Standing by Peaceful Waters
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 Col