Review & Photos | Newport Folk Festival | Newport

Images by: Kevin Felix
Words by: Jeffrey Greenblatt

Newport Folk Festival :: 7.25.14 -7.27.14 :: Fort Adams State Park :: Newport, RI

Read Jeff’s review after the gallery.

There was something palpable in the air at the 2014 edition of the Newport Folk Festival. There was a pulse to the crowd that I hadn’t seen before. Maybe it had something to do with that fact that the ‘little festival that could’ was finally showing that it wasn’t an underdog anymore. Newport is no longer the scrappy little brother to Coachella, Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza – it’s actually the festival that those should be striving to be more like. This is a festival where people are there to see music, talk about music and tell you about what they just saw with passion that’s not seen at most other places.

Newport has managed to do something that no other festival can lay claim to in that they essentially are sold out before even one artist had been announced. Think about that…Not one person who bought a ticket when they went on sale this year knew who was going to be playing. This can all be credited to Jay Sweet, Newport Folk’s producer and booker, who arguably put together one of his best and diverse offerings during his tenure as the festival’s heart and soul. The Newport faithful have come to trust his instincts: that he will provide a bill that top to bottom will make you want to see as many bands as you can in the span of a three-day period. This year’s lineup hearkened back to the fest’s early days with folk-y singer-songwriters, bluegrass, country, blues, gospel and rock n’ roll – with some acts blurring the lines between multiple genres.

Newport continues to honor its storied past, this year celebrating the 75th birthday of the legendary Mavis Staples – who earned the ‘Jim James Award’ for most sit-ins, (with honorable mention going to the Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig, the lovely ladies from Lucius), while progressively moving the festival forward. Did anyone else expect Kurt Vile & the Violators to be on the bill?

Here are my thoughts, observations and highlights…

Capturing the White Whales

Jay Sweet personally wrote two of the capsules for this year’s lineup reveal – Jack White and Ryan Adams -both of whom (along with Robert Hunter) have been on his dwindling list of acts or ‘white whales’ that he had yet to bring to Newport.

Robert Hunter – Harbor Stage – 3:45 p.m., Friday

On late Friday afternoon, Hunter was the first of the three to take the stage. The famed lyricist, who penned a large swath of the Grateful Dead’s songbook, had returned to touring last fall after a ten-year hiatus and fit in like an old well-worn tie-dye shirt. Dressed in a very Garcia-esque outfit of black t-shirt and jeans, Hunter, armed with an acoustic guitar and a handful of some of the most obsessed over songs other than maybe Bob Dylan (whom he’s written songs for too), delivered a tried and true set for the Dead Heads in the audience, who were quite vocal throughout. While a bit wobbly at times, we can probably all agree that he gets a hall pass for stumbling over some lines here and there, Hunter’s set was highlighted by a tender “Brokedown Palace,” a poignant “Touch of Grey” and a sublime take on “Ripple.” With the crowd hanging on every word of the penultimate song of his set, the closing line of ‘let there be songs to fill the air,’ got a raucous response as his hour-long performance drew to a close.

Ryan Adams – Fort Stage – 6:15 p.m., Friday

Ryan Adams, the second of Sweet’s ‘white whales,’ was tasked with closing out the festival’s first day. The prodigious Adams was also making his return to the road in 2014 after taking a lengthy break from both recording and touring. The jovial Adams joked with the audience throughout his headlining performance and even dropped a line from to Back to the Future before kicking into “Fix It,” mimicked yacht rock legend Michael McDonald, played what he dubbed the worst version ever of The Beatles “Let It Be” and repeatedly referenced lobster rolls and 1980’s hard-rockers the BulletBoys.

Musically, Adams delivered one of the best live sets I’ve seen him play, cherry-picking songs from his solo catalog. Highlights came in moving mid-set take on “Oh My Sweet Carolina,” a jammy “Peaceful Valley” and “My Wrecking Ball,” a new tune that Adams prefaced by saying it was a protest song to his grandmother’s death. What also deserves mentioning was Adams’ inclusion of Danzig’s “Mother,” which Adams put his own twist on. Where else but Newport could someone play a hard-rock song in earnest and follow it up with one of his most beloved and heartbreaking tunes -the set-closing “Come Pick Me Up?”

