Featuring My Morning Jacket, Jackson Browne, Iron & Wine, Dawes, Conor Oberst, Tom Morello, and more!
On March 1, the line up for this year’s Newport Folk Festival was announced. It’s definitely not short on big names, with headliners like My Morning Jacket (making their debut at Newport), Jackson Browne, Conor Oberst, and Iron & Wine. Also on the bill are Deer Tick, Dawes, Brown Bird, First Aid Kid (one of the acts I’m most excited to see live), Tom Morello, Trampled By Turtles, The Head and the Heart, among many others.
Why do I mention Newport instead of other festivals this year? It’s one of the few big festivals perfect to bring a kid to. It’s not absurdly loud, there are no mosh pits, and no drunken buffoons. While everyone I know who has ever been to Coachella or Bonnaroo has complained about being too far away to actually see any bands, at Newport you can get right up close to even the headliners, which I love since I want to make sure my daughter knows where the music is coming from. Plus, last year brought the Lego Kids’ Tent, which featured Legos (of course), but also had small, incredibly intimate sets from bands likeDavid Wax Museum,Low Anthem, and Freelance Whales. They also still allow each person to bring in a small cooler of food and drinks, which is essential when you have a small child with you. It’s the perfect way to introduce your kids to live music.
The Newport Folk Festival takes place July 28 and 29 at Fort Adams State Park, Newport,RI. Tickets are on sale now, $135 for a two day pass, $74 for a single day, children 3-15 are $15 per day, under 3 are free(!!!). Buy yours at newportfolkfest.net.
I had HUGE expectations for Sunday’s Newport Folk Festival. Every single slot had at least two acts and I wanted to see, and at least one I needed to see. I had been pumping this day up in my head ever since the schedule was announced months ago. Sounds like a recipe for disappointment, right? It was possibly the best musical day of my life.
David Wax Museum Rocks Their Coming Out Party
David Wax Museum at Newport Folk Festival 2011
The first slot of the day had two bands I desperately wanted to see: Brown Bird and David Wax Museum. I was hoping to catch a little Brown Bird and then run over to see the second half of David Wax Museum. Unfortunately, Newport traffic delayed me, so I had to scurry past the Harbor Stage as Brown Bird were, by all accounts, killing it. I caught the last half of David Wax Museum’s set. This is a band I missed last year (I only made it on Saturday, they played Sunday) but have been following obsessively for the past year based on press from last year’s Fest. Everything I have heard about their live show has been gushing to the point of fanboydom, even from professional journalists. Trust me, they’ve earned it. David Wax and Suz Slezak have an unmistakable chemistry between them when they play. Being the only full time members of the band (they have a rotating cast of drummers, horn section, dancers, etc. that play with them sporadically at other shows) they are as tight as any duo you could imagine. They seemed truly thrilled with being invited back, especially to be on the Fort Stage this year. Their energy infested the audience for their entire set. If last year was their national introduction, this year was their coming out party.
Newport Dance Area Lets Crowd Get Up Close and Personal
I discovered my absolute favorite new edition to the Newport Folk Festival during their set: A new dance area right in front of the stage. Five years ago when I went (The Allman Brothers were headlining… Ugh…) they were touting their new reserved seating area. Basically the front right area of the stage now had assigned seating, and for a higher priced ticket you could be guaranteed your seat. This area was mostly empty except for the end of the day, and was really a waste. It only lasted one year, and then went back to being all general admission. The only problem is you get people that set up the biggest blankets they’re allowed to, and take up all this area whether they care about the current band playing or not. This year changed that with the dance area. There was a roped off area where the assigned seats used to be that didn’t allow blankets or chairs. The best part was pretty much the entire area swapped out between sets, which let you get right up front for bands you really wanted to see. I got in the front row for both Wanda Jackson and Elvis Costello, which would have been impossible otherwise.
intended on watching their entire set since I had become enthralled with their song “Animal Tracks.” A friend had begged me to make sure I at least checked out The Secret Sisters, so I decided to make it over for at least a couple songs. I’m so glad I did, as they just sucked me in. Actual sisters, they do classic country songs (by Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, etc.) with heartachingly beautiful two part harmony. I sat in rapture listening to them, both thrilled I caught them and furious that I now had to choose between another two acts I wanted to see.
