Day two of the Newport Folk Festival was a whirlwind of rumors (James Taylor? Neil Young?), some technical issues on the Fort Stage, but, most importantly, great music. Friday’s downpour cleared and gave way to a perfect day for soaking in the sun and the sounds. Saturday’s lineup showcased a tasteful variety of established names and rising stars. Here’s what we thought.
The band you want to play at your party: Spirit Family Reunion
Spirit Family Reunion kicked off Newport Folk Festival on Saturday with a cannonball set of raw energy that electrified the willing audience. Crowding around a central microphone to belt out harmonies, the group shook the Quad Stage with their fervor.
“It’s like an airplane ride… don’t be shy about getting the blood moving in your legs,” said guitarist and singer Nick Panken encouragingly.
Although they played typical bluegrass instruments (guitar, fiddle, banjo and washboard), their music defied the boundaries of the genre. Their performance had the joyful, celebratory essence of a gospel choir, but was infused with a country twang. “Wake Up Rounder”, off of their new album Hands Together, is a perfect example of this, with its upbeat melody and earnest harmonies. As they played this song, barefoot girls danced uninhibited in the grass next to the stage, and the claps and yells of the audience nearly threatened to take over the music. Spirit Family Reunion was a perfect choice for a first act — although they thanked the audience for setting their alarms, there was no need to do so. No one had any trouble staying awake.
The act most likely to elevate you to a trance state: The Barr Brothers
The Barr Brothers’ set on Saturday got off to a bit of a rocky start with technical issues on the Fort Stage (which would continue throughout the day, unfortunately); the levels weren’t quite right throughout the first song. Things evened out during the second, however, and Brad Barr let out an audible sigh of relief and started to relax into the music, closing his eyes as his fingers slid up and down the neck of his guitar. He proved himself to be a particularly skilled player with dexterous solos and fingerpicking. Although most of the show seemed to be a showcase of Barr’s guitar and vocals, Sarah Page’s eerily angelic harp pulled some of the attention away from the front man. The call-and-response solos between electric guitar and harp were especially entrancing.
The group is somewhat of an enigma. Their sound is diverse, ranging from atmospheric indie-folk songs such as “Even the Darkness Has Arms” and “Little Lover” to grittier blues rock pieces like “Lord, I just Can’t Keep From Crying.” The Barr Brothers might have been better suited to a smaller stage and a seated audience, as their music demanded some concentration to get lost in. Perhaps they just needed a longer set; their performance was like a road with many different forks, each path leading somewhere completely different. Although the set lacked some cohesion, it was clear that the talent and creativity of the music was solid, and this group is definitely one to watch.
The act most likely to get you to practice your instrument: Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn
It’s a rare privilege to see an artist like Béla Fleck. He has been called one of the world’s best banjo players, and for good reason. He demonstrated his technical skill on the Fort Stage on Saturday, with only the slightest chicken head bob indicating any exertion on his part. Fleck’s wife, fellow banjo player Abigail Washburn, accompanied him. They played a mixed set of instrumental and vocal duets that ranged from an Appalachian traditional song to one that Washburn learned in China and sang in Chinese. The real highlight of the set, however, was when Fleck took the stage alone.
“This is my favorite way to hear him,” said Washburn, “totally solo, and totally acoustic.”
Fleck started out slow and quickly picked up speed, easily changing chords, keys, and time signatures. It was futile to try to follow each note, like watching rainfall and trying to pick out each droplet.
The duo lightened up the show with admittedly bad jokes and banter. At the end, Washburn surprised the audience by lifting up the hem of her wedding-style white dress and tap dancing to Fleck’s picking. Although Fleck could have been intimidating with his virtuosity, the effect was inspiring instead. Luckily for the audience, Newport Folk Festival provided guitars and banjos for the audience to play music themselves at the open mic on the Museum Stage.
The cool kid that you want to be friends with: Courtney Barnett
Take the attitude and image of Joan Jett, throw in some unconventional poetic lyrics, and top it off with an Australian accent. You just might come close to describing rising star Courtney Barnett, though it’s pretty hard to do her justice with comparisons. She stayed true to her tomboy image with an oversized red t-shirt and unkempt bangs, but the look she gave the audience as she peeked out from behind her bangs was unmistakably seductive.