Jack White – Fort Stage – 6:15 PM, Saturday

In stark contrast to Adams’ loose set and stage banter, Jack White commandeered the Fort Stage on Saturday evening looking like Peyton Manning running the two-minute drill. White, who was in a sense bringing the blues back to Newport, showed why he drew a massive crowd to see him. Surrounded by a top-notch band, White tore through his set with abandon offering up takes on White Stripes classics mixed with songs from his two solo efforts, as well as nodding to a couple of his blues heroes with covers of songs by Son House and Blind Willie Johnson.

White was even in awe of the Newport experience itself exclaiming it was the first time in 12 years that he got to see music at festival, as he was spotted taking in sets from Shovels & Ropes, Milk Carton Kids and Houndmouth. White’s well-paced set mixed folkie numbers with blues-stomps to guitar-rock shredding, confirming his rock-star status as this generation’s version of Jimmy Page and Robert Plant rolled into one person. In a fitting tribute, White closed his set by honoring the late Pete Seeger with a take on “Goodnight Irene,” and just like Pete would have encouraged the entire audience to sing-along.

Baby Bands Grow Up

There are a handful of bands that audiences have seen ‘grow up’ at Newport. These are the bands that have been booked with barely an album under their belt, and have returned to the festival if not every summer, almost every summer to play to bigger and bigger audiences. This year two of the fest’s regulars – Deer Tick and Dawes – earned main stage slots, with the former doing so for the first time.

Deer Tick – Fort Stage – 3:15 PM, Saturday

In my interview with Jay Sweet prior to this year’s fest, he dropped the bomb that this would be the last year that Deer Tick would be playing Newport – at least for a little bit. If this indeed stands to be true, the local boys made the most of their long-overdue main stage debut. Dressed to the nines in white tuxedos, John McCauley & Co. had a horn section in tow and showed off their ragged brand of ramshackle bar-rock. This was a set that appealed to both the first-timers and the hardcore TickHeads. The band peppered their set with ‘the hits,’ – “Main Street,” “Baltimore Blues No. 1,” “Smith Hill” and deeper cuts such as “She’s Not Spanish” and “Hey Doll.”

As a longtime time Deer Tick fan, I could gush about this whole set, but my favorite moments happened when the band offered two of their best female-assisted duets. McCauley first invited out his wife, the very pregnant Vanessa Carlton, to sing on “In Our Time,” a song about McCauley’s parents, while later in the set they brought out longtime friend Liz Isenberg to reprise her role on “Friday XIII,” a song which McCauley prefaced by saying they get a lot of requests for, but can’t do without Liz.

Dawes – Fort Stage -1:55 p.m. / Conor Oberst -3:20 p.m., Sunday

Playing the main stage is nothing new to Dawes. The band quickly graduated from the Quad Stage to the Fort Stage, but this year was a little different for the Southern California act. The band was tasked with pulling double-duty on Sunday, first playing a set of their own material, then sticking around to serve as Conor Oberst’s backing band immediately afterwards – something they are no strangers to doing. Dawes continue to become a more confident band each time I see them as the modern fore-bearers of California country-rock. Taylor Goldsmith might be one of the most underrated guitarists out there, as he threw down a number of impressive solos throughout the band’s set.

Immediately following their set, they stuck around to back singer-songwriter Conor Oberst. Oberst, who played a guest-filled solo set two years ago, fleshed out the rest of his rootsy band with Rebecca and Megan Lovell (Larkin Poe) on mandolin and lap steel and a three-piece horn section. The emotive Oberst’s hour-long set leaned on material of his recently released record Upside Down Mountain, with stand-out takes on “Time Forgot,” “Zigzagging Towards the Light” and “Artifact #1.” Oberst didn’t overlook his Bright Eyes material -dusting off the Lifted track “Bowl of Oranges” and offering a rowdy and impassioned set-closing take on “Another Traveling Song.”

Familiar Faces, With Unfamiliar Bands

Tweedy – Fort Stage – 4:45 p.m., Sunday

It’s seemingly odd for any artist booked at major music festival to show up armed with a stack of songs that no one has heard yet from an album that is nearly two months away from being released. But that’s exactly what Jeff Tweedy did this year. The Wilco front man has gotten to a point in his career where he can do just that, and have a crowd of enthusiastic fans waiting to gobble it all up. Tweedy’s latest project is a family affair, his first proper solo album, Sukierae, was recorded along with his 18-year-old son Spencer – who also plays drums in his new touring band.

