As the summer festival economy continues to enjoy its boon era at the same time the wider music industry remains unsure what it's going to be when it grows up, every promoter has no doubt felt the pressures that force fests to either make room for outside controlling interests -- big brands, major label interests and the like -- or shut down altogether. Some organizers, like UK-based All Tomorrow's Parties, have opted for the latter (they decided earlier this year to shutter their Holiday Camp festival after 14 years rather than buy into the "overpriced conveyor belt corporate rock sponsor-fest" model), but most have chosen survival alongside sponsors.
Fortunately for its presenters, the Newport Folk Festival (as well as its sister fest the Newport Jazz Festival) has escaped most of those influences. Largely thanks to its 2011 filing as a 501(c)(3) non-profit, the foundation has been able to choose its brand partners meticulously, opting for local and eco-friendly business presence far more than larger corporate interests. Big names like Sennheiser and Dockers either fulfilled a highly specific purpose -- like in the audio company's case, recording and broadcasting Paste magazine's annual acoustic sessions via its pro and consumer products in a remote corner of Fort Adams (where both festivals have taken place since 1959) – or were relegated to media and VIP areas, where the heavy-marketing trade-off is far less obtuse (most or all of those guests were there for free).
|Photo Gallery: Scenes From Newport|
Newport Folk's challenge lies, instead, in its legacy: booking a balancing-act bill that will draw sell-out crowds – a phenomenon the Newport Festival Foundation has only enjoyed since 2011 – while simultaneously preserving a legendary, now-54-year-old heritage, one that is the longest-running and possibly the most visible example of American festival success ever. While they've done extraordinarily well in years past according the best of both old and new artists, this year's lineup didn't do itself as many favors.
Friday's abbreviated kickoff was star-crossed from the beginning: not only did rain drown out much of the fun of the first-day-at-Newport experience (though special props ought to be given to a pre-rain, fest-opening set by energetic Boston mainstays Kingsley Flood); whoever booked set times from midday onward must have watched Sophie's Choice just before doing so, because festival attendees were immediately forced to choose among comparable acts that all took the stage within fifteen minutes of one another.
Luckily, the concurrent midday sets delivered by indie-rock trinity the Mountain Goats, Phosphorescent and Feist (seriously, how are people supposed to choose among those?) happened to be perfectly suited for rainy-day playlists anyway; the clouds followed Leslie Feist's lead, and as her guitar shook with a refreshingly improvisational take on "My Moon My Man," it summoned the downpour.
A lot of artists playing this year mentioned their mothers (British singer Frank Turner apologized to his before launching into his paean to atheism "Glory Hallelujah"), but Deer Tick frontman John McCauley one-upped them all by inviting his own, Marge "Mama Deer Tick" McCauley (or so her custom t-shirt read on its back), onstage during his solo set Friday to sing Jimmy Buffett's "Margaritaville" (pretty well, too!). He also had recent collaborator Vanessa Carlton out for their duet "In Our Time," off Deer Tick's forthcoming album "Negativity." The new guests were a refreshing change for the singer, whose festival sets – as well as his band's annual three-night residency at the Newport Blues Café, which was as drunken, roiling and sold-out as ever this year – are often supported by fellow alt-folk dudes like Dawes and Delta Spirit (or as their known as a supergroup, Middle Brother).
Now, Old Crow Medicine Show. Cheesy? Duh. Corny? Lord, Yes. (Do you know an Old Crow song that isn't "Wagon Wheel"? Me neither.) Still, if the band, whose numbers seemed to swell exponentially throughout their 75-minute set, knows one thing, it's how to wrangle an upbeat, goofy show that leaves even casual observers entertained. Not a rare talent, surely, but certainly a valuable one, especially on the Rhode Island seashore as the sun sets.
Thanks to some cosmic mercy, the Saturday crowd escaped the rain entirely. Instead, it was blazing hot as aforementioned punk-y British songwriter Frank Turner made his Newport debut with band the Sleeping Souls in the early afternoon. Buzz bands Houndmouth and Shovels and Rope proved their mettle admirably (the latter to a larger crowd and more fiercely than the former, if it were up to a vote); then Jim James and Colin Meloy each did their duties as Newport Advisory Board members – James doing his reverb-soaked country-soul thing while pacing back and forth and shamelessly mugging for photographers, Meloy in plaid and skinny jeans seemingly caring far less about presentation than previous years, probably thanks to a few years off parenting in the woods (no, seriously). Though he charmingly fumbled more lyrics (both old and new) than lesser musicians could get away with, his inviting the rest of the Decemberists onstage for full-band renditions of "Down by the Water" and "Yankee Bayonet" made up for the oversight.
The Avett Brothers closed out Saturday with a no-frills, concise set, peppered with traditional covers like the appropriate (for the North Carolina band) "Blue Ridge Mountain Blues" and rounded out (of course) with an encore of their most beloved (both by fest-goers, who sang along, and otherwise) song, "I and Love and You." It was a fitting ascent to the mainstage for a still-young, five-time Newport veteran: people lost their minds.