Newport Folk Festival – Saturday

With his days in the blues-rock duo White Stripes now comfortably behind him, Jack White has become a bit of a generational connector. He’s paid homage to country, blues and rock legends, yet he keeps winning new fans. When he stepped on to the stage at Newport Folk Fest, the standing area at the front of the fort swallowed much of the fans lounging on their blankets. Young and old fans alike stood up to listen to the sound.

White’s set included several blues covers that fit the venue so well. He gave them his blues rock treatment though he did have a fiddle and mandolin player (though they were a bit hard to make out in the mix). He included Son House tune “Death Letter,” Blind Willie Johnson cover “John the Revelator,” and “Goodnight, Irene” by Leadbelly. White certainly made these songs his own as his palpable energy as he got the crowd into a frenzy. White also included a country tinged “We’re Going to Be Friends” in the mix of his signature blues rock. White’s guitar work and songwriting are varied and move between blues, rock, and country without a second thought.

Chris Thile & Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek

Chris Thile & Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek

Just before the headliner, Nickel Creek brought their expert musicianship and unique songwriting style to the for stage. While the crowd seemed somewhat restless at the start, the trio rocked the house with their traditional bluegrass instrumentation. Sara Watkins’ “Destination” was a particular favorite. The band played with such aggression that the fans had no choice but to take notice. Sean Watkins’ more traditional songwriting and flatpicking on the “21st of May” continues to be a favorite from the band’s recent record “A Dotted Line” (after a seven year hiatus). Chris Thile’s mandolin work and singing managed to accentuate the emotions of the songs. I can see why he’s received the Macarthur Genius Grant. Thile contributed the simple beauty and melodic mandolin picking on the “Lighthouse Tale,” “Ode to A Butterfly,” and new tune “Somebody More Like You.” Thile also did an unannounced intimate mandolin workshop. Unfortunately, I didn’t check my phone quick enough to get in!

Sean Watkins

Sean Watkins

The day also included several duos. The Milk Carton Kids are two guys who sing and play acoustic guitar. Their show fit the more intimate quad stage. The two sound like Gillian Welch and David Rawlings guitar work with a bit of Simon & Garfunkel’s tight harmonies thrown in. I don’t make that comparison lightly and their songs are not as striking as the aforementioned artists so far. Vocalist Joey Ryan also included some of the funniest deadpan humor I’ve ever heard. His bit could have easily been used for standup. He went into a monologue about how father’s don’t get enough credit for the the difficulty of childbirth based on his recent experience. He also went on to list the difficulties including that he had to miss a gig for his son’s birth. Then he went on to describe how he could talk to his son for hours and hours and that he couldn’t do that with adults. This comedic intro certainly garnered at least as much applause as the songs and with good reason. He was hilarious. Musically, the band played clean arrangements and Kenneth Pattengale added in harmonized guitar work.

Carry Ann Hearst & Michael Trent of Shovels & Rope

Cary Ann Hearst & Michael Trent of Shovels & Rope

An earlier duo, Shovels & Rope, easily rocked the Fort Stage. Carry Ann Hearst and Michael Trent needed no help to bring the stage to life. They switched back and forth between guitar and drums. They harmonize and accent each other’s tunes in whatever way they can. As a husband and wife duo, they seem to get as much energy from one another as they do from the crowd. The pair have a striking variety of different tunes that all seem to rock out in one way or another. I can see why the two came together and committed to the duo.

Carry Ann Hearst

Cary Ann Hearst

After two days of music, I learned of the ways that artists are bending genres in such creative ways. Folk becomes punk or blues or country and back again. The artists brought it all together and used their voices to show how different it became.

Photos by Suzanne McMahon

Newport Folk Festival – Friday

Ryan Adams really summed up the 2014 Newport Folk Fest experience well when he said, “”Like ten years ago I was depressed and now I’m playing music with *&$%ing sailboats in the background.” The setting at the legendary festival is literally one of the most beautiful spots as it juts far out into Narragansett Bay. The boats were beautiful, if you happened to look at them for more than a passing glance. I noticed the setting briefly but was totally captivated by the music. The festival has certainly become the must-see spot for summer Americana fans. As other festivals have vastly changed direction, Newport has remained a consistent venue for some of the best folk/rock/americana/blues/R&B music.

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Ryan Adams

Starting with Friday’s headliner, everything really did seem to be looking up. After seeing him many times through the years, this show had him as upbeat as I’ve ever seen the erratic performer. He certainly acknowledged it as well. He couldn’t get enough of picking fun at bassist Charlie Savage and the crowd was eating it up. While there certainly was much of Ryan’s offbeat and rather eccentric commentary, it was so positive that it seemed like Ryan is a new man.

