Clouds parted and rain subsided, giving way to warm rays of sun that tickled a crowd eager to kick off the Newport Folk Festival with Wilco. The Chicago band’s Friday night performance was just the beginning of a legendary weekend filled with sensational music at one of the most enchanting venues in the country.
Playing under a torrential downpour, North Carolina’s Megafaun got the evening off to a good start with heavy spaced out jams. The set highlight was a cover of The Band’s “Look Out Cleveland,” with loping organ play from Phil Cook and scratchy drawling Jerry Garcia-esque vocals from drummer Joe Westerlund, who, ironically, draws an uncanny resemblance to a young Levon Helm in both look and style.
Blitzen Trapper helped usher in the sun and warm vibes with a short set including well-known tune “Furr” and a number of songs off their recent album, American Goldwing. This band is capable of channeling 70’s rock gods with burly guitar riffs while simultaneously giving many of their songs a country twang. Their ability to do all that and quickly transition into feedback-laced psychedelic jams proved that Blitzen Trapper is a musical force. Unlike a large majority of bands today who are merely regurgitating sounds of the past with an utter lack of originality, Blitzen Trapper is able to pay musical tribute to the greats while keeping their sound completely unique.
Wilco is a band that deserves every ounce of success and acclaim they receive. Their current stage setup may look like hanging tampons, but this is easily excusable by their consistently flawless live performances. With his dry humor and gravelly vocals, Jeff Tweedy carries himself well as a frontman, leading the band through ever-evolving setlists. The band started the set with “Christ for President,” and immediately moved in to “Art of Almost,” the dance beat-infused single off their most recent album, The Whole Love. Crowd pleasers like “Impossible Germany,” “Handshake Drugs,” and “Heavy Metal Drummer,” were mixed in with older tunes such as “Box Full of Letters,” satisfying new and die-hard fans alike. The set highlights came during the encore, with “California Stars” and “Airline to Heaven,” which both featured Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion on vocals and percussion. Wilco wrapped up the night with a rousing “Hoodoo Voodoo,” with the band’s roadie doing his best Iggy Pop as he gyrated across the stage banging a cowbell.
FOLK FEST – SATURDAY
Overcast clouds didn’t stop the sun from popping out on Saturday afternoon as crowds flocked to the Fort Stage for Rhode Island duo Brown Bird. Morganeve Swain’s rhythmic cello playing intertwines with David Lamb’s almost gypsy-like guitar picking, giving the music a delightfully sinister feel. Listening to Brown Bird conjured images of being frantically chased through a fairy tale forest, and I mean this as a compliment!
Over at the Quad Stage, Jonny Corndawg got the crowd hootin’ n’ hollerin’ with his neo-honky-tonk tunes. The set rocked with the special addition of Dawes’ Taylor Goldsmith tearing up the guitar and having a grand old time. Dressed impeccably in all black, Preservation Hall Jazz Band got the party going with their old timey New Orleans tunes. The band even got a little help from recent recording partner and bluegrass extraordinaire Del McCoury, playing guitar and banjo, and leading the band through a number of songs with his soulful nasally vocals.
Rhode Island rockers Deer Tick blew the roof off the Quad Stage in the first few songs with their version of the Diamond Rugs rowdy anthem “Gimme a Beer,” whipping the audience in to a frenzy as Delta Spirit frontman, Pete Vasquez, charged on stage to assist with keyboard and vocals, and danced his ass off on top of the piano. Set highlights included frontman John McCauley playing a beautiful solo version of “Houston, TX,” and the band closing out the set with a wild cover of Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline.”
Rising stars Alabama Shakes can hold their own on the biggest stages. They opened with “Goin’ to the Party,” a hushed tune that teased the crowd before launching into the pounding drum beat and catchy guitar riff of “Hold On.” No one in the audience could stay seated as Brittany Howard belted out soulful funky tunes “Hang Loose,” “I Ain’t the Same,” and “I Found You.”
“We are two Swedish sisters and one Swedish drummer,” said Johanna Soderberg as First Aid Kit took the Harbor Stage to a crowd exploding out the sides of the tent. With Johanna on guitar and Klara on keyboards, the young sisters proceeded to play one of the folkiest sets of the festival. The audience – this writer included – watched entranced with jaws dropped as the two sisters sang songs with harmonies as chillingly gorgeous as a Swedish winter. First Aid Kit has already generated a large buzz stateside, and their set at Newport only further proved that this group will be blowing minds all over the map any day now.
