Thursday, August 19, 2010

2010 Newport Folk Festival: Adding a Smidgen of Harsh to the Mellow

I decided to go to the Newport Folk Fest this year after seeing the killer line-up (Felice Brothers, Levon Helm, Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, O’Death, and many others). 

Also, I heard Dylan might be going electric again.

My previous experience with big music festivals was limited to the very fun, very well-run 2005 Austin City Limits Festival.  My annual schedule of Ultimate Frisbee tourneys has made getting to some of the ones that look intriguing (Mountain Jam, Bonnaroo, another ACL trip) tough to line up each year.

But this year, I’ve been easing into club Ultimate retirement like Madonna eases into a hot tub full of goat placenta she uses to stave off grim death for another fortnight. So the schedule has loosened up a bit, like Madonna loosens up her outer…

…um, you get the picture. And quite a picture it is.


I tried to get some fellow music fans to join in, but was unsuccessful. So I drove solo up to Fort Adams State Park just outside of Newport, RI.

The ride up Friday was long and arduous.  What Google said would take 6 hours, instead took 9.  Part of it was my fault because I left later than I planned and it was hell getting through the George Washington Bridge.  I should have known better and gone 287/Tappanzee, but even that wouldn’t have spared me the 25 miles of 5 MPH traffic for the first 25 miles of 95 in Connecticut. 

I was bleary-eyed and wobbly by the time the traffic mysteriously opened up (another Madonna joke? nah.) pretty much where the signs said it would. 

The end of my trip was no picnic either, as I couldn’t find the campgrounds where I had reserved a spot. The locals at the Gas ‘n Gulp being condescendingly surprised that I could miss the sign didn’t help my mood.

Screw you, locals.

Anyway, I was able to luckily check in to my site even though the office had closed 15 minutes earlier.  I set up my tent by headlight and passed out.



The next morning I met up with my companions for the weekend (Jarsh, Rachel, Chad, Courtney and their 3-4 more charming than annoying offspring, of which only Teague has a Twitter account).  Later on, we met up with the irascible parents of Rachel and sadly absent Nic, who later on shared my campsite.  And they didn’t know it, but I tweeted something funny but simultaneously false and terrible about them.  Mostly it was to freak Nic out.  He hasn’t brought it up, so it was either no big deal, or he plans on murdering me in my sleep.

The vibe was very laid back.  Lots of older XPN types who found their spot in front of the Fort stage and settled in for the long haul.  Lots of younger fans too, who bopped from stage to stage.  It was a pretty good mix and as far as I could tell, nearly douchebag-free.

We were surrounded by ocean. I looked with a tinge of jealousy at the hundreds of boats, floats, and one guy standing on a surfboard poling himself through the water who were able to listen to the music on the Fort Stage for free.  A few people may have even snuck into the show for free. Not a bad way to spend 2 beautiful days, floating along with coolers full of beer.

Most of the food offerings were pretty good and only mildly overpriced. They had Magic Hat (who gave me awesome pink and black sunglasses), at least until they ran out on Sunday and had to sell hurriedly purchased Bud Light to placate us.  I guess they wanted to keep a lid on the drinking because you were only allowed to drink in a tent at the very top of the map below.  You could kinda hear the music if you weren’t in the tent, but not at all inside when the tent was full.

The setup of stages was a bit odd, especially on Sunday when a # of high-profile sets were scheduled back-to-back-to-back at the small Harbor stage.  Preservation Hall Jazz Band, The Felice Brothers, and Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeroes all had that place overflowing with fans.  Especially Edward Sharpe.  That set was delayed for 20 minutes while the local fire marshals forced everyone out of the center aisle and the area right in front of the stage.  Meanwhile, the Quad Stage had a TON of room and mostly lesser-known acts.  The only reason I can think of is that there was only one entrance to the Quad area and maybe they were afraid of a bottleneck. 


Overall, I wish it was a little less laid back.  Acts like O’Death, Felice Brothers, and Sharon Jones were not meant to be enjoyed sitting in a plastic chair or on a blanket.  I think they recognized that and added a section to the Fort Stage right in front of the stage that was only for standing/dancing. That came in handy for Sharon Jones’ set.  My feet were as black as an ill-conceived metaphor involving the color of Miss Jones’ skin by the end of her set from dancing non-stop in the dirt.  But I would hope they include a section for the other stages for dancing as well.  Or have seats on one half of the tent and an open area for whatever on the other half.  Something.



Enough blather.  On to the music.  While the batteries of my Kodak Zi8 lasted, it's 1080p video captured some pretty cool moments.  Apologies for the shakiness of some of them as I was holding the camera as still as I could.

NPR has audio of most of the sets here.



O’Death is a truly unique band.  They play what I dub “turbo bluegrass”, but that doesn’t do justice to the hell they unleash when they perform.  This guy does a better job at both describing O’Death and the Newport Folk Festival.  Hats off, brother.

I was bouncing around in my seat the whole time. I got there early enough for a 2nd-row seat, so I sacrificed a bit of room to move for the awesome vantage point.  Didn’t think I’d get another chance at seats that good the rest of the weekend.

