Day two of the Newport Folk Festival dawned with even better weather than the day before. With the giant bridge gleaming at me in the background, I trekked from the parking lot straight to the set of Cory Chisel and the Wandering Sons.
I had seen Cory’s name around a lot recently, opening up for various acts and on festival bills, but had yet to check out his music. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, it wasn’t quite what I had expected. For one, the Wandering Sons consisted of more than just Sons. Adriel Harris backed Chisel on both keyboards and some stunningly beautiful harmony vocals. For another, this wasn’t another one of those new breed alt. country bands (i.e. Ryan Bingham, Sons of Bill). Chisel and Co. veer closer to folk-rock, folk-soul, or just classic rock. Fortunately for Chisel, he has the vocal talents to make it work and the Wandering Sons have the chops to make it soar. The band savored each song in the set, most of which can be found on their excellent full length Death Won’t Send a Letter. Unfortunately, my favorite song of the set, a number titled “Never Meant to Love You”, is not included on that album. Chisel prefaced the song by saying “I’ve noticed a lot of people doing Dylan covers this weekend…..so instead of doing a Bob Dylan song, I’d do what most artists do, which is play you a Bob Dylan song that I ripped off and changed the words to”. Hey, at least he admits it. The lyrics were pretty awesome and to top it all off, at the end of the first verse, Chisel lapsed into one of the finest Dylan impressions I’ve ever heard.
Next up, I split my time between Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings and Chris Thile’s Punch Brothers. Though both were excellent, I would have to give the edge to the Dap Kings. The quintessential hard working soul band, the Dap Kings are a backing band in the stratosphere of the Funk Brothers or the MGs. The Punch Brothers were surprisingly upbeat. Dressed like they stole their wardrobe from the Clinch Mountain Boys dressing room, the avant-garde string band displayed some classic bluegrass picking. They covered not only Bill Monroe’s “Brakeman’s Blues”, but also the Strokes’ “Reptilla” and an extraordinary version of Radiohead’s “Kid A”.
The Preservation Hall Jazz Band followed the Punch Brothers to the stage, and became the latest Newport act to blow me away. Opening with the classic New Orleans number “Bourbon Street Parade”, the band’s horn section ripped through a number of ridiculous solo’s and showcased some 50′s style vocal chops to boot with songs like “Short Dressed Gal” and a new favorite of mine “My Sweet Substitute”. Their new benefit record, The Gulf Aid All-Stars, features numerous members of the folk festival line-up. The first of these to join Preservation Hall on stage was Daniel Martin Moore, who sang the classic “Devil and the Deep Blue Sea”. Cory Chisel joined the band for “Some Cold Rainy Day” and Andrew Bird for “Shake it and Break It”. However it was only about to get crazier, as Jim James turn with the band featured the My Morning Jacket vocalist yodeling. Yes, he yodeled. He yodeled on Jimmie Rodgers immortal “Blue Yodel #9” and then traded verses on the classic folk song “St. James Infirmary”.
Before Preservation Hall closed out their set with Tao Rodriquez Seeger (and numerous others) guesting on “We Shall Overcome”, Ben Jaffe (tuba player and band leader) thanked Folk Festival founder George Wein for inspiring his parents to found the Preservation Hall in New Orleans fifty years ago. The actual Hall, which gives the band its name, was the first place south of the Mason Dixon line where black and white musicians were invited to make music together. And what beautiful music it was.
My next moved involved following Jim James over to the Quad stage, where he would be supporting Ben Sollee and Daniel Martin Moore‘s set. The set featured the same 4 members (Ben Sollee, Daniel Martin Moore, Yim Yames, and Dan Dorff) that had played at Yim Yames set the day before. However, this time they were focusing on the Dear Companion record released this year by Sollee and Moore with Yames producing. The record is a benefit record to raise awareness about the evils of Mountain Top Removal mining (MTR). The band was just finishing up its Appalachian Voices tour and they arrived at Newport in fine voice indeed. They opened with “Something, Somewhere, Sometime,” showcasing the vocal wizardry that these 4 voices can create. The band was stunning throughout, speeding up, slowing down, and reveling in the moment. I would try to describe it, but words ain’t gonna do it. It will have to be sufficient to say that it was the highlight of my weekend.
Sollee and Moore both played some solo material to fill out the set. Moore played “That’ll Be the Plan” from his excellent debut LP Stray Age. It was followed by a new Sollee song “Electrified” that embodied the cellist’s elegant mixture of soul, bluegrass, and innovative lyricism. Highlights from Dear Companion included an emotional reading of “Fly Rock Blues”, which included an intro by Moore that explained the cruel and destructive nature of fly rock (when MTR occurs, explosions often sending huge rocks flying huge distances in unpredictable directions). Sollee’s rendition of “Only A Song” brought the audience to its feet for an early standing ovation.
The set closed with a pair of songs, the first of which was a longtime Sollee fan favorite, “Bury me with my car”. Featuring a driving melody that revves up the audience, the song got even more help with time as the band brought up Sarah Jarosz for some banjo and background vocals. The song also showcased percussionist Dan Dorff or as James put it “Dan ‘the Swiss Watch’ Dorff, timing so precise you won’t be able to tell if he’s man or machine”. Dorff added some awesome body percussion slapping his hands, thighs, chest, head, and pretty much every other body part during the song. The last number was the title track “Dear Companion”. The band brought out the entire Preservation Hall Jazz Band to join them for the song—as James put it “the sound of Joy on this earth…the Preservation Hall Jazz Band”. The sound was incredible as the stomp of the song was wonderfully augmented by Preservation Hall’s horn section.
The festival closed with one of my favorite singers on God’s green earth: Levon Helm. I had see Helm and his Ramble on the Road a couple years previously and was excited about the opportunity to see them again at Newport. Unfortunately, Helm wasn’t in the finest vocal shape for the performance (understandable for a throat cancer survivor who tours as frequently as he does). He gave it his best on a rollicking rendition of “Ophelia”, but the raspy lead vocal was his last for the evening. It was still enjoyable to hear the Ramble, which never tires of playing the classic compositions of the Band.
It seems a fitting end to the festival. The Band broke boundaries by incorporating soul, country, rock, classical, jazz, and who knows what else into their version of Americana music. A decent metaphor for what the 2010 Folk Festival did, from the Preservation Hall Jazz Band to Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, from Doc Watson to the Avett Brothers. It was all there.
Find more info including podcasts of many of the performances for the week at NPR.
Photo’s by Michael Spencer where credited.
About the author: Specializes in Dead, Drunk, and Nakedness..... Former College Radio DJ and Current Craft Beer Nerd