IWTAS on the Road: Newport Folk Festival 2012
If you’ve ever heard me talk about it, you know that I’m a huge fan of the Newport Folk Festival. Last year was my first time attending and I was completely humbled by the experience. The festival is hosted at Fort Adams State Park in Newport, Rhode Island. As the name implies, there is a fort at this state park called Fort Adams that dates back to the 1800′s. The festival itself dates back to 1959. It’s history includes being the site of one of Bob Dylan’s first national public performance as the guest of Joan Baez in 1963. He appeared again in 1964, but it’s his appearance in 1965 that most talk about. That was when Dylan went electric. I’ve been to several large scale festivals, including Bonnaroo and Coachella, but never had I been to a festival so steeped in history. This ground is sacred and you can feel it in nearly every aspect of the festival. The musicians feel it, the volunteers and staff working the festival feel it, and those in attendance feel it. My first visit to Newport Folk Festival in 2011 changed my perception about what a festival can be. As we took that last boat ride across the bay at the end of the festival last year, my wife and I agreed right then and there that we would be back in 2012.
On that boat ride across the bay for the first time this past Saturday, I had butterflies in my stomach. I was anxious, but also very curious about whether or not I would get that same sense of being some place special. So many times, the first time of something is always the best and that can’t be recreated. As we waited for the gates to open, the crowd was in good spirits and everyone was talking about which stage they were going to first. Brown Bird, who we fell in love with at last year’s festival, was scheduled to be the first act on the main stage, so that’s where we headed when the gates opened. As we rounded the tall stone wall of Fort Adams, we could hear My Morning Jacket’s “Victory Dance” playing at concert level on the PA. “Is that Jim James on stage??”, my wife asked. “Can’t be – gotta be house music”, was my reply. We noticed the pace of the crowd heading the same direction as us seemed to speed up and as the stage came into view, we knew why. My Morning Jacket, who was scheduled to headline that stage later in the night, was finishing up their sound check and running through a hand full of songs. At first I thought it was a little extra set that Jim James coordinated and even though it ended up being just a sound check, it was enough to remind me that yes, this place does still feel special and we were in for a spectacular weekend.
The list of bands and musicians we were able to see is long. I can’t do a formal review of every set, so I’m just going to touch on a few of my personal highlights. First up, seeing Brown Bird play the big stage brought things full circle for us. We first saw them start the second day of the 2011 festival on the smallest stage there. We’ve been mega-fans ever since and seeing them kick off the 2012 festival on the biggest stage there was just great.
Probably my favorite set of the day, and maybe the whole weekend, was Honeyhoney’s. I’ve had their two albums on steady rotation for a while now, but their live set hit me perfectly. I’m not a banjo connoisseur, but Suzanne Santo plays that instrument like no one else I’ve heard. They’re opening for Trampled by Turtles at The Pageant and I would urge you to attend that show.
When it came time for My Morning Jacket’s headlining set, the threat of rain was a topic of discussion. I wasn’t prepared for rain. No poncho, no rain jacket, no boots. Just a ball cap, a shirt, shorts, and flip flops. Fortunately, the rain held off for most of their set. They brought out guest after guest including Conor Oberst, Brittany Howard (Alabama Shakes) and Ben Sollee. The song you’ll hear everyone talk about is when Brittany Howard came out and sang The Band’s “It Makes No Difference”, which was of course a nod to the passing of Levon Helm. It truly was an inspired performance. The rain did eventually makes it’s presence known and My Morning Jacket’s set had to be cut short. The line for the water taxi was about an hour long, so we got wet. In fact, I don’t think we could have been any more wet. Small rivers of water rolled down the hill towards where we were standing in line. All we could do was stand there and talk about the weather with some incredibly nice people from Boston. We dazzled their imaginations with the horrific stories of our classic Midwest thunderstorms and of course we mentioned our current drought and this horse shit heat wave.
The second day would bring us the good fortune of seeing The Head and the Heart, The Deep Dark Woods, New Multitudes, Gary Clark Jr., Of Monsters and Men, and Trampled by Turtles. The Deep Dark Woods impressed me the most. I had listened to a few tracks off their latest album, but seeing them live was like hearing their songs for the first time again. Lead singer and guitarist Ryan Boldt quiped between songs and kept their set light, despite the heavy nature of their songs. A broken string would bring some sets to an awkward halt, but Boldt was able to joke his way through the dilemma until another guitar could be brought to the stage.
Of Monsters and Men drew what was probably the largest crowd at the Quad Stage, which is the second largest stage at the festival. Their folk-pop songs had a huge portion of that crowd dancing and jumping up and down for most of their set. That’s sort of rare at this festival since the two smaller stages have chairs under the tent and walk ways are strictly enforced. As with The Head and the Heart’s 2011 set, sometimes that attempt at organization goes out the window and the people dance.
A quick check of the radar showed that another patch of rain was headed towards Newport and we opted out of another soaking. We made the difficult decision to pack up and take the water taxi back to town. Our quota of fun as well as soaking wet clothes had been met.
A few notes:
- I got to meet and talk with Bob Boilen and Stephen Thompson from NPR Music. I even took some pictures, which you can see here and here.
- Go to the Newport Folk Festival.
- Take the water taxi, but bring rain gear if there’s the slightest chance of rain.
- You can stream and download a boat load of the sets from NPR right over here.
- Buy and eat the fruit cup.