Newport Folk Festival, enticingly timely

Posted: August 04, 2013

Last weekend, instead of hanging around for the XPoNential Music Festival in Camden or the Mad Decent Block Party across the river at Penn's Landing, I headed north more than 300 miles, to the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island.

I'd never been. Newport belongs among U.S. music festivals that were 1960s flashpoints, along with Woodstock, Altamont, and, to a lesser extent, Monterey. Joan Baez rose to stardom at Newport in 1959 (the very first year of the fest, born five years after the inaugural Newport Jazz Festival).

Blues greats like Muddy Waters, Son House, Skip James, and Mississippi John Hurt found new audiences there. (The Philadelphia Folk Festival started three years later in 1962 but, unlike Newport, has never missed a year since. It will take place this summer, as always, at the Old Pool Farm in Upper Salford near Schwenksville, Aug. 16 to 18.)

At Newport, Bob Dylan strummed his acoustic stuff in 1963 and 1964, and then broke with his past by plugging in and going electric in 1965 - a watershed event in both Dylan's career and the cultural (and countercultural) history of the '60s.

It wasn't the history that drew me to Newport, though. It was this year's lineup, and the rave reviews I'd heard from friends and colleagues about the intimate, easygoing vibe of the three-day event, which is capped at 10,000 people per day.

Most enticing: This festival is not stuck in the past. This year's headliners were Old Crow Medicine Show and Feist on Friday, the Avett Brothers and Jim James on Saturday, and Beck and the Lumineers on Sunday.

The undercard was a who's who of contemporary Americana, with lots of choice singer-songwriters in the mix: Andrew Bird, Felice Brothers, Michael Kiwanuka, Jason Isbell, Iris DeMent, Colin Meloy, Blake Mills, the Lone Bellow, Justin Townes Earle, Tift Merritt, Cold Specks, Houndmouth, Bonnie Prince Billy and Dawn McCarthy, and Dawes.

The festival is strongly branded with NPR Music. So frighteningly so that during the Earle set, I stood next to a woman with the NPR logo tattooed on her arm. NPR either broadcast or streamed much of the festival live, and they'll do it again this weekend with Newport Jazz, which features headliners Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Robert Glasper, Terence Blanchard, and Esperanza Spalding. Vids of individual songs and streaming files of entire sets by Newport Folk artists are up on the NPR Music site.

My personal highlight list on Friday included rockabilly stylist JD McPherson and the moody country-rock of Phosphorescent, whose leader, Matthew Houck, was in Camden two days later at the Americanarama fest, sitting in with My Morning Jacket. I was also keen on the dry, tongue-in-cheek, suit-and-tie-wearing duo Milk Carton Kids, more than the Seattle chamber-folk band Hey Marseilles. Sharper were bruising Boston folk-rock band Kingsley Flood. They play Johnny Brenda's on Sept. 13.

The Avett Brothers, who come to the Mann Center in Philadelphia Sept. 14 with Trombone Shorty (who also played Newport), were engagingly energetic as always in a crowd-pleasing headline spot. Jason Isbell, whom I interviewed in Friday's Inquirer in advance of his World Cafe Live show next week, was terrific. Iris DeMent, who preceded him with a set drawn largely from last year's welcome return Sing the Delta, packed a raw, unvarnished vocal punch on home-truth songs like "The Night I Learned How Not to Pray." Justin Townes Earle, who played the XPN fest the next day (as did Kiwanuka and others, on an Ocean-State-to-Garden-State circuit), was just as good. And I had my share of right place/right time moments, too. I watched as Decemberists singer Colin Meloy (playing a solo set) brought out Black Prairie (the Decemberists without Meloy, who released their own album, A Tear in the Eye Is a Wound in the Heart, last year). Oh my God, a Decemberists reunion! The crowd reacted as if the Beatles had gotten back together.

On Saturday, I went to check out Father John Misty. Misty, the solo moniker of former Fleet Foxes drummer Josh Tillman, is a charismatic front man, to say the least. He plays Union Transfer Oct. 22.

On Sunday, I headed home, hoping to make it back in time for Americanarama, but stymied by traffic on the Garden State Parkway. Luckily, Newport Folk was streaming live on NPR. So through the wonders of the Web, an audio and video stream of Beck's festival-closing set pumped through my car's sound system. The video didn't work very well, but the audio was near-perfect, as Beck brought out Ramblin' Jack for Jimmie Rodgers' "Waiting on a Train"  and played the luminous "Sunday Sun" after the late-afternoon clouds broke over Newport Harbor. It made me think that, in a perfect world, I'd go back to Newport every year.

This is excerpted from Dan DeLuca's blog, "In the Mix." For the full road trip:

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