Folk music seems to be a genre that most frequently has a prefix or suffix attached: folk-rock, country-folk, etc. At the same time, folk songs, especially in the English-speaking world, have been doggedly collected by lovers of the English ballad, and, more domestically, by the likes of Alan Lomax. For all the hyphens and genre modifiers present at Newport Folk on Saturday, there were a few acts that stood out as homages to this tradition of folk music collection.
One of these acts which paid tribute to tradition was J.P. Harris and Chance McCoy, a duo performing on acoustic guitar, fiddle and banjo. The old-time style draws influence from many musical traditions to create a distinct sound of Americana. Harris and McCoy played an old-time song originating in Kentucky, known as “Hog-Eyed Man,” musing as to what it implies to be called such. Another song, lampooning vice and verging on fire and brimstone, “Greasy Coat,” was full of conviction as much as facetiousness. A song originating with Lead Belly, the convict and virtuosic folk/blues musician studied at length by John and Alan Lomax, served as a sing-along. The pair talked touring strategies, audience behavior, (the crowds were described by Harris as, “generally behaving yourselves,”) and self-promotion: their CD was unable to be released for the general public, so they had to “plagiarize themselves,” as McCoy put it. The only copies of the bootleg were sold at the festival, so readers might have a hard time tracking Harris and McCoy down online. In light of this, a song that Harris described as “a whole bunch of gibberish, but I have a hell of a time singing it…” might be dubbed “Walk On By,” in the true folk tradition of naming tunes, in the absence of a definitive title, with vague lyrical references.
Another interpretation of traditional Anglo-folk music came with Offa Rex, side project of the Decemberists partnered with musician Olivia Chaney. Vocalist and guitarist Colin Meloy described their repertoire as folk, “with a capital F,” and the project as, “interpreting old British/Irish/Scottish folk songs through the lens of the British folk revivals of the 60s and 70s.” In front of a slightly thinner crowd (fewer bodies if not fewer blankets) at the Fort Stage, Chaney and the band delivered a stunning performance of several songs, including the driving “The Old Churchyard,” the cautionary tale “Black Leg Miner” (about killing strike-breakers) and the lilting and sweet “The Gardener.” The instrumentation and vocals blended seamlessly to create a modern but not irreverent reboot of the folk canon. Chaney provided vocals as well as a droning shruti box accompaniment. The set was mostly from their new album The Queen of Hearts, released earlier this year.
There was, of course, plenty of hybridization and blending of genres on Saturday as well. Hailing from Nashville, Tennessee, Nikki Lane and her band played a down-home set clad in cowboy hats. The yodeling vocalizations of “700,000 Rednecks” and the mildly assertive attitude of “You Can’t Talk to Me Like That,” Lane a dynamic and entertaining performer. Expressing country sentiments in the age of mass communication, Lane asks, “Is This Really a Small Town or is it Just Your Big Mouth?” Lane described Newport Folk as being, “like a utopia for us all to come hang out together,” and gave a shout out to listeners tuning into Newport Folk Radio. “We wish you were here,” she said, and you knew she meant it.
Congregating under a mostly gray sky, audience members were treated to a heavy dose of rock at Newport Folk yesterday. Angel Olsen delivered wailing vocals and a sound clearly influenced by the alternative rock scene. Her vocal quality is notably feminine, subverting genre norms while joining the ranks of some great female alt-rockers. The sun broke through the clouds, finally, as her set pulled listeners towards Fort Stage. Also within this subgenre, Drive By Truckers put forth a steamrolling set that had most of the audience standing for the majority, giving the whole experience the feeling of a rock show, rather than a more intimate, folksy affair. It could be argued that the set was, to use J.P. Harris’s words in response to a tepid sing-along, “utterly un-folky.” But maybe that’s what such a fluid tradition is about.
Also at Quad Stage on Saturday was the relatable everyman and My Morning Jacket front man Jim James, who opened with, “Over and Over,” a song about making the same mistakes twice. Or three times. The song is full of rhetorical questions one might ask someone they care about under the guise of, “just checking in.” James’s lyrics are incredibly accessible and his diction and delivery magnifies their impact. Spectators went wild at feats of vocal control and daring throughout the set. James emphasized temporality and the importance of taking chances with “Changing World/Everything Must Change,” and “We Ain’t Gettin’ Any Younger”. His anecdotal sharing made the experience decidedly intimate. James spoke about (not) finding his “spirit dog,” in an anecdote about a psychic and serendipity, as well as about the nature of social media, the utter weirdness of Throwback Thursday, and the toxicity of the internet in the current political milieu. “I feel like the current President is performing a Darth Vader trick,” he said, “using anger against us all.”
Folk music is little if not a vehicle for emotion. After performing the Morrissey-like “I’m a Vampire Again,” Marlon Williams, who hails originally from New Zealand, commented: “I write a lot of sad songs, but every now and then I overcompensate by going too far the other way,” before launching into the benign, sing-along style, “Make Way for Love”. This was an outlier in the set, but not in terms of vocal prowess, as Williams exhibited incredible vocal control and versatility with soulful vocals on “Portrait of a Man,” by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. Williams can manipulate his vocal instrument so that it sounds almost wholly non-human, with siren-like glissandos supplementing the accompaniment.
Popular group The Avett Brothers had audience members singing along and telling stories of their favorite songs as the band performed a set that ranged from “twangy” country- folk to gritty alt-rock. Standout numbers included “Murder in the City,” an appeal to family in the face of tragedy and “True Sadness,” which reminds us that much of what we perceive is superficial. Despite these titles, the performance itself was far from all doom and gloom. Lengthy drum solos gave spectators a chance to take a breath, and the crowd was obviously supportive and excited to be right there, right then.
While Billy Bragg performed elsewhere in the festival, the band Wilco drew huge crowds to the Fort Stage. From blistering guitar riffs in the opener to more mellow and un-ostentatious folk numbers, the band did not disappoint by any measure. Sometimes it seemed like they could not choose between these two vastly contrasting styles, with sudden rock-style accompaniment interludes over the more folk vocals on, “Via Chicago” and, “Misunderstood.” This once again offered a foil to the sweet and heart-baring “Reservations.” Frontman Jeff Tweedy did not indulge in stage banter; after the opener he took the mic only to say, “I don’t feel like talkin’,” which later became, “I guess I feel like talkin’ a little bit…nah,” as he thanked the crowd and festival organizers with self-deprecating humor.
Refreshing appeals to tradition mixed with heavy hybridization at Newport Folk on Saturday. A feeling of the weight of history and the inevitability of change hung over the grounds like the overcast sky. But it did not rain, thanks, perhaps, to all our collective hoping, and the show went on, marching with time and colliding with itself to create a soundscape of today colored by the past.
Photo Credit: Alyssa Fried