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This year’s Newport Folk Festival started things off a little differently. Instead of just featuring two days of constant performances on several stages, fans were treated to an extra Friday night special show on the grounds – a pre-festival concert, if you will – providing a change in a setup that has existed for 53 years. People lined up at the gates, eagerly waiting to run alongside the beautiful waterline to get a front row spot to see Wilco, Blitzen Trapper, and Megafaun. While forecasts of dreary rain should have made the crowd anxious and bummed, everyone was stoked that soon they would see Wilco take the stage, a band that has been charming listeners since 1994.
Opening the set was the upbeat and folk-y Megafaun, a perfect example of what is to come in Newport Folk Festival’s regular Saturday and Sunday schedule. The group couldn’t contain themselves from jumping around, particularly guitarist Brad Cook and his brother, keyboardist Phil Cook. Vocals bounced between Cook and their drummer Joe Westerlund, providing a unique dynamic between a band that could not be more jolly under overcast clouds. An increasingly more heavy downpour began to scatter some of the crowd as equipment was covered. It wasn’t long, though, before everyone at Newport wished the bad weather away and Blitzen Trapper took the stage. Making full use of harmonicas and maracas, the classic-rock-meets-folk-jam band brought the crowd back to the happy weather they were in moments before. Parents, teens, and babies all joined together in clapping the beat of “Furr”, creating one of many waves of unity on the Rhode Island turf.
Ponchos began to peel off as fans were ready to dance and swoon under the charm of Wilco. When the sextet came out, everyone hollered as loudly as they could; we all finally made it through the storm to the destination. Wilco began their set with a song that failed to catch Jeff Tweedy’s vocals for the first thirty seconds due to technical difficulties (which he later apologized for but said, “when you’re all pointing at me, telling me to turn the volume up – I can’t do anything! That’s not up to me!” to which the crowd laughed). It was “Art of Almost”, the beginning track off their most recent album The Whole Love, that brought out a collective excitement from the crowd, especially as it turned into a noisy but powerful jam at the end. Nothing made this more clear than seeing the first WERS beach ball whacked into the air and tossed about – the official sign of summer festival fun.
Among a setlist of subtly energetic tracks, no songs stood out as much as the continually perfect “Impossible Germany” and newer jem “I Might”. “I Might”, another track off of The Whole Love, really came to life in the live setting. The grungy, explosive bass and innocent, childish xylophone contrasted one another in a simple enough way to get kids doing improve dance moves in the grass and adults to let loose. It came as no surprise that “Impossible Germany” was a track that both took people’s breath away and then gave it right back. The track, off of 2007′s Sky Blue Sky, manages to crawl from subdued and mellow to a guitar solo that becomes backed by Yes-like layers. Oh, that guitar solo – that alone was enough to get the crowd cheering in the middle of the song as Nels Cline worked his magic like it was nothing at all. The winding ease of the whole song, a song that is much less easy than it seems, cast a spell over the crowd that would keep away any more rain, had it decided to fall.
Numerous sources will tell you that Wilco are great live. Finally being able to see them myself, I can’t say it isn’t true; time has only served to polish them more. It may have been a struggle to keep equipment dry during this new Friday show at Newport Folk Festival, but high spirits kept the crowd smiling. Oh, and Wilco’s near flawless performance helped a bit, too.