Paste Magazine Tapes Intimate Artist Sessions
To make matters worse, I also discovered that at the back of the Quad Stage area (where The Secret Sisters were playing) there was a small room in Fort Adams itself where Paste had set up a small recording studio, and was taping intimate sessions for their website. You had to get in close and look through a window, but there was a small group always over there watching. I caught The Civil Wars taping theirs, which meant I had to choose between Mountain Man, The Secret Sisters, The Civil Wars, and Carolina Chocolate Drops AT THE EXACT SAME TIME. This is what the #1stworldproblems hash tag was invented for. I settled for running back over to catch some more of Mountain Man, back over to The Secret Sisters to catch them close with “You Belong To Me,” aka the song Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters sing in The Jerk, which made the inner comedy nerd in me thrilled, then the very end of Carolina Chocolate Drops. Crazy hour, but how else could I have spent it?
Wanda Jackson at Newport Folk Festival 2011
Wanda Jackson: The Real Storyteller
I took full advantage of the dance area to get right up front for Wanda Jackson’s set. The woman is the undisputed Queen of Rockabilly and she’s earned her crown. How long has she been doing this? Her first tour was opening for an unknown singer named Elvis Presley. One of the last remaining original pioneers of rock n’ roll, she came out at 73 and put some bands her grandchildren’s age to shame. I have such a soft spot for rockabilly, and unfortunately most of the current bands are almost novelty acts, so it was brilliant to see someone with more credibility than all of them put together. As good as the music was, she had stories that rivaled anything you will ever hear on stage. How many women dated Elvis (wearing his ring on a necklace!) and have recorded with Jack White? She performed everything from “Fujiyama Mama” to her cover of Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good.” That spans 40+ years in history. Seeing her was truly an experience.
Justin Townes Earle Knows How To Write Music
Next up I headed back to the Quad Stage (where I had just missed Trampled by Turtles cover “Where is My Mind?”) for Justin Townes Earle. The son of Steve Earle and the namesake of Townes Van Zandt, he has quite the legacy to live up to. He had to miss last year’s Newport Folk Festival because of a freak hand injury, and it was almost like he wanted to make it up to everyone. After Wanda Jackson’s set, I expected his mellower blend of alt-country to be a bit of a buzzkill, but he is just does it so well. There aren’t too many people who can write a convincing country song about moving from Brooklyn to Manhattan, but he pulls it off. The audience listened near silently, wanting to take in every word. This is a man who can write a song.
Elvis Costello & the Imposters Don’t Disappoint
After Justin Townes Earle, I headed off to catch the end of Amos Lee’s set, but more to jockey for position for Elvis Costello. Amos Lee wasn’t my own personal thing, but he did bring out The Secret Sisters. And I got to hear female fans say creepy things like “I just want to be his guitar.”
But next up… Elvis Costello! I was a bit bummed since he was advertised as solo, and the only other time I’ve gotten to see him was also solo
Elvis Costello at Newport Folk Festival 2011
opening up for Bob Dylan. In fact, part of me almost skipped his set because of this to see Middle Brother (the Deer Tick/Dawes/Delta Spirit supergroup) especially after the online rumors started that it was going to be their last performance. I chose Elvis, since, well, he IS Elvis Costello after all. A funny thing happened as they were setting up: They started setting up for a full band. Yes, it ended up being Elvis Costello & the Imposters. The set still leaned towards his newer, Americana inspired albums (Secret, Profane, and Sugarcane and National Ransom) along with covers, such as “Cry, Cry, Cry.” He brought out The Secret Sisters to sing on “A Slow Drag With Josephine” and even kept them out to sing their version of “Why Don’t You Love Me (Like You Used to Do?).”
