Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Newport Folk Festival, 8/2/09, Newport, Rhode Island

Newport’s big draw for me is the venue – a state park with an old fort overlooking the harbor with water and bridges and boats everywhere you look. It has a very laid back boat-and-beach-chair scene, but not much of a drinking scene, due to park restrictions.

The lineup at many festivals always makes you think that you are going to see ten incredible sets over a full day, but it never really works out that way. Bands are always overlapping with set times, playing opposite each other on different stages, and it gets to be a lot to run around trying to catch everything. It’s best to just pick a few must-see performances and then leave it at that. For me, those were Elvis Perkins, Neko Case and Deer Tick and Del McCourey, in that order. The old timer’s sets that basically closed the last 3-4 hours of the day on the main stage were cool to catch here and there, but none, other than Pete Seeger’s, were ones that I really needed to see.

I took the ferry from downtown Newport to the park, and it docked 20 feet from Joe Pug, who was in the middle of a sound check on the Waterside Stage. I was looking for the ticket office and in my short search to find it, ran into a radio station guy that had an extra ticket that he handed me for free. Nice. It was as if someone had handed me $75, so I walked past Joe Pug and, unintentionally Guy Clark on the Harbor Stage -- the only set I missed all day that I truly wanted to see -- and headed out in search of brew. The bar is out on a pier (heretofore referred to as the beer pier), so any brews needed to be had on the pier, which had great views of the main stage and the harbor, but kept you far away from the other stages where some of my aforementioned favorite acts were playing.

That said, the pier itself was pretty nice place to spend some time and eat a giant stuffed clam (aka “stuffie”) and while we were getting situated, we grabbed a table out there and watched The Campbell Brothers play a pretty rocking set of blues based guitar rock. They kinda sounded like The North Mississippi All Stars (without the ragged charisma) and it was a pretty decent set to watch as we sat on the pier with Narragansett Lager tall boys.

I was really looking forward to the Neko Case set that followed The Campbell Brothers on that same main stage and while her voice sounded fantastic from the beer pier in the harbor with thousands of people seated on the huge lawn in front of her, there was nothing especially dynamic about her set. Her voice is a force unto itself and that did not disappoint and the set list was quite good, as she touched on many of her best songs, but the actual performance did not inspire much beyond your standard lawn-lounging head bobbing. This is not really a knock, and the set was far from disappointing, as lawn-lounging head-bobbing is pretty damn fun in a setting as beautiful as Newport, but I have always marveled at how perfectly Neko’s band and backing singers compliment her songs and voice and while they did that nicely on Sunday, the performance did not really transcended beyond that. That said, it was great to finally see her live and definitely enjoyable, considering the setting.

After “Train to Kansas City” ended Neko’s set, we left the confines of the beer pier for a few Del McCourey songs, which made me wish we’d seen more. They rocked the whole bluegrass style, full suits and all and it really impressed. They were the only act of the day that was truly acoustic in that there were had no pickups on their instruments – just three standard microphones that they played into, old time style. They were all huddled around the middle of the stage together, looking all dapper and timeless and when one of them played a solo, he stepped up to the mic for maximum volume. They sounded excellent and the crowd loved it made them come out for more.

As we wandered around after that, we got to see a decent amount of Arlo Guthrie, whose storyteller schtick is the thing Newport Folk Festivalites seem to love, but did not do a whole bunch for me.

From there, we saw local favorites, Deer Tick on the small Waterside Stage, which, being right next to the ferry dock, made for some awesome dock rocking, nice breeze and all. These guys were very good, with some sick lead guitar licks and they seemed to be boosted by a large local crowd. It was especially nice that they made everyone get up out of their folding chairs and the sing-a-long to “Ashamed” get the whole crowd going. They also closed with “La Bamba”, which they said was, “the best folk song [they had] ever heard”.

I felt like I got my fill of Joan Baez on the ferry ride over to the festival, as the Captain was blaring one of her records the entire ride. It was a strange flashback to my childhood, when I used to wake up at 7am to my mom blaring the her records throughout my house, her beautiful voice turning shrill after five songs in a row, like she’s testing your nerves. Either way, she looks damn good for her age and her voice still sounds great and on the way back to the beer pier after Deer Tick, I got to hear “The Scarlett Tide” and Steve Earle’s “Christmastime in Washington”, which were both fantastic.

After that, we went to the Harbor Stage, where Elvis Perkins put on the best set of the day, one that seemed to be made for an American folk festival in 2009. His band jumped from drum kit to standing bass drum to trombone to trumpet to stand up bass, all while Perkins himself delivered great song after great song, building up steam to the best block of songs of the day: “Shampoo” --> “Old Ship of Zion” (with Tim Ericksen and a huge choir) --> “While You Were Sleeping” into the closer, “Doomsday”, which, unfortunately, I had to run out on. Perkins is a pretty captivating performer and his songs, which can be heavy at times, still managed to move and pull people in. Most impressively, he commanded the scene, keeping everyone engaged and rocking. You didn’t want to leave, didn’t want to check out any other set and you didn’t want the thing to end. When I think back on this festival next year, I will likely remember this set most vividly, the one that was the most fun and the most emblematic of the whole day to me. Well, that, and the Narragansett tall boys.

I ran out on Elvis and jumped on the ferry right before the Pete Seeger set, so I missed the sing-a-longs and such, but as we exited out, I was able to crack a Heineken on the boat and hear the ska sound of Elvis Perkins’ “Doomsday” horns. A few minutes later, as Elvis’ set was ending to a rousing standing ovation, I was still sipping my mini keg can, watching the fog settle in over Newport Town, and talking to my fellow ferry-boaters about the awesomeness of Ben Kweller, Elvis Perkins and Gillian Welch and how we all are so much happier to be on a boat in Newport than in Liberty State Park, seven beer limit exceeded, watching Coldplay.

You can download and listen to all of the sets by checking out the index here.

You can listen to Elvis Perkins’ full set here.

You can listen to Neko Case’s full set here.

You can listen to Deer Tick’s full set here.

Neko Case Set List:

Things That Scare Me


People Gotta Lotta Nerve


I’m An Animal

Teenage Feeling

Hold On, Hold On

Middle Cyclone


The Tigers Have Spoken

Wish I Was The Moon

Polar Needles

Red Tide

Don’t Forget Me

This Tornado Loves You


Train From Kansas City

Elvis Perkins Set List:

Sweet Roseanne

I Hear Your Voice In Dresden

Chains, Chains, Chains


Hour’s Last Stand

Weeping Mary

I’ll be Arriving

Stop, Drop, Rock n Roll

Gypsy Davy

Stay, Zombie, Stay

Four Strong Winds


Old Ship Of Zion (with Tim Ericksen)

While You Were Sleeping


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