By Bruce Sylvester
Newport Folk Festival was the cutting edge during the ‘60s folk heyday. But after the event’s resurrection in 1985, it struggled to survive financially and at times only tread water artistically until Jay Sweet took over as producer. Last year under Sweet’s leadership, it sold out in advance for the first time in its over-50-year history. This year, except for Friday’s Wilco/Megafaun/Blitzen Trapper concert, the July 27-29 event sold out months in advance, with a mix of generations assembling at Newport, Rhode Island’s historic Fort Adams State Park on the Narragansett Bay. The main stage (of the four) was between the 19th-century fort and the water. Another stage was on the quad inside the fort itself.
This year brought a new stage – an indoor stage within the fort’s museum, where the quiet acts could be well heard, free from the outside clamor — except, of course, when crowds who couldn’t get inside the packed museum pushed open the windows from the outside in hopes of hearing 70-year-old rediscovery Rodriguez, subject of the fascinating new documentary film Searching for Sugar Man. More on Rodriguez later.
Raconteur Arlo Guthrie, bluesman Spider John Koerner, and the Kossoy Sisters had played the legendary Newport Folk Festivals of old. Arlo appeared now as part of the Guthrie Family Reunion, with his extended family honoring his father, folk poet laureate Woody Guthrie (1912-67) on the centennial of his birth. Arlo, his sister Nora (administratrix of the Guthrie estate), their kids, and grandkids were on stage, while their songs reached back to one that Oklahoma-born Woody penned with his New York Jewish mother-in-law. In essence, we were witnessing five generations of the family as singers and writers.
The identical-twin Kossoy Sisters, Ellen and Irene, had played the first Newport Folk Festival in 1959. Their 1956 rendition of “I’ll Fly Away” on Tradition Records was heard in the Coen Brothers’ film O Brother, Where Art Thou?
For me, previous Newport Fests’ gold has been the acts I’ve discovered (the Felice Brothers, Devil Makes Three, Low Anthem, and Pokey La Farge & the South City Three). This year’s revelations were Spirit Family Reunion (a raw and raucous Brooklyn sextet doing nondenominational Pentecostal hoedowns) and 20-year-old busker Jonah Tolchin. Local pessimists Joe Fletcher & the Wrong Reasons did “Womanizer Blues” (“You’re better off alone”), an ominous cover of Bob Dylan’s “Down in the Flood,” and, from their CD White Lighter, “Drunk & Single (for George Jones).” As I noted after the 2011 festival, the future of America’s musical past rests in safe hands.
True love – and life in general – rarely run smoothly in Americana music. As Conor Oberst sang, “Gossip’s as good as gospel in this town.”
On the upbeat side, barefoot hippies happily danced in light rain to the Punch Brothers’ futuristic bluegrass. Alabama Shakes delivered a powerhouse post-Muscle Shoals set.
Preservation Hall Jazz Band from New Orleans did celebratorily funereal “I’ll Fly Away” and “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.” Their Crescent City being a musical melting pot, they brought in Del McCoury for bluegrass vocals, while Tao Rodriguez Seeger (grandson of the festival’s co-founder Pete Seeger) sang Chicano style with them. Preservation Hall may be the first act to ever play Newport Folk Festival one weekend and Newport Jazz Festival the next. By the way, leader/tuba player Ben Jaffe’s late father — the band’s originator, Alan Jaffe — played Newport Jazz Festival with Louis Armstrong.
A much younger generation was represented by the Sleepy Man Banjo Boys (a teen and preteen brother trio) and the teen Berklee City Music Choir.
Ardent musicologist Frank Fairfield dug into aged Appalachian tunes and vintage sheet music accompanied solely by his fiddle, banjo, shod feet, and small Orpheus guitar. Iron & Wine broke from Sam Bean’s own compositions to cover spooky “Long Black Veil” (their contribution to Columbia/Legacy’s rip-snorting new Johnny Cash tribute CD/DVD We Walk the Line: A Celebration of the Music of Johnny Cash, which also features previous Newport acts Brandi Carlile, Lucinda Williams, and Carolina Chocolate Drops).
Since there are no musical rules at Newport, Albert King’s “Born under a Bad Sign” turned into metal. Brown Bird offered stark bowing and Russian rhythms. The Tallest Man on Earth (Sweden’s not-so-big Kristian Matsson) and Carl Broemel of My Morning Jacket served up smart pop. Yes, indie pop abounded, but traditionalists could still find plenty to please them. Out in the audience, Albert O of WUMB-FM speculated to me that one reason the younger generation is so interested in folk is that they’re rebelling against their parents, those Limp Bizkit fans.
The spirit, if not always the music, of Woody Guthrie kept appearing. Joel Rafael has done CDs totally devoted to his songs. Wilco is among the bands Nora Guthrie has enlisted to flesh out her father’s unrecorded pieces and set them to music. New Multitudes (Jim James, Jay Farrar, Anders Parker, and Will Johnson) emphasized his songs. Arlo’s “Comin’ into Los Angeles” (considerable more rocking here than on his original recording – reflected his dad’s antiauthoritarian streak. Tom Morello as well as soul/blues Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaires echoed his populism. Joe Fletcher’s chest bears a tattoo of Woody’s face surrounded by his lyric “I’m worried now but I won’t be worried long” from “Worried Man Blues,” which he characteristically adapted from an older folk song recorded by the Carter Family. Borrowing and adapting: that’s the folk tradition.
And then there was Rodriguez. The highly lauded new documentary film Searching for Sugar Man gets its name from one of his Dylanesque inner-city poet songs. Now age 70, Detroit native Sixto Rodriguez is son of Mexican immigrants. In the 1970s he released two LPs, Cold Feet and Coming from Reality, on the long-defunct Sussex label. (Recently, both have been reissued on Light in the Attic. The film’s soundtrack CD on Legacy draws largely from them.) The press praised the LPs, but saleswise they sank like stones – except in South Africa, where a young generation opposed to their homeland’s apartheid found their voice in his songs that transcended specific causes or times. But because he’d dropped out of music back home and was simply cleaning out houses, his fans could find no information about him in the pre-Internet age, and he received no royalty checks since they could only bootleg his albums. He had no idea that he was revered. In South Africa, bizarre legends of an on-stage suicide sprung up.
Like in the 1960s when young white blues fans tracked down Mississippi John Hurt in tiny Avalon, Miss. – thanks to his reference to the town on 1928’s “Avalon Blues” – and then brought Hurt to Newport, helping to revive his career, a South African in the 1990s noted Rodriguez’s reference to Dearborn, checked to see if there was a town by that name in America, and located Rodriguez, who hadn’t played professionally in years. The new film tells it all and much more.
On stage at Newport, he wore the black clothes and dark shades he prefers in the movie and sang so softly it was hard to hear him. Along with his own material like “This Is Not a Song, It’s an Outburst: or, the Establishment Blues” and romantically angst ridden “I Wonder,” he did 1950s hits like the Flamingos’ R&B “I Only Have Eyes for You” and Don Gibson’s country “Sea of Heartbreak.” Basically, Rodriguez has become the Mississippi John Hurt of this generation of Newport fans.
One final happy note: delicious, reasonably priced food nearby. Flo’s Clamshack – which long ago outgrew the clam shack – is an informal treat for both cuisine and good vibes. And a bit farther away, up in Portsmouth, RI, West Main Pizza serves the best pineapple pizza I’ve ever tasted.