Newport Folk coverage by 5342 Studios & Ian Perz Words by Ryan Spaulding
If the first two days of Newport were about new musicians, louder play and going electric (links to our photos and observations: Friday and Saturday) then Sunday was the return to form for the festival with eyes cast towards celebrating Mavis Staples' birthday and artists with a more traditional composure for Folk. Of course there were exceptions.. Glorious exceptions..
As a music lover and a passionate supporter of Newport Folk, I too was concerned about the way the new program would be received. After speaking with planners backstage, they were every bit as tense at certain points. And, like me, they couldn't have been any happier with the reaction of the fans this year at Newport. Sunday was all about close friends. Dawes were the set of the day for this writer. They just keep getting better and better, even performing new songs like old favorites. What's my favorite Dawes show ever? Probably this one.
Thao Nguyen is just so amazing - the way she structures her songs (incorporating slide guitar, banjo, lap steel, etc) is inspired, as is her writing. The fiery performer was dressed in yellow on the Fort stage as the day's heaviest rain began to fall. The performance by her and her band, The Get Down Stay Down, was all the sun the crowd needed and they danced in their ponchos as the rain beat down upon the soil. Sun Power, Soul Power!
Gregory Alan Isakov leaves Newport Folk 2014 with thousands of new fans and admirers and he can count me among them. I really knew nothing about the man before Sunday's set at Fort Adams and you can trust I will be following up. The strength of the set was obvious almost immediately as the play ascended higher and higher. Then, I learned, that it's the man's storytelling and vocals that really won me over. Maybe my favorite new discovery at Newport this year.
I really didn't anticipate loving the Hurray For The Riff Raff set as much as I did. But there was lots to love. The band moved seamlessly from songs of lost love to a total rambler of a number. The sound was unmatched on Saturday, making this one of the most magical sets of the entire weekend. I can't wait to see them again.
With so many sets, any fan at Newport Folk knows you can't stay too long at any set if you want to see it all. That didn't keep me from parking at Valerie June's Harbor Set for essentially the whole thing. It was a soft, sensual telling of love songs and a defiant foot-down in others. This was a real standout for me on Sunday. I need to get some of her records and soon.
With a heady rock set influenced by blues and soul, J Roddy Walston and the Business were one of the big, big winners this year at Newport Folk. Their Harbor Stage set was seen by many thousands of fans, many of which walked away saying the performer had "stolen the show." They had. But such proclamations here in Newport can be fleeting.
Folk audiences were blown away early by the magic of The Oh Hellos - who offered energy, instrumentation and harmonies that reminded this writer of Folk alumnus: Typhoon, Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, Hey Marseilles and The Lumineers. The band whipped the energy of the Quad Stage into a frothy mix of sunshine and joy and before you knew it, Saturday had truly begun in earnest. For me, this set was every bit as exciting and honest as the first time I saw Trampled By Turtles play in Newport.. There's magic here to spare!
Playing the Fort Stage at Newport is both a blessing and a curse for most bands.. It's a place full of hope and the ghosts of festivals past fly close and all around. To see a duo own it the way Shovels & Rope did, makes me unbelievably happy. It's been wonderful to see them take off the way they have. Thousands got a little gasoline poured on their fire with this one!
With staggered stage times, most concertgoers were merrily bouncing from one set to the next all day long on Saturday. Hearts were won and then won again throughout the day. And like Friday, the themes were loud, larger - and plugged in. There were exceptions (as you are about to see) but the days in Newport this year will be remembered by most as powerful and electric..
Newport Folk coverage by 5342 Studios & Ian Perz Words by Ryan Spaulding
REIGNWOLF ELECTRIFIES NEWPORT!
Each year a couple of Newport acts take this little sea by storm. Anyone who listened in advance realized that Jordan Cook, the guitar-crushing singer of Reignwolf, was the embodiment of change at this music festival. Steeped in the music of the past, he used his guitar like a microphone and shouted his presence at the world. For a moment there was only Reignwolf and there was only this place.
Plugged-in throughout, Reignwolf was the loudest set to be played at Newport in the seven years I have been attending. Know what? It worked. The skies didn't darken and the ground didn't open up and swallow us whole. All that mattered was Mr. Cook and company played the best set of blues-inspired rock that Newport had maybe ever seen. It was the set of the day and almost everywhere you went people were buzzing about it.
JIMMY CLIFF TRIUMPHS AT NEWPORT
For me the most surprising set of Friday came from Jimmy Cliff. I anticipated a set that was celebratory but was readying myself to enjoy it as an exhibit is seen, digested and remembered. I was going to take it in until the spirit didn't grab me and then see another set. There's so much to see and hear at Newport, there is no crime in this. Jimmy Cliff and his band had other ideas.. This was one of the most uplifting and joyous sets I have ever seen at Newport. Hand-clapping, fist-pumping, waving arms from the crowd, so much energy -- and an undeniable spirit to create and interact. The more I think about this set, the more I realize that Jimmy Cliff is another of our treasures. I will definitely be seeing Jimmy Cliff again, and soon I hope. So righteous!
