Rhode Island’s prestigious Newport Folk Festival, founded in 1959 by famed promoter/producer George Wein, kicked-off its 51st Annual program this past weekend with an intimate Friday night show at downtown Newport’s International Tennis Hall of Fame that boasted Grammy-award-winning banjoist/songwriter/comedian Steve Martin accompanied by the Steep Canyon Rangers. The festivities then kicked into full swing the next morning at nearby Fort Adams State Park for two days and three stages of mind-blowing sets by a stellar lineup of veteran and up-and-coming acts from all reaches of the folk idiom.
The limited numbers of concertgoers lucky enough to secure tickets to Steve Martin’s Tennis Hall of Fame show were primed for a night of serious music and humorous asides by Sarah Jarosz and the legendary Tim O’Brien, respectively. I arrived at the venue just in time to witness Tim O’Brien, as he held the capacity crowd in sway with his smooth vocal turns, crisp-as-mountain-air guitar-picking, and admirable fiddle-playing, all the while sharing stories about his inspirations and songwriting processes. Highlights included O’Brien’s take on the classic “Working On a Building,” complete with vocal/fiddle harmony, which he likened to the interplay between “the bramble and the rose,” and an encore of “More Love,” a hit for the Dixie Chicks that O’Brien co-wrote with Gary Nicholson. O’Brien made it a point to thank the Dixie Chicks for recording the track and allowing him the financial freedom to continue to do what he loves best… write and play music.
Steve Martin set the tone for his show with obtuse introductory statements like, “This is a song… well, that pretty much says it.” He talked about redefining himself as a serious musician and his surprise at having won the 2010 Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album (The Crow: New Songs For the Five-string Banjo). He voiced his initial fears that the public might react to his banjo music the way he himself might react if he were to learn that Jerry Seinfeld had created a collection of all original music for the bassoon. All kidding aside, Steve Martin and the five-piece bluegrass band known as the Steep Canyon Rangers, established and respected artists in their own right, proved that Martin’s recent Grammy was no fluke. Album tracks like “Clawhammer Medley,” “Pitkin County Turnaround,” and “Calico Train,” were flawlessly-executed. Tim O’Brien returned to the stage for a guest vocal on “Daddy Played the Banjo,” a song he actually sang on The Crow. The crowd was also treated to new originals like “Rare Bird Alert,” and choice covers like “Orange Blossom Special” and “King Tut,” a “grassed up” version of the 1978 single from Martin’s Wild & Crazy Guy comedy album. The dichotomy of Martin’s career was never more evident than when he chose to follow the Steep Canyon Rangers’ moving accapella gospel number,” I Can’t Sit Down,” with the similarly-executed “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs.”
I spent most of the day on Saturday, July 31, hunkered down at the Harbor Stage where the acclaimed singer/songwriter Sarah Jarosz opened with an inspired solo set. She accompanied herself on six-string acoustic guitar, mandolin, or banjo while performing tracks from her Grammy-nominated 2009 release Song Up In Her Head, including the title track, Hurricane Katrina-inspired “Broussard’s Lament,” and “Shankill Butchers,” a cover tune penned by Colin Malloy of the Decemberists. In addition, Jarosz played two powerful new original songs entitled “I Saw a Gypsy Today,” and “Annabelle Lee,” as well as selections by Bob Dylan, Patti Griffin, and a faithful reading of Doc Watson’s arrangement of the Delmore Brothers’ “Deep River Blues.”
Making their first Newport appearance, Oregon-based psychedelic folk-rockers Blitzen Trapper performed songs from throughout their ten-year career-to-date, including tracks from their latest full-length release, Destroyer of the Void. Although, the band’s ever-evolving musical identity is somewhat hard to pigeonhole, Blitzen Trapper’s sound is always anchored by the vocal harmonies of lead vocalist/guitarist Eric Earley, guitarist/keyboardist Marty Marquis and drummer Brian Adrian Koch. At times, as on the title track of the new release, Blitzen Trapper incorporated distinct progressive-rock elements into an otherwise low-fidelity sound, making them strong contenders for, arguably, the most “rockin’” act on the 2010 Newport bill. Highlights from their high-energy set included “Silver Moon,” “Black River Killer,” and their catchy new single, entitled “Evening Star.” Eric Earley also performed several tracks alone with his acoustic guitar and harmonica, including “Taking It Easy Too Long,” an unreleased original which we can only hope will appear on an official release before too long.
