Live Report: 2012 Newport Folk Festival

 

Newport
News
: the venerable
annual music gathering-of-the-tribes offers opportunity to experience the new
folk finesse. This year it was at Newport,
RI, on July 28 and 29. (Pictured
above: Jackson Browne.)

By Lee Zimmerman / Photos by Alisa Cherry

 

The Newport Folk Festival, an annual institution that began
in 1959 literally set the stage for ever festival that followed, from Woodstock to
Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo to South By Southwest, Coachella to Cayamo. Early on, it
became a beckoning call for those at the vanguard of America’s folk and roots
revival — Pete Seeger, Peter Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, Muddy Waters, Howlin’
Wolf and Johnny Cash among them — and as time went on, it also helped spawn
the new Rock reality by witnessing Dylan’s decision to go electric and test the
fervor of the faithful. Much has changed over the decades — a switch to a new
venue at Newport’s historic Fort Adams
and economic changes that nearly forced the festival’s demise in the late ‘60s
— but today, Newport remains at the center of America’s
musical map, and a beacon for both the ageless elite and the future stars of
tomorrow.

 

Our first time at Newport
affirmed those pronouncements, offering spotlight roles to 

an indisputable icon in the presence of headliner Jackson
Browne as well as worthy up-and-comers, Sara Watkins, Deep Dark Woods, Jonathan
Wilson, and The Head and the Heart, among them. Here then, is a wrap-up of our
Sunday at Newport:

 

 

First up was Sleepy
Man Banjo Boys,
a family bluegrass band from New
Jersey — even though in theory Appalachia
might have been a better bet. The group’s front line was made up of three
siblings, ages 10, 13 and 15, although their instrumental dexterity belied
their tender ages. 

 

 

Sara Watkins was
the next performer to grace the main stage, accompanied at least part of the
time by Jackson Browne, who as it turned out, would be a constant presence
throughout the day in sets other than his own. 

 

 

Trampled By Turtles turned up both the heat and the volume via one of the most rambunctious
bluegrass outings this reporter has ever had the good fortune to witness. Their
nimble combination of banjo, fiddle, guitar and mandolin took the proceedings
from mellow to manic, all in a matter of seconds and song change. Mostly, it
was the tunes delivered at a breakneck pace that enthralled the audience, many
of whom made dancing a priority during the majority of the time they held sway
on stage.

 

 

Deep Dark Woods,
an impressive Canadian combo whose bearded band members gave us our first
encounter with the more intimate Harbor Stage, where we were rewarded with both
excellent seats and a performance that easily outdid their showing at last
year’s Orlando Calling. Their bearded visages and austere selections brought to
mind the Band, another outfit whose ranks hailed mainly from north of the
border and whose penchant was mostly Americana.
“We’ll play some sad, depressing songs for you,” their singer promised in a
self-effacing tone, and true to their word, their somber narratives rang with a
gothic grace and Pentecostal purpose. 

 

Jonathan Wilson,
who played midday on the Harbor Stage, notched up our nomination for the
festival artist most likely to make the Big Time. Looking like a ‘60s survivor
with his long flowing hair and vintage hippie apparel, he played songs that
matched that outward appearance, most of them taken from his stunning debut
album Gentle Spirit, as well as a few from a new effort promised for later this
year. His sweet laurel Canyon-like odes proved so convincing in fact that they
lured one of the original proponents of that sound, Mr. Browne himself, onstage
in what proved to be a perfect bond. Once Sara Watkins joined the band, the
scene looked like something taken straight out of the Sunset Strip, circa 1968.

 

 

The irrepressible Tom
Morello
went solo and turned the tone mostly political, offering a mix of
defiant polemic anthems and angry, insurgent posturing. Billing himself as The
Nightwatchman, he seemed intent on delivering blustery song sermons designed to
rally the masses in true protest tradition. “One Man Revolution” and “This Is A
Union Town” clearly got the point across, but Morello’s exhortation that “the
only way to save yourself is to save others” also seemed to sum up those sentiments
succinctly.

 

 

The Head and the
Heart, Tune-Yards, Punch Brothers (above), The Tallest Man in the World and Connor
Oberst
all competed for the crowd’s kudos, although it’s to the festival
organizers’ credit that their definition of folk can also embrace such a
disparate array of performers. The Head and the Heart took advantage of their
standing as a favorite from last year and their rousing performance left their
audience enamored and even inspired Saturday headliner Ben Sollee to stick
around and return to the stage to join them. Tune-Yards, an eccentric
experimental combo adept at pairing
synthesizers, yodels and old time instruments, turned out to be a bit too weird
for my tastes but they drew an ample crowd to the Harbor Stage regardless. The
innovative Bluegrass approach of The Punch Brothers proved as adept as always,  and
Tallest Man on Earth’s impassioned solo songs, which brought to mind the
tangled emotional stoicism of Nick Drake, won a rousing reception, but the solitary sound of Connor
Oberst, onetime boy wonder from Bright Eyes, often seemed a bit too stodgy and
self-conscious, even with the vocal assist from First Aid Kit, the lovely
Swedish sister act who had their own headline set the day before.

 

 

Given the headliner’s berth, Jackson Browne found his willingness to show support for the other
performers amply repaid by a steady stream of guest stars, among them Tom
Morello, Jonathan Wilson (above, with Browne), Sara Watkins and Dawes, another holdover from the day
before, and like Wilson, an outfit that echoed the spirit of Browne’s ‘70s
canon.

 

Ironically, Browne’s performance was light on those earlier
signature songs, but a mandatory take on “These Days” and “Take It Easy” helped
satisfy the crowd that by now was watching in a steady rain, A final run
through, en masse, of Warren Zevon’s “Lawyers, Guns and Money” affirmed not
only his generosity of spirit but his willingness to offer homage to others as
well.

 

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