(PHOTOS COURTESY OF JAMIE DEERING OF DEERING BANJOS):
The 2012 Newport Folk Festival, in its 53rd year with arguably the nation’s best artist lineup of the summer, continued its long running streak of ushering underexposed talent onto the national stage. This was true for yesteryear artists like Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, and even artists in recent years, such as David Wax Museum and Brown Bird.
Just as we at grass clippings predicted, a new band to add to the list is Brooklyn secular gospel band Spirit Family Reunion, who has seen a recent explosion in the press (The Wall Street Journal and NPR to name a few) since it was named to the festival’s lineup. Like Baez and Dylan, the Festival marked the start of a new era in the band’s lives. Despite an early timeslot and frazzled late arrival to Fort Adams, the band turned a massive crowd (consisting of college hippies, Brooklyn hipsters, public radio music snobs and everything in between) into rabid fans. The crowd begged for multiple encores with standing ovations and passionate cheers within a set that comprised almost completely of original songs (besides a spicy rendition of “End of the Line,” a song from Woody Guthrie’s Columbia River Collection) and no special guests. It was especially moving for me personally, as I though back to a Saturday afternoon in 2009 when I stumbled upon the band playing at my neighborhood farmers market and selling hand-burned CDs.
But that was just a one way this year’s festival exceeded expectations. There really were too many magic moments to capture, but after a few Newport Storms (beer and weather), here’s what stood out…
- LA’s own honeyhoney wooed festivarians with a cover of the Hank Williams song “Lost Highway.”
- Continuing the trend of the young embracing the old (in standard Newport fashion), trendy Swedish folk duo First Aid Kit played a spine-chilling cover of “Diamond & Rust,” a song penned by 1959 Newport unbilled performer Joan Baez. Later the sisters, making their Newport debut at the ages of 21 and 19, closed their set with “King of the World,” which included a special appearance by Conor Oberst.
- The festival’s Fort stage became a New(port) Orleans big tent revival with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s soulful closing songs, “A Closer Walk With Thee” and “I’ll Fly Away.” Joined by Del McCoury and Ben Sollee, the performance was a powerful picture of the way this music festival joins people. What else could join an environmentally-conscious cellist, a bluegrass legend and multiple Ninth Ward NOLA jazz stars other than a gospel song?
- Then, Ben Sollee’s solo performance on the Festival’s intimate new indoor stage drew a crowd of his own, with a very special performance of “Prettiest Tree on the Mountain,” featuring Sara Watkins.
- Both days of the Festival included strong showings from Canadian folk stars City and Colour and Deep Dark Woods. Deep Dark Woods delivered a beautiful and well-attended set on Sunday that ranked high on my list of favorite performances. A nice festival moment happened when frontman Ryan Boldt broke a string and then finished out the show with a beautiful Gibson guitar offered up by James Maple of New England Americana band GraveRobbers, which made its festival debut this year.
- It was The Tallest Man on Earth that impressed me the most out of any performance on Saturday or Sunday this year. A packed out crowd watched and chanted song after song as this tiny man sang, played and danced, filling the stage better than a small orchestra.
- And then there was “The Screaming Eagle of Soul” Charles Bradley, who began his career at 62 and has more soul and better moves than any artist I’ve ever seen, anywhere. Bradley, a teenage runaway who lived on the streets and in subway cars for two years, seemed to be watched by more festival performers than any other.
- The Head and the Heart delivered an intense performance to a massive crowd, which included a few impressive new songs, showing that the band will hopefully outlive their hugely popular first album.
- Joe Fletcher chose to close his impressive Newport debut set surrounded by fellow Rhode Island folkers, including several members of The Low Anthem and Dave Lamb of Brown Bird.
- Iceland’s folk pop band Of Monsters and Men drew one of the largest (and certainly the youngest) crowds of the festival. Yes, the more poppy you get, the bigger the crowds get, but there were tons of baby boom folkers hitting the “hey choruses” during “Little Talks.” The band brought a much needed energy to the festival, strategically timed to perform at the point where the crowd is starting to tire.
SO much more happened on stage, but there was plenty that happened off the stage as well. A crowd gathered as Jonah Tolchin wandered the grounds, playing without shoes and singing traditional folk songs. Also, slightly offstage and as the rain began to pour down, Punch Brothers rewarded those that braved the storm for their main set, with a mini unplugged set in the crowd as the stage hands began to tear down. It was catching moments like those that makes this festival the unique, communal gathering that it is.
Speaking of those things, the festival’s greatest decision was to host Rushad Eggleston–‘the original Snee Goblin’. Look him up, love him, and go where you can to see him (most definitely at Grey Fox nextyear). He was playing with one of my favorite new bands, The Old Tyme Kozmik trio, alongside Darol Anger and Bruce Molsky. Rushad also closed the dance tent stage on Saturday night with his band Tornado Rider. Aside from his musical genius, Rushad is an athlete. He climbed the speaker tower to take a solo, and performed while being physically carried by his backup singers (okay, full disclosure: Della Mae became stand-in backup singers for Tornado Rider that weekend).
Highlights from the eyes of Della Mae: Our main stage set was really fun — afterwards, we signed a guy’s banana suit. We set up a ‘tattooing station’ at our workshop stage and gave out free Della Mae temporary tattoos. Our dance tent stage was probably my favorite set of all-time. We were joined by Greg Liszt and Dominick Leslie from the Deadly Gentlemen, Aoife O’Donovan, Bryan Sutton, Rushad Eggleson (again!), and my brother Dennis Ludiker from the great up-and-coming band MilkDrive. Rushad climbed on Shelby’s bass to take a solo, and Aoife played drums on ‘No Diggity’. What a ridiculous night.
Grey Fox is a magical place where you can be watching Del McCoury, see David Grisman picking along backstage, head to the dance tent stage where Del and Jason Carter are sitting in with Red Knuckles & The Trailblazers (Celia got to sing a song with them as well, and the rest of the Della Mae ladies got to be backup dancers!!), only to head back to main stage where the Punch Brothers are melting faces off of an eager audience. To top it off, you wander back to your camp, only to find Bryan Sutton, Grant Gordy, and Courtney Hartman picking on their guitars. The best part? All this actually happened over the course of four hours.
Other notable sets/moments: Thile & Daves, Tribute to Scruggs & Doc hosted by Tim O’Brien, Jesse McReynolds playing songs of the Grateful Dead, Brittany Haas sitting in with Tony Trischka & Territory, Noam Pikelny & friends performing with Aoife O’Donovan, and all of the jams at the Bluegrass Bus in the campground (one of which lasted until 9am — no joke).
Buy your ticket early for next year. And get your tent ready for one of the best campgrounds (and true festival experiences) around.