Since 1959, the annual Newport Folk Festival has been a showcase and a springboard for many of the biggest names in folk and folk-influenced music, and on October 5th and 6th, the world-renowned Santa Monica Pier hosted the iconic event’s west coast expansion, Way Over Yonder. Lingering summer weather blessed the occasion and twenty acts played on the inaugural festival’s two stages over the course of the weekend. Indie, alternative country, punk-folk and psych-folk artists shaped the lineup, much like they have at the original Rhode Island-based event in recent years. In fact, almost every act that played on the main stage at Way Over Yonder (Neko Case, Conor Oberst, First Aid Kit, Jonathan Wilson, Brett Dennen, The Felice Brothers, Calexico) was a veteran of the Newport Folk Festival. The audience was predominantly made up of Millennials, a demographic that should not be surprising, considering that much of the talent that was booked could just as likely been found on a Coachella or Bonnaroo bill. The following is an account of the weekend’s performances.
The Newport Folk Festival is arguably most known for Bob Dylan’s third appearance at the event back in 1965, when he nixed folk orthodoxy for loud, electric rock and roll, shocking and pissing off a fair share of attendees. In 2013 at Way Over Yonder, volume and distortion proved to be part of the norm. Saturday afternoon’s performance by Shovels and Rope, the Charleston, South Carolina folk duo with a guitar-and-drums-only dynamic similar to the White Stripes, was the first and most obvious example of this. They delivered the abrasive, barebones rock and country-blues stomps that can be heard on their 2012 release “O Be Joyful.” Whereas Dylan supposedly shocked many, the gripes garnered against the husband-and-wife team were limited to just a few folk purists and instead they were overwhelmingly cheered. The times are a-changin’.
Justin Townes Earle’s set relied heavily on his most recent albums, 2012’s Nothing is Going to Change the Way You Feel About Me Now and 2010’s Harlem River Blues. Like his father Steve Earle, his songs were full of vivid storytelling and knowledge of various forms of American roots music. Various combinations of the blues, country, folk, rhythm & blues found their way into his urban tales that made for a fresh take on Americana. Crackling fuzz from his amps plagued a song or two, and his in-between-song ramblings about his not-very-convincing sobriety or obscure beat poet Gregory Corso annoyed a few thin-skinned attendees, but overall it was a solid performance.
Many consider folk to be music that makes you think, but both Calexico’s and Brett Dennen’s sets proved that it could also be music that makes you dance. The Latin rhythms in the haunted border town ballads and up-tempo mariachi-flavored indie music of Tucson-based Calexico had feet moving on the deck boards for an hour of material from the band’s almost-two-decade history. Brett Dennen’s sing-along pop folk produced the same result with plenty of songs from his new album Smoke and Mirrors that like his previous releases, bear the obvious influence of Paul Simon, specifically his Graceland era.
Neko Case filled Saturday’s headlining slot. Overall, it seemed to go over as a hit-or-miss performance. Nonsensical comments between songs were often lost on the audience, and because her performance didn’t possess the fiery energy of Shovels and Rope or the hip-swaying factor of Calexico and Brett Dennen, some felt that the set was underwhelming. However, it did offer what many would consider folk to be primarily about, and that is great storytelling, which Case and Sunday headliner Conor Oberst reminded audiences of better than anybody else over the weekend. Also, it should be noted that vocally, Case was a spot-on ethereal songbird, and musically, her band should be credited for their original sound, that could perhaps best be described as folk and country by way of R.E.M.
But no performance challenged the boundaries of what could be considered folk than Thao & the Get Down Stay Down’s Sunday afternoon set of material mostly culling from the band’s new album We The Common. At the core of the band’s fun songs was something somewhat reminiscent of folk, but experimental sounds overwhelmed and altered such a foundation to the point where it was extremely decipher. It was the most unique music of the weekend and in many ways, difficult to categorize, but there wasn’t really any significant backlash to such drastic straying from the genre being celebrated. Much like Shovels and Rope’s set the day before, they were well received by an open-minded audience that wasn’t hung up on fundamentalist folk mentality.
Jonathan Wilson psychedelicized folk by stretching out his songs with cosmic jams much like the Grateful Dead, a band that he certainly has an affinity for. In fact, he had sat in with Phil Lesh and Bob Weir of the legendary San Francisco group the night before, when their band Furthur played just twenty or so miles away at the Greek Theater in Griffith Park. Wilson has also been credited for reviving the sounds of the Laurel Canyon scene of the late sixties and early seventies, and joining him for his appearance was none other than one the central figures from that place and time, Jackson Browne, who sat in on “Gentle Spirit” and “Moses Pain.” While Browne’s appearance was a delightful surprise, even if he hadn’t joined in on the set, Wilson’s performance would still have been one of the weekend’s highlights.
A Saddle Creek Records hat trick brought the weekend’s festivities to a close. The Felice Brothers wowed audiences with a passionate delivery of their Upstate New York Americana that packed a grandiose sound that you’d expect from a Bruce Springsteen concert. First Aid Kit, the Swedish duo comprised of sisters Johanna and Klara Soderberg, just might have delivered the most applauded set of the weekend that included the many songs from their new album The Lion’s Roar, select cuts from previous releases and covers of Simon & Garfunkel’s “America” and Bob Dylan’s “One More Cup of Coffee.”
Sunday Headliner Conor Oberst, the singer-songwriter most known for his work in Bright Eyes, reminded attendees why he is considered to be one of the great lyricists of his generation, as well as a master showman, whose earnest delivery of his indie folk anthems had a way of connecting to attendees from the front of the stage to the far end of the pier. All three acts lent their talents to each other by sitting in on each other’s sets, making for an all-out folk jamboree to wrap up two extraordinary days of music.
Amongst all of the punk rock distortion, heady jams and avant-garde boundary pushing, there was still plenty of traditional folk to be heard throughout the weekend. Usually it could be found on the Carousel stage. Nestled in a little nook of a pavilion that housed a vintage merry-go-round, the stage offered intimate acoustic sets by musicians like Neal Casal, Jessica Pratt, Aaron Embry, and Frank Fairfield. The hollow-body minimalism of these performances evoked old guard saints such as Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Joan Baez, Peter La Farge, Judy Collins or Cisco Houston. Farmer Dave Sher’s set even included a faithful rendition of Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” in which he received wholehearted vocal support from the small crowd gathered around the stage.