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Newport Folk Festival: Continuing to challenge our perception of folk

By Kelli Raulerson

August 25, 2015

The storybook setting for Newport Folk Festival is something straight out of a New England travel guide. Set on Newport Bay with panoramic views including the east passage of Narragansett Bay, Fort Adams was built in 1799 as a former United States Army post amidst growing concern for the coastline’s safety.

Initially used during the War of 1812, the fort was active in five major wars but never fired a single defensive shot. Standing atop its walls today, it’s as peaceful a setting as anyone could imagine. A juxtaposition of the fort’s history and its present day home for the Newport Folk Festival serves as poetic irony for a festival celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of one of the most controversial events in its history.

Within a three song set in 1965, Bob Dylan redefined the possibilities of folk music 50 years ago with an electric jolt to acoustic devotees. Today, festival organizer Jay Sweet ensures that Newport Folk Festival continues to redefine the festival landscape with a lineup that includes a wide range of new and established artists reimagining what it means to be labeled as ‘folk’.

While folk music has long been defined by its stubborn reluctance to succumb to any commercial standard, today’s genre has expanded to allow freedom of experimentation and possibly an expansion of the genre to include more diversity of sound. The Newport Folk line-up is an example of how the genre continues to stave off extinction in an ever growing technological and commerce driven world.

It's been 50 years since Bob Dylan strolled on stage at the Newport Folk Festival, plugged in an electric guitar, and infuriated his flock.
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Defining itself by a growing community of artists and their independent spirit, it’s no longer bound by a traditional acoustic sound. Today’s evolution within the folk scene has more in common with Dylan’s 1965 performance than it does with the genre’s more traditional roots. The festival’s finale which included a cover of ‘Maggie’s Farm’ led by Dawes’ Taylor Goldsmith resonates as much if not more today than it did in 1965 amidst a changing industry that has more artists reclaiming rightful ownership of their sound.

What continues to set Newport apart from other festivals isn’t its controversial place in music’s history but its ability to both unify and inspire a diverse range of artists. Collaborations at Newport are commonplace on all four stages throughout the weekend and this year was no exception. During Roger Waters’ set, festival favorites (but not a part of this year’s lineup) My Morning Jacket and Lucius served as the backing band with the latter providing backing vocals.

It’s this kind of surprise for festival goers that Sweet has been looking forward to incorporating into the lineup since he first took it over from founder George Wein in 2009. Selling out since his inaugural year at the helm, Sweet has mastered blending old and new artists representing a wide range of sounds while somehow staying authentic to the festival’s lineage.

Newcomers to the festival Christopher Paul Stelling (who was discovered in the open mic tent last year), Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, Laura Marling, Leon Bridges and Courtney Barnett added to the wide range of sounds represented over the weekend and gave festival goers a glimpse into what’s next for the industry. While repeat performers like Langhorne Slim, The Felice Brothers, The Lone Bellow, Lord Huron and Hozier provided familiarity and grounded the lineup.

NikkiLane
Nikki Lane photo via www.beardedgentlemenmusic.com

This year’s lineup included a resurgence of outlaw country (read: traditional country, not pop country) with Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson and Nikki Lane adding their unique ability to update a classic sound with songwriting that resonates with today’s audience. The latter – Simpson and Lane – brought a honky-tonk feel to the Fort that was long overdue.

At this point though, the lineup itself isn’t necessary to sell tickets – this year’s festival sold out in 48 hours before any artist on the lineup was announced. Artists also play the festival for a significantly reduced fee or on their own dime. Others show up to simply ‘hang out’ for the weekend and often pop up as part of impromptu collaborations. This phenomenon is exclusive to Newport Folk and can likely be attributed to Sweet’s ability to keep music and authenticity at the forefront of the festival. A sense of realism is present in everything whether the vendors, festival partners, volunteers, stage crew, festival goers or musicians – everyone is an equal part of the Newport Folk community.

Each year many of the musicians close out their sets by honoring the festival through the music of long time musician, activist and festival organizer, Pete Seeger, who passed away in January 2014. It’s usually an impromptu sing-along with any musician near the stage joining as the crowd enthusiastically chimes in. It’s this sense of collaboration and mutual admiration that defines the Newport Folk community and sets it apart from other festivals.

