Nearing its 50th anniversary‚ the Newport Folk Festival is showing no signs of age. Infused with youthful innovation and the exuberant spirit of the troubadours of the past‚ this year's performers took the festival in exciting new directions. Though at first glance the lineup seemed to be missing the traditional music of years past‚ many of the artists paid homage to the simpler acoustic music of their forebears. Founded in 1959‚ the festival is best known for Bob Dylan's 1965 performance‚ in which he first went electric to both popular acclaim and grassroots discontent.
In a similar moment of innovative folk/rock fusion‚ My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James opened his Saturday evening set with a synthesizer accompanied rendition of "Tonight I Want To Celebrate With You" to a hushed audience‚ attentive to both his soaring vocal lines and the swirling textures of his omnichord. After a few moments of expounding on the finer points of pointillism‚ James settled into the hour-long set‚ playing primarily on his acoustic guitar for a crowd that spilled out of the Harbor Stage tent on all sides. Despite weathering heavy rainfall for the duration of his performance‚ concertgoers remained in a state of hypnotic tranquility‚ enjoying a few quiet moments with James‚ better known for rafter-shaking rock with My Morning Jacket.
"That's the crazy thing about all these old festivals‚ is that it's been going on forever‚ and all the old festivals are still going on right now while this one's happening‚ so we're on top of ghosts that are on top of ghosts that are on top of other ghosts‚" James joked‚ hinting at his own sense of the depth of history inherent in the music he plays.
Earlier in the day‚ Jakob Dylan‚ the son of folk music's most prolific bard‚ played to a sun-drenched crowd of listeners at the intimate Harbor Stage. Known primarily as the songwriter and lead singer of mid-'90s chart-toppers The Wallflowers‚ the young Dylan is no slouch creatively and certainly not content to rest on his laurels. Trading in the college radio/alternative sound and payoff pop choruses of his former band for an alt-country flavor on his latest release Seeing Things‚ Dylan was nonetheless able to bring his unique sensibilities to the performance. Backed by a compact and highly capable‚ not to mention well-dressed‚ group featuring former Black Crowes guitarist Audley Freed‚ the famed hit-writer drew a diverse crowd to his early afternoon performance.
Trey Anastasio‚ formerly of Phish‚ played the towering Fort Stage to a crowd of several thousand on Saturday afternoon. His rare acoustic set included the ballad "If I Was a Sailor‚" which he dedicated to the many boaters enjoying his performance from the waterways surrounding the venue. Anastasio also took a moment to thank both his many fans and longtime songwriting partner Tom Marshall‚ who looked on from the stage wings. The day proved to be a quiet contrast to the progressive improvisational rock that became synonymous with Phish during their 21-year career.
Chan Marshall‚ aka Cat Power‚ was one of the highlights of the day. An expressive songwriter and vocalist‚ Marshall gave her audience their money's worth‚ climbing down from the stage mid-set and singing the majority of her songs from the center of the crowd. Noticing puzzled looks from her production staff‚ she offered only a brief explanation.
"I like it down here. I'm going to stay‚" Marshall put plainly.
A remarkable contrast to the gritty look and sound of Cat Power‚ She and Him recaptures and revamps the aesthetic and spirit of 1950s and '60s country music‚ reinventing the style in fanciful‚ awe-inspiring ballads. The group consists of guitarist M. Ward and musician/actress Zooey Deschanel backed by an adept rhythm section capable of impossibly delicate textures and harmony. Introduced on the set of 2007's The Go-Getter‚ in which Deschanel stars and Ward provided music‚ the duo went on to record Volume 1‚ released in March 2008 to popular acclaim. A haunting performance of "Sentimental Heart" highlighted the mid-afternoon performance notwithstanding some minor technical difficulties. The Harbor Stage set drew one of the most diverse and vocal crowds of the day despite the onset of heavy rain and scattered flashes of lightning.
Saturday's headliners‚ The Black Crowes‚ were received at the Fort Stage later that evening with thunderous applause and a vibrant sunset as the storm cleared. Starting with an acoustic duet of Bob Dylan's "Girl From The North Country‚" the Robinson brothers brought out the other band members gradually‚ easing into their blues -- and country -- driven brand of rock. With any stage banter the group offered virtually drowned out by applause‚ it is clear that the Georgia natives are among the elite of the current folk/rock scene.
The exciting lineup of young folk-influenced groups that took the stage Saturday at Fort Adams State Park in Newport proved not only that traditional music continues to be a source of inspiration for people young and old‚ but that the Newport Folk Festival itself is as popular as ever. Make no mistake: This isn't your grandfather's folk.