Summer music festival season is winding down, but that doesn’t mean the festivals need to end. Everyone knows fall is the ideal time to be in New England. What better backdrop for a music festival than the Berkshires in the fall? Set on the campus of MASSMoCA in North Adams, MA, the FreshGrass Festival is entering it’s 2nd year, and features some of the top folk acts of today. It’s running September 21-23, which might just be the perfect time for an outdoor festival. FreshGrass is an incredibly family friendly festival featuring events like the Mamie Minch Workshop for Kids, where kids can learn how to make instruments from every day items from Mamie Minch herself. Plus, this is quite possibly the most reasonably priced festivals in existence, with 3 day passes available for $46, $26 for students, and $16 for kids under 16. Let me repeat that: $46 for 3 days of music. Can’t make it to all 3 days? Single day passes are $25, $15 for students, and $5 for kids under 16. Just check out the line up for the show:
The Porchlight Sessions
David Grisman Bluegrass Experience
Joy Kills Sorrow
Cahalen Morrison and Eli West
Old-Time Kozmik Trio
The Devil Makes Three
Trampled by Turtles
Carolina Chocolate Drops
Lonesome River Band
For the first time in all my years of going to the Newport Folk Festival (7?), this was the first year I felt truly overwhelmed. The festival has swelled from just the three main stages to include six, as long as you count the Sennheiser Ruins Stage and the Late July Kids’ Tent, which I will since they had some of the weekend’s biggest acts playing. I didn’t even get a chance to set foot in the brand new Museum Stage. Since I couldn’t see everything I wanted to for the first time ever (trust me, I’m not complaining, it’s a fantastic problem to have), I’ll have to limit this to just the highlights, even though I’m sure I’m missing some.
Every year Newport has one break out act that comes seemingly out of nowhere and wins over an entire crowd by sheer talent and joy of playing. The past two years had David Wax Museumand Brown Bird. This year’s was Spirit Family Reunion. Going on Saturday morning on the smallest of the three main stages, they were virtual unknowns except for a few die hard fans. On stage, all six members (except the drummer) crowd around a single microphone and just sing along with everything they’ve got. Their blend of Appalachian rootsy folk may seem out of place in their native New York City, but it was right at home at Newport. By the end of their set, which included one of five true encores I have ever seen, the crowd had swelled in size and they received one of the most enthusiastic ovations I have ever heard. It felt like a truly special moment for both the crowd and the band.
Spirit Family Reunion at the Sennheiser Sound Lounge.
One of the hardest choices I had to make was whether to watch Deer Tick or Alabama Shakes who had overlapping sets. I started with Deer Tickover on the Quad Stage. Their latest album, Divine Providence, shows the band moving away from their original Hank Williams meets Nirvana sound and into more straightforward rock. Their set reflected this, included covers of John Lennon’s “Mother” and Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline.” It was still such a tight, solid set that I begrudgingly wandered over to the Fort Stage for Alabama Shakes, since they are by far the biggest buzz band of the weekend, and I saw it as my journalistic duty. For the band with probably the most to prove, they blew away everyone who saw them and defied all expectations. Lead singer Brittney Howard’s voice may not be traditionally pretty in the folky way, but she packs the punch of both Mavis Staples and Janis Joplin combined. They were by far the best pure live act of the festival.
Alabama Shakes at Newport Folk Festival 2012
Another pleasant surprise was Iceland’s Of Monsters and Men. I had no true interest in seeing them and had dismissed them as a radio friendly pop act with the big hit included to appeal to the kids. And, to be honest, they are. But they were amazing at it. They brought an unexpected life and energy to their set that was missing from the album. While they did have the advantage of attracting a crowd mostly in their early 20s, its energy and enthusiasm was infectious, causing just about everyone in earshot of the Quad Stage to join in dancing. I’ll be very curious to see where this band goes from here.
Another band that beat my expectations was First Aid Kit. Adding only a drummer to their live show, their set was sparse yet complete. Forming in their teens, their harmonies are more cultivated far past their ages. Being sisters probably helps with this since one would assume they’ve been singing together since Klara learned to speak. Don’t look up ages right now. Just trust me on this one. Even though their sound can be described as ethereal, they showed their more headbanging side on “The Lion’s Roar,” proving once and for all that Sweden loves their metal, even in folk form. They closed out their set with “King of the World,” complete with Conor Oberst hopping on stage at the end for his verse.
Conor Oberst and First Aid Kit at the Newport Folk Festival 2012
The most infamous set of the year was from Tom Morello. In his third year atNewport, he always seems to surprise the crowd and bring something new to his set. The first year was just surprise that the guitarist from RageAgainst the Machine could play without all the pedals and affects. The second year he brought a more full and fleshed out focus to his songs, even though it was just him. This year he brought along both electric and acoustic guitars along with a second guitarist. This allowed him to break out some of his more trademark solos, which did lead to an impressive but overblown solo during “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” complete with playing the guitar with his teeth. He brought the focus back on the folk side with his rendition of “This Land is Your Land.” He was joined by Jackson Browne to the stage to take a verse. For the third time he got the entire Harbor Stage crowd to their feet to pogo along during the last chorus. He kept the raucous mood going by asking the crowd to join him on stage and “Occupy the Newport Folk Festival.” Security was no too pleased with this idea, and attempted to stop the rush of fans from climbing onto the stage. After Morello explained that we were now all in the band and that he “… made [his] living with a song that goes #&*@ you I won’t do what you tell me,” security and police finally relented and the entire stage quickly filled up with eager fans, including Jackson Browne who could be seen taking pictures on his cell phone.
