While Lollapalooza greets you with the Chicago Skyline, and Bonnaroo greets you with a veritable city of tents, pulling into Newport almost gives a sigh of relief. Having only heard stories and rumors about the nature of Newport Folk Festival, our car drove across a bridge and onto an island that almost guaranteed relaxation. None of that running from stage to stage, dying in the heat, or losing your friends in the middle of a giant field. The first drive to Fort Adams state park is like a tour of all things too perfect. Each seafood place calls to you to splurge on a lobster roll in it, and even the Dunkin Donuts stores look fancier than ever. Oh, and let’s not forget the giant mansions rooted in the island.
I was a bit afraid, going into the festival, that the crowd would be a bunch of cranky-old-folks, who at the first chord of My Morning Jacket’s set might explode into a pile of dust. Or, that Tune-Yards would be booed off stage, deemed as “too weird.” However, I soon learned that from the oldest of the old to the youngest of the young at Newport, the festival attendees might have been the most open-minded, musically receptive people I’ve ever been around.
At Wilco on Friday night, on the outside edge of the fort, we were treated to our first glimpse of the bay. Sailboats came in for prime waterview spots of the stage, and we looked behind us at something so picturesque you could vomit. At the same time, we got our first view of older moms and plaid-dads dancing, and boy was it great. But at a certain point, after staring at terrible dancing long enough, you start to do it yourself. And hey, Wilco was playing in the background.
Coming back on Saturday, for our first FULL day of the festival, the crowd ate up Deer Tick’s drunken brawl music, with the hints of folk in “Ashamed” and other tunes. But where else would a line like “We’re full grown men / But we act like kids” resonate so well? From there, we sprinted to the Alabama Shakes, who at Newport, were not just some buzzband. Here, they were a talented, well received group of young musicians that were worth so much more than their YouTube hits.
First Aid Kit sounded beautiful, with odes to people from Joan Baez to Fever Ray, and harmonies for miles, joined for a quick verse by the ever-present Conor Oberst. At that same time, Sharon Van Etten asked “This is a folk festival, is it weird that I’m here?” to which the crowd enthusiastically “WOO”-ed, “That doesn’t answer my question!” said Sharon. In reality, there wasn’t anyone who didn’t belong at the festival; after all, “All music is folk music,” isn’t it?
After an always welcome performance of “When My Time Comes” by Dawes, who would also appear all over the festival for collaborations and other fun, we walked over to Iron And Wine. And even though as a fan, I was disappointed in the reworkings of songs to a full band and new melodies, there was still beauty to be had in the set. We were in the middle of an old fort, so it wasn’t hard to enjoy the atmosphere. Even for My Morning Jacket, one might expect their standard three hour set, but they provided a mix of “folkier” things, along with the hard hitters like “Dondante.” Dapper in seersucker suits, Yim Yames and crew even brought out Brittney Howard, Conor Oberst, and Ben Solee for their set, and played an ode to the late Levon Helm. The insane thunderstorm during their last song was only a bit of a damper, and the three hours to get out of the parking lot provided a chance to listen to the My Morning Jacket songs we’d wished we heard.
Day two began with more Yim Yames, at New Multitudes, where he rocked out arguably harder than the night before. Perhaps the rain made his mane a bit more frizzy, but he had lost no energy from the night before. Charles Bradley screamed and stomped on the main stage, and even performed the most soulful cover of “Heart of Gold” possible for a 62 year old man. Tom Morello, the Rage Against The Machine and larger than life personality, played the smallest tent, and told folk tales and politically charged stories in his deep-as-hell singing voice. At the end, he brought up about 50 crowd members onto the stage for “Worldwide Rebel Song,” for a bit of punk-rock at Newport Folk. Oh, and Jackson Browne was watching from the side of the stage, leather jacket and all.
Conor Oberst’s set was a mix of pleasant surprises. While the first couple of songs were things I’d dreamed to see him perform on just an acoustic (“First Day of My Life” and “Lua” with First Aid Kit) he then brought out Dawes and Johnathan Wilson as a backing band to plow through loud tunes like “Soul Singer in a Session Band” and “Danny Callahan” in the true collaborative Newport Folk spirit. And then, who else but Yim Yames came out with a Winnie The Pooh umbrella for “At The Bottom Of Everything.”
From there, we ran to the most overcrowded (rightfully so) set of the weekend, and planted ourselves for Tallest Man On Earth. His locked-eye stares with the crowd were as intense as ever, as he made eye contact with the farthest person on the tallest hill near the stage that he could. From a quiet piano version of “The Dreamer” to a muddy-dance party enducing “King of Spain,” it was a nice way to end the weekend before the storms drove us away from Jackson Browne’s set.
So maybe the weekend wasn’t as relaxing as I expected it to be. The folk music kept me awake, and I ran from stage to stage. I saw performances and collaborations that could happen “only at Newport” and saw countless people discover new music (myself included). I might not have gotten to take in every act, or all the beauty of Newport, but, hey, I ventured into one seafood place by the end of the weekend and did get that lobster roll.