wild on the Waterside Stage with a set of tunes that redefined the ukulele for anyone who was there. Shimabukuro’s technically proficient style sounds more like high register flamenco guitar than a ukulele, but you’d better believe the man does what he does with four strings and a tiny, hollow piece of wood. He performed a percussion piece that utilized string scratching in various forms, while he simultaneously slapped his palm on the body of the instrument to get a bit of a bass drum effect. Shimabukuro later played a handful of original pieces, but the highlight of his set was an instrumental take on The Beatles’ “My Life” with a teaser of Deep Purple‘s “Smoke On The Water.” Following his set, Shimabukuro told JamBase that he had a great time. “The audience was very supportive and it was an all around great time. What I loved about it was that the audience really played a big part in the performance,” he said. “It’s really about the energy, and the performance was only going to be as good as they wanted it to be. If you’ve never been here, you should make a point to experience it, because it’s a very historic festival. Lots of amazing artists have played here, and if you’re a fan of music, it is something that you just have to experience.”

Levon Helm :: Newport Folk 2008
As topnotch as the sets by Calexico and Shimabukuro were, the highlight of the day was the Fort Stage performance by Levon Helm. As the drummer and singer in The Band his legendary status in rock & roll history has led to a generation of artists, many of whom were on the bill, who make a point of covering his songs on a regular basis. For a festival struggling to find the balance of old-school folk and artists that have a stronger draw, Helm’s booking was a bull’s-eye. With a large band consisting of an organist, Larry Campbell on guitar and a full horn section, Helm played a set that placed a heavy emphasis on his solo material, especially his 2007 release, Dirt Farmer, alongside a handful of crowd pleasing tunes by The Band. Helm suffered a bout with throat cancer during the ’90s, and as a result, his voice has a softer touch now. But, Helm still manages to hit all the notes he could back in the day, putting to shame a good handful of his contemporaries. The highlight of his set was indisputably his set-closing rendition of “The Weight,” featuring Shimabukuro on ukulele and Gillian Welch on vocals. Choruses were exchanged while the instrumentalists took turns soloing, and for everyone in attendance, the onstage collaboration couldn’t help but bring to mind The Band’s sit-in-heavy farewell performance documented in The Last Waltz.

Newport Folk Festival 2008
Last, but not least, Jimmy Buffett performed the longest set of the weekend before a crowd of amped-up Parrot Heads, many of whom spent all day in Newport just to see Buffett. Although it was anticipated that he would perform a more acoustic-heavy set that strayed from his electric Coral Reefer Band, he wound up walking through a generic set of hits that was as predictable as a John McCain stump speech. Buffett fans seemed stoked to hear the tunes he’s been playing for years, but for first timers with the gift of objectivity, the set felt stale and overdone. Buffett played Van Morrison‘s “Brown Eyed Girl” and, yes, “Cheeseburger In Paradise.” Buffett’s complete lack of taste for the sake of stage banter shone brightest when he introduced “Volcano,” saying, “Now, I heard about that big quake out in L.A. and it got me thinking; how crazy would it be if we had a volcano right out here in Newport Rhode Island?” His fans went wild as he tore into the tune, but for those not already drinking the Kool-Aid it didn’t go over so well.

Although the festival was met with some rough weather and a good deal of artists who strayed far from the event’s traditional values, to say the 2008 Newport Folk Festival was anything short of a success would be a gross understatement. Since the debut of Bonnaroo, the festival market has gradually become over-saturated, and older events like Newport Folk have been put in the tight spot of staying true to their roots while keeping their heads above water. Many artists on the bill would have disgusted the ticket holders who once booed Bob Dylan for playing an electric guitar, but in 2008 the bill was masterfully formulated to mix in ticket-selling headliners and folk-friendly singer-songwriters, as well as a couple of acts that could be considered either/or. The event itself is held at Fort Adams State Park, and with an 1800’s era naval fort behind the stage and the Newport Harbor behind the audience, this event has one of the most beautiful locations of any music festival in the United States. Shimabukuro said it: “If you’ve never been here, you should make a point to experience it.”

JamBase | Rhode Island
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