Thousands of people descended upon Fort Adams in Newport, Rhode Island yesterday for the chance to see some of their favorite contemporary folk artists alongside up-and-coming acts. The outside perimeter of the festival is lined with vendors, selling food, crafts, and other wares. But most people are busy criss-crossing the festival grounds between the three main stages, trying to take in as much of the current folk revival as possible in the approximately eight-hour festival day.
There’s an overall feeling of community and excitement at Fort Adams as artists tune their guitars and audience members settle in to hear a set. The crowds are enthusiastic and often sing or lip-sync along to their favorite songs as they are performed; such was the case with Ben Gibbard, Seattle-native singer-songwriter and Death Cab for Cutie frontman. Audience members were often unable to contain their excitement and approval upon recognizing a much-loved tune. And it makes sense that many of these songs would be familiar, as Ben Gibbard not only heads up one of the most popular indie rock bands on the scene, but also appears to have a soft spot for covers. His stripped-down, acoustic set included a song by co-performers The Head and the Heart, “Such Great Heights,” by his own ensemble, The Postal Service, as well as Death Cab’s “Title and Registration,” and “Black Sun.” Also wedged in was a self-promotion for his new album, a song-for-song cover of Bandwagonesque by Teenage Fanclub, released Friday. Gibbard almost appeared like a teenager himself, a solitary figure on stage, commenting on the weight of the experience of being at Newport Folk: “The place where Dylan went electric.”
Another smash hit was the set at the Quad Stage by Regina Spektor. Her clear vocal tone, enormous stage presence and unique songwriting style drew massive and ecstatic crowds. The hour-long set flowed well around itself, with the darker and more melodramatic of her songs being followed up by something a little more upbeat. The set showed off Spektor’s trademark range, diction and creativity, and demonstrated well-thought-out performance practice with masterful sound mixing and balance. Songs included “Dance Anthem of the ’80s,” eliciting cheers from its first staccato notes on the keyboard. This was followed up by the eerie “Small Bill$,” as well as the theme from the hugely popular Netflix show, Orange is the New Black, titled, “You’ve Got Time.” Politically charged music is far from scarce at Newport Folk, and Spektor’s “The Trapper and the Furrier” was heavy with punk influence in live performance and came across as a critique of a society lacking equity. Following this was an emotional and dynamic rendition of, “Blue Lips,” reminding us that the color of sadness is also, “the most human color.”
New folk and Americana is more than just acoustic guitars. While standard stringed instruments are numerous in the genre, other instruments have become popular to punctuate and diversify the contemporary folk sound. Along with guitar and banjo, for example, Portland group Blind Pilot utilized a vibraphone as well as a trumpet and various other percussive instruments to give their sound an all-encompassing and bombastic feeling, similar to some of the works by Fleet Foxes, also featured. Blind Pilot is a mixed-gender group, fronted by Israel Nebeker, with Kati Claborn providing dimension and lushness in the vocals as well as her skills on the banjo. Songs included the mellow “Three Rounds and a Sound,” and “We Are the Tide,” which features a feel-good percussion/trumpet duet that had audience members swaying along to textures that swelled and ebbed like waves.
Leaning into the rock side of folk-rock at Newport was Carl Broemel, with his raucous instrumental breaks featuring wailing guitars and an altogether cacophonous sound. On the other side, ironically, was a new song titled “Dark Matter,” which returns to a slightly more predictably “folksy” sonic experience, with up-tempo but not as darkly chaotic instrumentation and lyrics touching on political issues from climate change to gun control. “I want to live long enough that the President ‘fesses up…” sings Broemel, commenting that the song was inspired by the show Cosmos. “I couldn’t sleep after watching that,” he said from the Harbor Stage.
Aside from outstanding audience reaction, Newport Folk puts artists largely on an even pedestal. There is little sense of which is the “main stage” or which acts are headliners, and thus for someone just entering the scene it might be hard to discern which names draw the most attention, as crowds are generally gregarious and all-around excited to be taking in the sound. There’s buzz, sure, around artists like L.A. Salami, that might pull in a number of newcomers. If word-of-mouth doesn’t do it, stage presence might, as was the case with the hilarious and perfectly choreographed musical comediennes, Nancy and Beth, appearing with actor, musician, and comedian Nick Offerman (of Parks and Recreation fame). Sporting matching Kelly green ersatz pantsuits and red lipstick, their introduction (by Offerman) described the duo as exhibiting, “enough woman/soul/Dionysian power to bring a grown man with a healthy set of whiskers weeping to his knees.” The set did not disappoint, as the pair delivered an incredibly smooth and committed performance of songs like “One Mint Julep,” followed up deliberately by “Fine Brown Frame,” “Everybody Loves a Lover,” and the raunchy but astute cross-genre parody “I Don’t Love Her.”
Festival-going may be all about being in the right place at the right time. Catching a set by Big Thief sitting exceptionally close to the stage gives one the feeling that the balance might be off, but also allows for a fantastic view of lead vocalist Adrianne Lenker’s highly emotive facial expressions as she sings accompanied by her bandmates and her own mixed assortment of guitars. Wandering into the tent, one heard her heady, haunting vocals crooning, “It’s hard to learn love when all you see is war.” Standout numbers include the richly colored “Capacity,” the song which also lends its title to Big Thief’s new album.
Folk music in America, as much as it’s been embraced by urban hipsters with $300 for festival tickets, will always, in some hearts, be a little bit country. Such is the case with Shovels and Rope, who sing and stage-banter with a notable twang. Distinguished keyboarding and strong narrative hooks are features of their set, with the audience-pleasing “The Devil is All Around” and the Mardi Gras-inspired “Saint Anne’s Parade,” which is in-keeping with the concept of their last album: lead vocalist Cary Anne Hearst described it as an exercise in “coming full circle with mortality.” For those turned off by any mention of country, though, keep an open mind: Shovels and Rope make the air crackle and the ground under your blanket vibrate with energy, almost as if the earth is groaning from a pulling at its roots.
Another act always worth seeing, Hurray for the Riff Raff delivered blistering political commentary and stories of Latino/immigrant experiences in their set. Alynda Lee Segarra once again defies the folk tendency toward garbled diction, as she has a message she’ll make sure you hear. The set included tracks from the new album, The Navigator, which deal with how Segarra has navigated her positions in life and in music. Tuning in during “Settle,” one may resonate with the feeling of wanting or needing something more or something different. Segarra makes singing to throngs of thousands an incredibly intimate experience. Pop artists like Lady Gaga who sometimes write songs verging on rock ballads may want to take a page out of Segarra’s songbook. The ironically-beachy “Livin’ in the City” is perfect, upbeat festival fare, while “Pa’lante” (a Spanish phrase loosely meaning “go forward”) showcases the power of anger as a galvanizing force and as songwriting fodder. Spectators listened with fists raised to the sky as Segarra called them to action, “This is resistance music,” she said, “I want them to hear this down in Mar a Lago!” At this, the band struck up a rousing rendition of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son,” to much enthusiasm and participation from the crowd.
Newport Folk Festival Day One delivered some big names as well as talented up-and-comers. Audiences are reminded of the diversity of what may be called “folk,” if not of the diversity of its listenership. A place like this is one where having an agenda isn’t frowned upon, it’s practically expected. Even if that agenda isn’t political, shows take rehearsal and each artist clearly conceptualized their ideal experience before taking the stage. An all-around great time, the overlapping and enveloping sounds of Newport Folk will leave you on a concert high that probably won’t even be gone when you finally get out of the parking lot. Until then, stay hydrated and don’t forget your camp chair.