Friday, August 21, 2009

Review: Newport Folk Festival Day 1 Bridges Two Generations of Folk

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first Newport Folk Festival, this year’s line-up aimed to bridge a gap between two generations of folk and folk-influenced music. Officially titled “George Wein’s Folk Festival 50,” the festival took place on August 1 and 2 in Newport, Rhode Island; the first day featured older folk legends like Pete Seeger and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott along side younger folk-influenced indie bands like Fleet Foxes and The Decemberists,

“This year we tried to present a mix of the old and the new,” explained festival producer Bob Jones in a phone interview with WTBU. “There are the indie artists, like Fleet Foxes and Elvis Perkins, and there are also performers who played at the first festival, 50 years ago.”

The full line-up for the first day of the festival also included Mavis Staples, Tom Morello, Billy Bragg, The Avvett Brothers, Ben Kweller, Gillian Welch, The Low Anthem, Iron & Wine, Tim Merritt, Tao Seeger, Langhorne Slim, and Brett Dennen.

Ramblin’ Jack Elliott was an appropriate opener for the day. A true veteran of the Newport Folk Festival, Elliott played at the first festival in 1959.

Ramblin' Jack Elliott performing "Freight Train":

“I don’t think I’ve ever had a bad time here at Newport,” Elliott told the crowd. In between playing old traditional songs (he played renditions of songs by the Carter Family, Elizabeth Cotton and others), Elliott recalled stories like meeting Woody Guthrie at age 19, and sharing guitars with legendary blues singer Mississippi John Hurt.

Ben Kweller and The Avett Brothers both shouted out to Elliott from stage, calling him a major influence on their music. Fleet Foxes also noted other festival artists as influences.

“It’s a huge honor to be here. Gillian Welch is a big hero of ours,” Fleet Foxes singer Robin Pecknold said from the stage.

Fleet Foxes stood out from the days’ other young acts. Playing songs from their acclaimed 2008 self-titled album as well as their 2008 Sun Giant EP, they are a band that does more than just emulate nostalgic folk sounds. Their haunting harmonies and lyrics set them apart as a band of innovators who have absorbed their folk influences and interpreted them in original, lasting ways, while still keeping their traditional influences clear.

As expected, social and political commentary spewed from the stages throughout the day. Before performing a song about the space race, Billy Bragg commented: “I think universal health care would be more impressive than putting a man on the moon.” And during his solo set, Tao Seeger questioned, “Obama’s our president, so now all of our problems are going to be solved? I guess not. If we want to see change, it’s going to be up to us.”

During Billy Bragg’s set, the British folk/punk singer performed a memorable version of Woody Guthrie’s “I Ain’t Got No Home in This World Anymore,” explaining that bringing back Guthrie’s songs is suitable for these “troubled times.” Bragg also played songs off of Mermaid Avenue, his album of Woody Guthrie songs that he recorded with Wilco in 1998.

Billy Bragg performing "Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key":

“I don’t usually play acoustic,” Billy Bragg told the crowd during his set. “I’m more of a punk rock guy, but it seems lately the folk singers have joined the fight against fascism, so I’m gonna sing some folk songs for you.” Bragg wore a t-shirt that read “Folk Against Fascism.”

After plugging in for a few electric songs, Bragg joked to the audience, “Here’s your chance to shout Judas, if you want.” He urged confused audience members to Google “Dylan + Electric.” This was only one of several references to Dylan’s 1965 performance that were made from the stage throughout the day.

During the Decemberists performance, the band members performed a lengthy skit depicting the scene of Bob Dylan going electric at Newport in 1965. Despite fact errors in the skit and the bands’ overall sound not really fitting in with the general aesthetic of a folk festival, their set was well-received by an enthusiastic crowd that sang along throughout the set.

“We have a lot of people who would say we're really not a folk festival because we've had artists like The Decemberists play,” festival producer Bob Jones told WTBU in a phone interview. “We take some criticism, but we do make sure to have artists play who are influenced by the folk traditions, which basically maintains our status as a folk festival.”

The Decemberists were chosen to play the folk festival because as a band they are restoring and preserving the folk tradition of storytelling, Jones said.

Ben Kweller kept the storytelling traditions alive as well, singing about listening to Ramblin’ Jack Elliott on the bus and playing at the Newport Folk Festival. Kweller’s performance of songs from his new album Changing Horses (which seemed kind of gimmicky on the recording) sounded natural when played live, making Kweller’s set one of my favorites all day. His enthusiasm to be playing the festival pervaded his set, and spilled over to the finale as well.

The day closed out with a epic, momentous sing-a-long led by Pete and Tao Seeger. After recalling stories about Alan Lomax, factory worker strikes, farmer’s unions, and Martin Luther King Jr., the Seegers invited all of the days’ performers on stage for a sing-a-long that’s awesomeness can only be explained through video:

Pete & Tao Seeger performing "This Little Light of Mine" with Ramblin Jack Elliott, Gillian Welch, David Rawlings, Ben Kweller, Fleet Foxes, the Decemberists, the Low Anthem, and more:

The bridging of generations occurring on stage was living proof that George Wein’s Folk Festival 50 was an overwhelming success.

“The Seeger’s never gives up hope that the world can be a good place,” Wein said when he took the stage at the end of the set.

I was unable to attend the second day of the festival, and I couldn’t catch every artist on the first day, but full streams of all Folk Festival 50 sets are available at Check them out here. Read my full Q&A with Newport Folk Festival producer Bob Jones, here. Check back soon for more pictures/videos, plus my interview with The Low Anthem.

- Liz Pelly

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