He also brought out Chris Thile for a couple, including his duet with Emmylou Harris (“The Scarlet Tide”). Closing with “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding,” my only complaint was it wasn’t long enough. I was even ok with missing Middle Brother’s set, including the impromptu appearance by Dawes.
I ended my day by wandering over to M Ward, The Civil Wars, and ending with Emmylou Harris. None of their energy matched Elvis Costello & the Imposters, and at this point I was sunburned, exhausted, and looking at a three hour drive home. After catching Emmylou’s song for Gram Parsons (“The Road”), I decided to call it a day. I’m already reserving the weekend of July 28 & 29 of 2012 for next year’s festival.
Get Highlights from Newport Folk Festival at Home
Check out the Paste sessions from inside the Fort Adams ruins here. So far only Middle Brother and Sallie Ford and the Sound Outside are posted. Also, check out sets from all the bands mentioned (except Elvis Costello (ARRRGGGHHH!), courtesy of NPR, here.
Ever have a weekend completely exceed all of your expectations? I had huge hopes for this year’s Newport Folk Festival, and my only complaint is that I got a sunburn. The music was amazing from start to finish both days, and the producers added some unexpected and brilliant features.
River City Extension Wins Over Crowd
The legendary traffic kept me from getting to Fort Adams State Park until 12:30, so I missed the first round of bands. (More on one of those later.) The first band I caught was New Jersey’s River City Extension on the Quad stage. More of a roots rock band than a folk act, they quickly won over the early crowd with a high energy set. This is one of the great aspects of Newport: Fans are there to see music right away. Most all day concerts have audiences that need to slowly warm up. The Newport crowd is ready to go as soon as they hit the parking lot. “South for the Winter” was my personal highlight, and it was only the second song.
Gogol Bordello Hands Over Torch
Next up for me was one of the great surprises of the weekend, Gogol Bordello. Their inclusion and performance highlighted the changes the festival has undergone in recent years. Judging by how lively an acoustic, stripped down Gogol Bordello show is, I can’t even imagine a full band, plugged in set. Singer Eugene Hutz ambled on stage with a bottle of wine to start the set, which set the tone for the next hour. With only guitar, accordion, a fiddle, and two background singers, they had the crowd up front pogoing wildly, especially on “Coming Rougher” and “Start Wearing Purple.” Definitely not what a lot of the old school folk fans wanted, and Hutz sarcastically apologized for not playing “good laying down” music at one point in the set. The torch might have officially been handed over to the younger generation.
Lego Shows Kids How Music is Made
One fantastic addition to the festival this year was the Lego/Duplo Kid’s tent. What I had just dismissed as corporate marketing ended up being a great place for families to hang out and keep the kids entertained. They even had a small stage set up for performances. Not just kids’ entertainers played at the stage, either. At some point it featured sets by festival founder Pete Seeger, David Wax Museum, and Freelance Whales in a tiny, tiny space. Great for the kids to see up close how music is made!
Pokey LaFarge Hits the Soulful Mark
The next act I caught were Pokey LaFarge & the South City Three (who I knew nothing about) on the Harbor Stage. They are a band out of time, describing themselves as “Riverboat Soul Music,” which is better than any description I could think of. I got drawn in more for kitsch value, and got sucked in by the music. While they had fun and a sense of humor, they need to be taken 100% seriously. They apologized before playing a dirty song, and then played “Garbage Man Blues,” where they reminded a female to sit out her can for the garbage man. Not exactly risque material in 2011, and I mean that in the best way possible.