Now for the music. Ryan played some old favorites which included humorous commentary such as “Oh My Sweet Carolina” (which he called “bold-faced lies”), “Come Pick Me Up” (“a moment of stupidity”) and “Let It Ride.” He also played his new single “Gimme Something Good” and a variety of tunes from in between. Ryan walked on to stage looking like 10 years ago with his disheveled hair and denim jacket. But honestly, Ryan’s fun persona was the story.

I’ll be honest and say that I had lost track of fine songwriter of Rilo Kiley fame, Jenny Lewis. But a few minutes into her set at Newport and I knew I’d have to have a second look at her solo career. Lewis reminded me of a more Americana and more varied version of She & Him. She came out dressed like it was the summer of love with a painted Martin Acoustic Guitar to match. She went back and forth between the poppy, acoustic singer/songwriter, and the piano ballads. Her set was hard to walk away from.

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Jenny Lewis

I did have to check out Sun Kil Moon (Mark Kozelek). His gentle nylon stringed guitar picking and focus on untraditional songs certainly is a bit of an aquired taste. The songs often seem to meander along without a clear destination. In a live setting, seeing Mark play the tunes certainly helped him to connect a bit more with the audience. But Mark was the opposite of Ryan. He just seemed a bit down and didn’t seem to enjoy the show too much. Unfortunately, I didn’t catch my favorites from Sun Kil Moon’s – Ghost of the Great Highway.

I did catch a few of Robert Hunter’s songs. While he’s certainly no Jerry Garcia, Hunter’s connection with American Beauty classics “Friend of the Devil” and “Ripple” were great fun to watch. They fit so well with the festival atmosphere and Hunter did not hesitate to regale the crowd with anecdotes from way back when.

Other highlights of the first day at Newport 2014 included Mavis Staples sharing the stage with breakout band Lake Street Dive, powerful minimalist punk/old-time Devil Makes Three, and the ethereal sounds of Band of Horses.

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Lake Street Dive

In addition to the music, the setting could not have been better. While they were crowded, the space worked well for the different personalities within the crowd. Families had room to spread out on the lawn, those who wanted to drink could easily find their spot in the beer garden, and smaller groups could move between the four stages easily. The food had a variety of options including super fresh seafood (I enjoyed fantastic oysters and a lobster roll), grassfed beef burgers, and a variety of other options. As a quick break from the sun, I tried my hand at the rather small Deering Banjo tent.

Two minor complaints, the heat and the parking. Water was available everywhere and it is the middle of teh summer. Fort Adams State Park juts out into the bay  and that means there is one way out of the park. Lots of parking, one way out. So it took a while staying until the end and then trekking out to the car.

The quality of the music and the overall experience certainly made up for any minor complaints. The Newport Folk Fest has been able to iron out any kinks after over 50 years and it showed.

Photos by Suzanne McMahon

Down by the Green River

It’s the best little festival you’ve never heard of. At least I hadn’t until this year. Who knew that over the span of 28 years the little known festival in central Massachusetts would host the likes of Gillian Wellch, Mavis Staples, Alison Kraus & Union Station, Buddy Guy, and Lucinda Williams to name a few. This year is really no different. Green River Festival 2014 combined local favorites with national acts. Little did I know that it has been a coming out party for years and perhaps this year’s festival could easily be the same.

At the close of the day, headliner Josh Ritter took the stage as heavy storms passed through the area and periodically soaked the audience. But happy-go-lucky Ritter was not to be deterred. Twangville photographer Suzanne and I had seen his brilliant acoustic show this spring so I was expecting a lot. While I enjoyed the set as I was running for cover, I did find that Josh’s newer material from “Beast in Its Tracks” is particularly well suited to the acoustic setting from the spring. At Green River, Ritter wisely opted for lots of his old favorites. “Kathleen,” “Right Moves,” and “Good Man” all got the crowd rocking. Ritter’s buoyant personality kept the show just as fun despite the uncooperative weather.

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Trampled by Turtles played their usual frantic mix of rock music played with bluegrass instruments. I think calling this music bluegrass is a bit of a stretch but it certainly is compelling. “Are You Behind the Shining Star?” a track from their newest album “Wild Animals,” slows down just enough to let Dave Simonett’s brilliant lyrics and vocal delivery shine. The band certainly ups the emotion when the songs get a chance to breathe at a slower tempo. Many tunes take on an epic and ethereal quality that is quite unique in Americana today.