Barnett’s lyrics mix the mundane with the profound, which makes them relatable. In “An Illustration of Loneliness” she sings: “I lay awake at four, staring at the wall/Counting all the cracks backwards in my best French/Reminds me of a book I skim-read in a surgery/ All about palmistry, I wonder what’s in store for me”
Barnett and her band gave off an aura of glamorous apathy that made you eager to get closer. Her enthusiasm got the best of her and broke through in her guitar solos, when a large grin would flit quickly across her face. The crowd ate it up, head bobbing and rocking and passing back and forth the occasional joint. She evokes images that might remind us of our own lives, encases them in rock, and throws them at us to make of them what we will.
The classic favorite: James Taylor
On the evening of July 20th, 1969, James Taylor had just finished playing “Fire and Rain” at the Newport Folk Festival when it was announced that his set would be cut short because Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had landed on the moon.
“The moon was hanging right there,” he said, pointing at the sky, “and someone was walking on it.”
On Saturday afternoon, he came back to finish what he started as the “unannounced” guest on the Fort Stage. The rumors of his appearance had started before the festival and grown progressively more certain as the day wore on, although nobody was positive that he would be there until he stepped onto the stage. When he did, it was to roaring applause and a few tears from girls in the front row.
Taylor started his set with “Sweet Baby James,” his voice still so clear and strong that it was hard to believe that his breakthrough in show business was over forty years ago. He moved seamlessly through his hits, sitting center stage on a bar stool. Especially memorable were the introductions he gave to those well-loved songs (“Something in the Way She Moves,” for example, reminds him of when he had his “big break” in show business and was signed to Apple Records). He was accompanied by two female backup singers, one of whom was his wife. But he hardly needed them – the crowd sang along with nearly every song.
The act that you wish had more time on stage: Sufjan Stevens
“I’m here with fullness of mind, body, and spirit, and I’m giving myself to you,” said Sufjan Stevens as he took the Fort Stage following James Taylor, after joking that nothing that he played after him “would mean anything.” He had nothing to worry about – the crowd was ecstatic to receive him. He opened with “Should Have Known Better” off of his latest album Carrie and Lowell, which featured his characteristic airy vocals and transient instrumentals. But Stevens’ set at the Newport Folk Festival quickly got more experimental, as seen in his performance of “All of Me Wants All of You” (also from Carrie and Lowell).
“It was originally a folk song,” he said, “but as we’ve been touring, it’s been transmutating, as things do… in spite of this being a folk festival, I’m feeling a little funky.” He performed it with synth space sounds and a rock beat.
In contrast to his soft vocals, Stevens’ speaking voice was low and deep. His manner was cool and humorous, but some of his banter revealed a more meditative persona. After driving in “we’re all going to die” in “Fourth of July,” he laughed a little.
“Let’s all meditate on that for a while,” he said. “It’s true, but in the meantime, what an abundance of life we have here to enjoy with each other.”
Although the set was heavy with pieces from the latest album, he also played some classic hits such as “Casimir Pulaski Day”, moving from the synth to the ukulele to the piano. He closed with a high-energy rendition of “Chicago.” For this act especially, it was too bad that Newport didn’t include encores.
The confident crowd-pleasers: The Decemberists
The Decemberists closed out the festival on Saturday evening. It was their third time playing Newport – the last was in 2011 – and they seemed particularly comfortable on the stage. The popular group from Portland, Oregon appropriately favored their bouncier, upbeat songs for this performance, choosing favorites such as “Philomena” and “Anti-summersong.” Although this came at the expense of the drawn-out rock that has highlighted some of their recent shows, it was a good choice for the end of day two when a majority of the audience was drunk, sunburned and happy, and just wanted to sing along to something.
Lead singer Colin Meloy joked with the audience in his typical casual manner. “You all look incredibly attractive,” he said. “Each one of you, in fact, more attractive than the next. It’s like an infinity loop of attractiveness.”
The stage banter was short and sweet, maximizing time for music before the mad rush for the festival gates at 7:30. Some fans left early to grab a seat on the bus or shuttle. Still, many were singing the Decemberists’ lyrics as they left the grounds.