The legendary Grammy-decorated Sam Bush, introduced on this day as the “father of new-grass” took to the Harbor Stage with a four piece band composed of bassist Todd Parks, drummer Chris Brown, banjoist Scott Vestal, and guitarist Stephen Mougin. Bush played fiddle on the bluegrass standard “Uncle Pen” before switching to mandolin/vocals and blowing the crowd away with a set that featured instrumental and vocal numbers from his Newgrass Revival days to his 2009 solo release, Circles Around Me, including the title track and “Golden Heart Locket,” both co-written with singer/songwriter Jeff Black. Highlights included a jaw-dropping run through the instrumental “Blue Mountain,” and inspired lightning speed soloing on “Souvenir Bottles,” replete with a rare lead vocal by guitarist Stephen Mougin. Even at this high level and professional caliber of musicianship, Bush and crew showed how a tight road-tested band could take the song and the show one notch higher and one step beyond. Without a doubt, Bush reconfirmed on this day that he fully deserves the title and accolades bestowed upon him.
James Olliges, Jr., better known as Jim James, often goes by the pseudonym Yim Yames when recording, producing, or performing outside the framework of his popular jam band My Morning Jacket. Under the Yim Yames moniker, he accompanied himself on acoustic guitar and keyboard for a fourteen song set that featured solo renditions of songs like “Wonderful” and “Look at You.” Midway into his set, Yames brought out drummer Daniel Dorff, along with cellist Ben Sollee and multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Daniel Martin Moore for whom he recently produced a record aimed at raising the public’s awareness of the disastrous effects of mountaintop removal. The quartet burned through fan faves and deep cuts alike, including “In the Morning,” “Smokin’ from Shootin’,” and a cover of Leadbelly’s “Bring Me L’il Water Sylvie.”
At 87, vocalist/guitarist/harmonica player Doc Watson was easily the festival’s eldest representative. Accompanied by banjoist/multi-instrumentalist David Holt and bassist T. Michael Coleman, Watson proved he could still pick with the best of ‘em in his twilight years. The set included such perennial favorites as “Whiskey Before Breakfast,” “Shady Grove,” "I Am a Pilgrim,” “In the Pines,” and “Sitting On Top of the World.” Interspersed between songs, Holt prompted Watson to share colorful stories about his childhood and musical development. Watson even performed solo for part of the lengthy set before being rejoined by Holt and Coleman along with several guests, including Watson’s own grandson Richard on guitar.
I rushed over to the Fort Stage just in time to catch John Prine’s well-received closing set. Accompanied by a guitarist and upright bassist, Prine served up classics like “Spanish Pipedream,” “6:00 News,” “Bruised Orange,” and “Angel From Montgomery,” as 7,500 delighted fans watched and, in many cases, sang along. In addition to his greatest “hits,” Prine also performed lesser-known numbers like the Carter Family’s “Beer Creek Blues” and an inspired reading of his own nineties-era “Lake Marie.” The evening ended with Yim Yames joining Prine onstage for “All the Best,” and “Paradise.”
I hit the Fort Stage bright and early on the closing day of the festival just in time to catch an amazing opening set by the Tao Seeger Band. As they took the stage, lead singer Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, grandson of the legendary Pete Seeger, eyed the crowd, leaned into his microphone, and stated, “I feel so good I wanna kill somebody,” before cueing the band to kick into the raucous “Wild Bill Jones.” Fronted by vocalist/guitarist/banjoist Seeger, the five-piece bilingual folk-rock band, which also includes fiddler/vocalist Laura Cortese, bassist Jake Silver, guitarist Jefferson Hamer, and drummer Robin MacMillan, ripped through killer versions of tracks from their newly-released Rise and Bloom CD. Aoife O'Donovan, lead singer of the neo-bluegrass band Crooked Still, sat in with the band as a harmony vocalist for several numbers. One of the many highlights from their adrenaline-pumped set was the Spanish-sung “El Plano de la Paz,” which translated, Tao informed the crowd, means “His Plain of Peace.” Other highlights included an impassioned reading of Jim Garland’s Great Depression-era classic, “I Don’t Want Your Millions, Mister,” which feels dismally relevant in today’s challenging economic environment, as well as a cover of grandfather Pete Seeger’s Vietnam-era anti-war song, “Bring ‘em Home,” one of the weekend’s most overt political statements.
After opening with a funky instrumental number called “The Reason,” the Dap-Kings brought “super soul sister” Sharon Jones to the stage for a powerful showcase set. Complete with rhythm, horn, and female vocal sections, Sharon and company gave the Newport crowd a healthy dose of sixties era soul revivalism. The diminutive diva and crew performed songs from their latest release, I Learned the Hard Way, as well as choice cuts from earlier albums, including the title track to the critically-lauded 100 Days, 100 Nights. Highlights included the pleading “If You Call,” the impassioned “She Ain’t a Child,” and the questioning “Give It Back.”
