The Newport Folk Festival Turns 50, Day 1

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In 1953, the story goes, a wealthy socialite from Newport, Rhode Island complained to Boston jazz club owner, George Wein, that her little seaside resort town was oh so “terribly boring in the summer.” Wein, inspired by her gripe, created the Newport Jazz Festival, and subsequently the Folk Festival.

Last Saturday, as more than 9,000 people—the biggest crowd since Dylan’s return to the scene in 2002—were siphoned through tiny downtown Newport, one could imagine an elderly socialite cringing behind the closed shutters of one of the towns many opulent mansions and eating her words.

Legally speaking, the Newport Folk Festival wasn’t quite itself this year: due to name ownership issues it was called George Wein’s Folk Festival 50, a distinction that was probably only acknowledged by the lawyers and t-shirts. But, the fans didn’t come for the name, they came for the almost palpable history and, of course, the music itself provided by a mix of legendary performers from the festival’s early years (Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie) and newer bearers of the folk tradition (the Avett Brothers, Gillian Welch, the Decemberists).

Overlapping sets on three stages meant having to decide between Langhorne Slim and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott or Deer Tick and Arlo Guthrie. Yet, the closing attraction on the main stage both nights brought them all together in a sing-along featuring 90-year old folk legend, Pete Seeger, whom Wein considers “the heart and soul of the festival.” Watching the spry nonagenarian lead the rapt, misty-eyed multitudes in a chorus of his old comrade Woody Guthrie’s anthem “This Land is Your Land,” it was easy to see that beneath the unfamiliar name on the tickets stubs and t-shirts, “the heart and soul” of the Newport Folk Festival is alive and well.

The Avett Brothers gave a warm nod to Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and the influence he had on their musical development. (Ramblin’ was celebrating his 78th birthday and played a few hours earlier, but sadly, given the traffic delays, a number of people — ourselves included — missed his set.) The Brothers — who’ve been touring strong since May in support of their upcoming album I and Love and You — switched gears seamlessly from the electrified “Kick Drum Heart” to Seth’s quiet, commanding delivery of the “Ballad of Love and Hate.”

Gillian Welch and David Rawlings flew in from LA and were treated to a police escort from the airport. Awake for 36 hours and without her contacts, Gillian embraced her quasi-psychedelic state with a reverb-saturated rendition of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit.”

The Low Anthem have a fairy tale-esque story, having gone from volunteering with one of the environmental organizations doing recycling last year at the festival to a spot on the bill this year, and (while we were sitting with them in the lawn of the Fort behind the main stage) being invited to participate in the sing along with Pete that night. With huge grins and eyes wide the trio responded with, “Oh my God… wow, this is amazing… I can’t believe this is happening.” Their unique instrumentation — 30 and counting — includes a 1900’s Estey wind-powered pump organ, a rack harp, and a scrap-metal drum kit.

The Decemberists, who festival producer Jay Sweet said were “a natural choice for this year's festival because they inhabit the folk narrative of hardship, primal need and freedom with timeless melody,” brought a theatrical flair to the stage with their reenactment of Dylan going electric.