Faith in Mavis Staples
After wandering between Gillian Welch and Tegan and Sara’s sets (neither one really grabbed me), I found a seat up close for Mavis Staples. Not being a man of faith, I usually try and avoid any kind of religious music. That shows how powerful Mavis Staples is as a performer. I don’t think I will ever hear a voice with that much feeling behind it. A performer at the 1960 Newport Folk Festival with The Staples Singers, she can’t possibly have missed a step. If she has, 1960 must have seen a spike in Church attendance that weekend. She brought out Colin Meloy of the Decemberists for a rendition of “Creep Along” in one of the most unexpected of the many guest appearances of the weekend.
After Mavis Staples’ set, it was time for the headliners of Saturday, The Decemberists. Not really my thing, but most of the crowd stayed for their blend of more folky early-era REM. I stayed for about half the set, and then headed out to get some rest for Sunday.
Download Music from Newport Folk Festival for Free
One of the really cool aspects of the Newport Folk Festival is their partnership with NPR. Thanks to NPR broadcasting live all weekend, you can now stream and even download most of the sets from the festival in their entirety. Check out all of the sets I mentioned here , especially Gogol Bordello’s Newport Folk Festival redefining set.
More to come for Sunday, which apart from the birth of my daughter, might have been the greatest day of my life.
I’ve never been able to make it to one of the destination festivals that have been popping up all over the country. Back before my daughter was born and I had time, I just never had the money to schlep out to California for Coachella, and Bonnaroo was way too hippie for my taste. Now that she’s around, I’d either have to find a babysitter for an entire weekend, or try to bring her, which sounds fantastic but can you imagine trying to jostle for position during Foo Fighters just to get a decent view? And would you really want to?
Plus, this year all the major festivals all just feel the same. Gone are the separate unique feels to each festival. It seems like the same bands are playing them all and with the exception of Buffalo Springfield at Bonnarroo, there really isn’t a HOLY CRAP band. Even the reunions are repeating, with Big Audio Dynamite and Death from Above 1979 playing multiple festivals. Basically, fans can just pick which one is closer and go.
Newport has always included some surprises in their line ups. It’s where Bob Dylan went electric and the Pixies went acoustic. Tom Morello has played acoustic twice, and considers playing Newport up their with Rage Against the Machine at Coachella and playing with Bruce Springsteen. This year has rockabilly pioneer Wanda Jackson along with Gogol Bordello and Elvis Costello both playing acoustic.
Besides having more of a mellow vibe than moshing to Eminem, Newport is insanely family friendly. They allow blankets, low back chairs, small sun shade tents for the really little ones, and coolers. Coolers! They could just make you shell out huge amounts of food since they have you trapped with nowhere else to go, but each person is allowed to bring a 16×12 cooler. This makes it unbelievably easier when you have a little one with you, especially if they only eat certain things. Sure, the blanket thing can be a bit of a drag with some people spreading out multiple ones to take up as much room as possible, but it also gives you a home base to leave strollers and coolers while you wander to the three stages.
When I bring my daughter to any kind of live music event, one of the main appeals is letting her see where music comes from. I could never bring a baby up close into a crowd to see the band, but I don’t want her thinking we’re just listening to a radio with 8,000 people. Newport has this really cool policy of opening up the front of the main stage for the first 10 minutes of all bands for a picture period. This allows you to wander down and watch from up close. Kids love this, and when else can you get in the photographers’ area during Elvis Costello?
Probably the only drawback is lodging, as Newport, RI is insanely expensive. There are some campsites or more reasonably priced hotels in the immediate area. If you drive in, traffic can be a nightmare, so make sure you leave early or you can miss quite a bit. I’ll never forgive myself for missing Billy Bragg two years ago. Also, the crowd has been slowly shifting from our parents to more of a late 20s/30s group, so you won’t feel like the youngest or oldest.
The Newport Folk Festival runs July 30-31 this year. For more information, and a complete lineup, go to www.newportfolkfest.net. Also, check out the video of the Pixies at the festival to get an idea of the setting and feel. You’ll see some legendary performers, current favorites, and you’ll be guaranteed to discover at least one new favorite band.