Jackson Browne joins Tom Morello at Newport
One of the themes of this year’s festival was Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday. The two acts that brought this to the forefront were Guthrie Family Reunion and New Multitudes. Guthrie Family Reunion is the obvious one. Led by Woody’s son Arlo, Guthrie Family Reunion features three generations of Guthries on stage together. The family played a variety of their patriarch’s songs, including some of his lesser known children’s songs with Arlo’s elementary school age and younger grandkids taking over vocals. It was a great tribute to Woody as a songwriter and a family man.
Guthrie Family Reunion at Newport Folk Festival 2012
New Multitudes are a supergroup brought together to bring music to unfinished Guthrie songs, much like Billy Bragg and Wilco did with Mermaid Avenue. New Multitudes features Jay Farrar, Will Johnson, Anders Parker, and Yim Yames, and were much tighter than you would expect from a side project with very busy members. They stuck closely to the album (one of the best of the year so far) and added much more rock to the songs than would be expected. It made for a great modern take on a classic musician’s unfinished works.
Jay Farrar, Will Johnson, Anders Parker, and Yim Yames make up the New Multitudes
The two smallest stages brought some of the biggest moments. The Late July Kids’ Stage featured Elizabeth Mitchelland You Are My Flower, one of the best children’s music acts out there today. As if that wasn’t enough, it also had other festival acts playing a tiny, tiny, completely overlooked stage. You can’t ignore a tent when it features sets by Spirit Family Reunion, Conor Oberst, and a three song Nickel Creek reunion. Even more overlooked was the Sennheiser Ruins Stage. This stage was actually in the corner of the Quad, and featured everyone from Of Monsters and Men to Tom Morello playing intimate sets in front of small crowds. In order to drown out the nearby Quad stage, Sennheiser headphones were passed out to offer sound in perfect clarity. It also gave you a great chance to check out acts you might have missed earlier in the weekend, if just for a few songs.
Each night’s headliners, My Morning Jacket and Jackson Browne, each had to contend with weather issues that threatened both days of the festival but chose their sets to truly open up. My Morning Jacket brought their jam band meets Sonic Youth sound, starting off more melodically and as close to traditional folk as they get, and slowly built to a more indie rock sound, while still keeping it rootsy. I was never truly a fan from the albums, but they proved themselves to truly be an act you need to see live. Unfortunately, lightning and safety concerns cut their set about 40 minutes short, so we never got to find out how truly great they could have been. While he didn’t have to deal with torrential rains, Jackson Browne still lost a lot of the crowd due to the skies opening up and overall fatigue. Anyone who left early missed a set of a master songwriter in the midst of a true second life and rejuvenation thanks to things like the Watkins Family Hour podcast.
In 2013, the Newport Folk Festival will be July 27-28. While you’re planning, check out NPR’s website to stream some of the sets from Newport 2012, and keep an eye out here for our upcoming Newport Folk Fest 2012 picture journal.
The official schedule for the 2012 Newport Folk Festival was just released, and as always there are some huge decisions to make. This year will be especially tough as they just added a fourth stage (theMuseumofYachting Stage) for more acoustic, singer-songwriter acts. This guide will hopefully give you a list of acts I highly recommend seeing. Of course, I never stick to my own schedule, instead choosing to run between stages trying to catch everything. Good luck, and let me know what you think!
Saturday, July 28th
11:40-12:25, Fort Stage
12:30-1:20, Alex and Ani Harbor Stage
Spirit Family Reunion
2:00-3:00, Fort Stage
3:00-4:00, Alex and Ani Harbor Stage
First Aid Kit
4:15-5:15, Quad Stage
Iron and Wine
5:35-6:35, Quad Stage
Guthrie Family Reunion
6:05-7:30, Fort Stage
My Morning Jacket
Sunday, July 29th
11:00-11:20, Fort Stage
Sleepy Man Banjo Boys
11:35-12:30, Quad Stage
The Kossoy Sisters
12:35-1:20, Quad Stage
Joe Fletcher and the Wrong Reasons
1:40-2:35, Quad Stage
3:00-4:00, Alex and Ani Fort Stage
4:20-5:20, Alex and Ani Fort Stage
5:35-6:35, Quad Stage
Unfortunately, except for the Friday night show with Wilco, the Newport Folk Festival is completely sold out. The only way to get in is to try and win tickets. Luckily, Newport Storm Beer is giving away a pair of tickets for Sunday over at their Facebook page . There you’ll find a post asking you to quote your favorite lyric from an act playing Newport either Saturday or Sunday. Whichever gets the most “likes” wins the tickets. Good luck!
Listening to No Separation, the debut album from New York’s Spirit Family Reunion, feels less like listening to a recorded collection of songs and more like wandering into a group of friends hanging out and playing music together. You just know that whether or not they were a band, they’d still be playing music. Most NYC bands feel polished and part of a scene. These guys are the definition of roots music.
It’s the kind of music meant to be sung by groups. It doesn’t feel like a NYC band. Maybe more upstate, but probably further south. There’s nothing groundbreaking here. Everything sounds familiar, which is what is so brilliant about this band. By the end of the album, it’s already a part of you and in your soul. It’s the most basic ofAmericana. Instead of wondering how you ever lived without a band before, you’ll realize you have been living with them. You just didn’t know them yet.
If you get a chance, check out Spirit Family Reunion live. This will be the summer that breaks them, especially since they’re playing the best festivals of the summer/early fall. Please check out their website and grab a free download of “I Am Following the Sound” below.
Spirit Family Reunion Tour Dates
Jun 27 Bryant Park Summer Series New York,NY
Jul 13 HuntingtonSummer Arts Festival Huntington,NY
Jul 26 FloydFest Floyd,VA
Jul 27 FloydFest Floyd,VA
Jul 28 NewportFolk Festival Newport,RI
Aug 04 Celebrate Brooklyn Brooklyn,NY
Sep 21 Fresh Grass Festival at Mass MoCA North Adams,MA