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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’m pleased to announce that I’ll be covering the Newport Folk Festival this year for The Music Moms. It will be my 5th year in a row going and my 1st covering it as a blogger. I’ll be taking over The Music Moms’ Twitter feed for the weekend, so please follow us at twitter.com/TheMusicMoms for updates. Here’s an idea of what I’m looking forward to.
Saturday, July 30
The festival starts at 11:30 am. I always seem to miss bands I desperately want to see because of traffic. This year it seems that I’ll be camping nearby and biking in, which is the preferred method of transportation. Right at 11:30 is one of the acts I’m most intrigued by, the PS22 Chorus. By now I think everyone has seen the videos on YouTube, but in case you haven’t, it’s exactly what it sounds like: A public school chorus. They do a lot of the songs that you’d expect an “edgy” school chorus to do (Journey “Don’t Stop Believing,” Michael Jackson “Man in the Mirror,” Katy Perry “Firework”) but they also do songs by MGMT, Phoenix, and Jay-Z. I would have killed for a music program like that in school
I’m also looking forward to seeing Gogol Bordello live. Considering they’re on Side One Dummy, which is a punk label, it’s pretty surprising to see them at Newport. They’re a gypsy punk band, and are much beloved by the Warped Tour crowd. In other words, this might be one of the only times an aging gen-xer in his mid-30s will feel comfortable seeing them. It’s not a full band performance, but they’ve done acoustic before, and it works.
Gillian Welch is one of those performers I’d probably never see on my own. She’s as traditional Newport Folk as it gets, which is a good thing. Ever since Jay Sweet took over, Newport has been doing an amazing job at looking forward while embracing the past.
Mavis Staples is a fitting, but interesting choice. She’s also a classic, but is known as more of a gospel singer than folk. Her most recent album, You Are Not Alone, was produced by Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, which gets her some major alt-country attention. I’ll admit that’s how I first heard of her. Should be an interesting addition.
I’ll have to bail a little early on Mavis Staples to check out The Decemberists. They’re definitely the most current of the Saturday headliners in the past few years, which have included The Allman Brothers and The Black Crowes. They played back in 2009 and are back this year. If you’re on this site, I’m sure you’ve heard of them.
Sunday, July 31
Sunday is the most packed day of any year I’ve ever seen, and possibly of any festival. At any time of the day there is a band I’m excited to see. David Wax Museum (who’s most recent album I reviewed here are opening the main stage just one year after blowing minds while opening the 3rd stage. This will cap off an amazing year for them, and be the 1st time I get to see them live. They still play house shows, so seeing them on the big stage will be quite special. I’m just hoping I’m there early enough.
After David Wax Museum, I’ll have exactly 5 minutes to run over to the 3rd stage to see another one of the bands I’m most looking forward to, Mountain Man. I had never heard of them before seeing the festival line up, but the name jumped out at me since it’s the same as a Dinosaur Jr. song. If they got their name from that song, I’ll be even more impressed since they’re about as far from 80s/90s indie rock as possible. Hailing from Vermont, they’re an all-female three piece that does some of the most amazing three part harmonies I have ever heard. It’s very traditional folk, the kind you’d hear in the Appalachians, but doesn’t come across as kitschy like some of the neo-traditional folk acts do now.
Wanda Jackson is another surprising but perfect choice to play Newport. She was just inducted into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame last year and is the undisputed queen of rockabilly. There aren’t many early rock n roll pioneers left, especially ones that still have it. Plus, since Jack White produced her most recent album and the Third Man Records truck will be there, there’s always a chance of a surprise cameo.
Justin Townes Earle was scheduled to play last year’s festival, but a hand injury made him cancel. Hopefully he keeps away from sharp objects this year. The son of Steve Earle and named after Townes Van Zandt, he has quite the rock/country pedigree to live up to.
As always happens at every festival, you’re bound to have some scheduling conflicts. This year is a HUGE one for me personally. I have to choose between Middle Brother, the Deer Tick/Dawes/Delta Spirit supergroup that have made quite possibly my favorite album of 2011 so far, and Elvis Costello playing solo. These were probably the two bands I was most excited to see when I first saw the line up, but I can only choose one. Even though I know Middle Brother are the hipper choice, this is Elvis Costello we’re talking about. Sorry, Middle Brother.
Finally, closing out the evening will be Emmylou Harris. Once again, not someone I’d probably see on my own, but the woman is a contemporary of Gram Parsons. You just can’t miss that, even is M. Ward is playing at the same time. Plus, my aunt will be insanely jealous.
Of course, these are just my suggestions. If you’re going, let me know. I’d love to say hi to some readers. Also, let me know if there’s anyone else I should be checking out in the comments. You can download the schedule here: Newport Folk Festival Schedule (PDF)