Review and Photos: Newport Folk Festival 2012

Newport Folk Festival @ Fort Adams State Park – July 27-29

Words: Jeffrey Greenblatt
Photos: Gerry Hardy

In my review of the 2010 Newport Folk Festival, I deemed the granddaddy of all music fests the “music fan’s, music fest,” and upon my return visit this year that statement has never rang more true. Despite persistent gloomy, overcast skies and periods of rain (which included a monster storm early Saturday evening during My Morning Jacket’s headlining set), people were still smiling throughout and were genuinely excited to see and talk about the music and find out what they may have missed at another stage.

[All Photos by Gerry Hardy]

And then there were the musicians, who all repeatedly echoed the same sentiment about how honored they were to be playing there, and how amazing the experience was from an artist perspective, as it offered them an opportunity to catch up with their friends in other bands that they don’t get to see too often as they criss-cross the country on their various tours.

Over the course of the weekend I managed to catch bits and pieces of sets from roughly 22 bands that included rising jamgrass act Trampled By Turtles covering Bob Dylan’s Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You, Joe Fletcher & The Wrong Reasons paying tribute to Levon Helm by tackling the Basement Tapes deep cut Crash On The Levee and fest headliner Jackson Browne sitting in with up and coming psych-folk singer Jonathan Wilson for Gentle Spirit. Having taken in so much great music, here are my personal highlights…

Friday Highlights

Wilco – Fort Stage – 7:30 PM – 9:30 PM

If you haven’t caught Wilco on their current tour, you’ve been missing out on a band that is firing on all cylinders, consistently nailing it night in and night out with standout performances and song selections that dig deep into their catalog. With their opening night headlining slot, Wilco delivered the goods once again, honoring the late Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday by kicking things off with the Mermaid Avenue chestnut Christ For President, a theme they would return to in their encore. The band’s 23-song set was highlighted by a sublime acoustic arrangement of Spiders (Kidsmoke), a ripping take on tour staple Impossible Germany that showcased guitar god Nels Cline’s frantic fret work and a jangly Handshake Drugs. The set also included some classic Jeff Tweedy stage banter, with a must hear story about him going to see The Ramones in St. Louis when he was 14 years-old that he threaded throughout the second half of their set.

For their encore Wilco invited out Woody Guthrie’s granddaughter Sarah Lee along with her husband Johnny Irion, for takes on two more tracks from Mermaid Avenue: the fan favorite California Stars and the country-inflected Airline To Heaven, with Cline showcasing his lap steel skills.

Deer Tick – Newport Blues Cafe – 11:30 PM – 1 AM

Deer Tick’s sold out three-night run at the tiny Newport Blues Cafe was arguably as buzzed about as what was going down at the festival grounds. While Saturday and Sunday night’s show promised to be guest-heavy, the local boys’ Friday night show was one for the hardcore Ticks Heads – an “all killer no filler” affair. John McCauley & Co. hit the stage a little after 11:30 PM and delivered a fierce hour and a half long set that was heavy on “the hits” – Baltimore Blues No. 1, Main Street, Ashamed, Little White Lies – and a closing one-two punch of Let’s All Go To The Bar and a cover of The Beastie Boys’ Fight For Your Right that had the jammed-packed house drunkenly singing along at the top of their lungs.

Saturday Highlights

Sharon Van Etten – Quad Stage – 2:55 PM – 3:55 PM

Sharon Van Etten may have thought she seemed out of place on the lineup at a folk festival, but that was certainly far from the case. Sure her music may have a sharp edge to it, with biting electric guitar leads, but she also strapped on an acoustic guitar and played an omnichord (the electronic equivalent of a harpsichord) – so that’s kind of folkie, right? The strikingly lovely Van Etten’s angst-y and confessional songs felt right at home amongst this year’s eclectic mix of country, bluegrass, funk and more, bringing a bit of Brooklyn’s indie rock sound to Newport. Van Etten was nervously giddy throughout her set, but that all disappeared once she stepped up to the mic to deliver songs like Serpents and Leonard, providing attendees with a rock alternative.

First Aid Kit – Harbor Stage – 3:00 PM – 4:00 PM

Decked out in go-go hippie garb, as if they had just stepped out of the Haight circa 1967, Swedish sister act First Aid Kit put their their enchanting blend of psych-folk on display for a swelling crowd that may have first been attracted to Klara and Johanna Söderberg’s short skirts, but where then drawn in by their mesmerizing harmonies. The ladies nodded to folk royalty by bravely tackling Newport alum Joan Baez’s Diamonds & Rust, but it was their closing stanza that really managed to impress. A beautiful take on the countrified Emmylou, their ode to two of their favorite singing duos, namely Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons and Johnny and June Carter Cash, a punchy run through The Lion’s Roar that showcased some head banging and an extended outro jam was all capped by a rousing set-closing take on King Of The World, that featured perhaps the quickest sit in of the weekend, as Conor Oberst ran on stage mid-song to deliver his verses in the foot-stomping number.