NewportFolk
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Within the protective walls of Fort Adams, the folk community perseveres adding new faces and extending its traditions year after year. The family that patriarchs Wein and Seeger worked so diligently to create is safe-guarded now by Sweet. It’s that comfort of family and tradition that fans and musicians alike return for year after year. The sound may be a little louder these days but community over commerce is alive and well. And in that sense ‘folk’ is still the same.

Top six performances of 2015

Nathaniel-Rateliff-and-the-Night-Sweats_PhotoCredit_Malia-James_GeneralPress1
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Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats (Quad stage) – each year at the festival one band has the distinction of owning ‘the moment’ of the festival. This year Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats get that honor with their rousing set that included an extended version of their addiction anthem, S.O.B. The seven piece ensemble played to a crowded Quad tent that remained on their feet throughout the set and demanded an encore – something only reserved at this festival for a small number of performers.

leonside
www.leonbridges.com

Leon Bridges (Quad stage) – if soul music is defined by the listener having to feel it and believe it as much as the artist who made it – then Leon Bridges’ defined soul at Newport Folk Festival. Releasing his debut album in June just ahead of Newport, Bridges’ sound is timeless as evidenced by the overflowing Quad tent during his performance. He’s proof that you can marry style and substance – equally.

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Photo Daniel Coston

Sturgill Simpson (Harbor stage) – taking the Newport Folk Festival stage to Skrillex’s “Ragga Bomb” it was clear that Sturgill Simpson didn’t want to be labeled as the ‘country guy’. While he kept his banter with the audience light and played a few select bluegrass covers, he powered through his set with his typical high octane honky-tonk charge. The Harbor tent came alive when he hit fan favorites “Life Of Sin” and “Living The Dream” which prompted Sturgill to joke, “Whatever, 60 years ago y’all would have booed us off the stage.”

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Deer Tick www.partisanrecords.com

Deer Tick After Party (at the Newport Blues Café) – hitting the stage in pirate attire on their opening night, Deer Tick didn’t disappoint with their annual after party at the Newport Blues Café this year. The party was even extended an extra night this year (kicked off on Thursday ahead of the festival) and still maintained full steam throughout the weekend with a mix of guest appearances and rowdy covers. And if fans were missing Deer Tick on this year’s lineup, John McCauley and Ian O’Neill also contributed to the ’65 Revisited set to close out the festival. Their boisterous take on “Outlaw Blues” paid appropriate homage to Dylan’s independent spirit.

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Tintype photo by Giles Clement via www.vanityfair.com

Ancient Cities (Converse Rubber Tracks – Museum stage) – making their Newport Folk Festival debut, Ancient Cities (from Charlotte, NC) drove into town at 6 a.m. and hit the stage a mere five hours later. Given their level of energy on the Museum stage, however, you never would have known if they hadn’t told the audience. Drawing a growing crowd from outside, their four-piece psychedelic ‘60s-era rock sound honored both the fiftieth anniversary of Dylan’s electric performance and the direction the festival is headed in today. The band was added the week of the festival as winners of the Converse Rubber Tracks competition, which awarded three bands the opportunity to play a set at the festival and record at the Rubber Tracks studio in Boston the following week. Winning fans over quickly, Ancient Cities added another set on Saturday and as one festival goer put it – “wow – these guys are certainly a pleasant surprise today.” Fifty years later, seems listeners approve (and prefer) the electric sound.

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65’ Revisited – any ‘top of’ list would be incomplete without mentioning the closing performance which saw the return of many Newport Folk favorites –Dave Rawlings, Gillian Welch and Dawes as the house band (with the addition of Al Kooper who played with Dylan during his 1965 festival performance). Rawlings and Welch were joined throughout the set by various artists covering some of Dylan’s most iconic tunes. But the most notable appearance during the set wasn’t a musician but an instrument – Dylan’s Fender Stratocaster which provided the controversial electric shock that solidified Newport Folk’s place in history 50 years ago made for a memorable conclusion to the festival.

Learn more about Newport Folk Festival.

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