WERS Exclusive: Newport Folk Festival 2011

Newport Folk Festival started bright and early for WERS staffers, who spent the event handing out WERS gear, introducing major acts like Mavis Staples and Delta Spirit, photographing groups as they played, and chatting up artists. While all of the artists had what it took to even get an invite to the historic festival (its pilot year as the non-profit Newport Folk Foundation and the first sold-out event in its history), every WERS staffer had their own particular highlights.

On Saturday, the crowd was graced with the presence of the incredible Mavis Staples. The introduction was done by our very own Amory Sivertson, who even received a hug from the legendary songstress. Soulful and explosive, Staples’ performance demonstrated how she garnered her impeccable reputation. She played songs ranging from throughout her extensive catalog, not neglecting her most recent venture, You Are Not Alone, co-produced and -written by Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy (who, allegedly, Staples had never heard of when he so reverently approached her).

Earlier in the day, attendees also saw the wonderful up-and-comer Sallie Ford, with her backing band the Sound Outside. Her throwback sound seemed to come somewhere out of Newport history, but we have a feeling this is not her last Folk Fest.

Tegan and Sara’s acoustic set started out beautifully with heart-rending performances of “Call It Off” and “Back In Your Head,” followed by So Jealous tunes “Where Does The Good Go” and “Walking With A Ghost.” They blazed through more Con favorites including the title track and “Nineteen” before launching into several Sainthood tracks. In between songs, the pair bantered with the audience in the overpacked tent about Twitter and the media’s obsession with making twin jokes.

After the show, Tegan and Sara had time for a quick chat.

“We’re super excited to be playing Newport, and it lived up to its reputation,” said Tegan. The two agreed that a chance to do a stripped-down set in the laid-back atmosphere with a great crowd all contributed to a worthwhile Newport experience.

With a fantastic intro by WERS’ own Johnny Q, Delta Spirit played a dynamic Saturday set, with highlights (and WERS favorites) “Trashcan” and “Bushwick Blues,” off of 2008′s Ode to Sunshine, and 2010′s History From Below, respectively. Frontman Matt Vasquez’s energy was infectious, and the band thrashed around onstage during particularly exciting crescendos. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: you can always count on Delta Spirit for a rollicking live show. newportfolk6

The Devil Makes Three also played an insane set. The trio looked like punks, but sang such fast-paced bluegrass that it was hard to keep up with them. What started out as a smaller crowd soon filled the entirety of available space at the Alex and Ani stage, and such insane dancing had yet to be seen at Newport up until that point. Their songs “Judgment Day” and “Do Wrong Right” had the crowd shuffling and even, fittingly, moshing, in the front row. Moshing to bluegrass. Only at Newport Folk…

The Low Anthem, who were not slated to be on the bill, played a surprise show at the Kid Zone tent. “We thought you’d be younger,” deadpanned lead-singer Ben Knox Miller to the excited crowd, before going into the band’s stripped-down four-song set. Shortly after, Gogol Bordello played a set that included a ton of tracks off of fan favorite, Gypsy Punks. Though not typical Newport Folk Fest fodder, promises of an acoustic set seemed to suggest a more mellow experience than typical Gogol shows. Not so, however.

There was crowd-surfing. Somebody surfed the crowd at Newport Folk. Need we say more?

Gillian Welch, to whom we dedicated a Throwback Thursday to last week in honor of her birthday) played a gorgeous show on the main Fort Stage on Saturday night. All of WERS was excited, none more so than our PD Katie DiMartile, who cites Welch as one of her favorites. Her performance set the tone for an utterly perfect summer day on the water.