Iron & Wine – Quad Stage – 4:15 PM – 5:15 PM

Forget what you think you know about Iron & Wine, it’s no longer a guy and his guitar bedroom project of sleepy folk songs. For his latest and greatest incarnation, Sam Beam has assembled a fantastic backing band that deftly churns out a heady blend of folk-infused, jazz-psych-funk which at times is very reminiscent of Traffic. Iron & Wine’s late-afternoon set, to an overflowing crowd at the Quad Stage, mixed a healthy dose of material from his most recent studio album – the highly recommended Kiss Each Other Clean, with some deep cuts and was punctuated with a well-placed cover of Long Black Veil that showcased Beam’s aw-shucks, ethereal vocals.

My Morning Jacket – Fort Stage – 6:05 PM – 7:30 PM

There was a palpable energy in the air prior to My Morning Jacket’s headlining set on Saturday night. The hype surrounding what they had planned, which stoked by fest producer Jay Sweet’s interview on NPR’s All Songs Considered, was seemingly something that the band may not have been able to top, but then again this is the mighty My Morning Jacket we’re talking about. Hitting the stage all decked out in three-piece suits, Jim James & Co. came through with a massive set that lived up to the lofty expectations and more.

The Jacket’s hour-plus set had a slow built to it, kicking things off with the tender Welcome Home, a track that made its debut on their holiday EP.  The band continued to show off their mellow folkie side in the first portion of the show, with Golden and the always welcomed The Way He Sings. Things began to get interesting as the first guests of the night arrived in the form of singer-songwriter Laura Viers and Newport’s busiest man Ben Sollee for a plaintive Wonderful. Will Johnson of Centro-matic and James bandmate in New Multitudes was next up, as the two performed an acoustic take on Bermuda Highway.

The best moment of the night, and arguably the entire festival, came when Brittany Howard of the white-hot Alabama Shakes lent her Janis Joplin-meets-Otis Redding vocals to an absolute barn burner of a take on The Band’s It Makes No Difference that was dedicated to the memory of the late Levon Helm. With the winds picking up and the storm clouds beginning to darken and dump buckets of rain on everyone, Sollee rejoined the fold, along with Conor Oberst, for a ferocious version of Smokin’ From Shootin,’ replete with some quality headbanging. With lightning in the area and flash flood rains pouring, the band’s set was unfortunately cut short by a good thirty minutes after I’m Amazed.

Sunday Highlights

Deep Dark Woods – Harbor Stage – 11:30 AM – 12:30 PM

It may have been 11:30 in the morning, but that didn’t stop the Deep Dark Woods from treating their set as if it was late in the evening. For those that managed to make it to the fest grounds that early (and judging from the already packed parking lots they did), they were not disappointed. The Canadian band, who doesn’t make it South of their border all too often, offered up a loose, groove-filled set of their Grateful Dead-meets-The National sound, that was punctuated by their exquisite harmonies, great guitar work from lead singer Ryan Blodt and fantastic keyboard playing from Geoff Hilhorst. The country-folk act dedicated a good portion of their time on stage to songs from their excellent 2011 release, The Place I Left Behind with stand out versions of Virgina and Sugar Mama.

Rodriguez – Museum Stage – 1:35 PM – 2:35 PM

It’s only taken him 40+ years, but thanks to a new documentary about his fascinating career Rodriguez has finally gotten the attention that has been long overdue. With a line of people that stretched halfway to the main stage to get in, the 70-year-old singer-songwriter packed the house at the fest’s newest and most intimate stage. Introduced by Malik Bendjelloul, the director of Searching For Sugar Man, who briefly filled the audience in a bit about what led him to make the much buzzed about film, Rodriguez took to the tiny stage decked in all black and armed with just an acoustic guitar.  The humble Rodriguez offered up stripped down versions of This Is Not A Song, and I Wonder from his lost classic debut Cold Fact plus a Lou Rawls cover and of course a take on his now signature song – Sugar Man.

Conor Oberst – Fort Stage – 4:45 PM – 5:45 PM

No one quite knew what to expect from Conor Oberst’s main stage set on late Sunday afternoon. Would the wordy singer-songwriter stick exclusively to Bright Eyes material? Or would he dig into his catalog and offer up selections from his work with the Mystic Valley Band, Monster of Folk and the Desaparecidos? The long-haired and sharply dressed Oberst answered all those questions, with arguably one of the stand out sets of the weekend. Opening the set with trio of solo numbers (The Big Picture, First Day of My Life and Lenders In the Temple), Oberst wasn’t alone on the stage for very long, as he invited out a string of guests to join him the rest of the way.

First up were the ladies from First Aid Kit, who lent their vocals to Classic Cars and the crowd favorite Lua. Oberst then summoned out both Dawes and Jonathan Wilson to expertly serve as his backing band on Soul Singer In A Session Band, Moab and Danny Callahan, that featured lots of interplay between all three guitar players: Oberst, Goldsmith and Wilson. And what would a Newport set be without an appearance from Jim James? The MMJ front man joined his Monsters Of Folk band mate for a rowdy, verse-swapping take on At the Bottom of Everything.

Here’s a full set of photos from Gerry Hardy…

Did you make it to this year’s Newport Folk Festival? If so what were your highlights?

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