North Carolina natives Seth and Scott Avett, along with Avett Brothers stalwarts Bob Crawford (bass), Joe Kwon (cello), and Jacob Edwards (drums), returned to Newport to set the Fort Stage afire with a powerful set that leaned heavily on tracks from I and Love and You, their latest full-length release. Reoccurring technical difficulties with out-of-tune instruments did little to dampen the band’s spirit. Scott joked with the crowd about how their “shit never works.” The band’s eclectic blend of folk, rock, and bluegrass whipped the Newport crowd into frenzy. Fans could be heard singing and seen lip-syncing to favorites like “January Wedding,” “Head Full of Doubt,” “Kick Drum,” “I and Love and You,” “Tin Man,” “Die Then Grow,” and many others. Humble as ever, Scott Avett commented to the audience at one point that… “Man, we got no business bein’ up here with all these great acts.” Most attendees would have to vehemently disagree and hope that the Avett Brothers are deservedly invited to return to Newport again in the near future to reprise their role as torchbearers for and purveyors of the new Americana movement sweeping the country in the early part of the new millennium.
Looking like some sort of new age spiritual leader and possessing the same rich baritone quality that has been his vocal trade mark for over forty-five years, Richie Havens, greeted the Newport crowd by stating that, “music belongs to everybody because it comes from inside out,” and commenting that… “The world is here because it wants to be…, so, it becomes very special.” Accompanied by longtime guitarist Walter Parks, Havens turned the clocks back to a bygone era with his classic take on weatherworn tunes like Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” and his own festival-friendly “Freedom.” Only Havens could make Gary Wright’s “Love is Alive” sound like it was cut from the same cloth as George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun.”
Meanwhile, at the Quad Stage, Kentucky duo Ben Sollee (cello/vocals) and Daniel Martin Moore (guitar/banjo/vocals), along with drummer Danial Dorff, raced through a set that pulled heavily from the pair’s debut release, Dear Companion. Highlights included “Try,” “Only a Song,” and “My Wealth Come to Me.” Returning the favor from the previous day, Yim Yames, who produced Dear Companion, joined the trio onstage for a spirited take on Sollee’s “Bury Me in My Car” and stayed for a run through Dear Companion’s title track and the set-closing “Save the Last Dance for Me,” which also featured guest appearances from Sarah Jarosz and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, aka The Swell Season, began their Fort Stage set harmonizing into a single microphone over the metallic strum of Hansard’s lone acoustic guitar. Hansard’s beat-up instrument looked like it was modeled after Willie Nelson’s Trigger, so it seemed only fitting that they ran through a soulful version of Nelson’s signature “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.” Much to the approval of the capacity crowd, the pair invited Hansard’s old band mates in The Frames to accompany them throughout much of their eclectic set of originals and choice cover tunes. Irglova tickled the ivories during much of the full band performance, although she did strum acoustic guitar on a few numbers. Highlights included a version of “Low Risin’” in which Hansard quoted Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing,” and a version of “Back Broke” in which he quoted the Who’s “Love, Reign O’er Me.” The crowd went wild when Hansard introduced the Levon Helm Band’s horn section and broke into an energetic version of Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic.”
All too soon, it was time for the last act of the 2010 Newport Folk Festival to take the Fort Stage. Legendary drummer and multiple Grammy-winning recording artist Levon Helm stepped forward and waved to the excited crowd. He was accompanied by his crack band of Woodstock-based cohorts, including daughter Amy Helm (vocals, mandolin), Teresa Williams (vocals/acoustic guitar), Larry Campbell (vocals/electric guitar/acoustic guitar/mandolin/fiddle), Brian Mitchell (vocals/piano/accordion), Jim Weider (guitar), and Byron Isaacs (bass), as well as the aforementioned horn section. The crowd roared as the ensemble kicked into the Band’s classic “Ophelia.” Sounding a bit rough around the edges, Levon wisely shared lead vocal duties throughout the fourteen song set. Highlights included “The Shape I’m In,” “Long Black Veil,” “All La Glory,” and Levon’s impassioned reading of Bob Dylan’s “Blind Willie McTell.” Larry Campbell played a brilliant guitar intro before launching into a burning “Chest Fever.” The dynamic set ended with a fine version of “The Weight” that featured both Richie Havens and The Swell Season’s Glen Hansard on guest vocals. In the true spirit of the Newport Folk Festival, Helm invited dozens of artists to join him onstage for an encore performance of “I Shall Be Released.” It was inspiring to sing along with thousands of fellow audience members while watching up-and-coming artists like the Felice Brothers, Pokey LaFarge, and Cory Chisel join Helm, Hansard, and Havens onstage for a final crowning moment of music and camaraderie before the 2010 Newport Folk Festival drew to its inevitable close.