Saturday ended with a dynamic performance by indie folk rock favorites The Decemberists. Jenny Conlee, who is currently fighting breast cancer, remained at home in Portland, OR during the festival, but Colin Meloy announced onstage that she will be joining the band stronger than ever soon enough. The band played “Down By The Water,” “Calamity Song” and “This Is Why We Fight” from their most recent album, The King Is Dead (a WERS Album of the Month earlier this year), but they didn’t neglect to include crowd favorites like “O Valencia.” But the most incredible part of the set came in the form of an epic sea chanty known as “The Mariner’s Revenge Song,” during which Meloy got the audience to dance, sway in unison and scream all at once as if being devoured by a whale (a set quirk that has been noticeably absent as of late, but the return of which left the crowd thrilled).

On Sunday morning, Brown Bird played an outstanding set on the Alex and Ani Stage. The band, so named after lead singer Dave Lamb’s dog Bird (who is, it turns out, brown), fluctuated between a two piece and a three piece, substituting a fiddle for a stand-up bass, alongside Lamb’s growling vocals. It was dark, folksy intensity all the way through. They ended, rather perfectly, with a cover of “Jackson.” Their new album, Salt for Salt, will be out in October.

There was also a performance by the Seeger Clogging All-Stars, arguably the most accurately named group at the festival this year. Tao Seeger, Pete’s grandson, played along with his quartet. It was lovely and twangy, as to be expected. But their clogging accompaniment was truly a sight. The group had some of the fanciest footwork we’ve seen, with perfect time and lightning-quick steps. They performed an “Appalachian Buck Dance” without any music, but it was so enthralling that the entire crowd sat in stunned silence until they’d finished, at which time everyone at the Quad tent burst into applause.

Pete Seeger himself even looked on from the side of the stage approvingly. And if you have Pete Seeger’s approval, there’s really nowhere to go but up.

Over on the main stage the old-time string band Carolina Chocolate Drops, where getting cathartic beach-chair loungers on their feet and stomping with crowd-pleasers like “[Don't get] Trouble in Your Mind,” “Georgia Buck,” and an experimental beatbox jam, “Diddly Dum.” Trading instruments interchangeably, the funky, “traditional” quartet’s repertoire includesd banjo, fiddle, guitar, harmonica, snare drum, jug, and kazoo. All four musicians were in-tune with the audience and provided a carefree set packed with fun, excitement, and a broad range of instruments and musical styles. It’s no surprise that the group won the Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album for their 2010 release, Genuine Negro Jig.

The Cave Singers kicked out some scruffy folk rock jams on Sunday afternoon to a receptive crowd, and everyone seated at the tent rose to their feet to dance along for the last two songs of the set. Frontman Pete Quirk took turns playing the tambourine, acoustic guitar, melodica and harmonica as guitarist Derek Fudesco and drummer Marty Lund drove the tunes along. After the show, Quirk described his (and his mother’s) awe and excitement to be at Newport.

“It’s kind of crazy to be here and play, cause it’s such a historic thing,” Quirk, who listed The Head and The Heart (their friends from Seattle) and Brown Bird as a few of the acts he wanted to see during the day.

Icon Elvis Costello took the main stage late Sunday afternoon, busting out classic renditions of Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” and Hank Williams’ “Why Don’t You Love Me (Like You Used To Do?)” as well as his own tunes like “Sulphur to Sugarcane” from 2009’s Secret, Profane & Sugarcane. Costello invited many guests to play with him onstage, including The Secret Sisters, Chris Thile (of Nickel Creek), and Emmylou Harris.

Amos Lee and Emmylou Harris led the festival to an emotional close. Lee’s vocals were soulful and moving as he sang “Flower,” and “Careless,” or the twangy slow jam, “Keep it Loose, Keep it Tight.”

Looking back, the huge crowds that gathered for this year’s festival–initially daunting to attendees and organizers alike–made it a different experience than any Newport Folk prior. There was more enthusiasm, a higher energy level despite the sweltering heat, and a sense of togetherness that’s often absent in the laidback atmosphere. If this year was any indication, next year’s Folk Fest will be the best yet. And if you happen to attend, come say hi to WERS.

By Cady Drell, Sarah Ruggiero, and Lindsay Tucker
Photos by Cady Drell, Johnny Quinones, Sarah Ruggiero, and Lindsay Tucker

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