There were signs everywhere about video recordings not being allowed, so I was paranoid about recording stuff. Hence the preponderance of heads in these clips.  Sorry.  I got over that paranoia pretty quickly.



The What Cheer? Brigade performed at the gates each morning, and then wandered around performing impromptu sets throughout the weekend. They were a kick-ass Goth/punk marching band.


It’s amazing what Andrew Bird can with his just a violin, a feedback loop (or whatever you call it), and his love of the whistle.


I saw Dawes open for someone at Johnny Brenda’s recently and have been digging their kinda laid-back California rock vibe.  This one even name-checks LA. 


Wasn’t planning on recording this, but it was a very cool moment. It was Dawes’ last song, a simple sing-along (“I gotta feeling… Everything’s gonna be alright…”).  Midway through the song, the lead singer called his father to join him on stage.  This was apparently not his dad’s first time upon the stage.  He bolted down and belted it out.  Sadly the bright sunshine meant I couldn’t really see what I was recording, so you get a lot of the backs of people’s heads. But trust me, it was rather sweet.


I was beat and just lying on the grass during the final set of the day (John Prine). It was a relaxing way to end the day.  Am lukewarm on Prine, but he matched my mood.  In my line of sight was an American flag on top of Fort Adams, so I decided to get artsy.  Entirely coincidentally and ironically, the song I recorded was “Flag Decal” which has lyrics like “Your flag decal won't get you into heaven anymore; It's already overcrowded from your dirty little war.”


I did take a break from dancing my lily-white butt off to Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings so I could record this song.  They were a breath of funky air amidst an otherwise fairly white bread weekend (at least the acts I saw).


The Preservation Hall Jazz Band put out a great compilation album earlier this year with guest vocals from a fantastic roster including Tom Waits, Jim James, Andrew Bird, Jason Isbell, and many others.  They continued this collaborative streak in the second half of their set.

Ben Sollee helped out on “Between The Devil & The Deep Blue Sea”, and Jim James tore the roof off with a tent-revival-preacher-on-5-hour-energy take on 2 songs (“Shake It And Break It” and another one I didn’t know).  These 2 songs left a much better taste in my mouth than JJ’s solo set from the other day. I was bored silly and left halfway through. To be fair, I’ve always preferred MMJ’s epic stompers to their quiet hushes, and I was in the minority based on discussions with other folks who saw his set. 




I used up the last of my battery on the last PHJB tune, so the rest of the vids are taken by other folks.

The first time I ever saw Felice Brothers was at a house concert at Drew Eckman ’s beautiful house on Lake Cupsaw in North Jersey.  And that’s one of the few times you’ll hear me use the words “beautiful” and “Jersey” in the same sentence.  I took a bunch of videos from that fantastic afternoon, and they can be found here.

At Newport, they tapped into a deep vein of raucous energy as people filled the aisle to shout along.  They killed that momentum a couple times with too many slower songs, though.  It didn’t help that there was some confusion about when their set was over.  They left the stage at one point and seemed confused about whether they were done or not before coming back.


The audio on this one starts sucking a quarter of the way in, but I include it because I make a cameo at the 1:45 mark:


I was torn on Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros going into the festival. Loved their first single “Home”, but the album didn’t do much for me.  They won me over with their set on Sunday. I was crashing a bit and smack dab in the middle of a rabid crowd that was way into them.  That’s usually a recipe for me being turned off, but they delivered a wide-eyed, energetic set.  My shorthand description of them being The Polyphonic Spree – 4-5 members + a Bj√∂rk look/singalike isn’t that far off, but I dig them more than I did before.



Levon Helm is a legend and should probably be declared a National Park or something similarly meaningful.  Erect a gift shop in his belly button. I’ll man the old-timey photo booth.

It’s just a shame that his voice has been weakened after numerous health problems including throat cancer. He’s a scrapper, though. I've added his name just below Buddy Guy’s in my People I Hope I’m Rocking As Hard As They Are When I’m That Old pantheon. I saw him at the Keswick last month. It was a good show with a killer band, but Levon only sung one song entirely by himself.  It’s OK, because “It Makes No Difference'” kills me every time regardless of who’s singing it.

Unfortunately, I didn’t see much of his weekend-closing set due to my ride leaving with their baby in tow.  If I wasn’t fighting a cold and feeling like crap, I may have struck out on my own and figured out a way back to the campsite. As it was, I was happy to head back, though it looks like I missed a good show.

This is an incredible vantage point for the all-star take on “I Shall Be Released”. I just wish the person taking it would keep his damn mouth shut the whole time. I’m guilty of that sometimes when I take video, but this is a reminder that it can nearly ruin a great song.  But I still love seeing not just a beautiful song, but the awed reverence everyone has for him.


And finally a shout-out to a new artist I’ve been digging, April Smith.  Hers was the only set I was specifically looking forward to that I missed.  I only saw the last few verses of her cover of Melanie’s “Brand New Key”.   And unfortunately, I couldn’t find vids of her from Newport, so this will have to do.

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