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

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

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.

NEXT PAGE: "Despite their clear minority status, those who were not white dudes with beards did exist on Newport stages this year"

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.


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