Tweedy’s debut Newport performance showcased a healthy amount of material from their upcoming album, which doesn’t hit stores until late September. Songs like “Summer Moon,” “Hazel” and “Honey Combed” don’t fall too far from the Wilco tree, and come as a logical progression from the band’s last studio effort –The Whole Love. As he did earlier in the day with a surprise set at the tiny Museum Stage, Tweedy treated the crowd to a handful of tunes from his back catalog, solo acoustic style. Tweedy offered up notable takes on “New Madrid,” “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart,” and a must-hear take on “Jesus, Etc.” that saw Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig of Lucius help out, as they did throughout the set. Tweedy also brought out Mavis Staples to help close out his set, introducing her as the woman he loved more than anyone in the world other than his wife. Staples offered up two songs from her Tweedy produced albums, CCR’s “Wrote a Song for Everyone” and “Only the Lord Knows” – with the spry 75-year-old beaming throughout.

Puss n’ Boots – Harbor Stage – 5:00 PM, Saturday

Norah Jones has sold more than 50 million albums worldwide. She was arguably Newport’s biggest star in terms of album sales, but the smoky-voiced singer-songwriter wasn’t there to play a headlining set on the main stage. Instead, Jones could be found playing one of the fest’s smaller stages with her country-infused side-project -Puss n’ Boots. Jones, along with Catherine Popper (Grace Potter & the Nocturnals/Ryan Adams & the Cardinals) and Sasha Dobson played a loose set filled with songs from their debut album –No Fools, No Fun. The affable trio joked and shared stories, while mixing originals with a selection of covers from the likes of Wilco, Rodney Crowell, Tom Paxton and Neil Young. Midway through the set, the trio invited Mavis Staples on stage to share vocal duties on The Band tune “Twilight” that would have made the late Levon Helm proud.

Newport’s Next Stars

Without fail, each and every time I’ve attended Newport I walk away with a handful of new bands that I’ve fallen in love with, and this year was no different. For the second year in a row the first band that I caught left a lasting impression, with me wanting to immediately see them the next time they come to my town. Last year that was The Milk Carton Kids, this year that award went to Reignwolf. The three-piece act was in the midst of throwing down a crushing a set of heavy, fuzzed out, blues rock on Friday afternoon. Front man Jordan Cook commandeered the Quad Stage like he was playing a tiny rock club. Drenched in sweat, yelping and howling, Cook put on a clinic on how to impress a crowd on Day One of a festival by literally getting in and playing from the audience. By doing so, Reignwolf threw down the gauntlet for the rest of the week’s performers.

The Oh Hello’s were tasked with impressing a crowd before they’ve really woken up for the day with a 12:20 p.m. slot on Saturday. Judging from the packed tent that was all on their feet and joyfully clapping along when I arrived, it’s safe to say that the mission was accomplished. With a dozen or so people on stage, the Austin-based collective play an exuberant brand of high-spirited orchestral folk – think Arcade Fire meets The Lumineers. There were guitars, accordions, fiddles, banjos, fiddles and more, all making a cacophony of feel good sounds that you couldn’t help but get wrapped up in.

Later that afternoon Shakey Graves attracted one of the biggest crowds of the weekend at the Harbor Stage. Continuing the trend of the year that the blues was brought back to Newport, the mostly one-man band, armed with a guitar and his signature suitcase drum, laid down a killer set of his foot-stomping country-and folk-infused take on the blues. The whiskey-voiced singer-songwriter lived up to his reputation as being one of the best live acts coming out of Austin, Texas.

It’s seems odd to say that a festival that is a half-century old with such a storied past is finally getting the mainstream attention it deserves, but as Jack White noted during his headlining set on Saturday, Rolling Stone has sent someone to cover it for the first time ever. Bands that had played the past few years just showed up to hang out, and yes, that was Joaquin Phoenix that was wondering around the grounds. For those of us that have seen Newport come into its own over the last half-decade or so and have been preaching its gospel, we may have to compete a little harder to get tickets to the 2015 edition. The cat is finally out of the bag -Fort Adams State Park is undoubtedly the place to be in late-July if you’re a music fan.

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