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.
Death is a frequent theme in folk balladry old and new. Among the as-yet-unrecorded songs performed was Low Anthem’s “It’s A Sad And Guilty Feeling Since I Did Not Take Out Your Ashes.” Preservation Hall Jazz Band used ghostly horn riffs on a funeral-parade take on “St. James Infirmary.”
Folk metal O’Death’s instantaneous genre jumping showed that they see no rules in terms of how music can be played. Can you imagine a faster-and-louder approach to a vintage Parisian café interlude? With one member looking like a hippie, one almost preppy, and one being a torso-tattooed post-punk, the band clearly sets no limits on appearances either. (Check Marc Stern’s WMBR radio interview with the band on the archive at www.wmbr.org. Go to the Archive, and hit “Radio With A View” for August 8, and advance to about 11:40 AM. It will be accessible through August 21. Here, the band explains that O’Death is a natural name for their quartet since one member’s dad was a mortician and another’s a minister.) Their Newport appearance was only their second after a year-long hiatus while their lively drummer David Rogers-Berry (now with metal in his shoulder) recovered from bone cancer. (I’m including here some Youtube links, some done pre-Newport, of O’Death and a few other acts so people can get a gist of the festival.)
Another happy surprise was Simone Felice’s return to The Felice Brothers following open-heart surgery. Their rowdy accordion/rubboard approach turned violent “Frankie’s Gun” into a dance song, as did their zydeco interpretation of Townes Van Zandt’s “Two Hands.” For attendees who find Leonard Cohen’s and Richard Thompson’s recordings too cheerful, the Felices did their own “St. Stephen’s End” and “Greatest Show On Earth.”
As for Mexican elements, there was Calexico and The David Wax Museum. Someone likened Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros sound to circus music. (Sharpe, in case anyone wondered, is leader Alex Ebert’s alter ego – a libidinously impaired messianic type).
The festival’s promoters ran into a snafu when Justin Townes Earle injured his hand to the tune of 19 stitches and had to cancel his appearance only a week before the event. Then, out of the blue, Elvis Perkins (one of my faves at the 2008 and 2009 shows) called them to ask for tickets and they made him a cooler offer: Would Elvis Perkins In Dearland perform? To me, Perkins (son of actor Tony Perkins) embodies the best of the neofolkies: an attention to centuries-old writing styles (“While You Were Sleeping,” “Who’ll Join This Union,” a Steeleye Span-ish “Gypsy Laddie”) and a willingness to spontaneously invite other bands to join his flock – this time, Preservation Hall and The What Cheer? Brigade (a Rhode Island-based New Orleans-style marching band whose largely black attire seemed a bit comically ominous as their numerous brief sets inspired the crowd to dance while other bands set up).
With three stage areas – one on the quad within the fort – it was easy to miss good acts when you couldn’t tear yourself away from what you were presently watching. I confess to totally missing Brandi Carlile and Andrew Bird. I managed to catch Yim Yames (of My Morning Jacket) when he teamed up with Preservation Hall on an old Jimmie Rodgers song.
Closing the festival was Arkansas-born drummer Levon Helm’s band (including daughter Amy Helm on vocals and bassist Byron Isaacs, both of Ollabelle, plus guitarist Larry Campbell). The repertoire drew heavily from his days in The Band (“Ophelia,” “The Shape I’m In,” “Long Black Veil”) plus Sam Cooke’s “Ain’t That Good News.” The earlier performers joined for the event’s finale, “I Shall Be Released.”
So what above all did the 2010 Newport Folk Festival show? As O’Death, Perkins and La Farge exemplified (and Justin Townes Earle would have had he been there), the future of America’s musical past lies in safe hands.
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