Newport Folk Festival Wrestles Weather, Evolving Legacy With Beck, Avett Brothers, Feist

Beck, Andrew Bird and Chris Funk perform at the 2013 Newport Folk Festival

Zach Kohn

The final, half-sunny, half-gloomy day of Newport was opened in true Sunday-morning fashion, with help from the gospel choir from Berklee College of Music in Boston and the deep-southern solo-soul of Canadian Al Spx's Cold Specks project, the latter of whom (disappointingly) ended her set fifteen minutes early with a totally a cappella gospel tune (though it sounded more like an epic, gothic poem than anything). Later in the afternoon, Michael Kiwanuka, the British songwriter the BBC named as their Sound of 2012 winner two Decembers ago (Frank Ocean was runner-up), paid mellow tribute to idol Jimi Hendrix with his and his band's acoustic cover of "Waterfalls." Decemberists side project Black Prairie bucked tradition with a Led Zeppelin cover (on Saturday, The Last Bison did the same with a stripped-down cover of M83's electro anthem "Midnight City").

Photo Gallery: Scenes From Newport

The fest wasn't without its actual protest moments, though, however small. On Sunday, elder statesman Michael Hurley sang one of his songs as a kiss-off to agriculture corporation Monsanto, while singer Iris Dement dedicated one of hers on Saturday to the memory of (and future justice for) slain Florida teenager Trayvon Martin. The mouthiest appearance, though, of course came from Father John Misty (FKA J. Tillman, drummer of Fleet Foxes), who, in keeping with his reverential moniker, went on tear after (maybe 80 percent serious) tear Saturday, announcing himself as a student of the school of Statler and Waldorf, climbing off the stage and into the audience during songs, and eviscerating the modern folk scene – and its fans – with sermons like, "If you have a good life making folk music, and you wear vests and a fedora and you have two Priuses in the driveway, you have an obligation to make music that fuckin' matters … I'm not a folk artist though. I just got invited here because I'm white and I have a beard."

Despite their clear minority status, those who were not white dudes with beards did exist on Newport stages this year, the most drastic example being Niger-based Tuareg guitarist Bombino, whose reggae-infused music was both instrumental and sung 100% in Tamashek (though he did offer simple greetings in Arabic and French at the onset). Saturday's Trombone Shorty also broke the mold and livened the mood with their New Orleans-bred funk jams (the fact that this band is so often kept to the jam-band scene seems a little unfair to the rest of us).

Still, though the number of arguments about authenticity in modern (and popular) folk music could stretch thrice around the sun, if there's one place on earth that conversation ought to be taken seriously, it ought to be the Newport Folk Festival, where new acts are rapidly overtaking the old and forming their own definitive contemporary generation (definitive, that is, if Newport's power to birth legends still holds even a little true in 2013). The absence of gospel wailers like Mavis Staples and vintage rockstars like Wanda Jackson was sorely noted; while reigning patriarchs like the Michael Hurley and Newport mainstay Ramblin' Jack Elliot (who truly, truly rambled this year, with stories so great, one lamented it was a music performance and not simply story time) maintained their long-held thrones, there were fewer heritage acts than ever this year, and their dwindling presence was the least diverse of a already-dangerously-beardwashed lineup. (Even Pete Seeger, whose presence in one form or another has been a staple from the festival's inception, was conspicuously, regrettably absent following the recent death of his wife Toshi.) Additions of acts like controversial crowd-sourcer Amanda Palmer and (most glaringly, given the beatings they've received from critics over the past year) the Lumineers, seemingly in the stead of more intentional folk leaders (it should be said, however, that Palmer did manage to keep the spotlight mostly on her music instead of her business models).

If Beck Hansen has ever enjoyed a good belly laugh (and truly, it's unclear), he might've done so if the Newport Festival Foundation had reached out about his headlining their folk festival a decade ago instead of in 2013. The songwriter's career is hardly founded upon a folk tradition, but when he decided to release his latest "album," "Song Reader," as a book of recording-less, Americana-heavy sheet music, he apparently became a worthy candidate for the position. (By the way, 95% of the fans that came for the Lumineers filed out before Beck began. Savvy move by organizers to break up traffic? Perhaps.)

Regardless, Beck seemed to have arrived for his closing set Sunday night expecting a rather cut-and-dry show, deadpanning with his usual all-black, shades-and-wide-brimmed-hat routine, barely registering emotion even as he invited Andrew Bird and Black Prairieans Chris Funk and Annalisa Toornfelt onstage for a jam and a Jimmie Rodgers cover dedicated to one of his inspirations, fellow performer Ramblin' Jack Elliot. Beck clearly was uninformed that cut-and-dry doesn't quite cut it for a closing Newport Folk Festival set, so was visibly starstruck as Ramblin' Jack himself was escorted onstage to accompany the already swelled band on "Waitin' on a Train." The rest of his set – which he jokingly threatened to cut short thanks to the bucket-list performance – was decidedly more lighthearted, ending in overtime on the very electronic "Where It's At." Above all, though, it will be remembered for the perfect timing of his performance of "Sunday Sun": just as the clouds parted to bathe the stage in the orange of the setting sun. It disappeared almost as soon as the song ended. After a transcendental moment like that (on a stage simply and hopefully forever called not the Toyota stage or the Coca-Cola stage, but the Fort Stage), one found it hard to get too indignant about a drum-machine encore.