LAKE STREET DIVE ASSUMES CONTROL
Lake Street Dive have grown in prominence the last two years and they play Newport Folk at the pinnacle of their musical prowess. My lord, I knew they were good but I guess I didn't realize just how amazing they could be. An unstoppable, sunshine set that left hundreds dancing on the Quad stage, the Lake Street Dive set on Friday offered what could be one of the most memorable moments of Newport Folk 2014: Mavis Staples stepped on stage with the band and brought the set to a whole new level. Staples, who is more marvelous every time I see her, turns 75 this year and Newport Folk has turned this weekend into a birthday celebration for her. I would not be surprised if we see Staples again, today and again on Sunday. [Insider Information: Mavis Staples will be playing with both Lucius and Puss N Boots on Saturday. You heard it here!! Is a Jack White / Pokey LaFarge collaboration also in the works for today? We'll see! - Ryan]
ROBERT HUNTER SERMONIZES WITH SONG
I get into these esoteric and creativity conversations with songwriters all the time. I'm most amazed by two very simple precepts of songwriting: the genesis of the song (the moment it ceases to be a passing breeze and starts being a thing) and the way that music comes to life when the songwriter begins working with other musicians or that song gets covered by someone else.. The song's the thing. And with that in mind, I ended up spending a great deal of time with Robert Hunter on Friday. To hear the music he's responsible for be played at Fort Adams, an area swarming with all kinds of creative spirits and old ghosts, really fired my brain up. In a moment, we see we are but a small thing but also connected to everything else. And sometime later, the set is over and you realized you and 2,000 other people just had what amounted to a religious experience through music. Very special!
BAND OF HORSES ARE THE RIGHT FIT AT NEWPORT
Magic Folk Moment of the Day for me came during the Band of Horses set. I've done so many of these wonderful Newport events, I look for really great takeaway moments that I can cherish for years to come. Sitting and watching Band of Horses play the Fort Stage under a gold and blue sky has to be right up there with individual performances of Alabama Shakes, Billy Bragg and The Decemberists - amongst the best sets on the big stage in many years. The band sound so very amazing right now and Newport Folk was a perfect fit.
Funny Side Story - Some years ago, I was talking with Newport Folk Executive Producer Jay Sweet about acts that could be plugged into the lineup in upcoming years over a beer. I quipped, "Band of Horses would be a really great fit," and Jay said something to the effect of, "I woud love that, but c'mon, that will never happen." (Read the Rolling Stone article that touches on Newport's ability to make the impossible happen.) Fast forward to Friday... Not only did it happen, it was as amazing as I knew it could be. This is a band you should be seeing if you have the chance. Their new live album, recorded at the Ryman is most-worthy.
Each year planners take the Newport Folk Festival in a series of interesting new direction through initiatives and (clearly) through the music. The Festival has evolved so rapidly from a two day music event, to a successful music weekend, to a three-day long weekend-long music event with spin-off events happening in the evening and somehow, everything is still grounded. Part of that uniqueness comes from the limited capacity. Planners sold something like 11,000 tickets for each day well in advance. The festival is sold out before a single artist is announced and that means there's a lot of trust inside the stone walls of Fort Adams. The people of Folk are protected - like a Darwinian island, the events on these stages are insular, special and true. But this is a paradox because change is the rule here as well.. As most clearly noted in the artist and genre mixes. One thing never changes: the Folk are happy. Children dance and play, while a few feet away sailboats drift by and the ocean air lifts the clouds. This is a very special place. And my life continues to be enriched by the time I spend here.
As with previous years, Newport Folk announced several new initiatives this year. With the passing of Pete Seeger, planners this have rolled out "For Pete's Sake" - a platform for Folk Musicians who carry the spirit of Seeger's life work, and of the first festivals in Newport. For Pete's Sake performers are presented in the spirit of the original Newport Folk Foundation and have been chosen for their dedication to the traditions of bluegrass, gospel and roots music. The "Pete's Sake" sets are being performed on the Fort Adams' Museum Stage - which is being managed by Chris Funk of the Decemberists. For Pete's Sake at Newport Folk this year features: Thomas Maupin, Blind Boy Paxton, Daniel Meyers, Hurdy Gurdy Band, Katie McNally, David Neimen, Matt Fitchenbaum, Sanlikol Barsamian Du, Harvey Reid, as well as workshops for Troubadours and Mandolin players.
Ultimately, the "For Pete's Sake" stage allows the fort to maintain it's deep roots and pay homage to the great Pete Seeger, while allowing planners to shift the focus of the main stages to contemporary performers who play here with every bit the same spirit, if not in the same sound. The times are a-changing still. What was a gamble by planners in 2008 (the shifting of the festival to independent sounds and to full-on electric sets) is a matter-of-course just six years later. With a Friday that featured the wild, wailing electric guitar of Reignwolf (possibly the loudest set ever at Newport) and a Saturday that will headline Jack White... This year will prove to be the most plugged-in Newport Folk ever.