July 29-30, 2017
“These songs are a living language”, Billy Bragg told the crowd early in his Harbor Stage set with Joe Henry at the Newport Folk Festival on Saturday. Six words that pretty much sum up the heart and soul of this legacy event that sits atop so much musical history. So, true to form, one of the more anticipated Sunday performances was Speak Out! A set that started with the rollicking Preservation Hall Band horns slowing “When the Saints Come Marching In” down to a somber crawl, bleeding into the National Anthem before singer Kyle Craft launched into Bowie’s “Heroes”. A band that grew to include Austin’s Shakey Graves and My Morning Jacket’s Carl Broemel and others, with Graves leading the first person Trumpian rant “I’m Better Than You”.
Newport Folk is about the words and the music. Songs that stir and shake, songs you shake your ass to, songs that provoke, songs that matter. But it’s also about discovery of new voices and sounds, and the fingerprints of founder George Wein still carting around Ft. Adams, and the guiding hand of producer Jay Sweet. Newport is about surprises, highlighted this year by the “unannounced” return of Nathaniel Rateliff & the Nightsweats on Saturday, followed Sunday by Roger Waters appearance at the end of John Prine’s fest closing set (known only to Fest higher ups as well as a few of Newport’s finest). With Waters’ recent fist shaking tour a mission to get the country to wake the fuck up, and whether you agree with his views or pillory him for it, it is music as a vehicle for protest and potence. Draw a line straight through Newport. Makes sense to me.
Newport Folk is an incredibly personal event as I’ve recounted in past coverage. The blue water and white sails of Narangansett Bay a stunning backdrop to the Fort Stage, sales capped at 10,000 and an annual sell out before a single artist is announced. AEG-Golden Voice this is not. Yet, even with its international reputation, Newport Folk still feels so incredibly local and, as a west coast based photographer, I consider myself lucky to cover Folk (and Jazz) whenever I can.
So, a few reflections to share when not running between stages on Saturday and Sunday…
On an unseasonably cool and windy Saturday, Grandma’s Hands band on Saturday paid tribute to Bill Withers with Hooray for the Riff-Raff’s Alynda Lee Segarra, Justin Vernon (not in Bon Iver guise) and Hiss Golden Messenger’s M.C. Taylor, reminding me of the deep reach of those songs in our collective soul. Christopher Paul Stelling packed the small Museum Stage, declaring between tunes with his band that “nobody thought the coming apocalypse would be a clown car”. I was especially taken with the Decemberists infused Offa Rex, complete with Olivia Chaney’s Indian harmonium filling out the requisite dreaminess and was a sucker for celticish folk-rock way back in the day. Even felt a little Richard and Linda Thompson coming from the stage. Angel Olsen and her well dressed band made FYF to Newport totally logical. The Avett Brothers were in their element, while Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley led the Drive-by Truckers through some of their hard charging tunes. No strangers to the Fort Stage, Wilco closed out the day.
The Charlie Sexton Texas Gentlemen led Chuck Berry tribute on Sunday seemed kinda shaggy. Jim James iPhoned in the lyrics for his vocal turn on “Promised Land”. ” Roll Over Beethoven” featured Kam Franklin of the Suffers on vocals, followed by Deer Tickers Ian O’Neal and Dennis Ryan on “Maybelline” and “Run Run Rudolph”. Perhaps it picked up after my time in the pit, but sorta meh.
My 2017 Newport discovery was Pinegrove, “an American indie rock band from Montclair, New Jersey” (per their event app profile). The band came out committed, full of power and sparks. Pretty exciting (they do good, too, as their catalogue is up for ‘pay what you want’ – all proceeds donated to the Southern Poverty Law Center). A flashback to when Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats knocked my socks off in 2015, and their unannounced Sunday set at the small Harbor Stage seemed like a homecoming. I first heard Rateliff as a singer-songwriter at the Newport produced Way Over Yonder Festival in 2014 sans Sweats. Just a guitar, playing to 100 people or so. When he brought his rock and soul revival to Newport, it was a revelation.
This year’s Folk and Jazz crossover act was Rhiannon Giddens. Her material, performances and playing are hauntingly powerful creations that give voices to those not represented. In her first few tunes, she rendered Dylan’s “Spanish Mary” full of dramatic beauty, sang of the inhumanity of “At the Purchaser’s Option” accompanying herself on the fretless Bowland gut string banjo, before throwing down some mean twin fiddling with her band mate. Sharing my affection for her music with Giddens in the media tent was just another special Newport moment. The jammy Dr. Dog got chimey and urgent with the tunes I heard before the aforementioned Speak Out hit the Fort Stage. And Suzanne Vega, replete with top hat and waist coat, made “Marlena on the Wall” sound just as lovely to my ear as it did over 30 years ago. John Prine owned the closing slot which brought out Waters, Lucious, Zack Williams of the Lone Bellow and others towards the end of the set in true Newport fashion. The, sweetness of Prine’s performance broken by his own fist shaking, before “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore” as the Newport Daily News reported.
It’s not a reach to say that Newport Folk changed the world a bit then, and still can now. Whether sowing the roots of resistance, paying tribute to those who came before, or enduring the heartbreak of the road or lost love, the spirit of Newport Folk is alive and well and it is everywhere. Just ask Roger Waters.