The members of Dawes were omnipresent all weekend, playing with everyone from Jonny Corndawg to Conor Oberst, but for their own set, they delivered a refreshing burst of California rock to lift the mood under the dark and dreary sky. Songs like “Fire Away,” “When My Time Comes,” and “Peace in the Valley” had people flashing smiles all around.
My Morning Jacket closed out Saturday night with a huge set on the Fort Stage. They opened with a charmingly mellow “Welcome Home,” effortlessly progressing in to the steady drum beat of “Golden.” Jim James’ high pitched echoing vocals on “It Beats for You” sent a comforting sense of tranquility over Fort Adams and outwards to the bay. “Dondante” was an ideal song choice, with an eerie darkness reminiscent of the looming storm moving in over the festival. The band brought out Brittany Howard from Alabama Shakes and Clint Maedgen from Preservation Hall Jazz Band to help out with a breath-taking cover of The Band’s “It Makes No Difference.” Other “jameos” of the set included Conor Oberst, who danced on the drums, Will Johnson, and Ben Sollee. As the skies opened up and the deluge commenced, My Morning Jacket played on to a loyal audience, closing out the set with “Circuital,” the single off their latest album.
FOLK FEST – SUNDAY
Minnesota band Trampled by Turtles (TBT) drew a large crowd to the Fort Stage with an energetic set that included excellent versions of mainly songs off their Palomino album. TBT blends fast bluegrass with folky Americana vocals, which must be a winning combo considering the band seems to be gaining popularity with every performance and always brings in plenty of excited listeners.
One of the most anticipated sets of the weekend was New Multitudes, a supergroup of sorts, featuring Son Volt’s Jay Farrar, Will Johnson of Centro-matic, Anders Parker of Varnaline, and Jim James of My Morning Jacket. It was impressive to see each of these hugely talented musicians sharing one stage and giving each other respective singing and solo time. Inspired by Woody Guthrie, the band ran through songs such as “Hoping Machine,” “Revolutionary Mind,” and “Chlorine.” Jay Farrar’s deep drawling vocals contrasted beautifully with those of Jim James, and one can only hope this band will go on to be more than just a side project.
Charles Bradley and His Extraordinaires may be about as far from folk as you can get, but that didn’t stop the audience from giving the soul singer a triumphant applause as he took to the stage and jumped in to “No Time for Dreaming,” the title track off his recent album. As if he was a monk of soul, Bradley repeatedly bowed in prayer to show his gratitude to the audience. Funky tunes like “Trouble in the Land,” “Golden Rule,” and a down-and-dirty cover of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” had the band, crowd, and singer grooving in unison. Bradley and his band are an incredible live act and come as a breath of fresh air in a musical landscape where digitized vocals and beats are accepted by the masses.
Austin’s local hero Gary Clark Jr., dressed in his usual black getup, opened with a hard rockin’ “When My Train Comes In,”-a bluesy number that emphasizes his voice as much as his instrumental talent. Obviously the frontman and shining star with stellar guitar chops, Clark is backed by a group of serious musicians. Eric Zapata plays a double guitar that causes you to go weak in the knees while Johnny Radclaf pounds away on the skins with total abandon. Clark and his band predictably closed out the set with their single, “Bright Lights,” to a standing ovation.
One of the most awaited sets of the weekend was Conor Oberst. This was immediately evident as a shaggy Oberst took to the stage solo, quietly started his set with “The Big Picture,” and was almost overcome by the sounds of hysterical teenage girls screaming in orgasmic delight. The set was a true pleaser for Bright Eyes fans, with Oberst playing a solo rendition of “First Day of My Life,” and later inviting the girls of First Aid Kit out to sing backup vocals on “Classic Cars” and “Lua.” The set took a livelier direction when Oberst invited Dawes to the stage to play as his backing band, helping him rock out on “Soul Singer” and “Danny Callahan.” Oberst and the band may have hit the peak of greatness at Newport when Jim James joined the band for “At the Bottom of Everything.” The audience sang along in sheer delight and even the seagulls gathered on the tall stone walls of Fort Adams, attentively hanging out as if to show that they too understood the joy of live music.
Newport Folk Festival may not be what it was when Bob Dylan went electric, but its current incarnation manages to appeal to young and old, hippies, folkies, and yuppies all around. One can only hope that the festival will continue to satisfy all who attend, because this year “it was a wonderful splash.”
Neil Ferguson is the Media/Music Editor for The Horn in Austin, TX.