By Bruce Sylvester
Warm – but not too warm – summer skies smiled down on the annual Newport Folk Festival last weekend as the older and younger generations of roots music found common ground at War of 1812-era Fort Adams State Park in Newport, RI.
Recurring elements: Classy instrumentation (violin, cello) in a folk setting. Stand-up basses. A freedom from musical boundaries. The acknowledgment of Louisiana in general and New Orleans in particular as a cradle of our music. And a return to the stage of young musicians who’ve had serious health problems.
Richie Havens, John Prine and blind Appalachian picker Doc Watson were among the old guard. Havens’ “Freedom” and “All Along The Watchtower” recalled his ‘60s/early ‘70s days. With “Paradise “ and “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore,” Prine was one of Saturday’s few political singers (despite folk’s lefty reputation). By now, his “Souvenirs” is kind of a souvenir. He gave The Carter Family’s “Bear Creek” a post-Sun Records rock treatment.
Western North Carolina’s Watson, who’s only 87, was strong, though his voice is weathered and accompanist David Holt did much of the story telling. T. Michael Coleman (his ‘80s bassist) was also on board as Doc, with characteristic good taste, served up vintage numbers like “Sitting On Top Of The World,” “Way Downtown” and “Shady Grove.” Never an uptight folk purist, he also did Johnny Mathis’s 1957 pop hit “Twelfth Of Never” (recalling Del McCoury at the 2009 festival bluegrassifying a ’50s Frank Sinatra hit).
Mandolinist Sam Bush, who’d pioneered bluegrass rock back in the ‘70s with Newgrass Revival, remarked prior to his band’s extended take on the late Charlie Monroe’s “Bringing In The Georgia Mail,” “If Bill Monroe was the father of bluegrass music, then Charlie Monroe was the uncle.” Backstage, his banjoist, Scott Vestal, philosophized, “With jamming, sometimes you fall off a cliff and sometimes you make it back.”
Topical songwriter Tom Paxton (a ‘60s Newport act who wasn’t back this year) has opined that the ‘60s folk revival couldn’t last because people couldn’t dance to its music. The present roots revival doesn’t have that problem, as The Avett Brothers, O’Death, Pokey LaFarge & The South City Three and others showed.
St. Louis-based La Farge’s band was one of the festival’s coolest relatively unknown acts. Nattily dressed in vintage attire (with one looking like Peewee Herman and another like revivalist Leon Redbone did 35 years ago), they served up 1920s-‘40s swing and country blues styles (with many songs from La Farge’s pen). Guitarist Adam Hoksins created trumpet sounds with his mouth.