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Boston favorite Girls, Guns & Glory led off the festival with Hank Williams’ inspired classic country. One of Boston’s finest Americana songwriters, Ward Hayden has a voice all his own. GGG is musically tight, featuring the country licks of guitarist Chris Hersch. The band’s set mixed a variety of classic country sounding tunes with some that don’t fit in so neatly under that umbrella. Particularly, live favorite “All the Way Up to Heaven” sounded like a new twist on an old theme. The band has clear roots but manages to sound original at the same time. “I Saw the Light,” “Lonesome Train,” and “You, You, You” brought the crowds who didn’t know the band to their stage. The band is surely growing beyond Boston’s best kept secret with performances like these. They have managed to realize a vision with a reverence for the past that fits in the current Americana landscape.

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The boys of Barnstar had been working on their new record this past winter and the Green River Festival was a rare opportunity to see the boys play the songs live. They have their own take on Americana: songwriters’ bluegrass. What do I mean by that? They trade in the usual bluegrass instrumentals for a focus on vocally centered songs. I had the opportunity to see the band in the studio and saw a window into how the band balances their other careers (they have other bands, solo projects, work with other artists that keep them extremely busy). But the band’s vocals are tight and show an increasing focus on the high harmonies of bluegrass. Mark Erelli’s vocals, particularly on Josh Ritter cover “Darlin,’” give the band a lead vocal focus this time around. Father son tandem, Taylor (high harmony and mandolin)  and Jake Armerding (fiddle) anchor the band in the bluegrass tradition. But the band certainly does have their own take on bluegrass with such a variety of unique songwriting voices.  With Mark Erelli’s vocals leading the way, Rod Stewart’s “Stay With Me” gets a bit of a soul bluegrass treatment; it turns out to be quite irresistible and an appealing teaser of their forthcoming record.


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All-in-all, the festival had lots of great food, vendors, and music to match. Not to mention that the festival features an eclectic mix of Americana acts. While the weather deteriorated by the end, the laid back festival was certainly a wonderful way to spend a summer day.

Photos by Suzanne McMahon

Newport Folk Festival Preview

After 55 years, the Newport Folk Festival is still relevant. Not only is it relevant, it is still bringing together disparate influences and challenging the notions of “folk” music in the same way that Bob Dylan did back in 1965 (though now the public expects it). Case in point, Son House admirer, producer, blues, folk writer, Jack White is one of the headline performers this year. Jack White’s history proves that he certainly won’t stay put in any one genre. Jack White has dabbled in old-time (“Wayfaring Stranger” from Cold Mountain), folk (“We Are Going to be Friends”) and the usual blues-rock. But wait, maybe those are all different views of the same thing. I’m not sure, but I’m excited to see Jack and his band.

Another genre bender has certainly been Ryan Adams. He’s single-handedly responsible for opening me and my wife up to country music. Ryan started that way with his seminal alt-country band Whiskeytown. Then he spun through a dizzying array of genres: singer/songwriter, rock & roll, punk, lo-fi, jam band, and country to name a few. While some may criticize his prolificacy and his derivativeness, those are the very things that make him so likable. In fact, those things are what drew me to his foray in straight ahead rock “Gold” and opened my eyes to the other genres that Ryan spun through, particularly country iterations. He even dabbled his toes in bluegrass in “Pearls on a String.” This certainly makes Ryan Adams a performer who has gone through many different iterations and can be unpredictable. That’s certainly part of his appeal.

Another band, seemingly the most traditional in the list, has managed to come back together after seven years off, better than ever. Nickel Creek, while generally keeping to their genre amalgamation (bluegrass, folk, country mixture), have released an absolutely classically crafted set of tunes. They’ve always bent the rules a bit by playing bluegrass-y stuff without a banjo, without the traditional tunes, but with all of the immaculate chops and often more of the beautiful compositions. They’ve attracted the attention not just from the folk music crowd, but managed to appeal to the young indie rockers. They have opened up bluegrass/acoustic country to a whole new generation and they bring their rock roots back to that group. They’re the hardest rocking bluegrass band I’ve ever heard. Oh and the new record has some serious bluegrass harmony.

That’s just the beginning; Mavis Staples, Jeff Tweedy, and Robert Hunter round out the legends.  Dawes, Lake Street Dive, the Milk Carton Kids, and Shovels & Rope are bands that I keep hearing about but haven’t had the chance to see yet. Which brings me to one of my personal favorites: Sun Kil Moon. I’ve been a fan of Mark Kozelek since he was in Red House Painters. He’s an atmospheric master whose lyrics are profoundly affecting. Red House Painters tune “Have You Forgotten How to Love Yourself” roped me in a decade ago.


The Newport Folk Festival is not only relevant these days, but for an alt-country kid like myself, it’s the most exciting summer concert festival. It’s a bit of a coming out party for Americana music. Can’t wait!

 

The Stray Birds – Pass Me the Guitar  

I’ll be darned if you can get any closer to the band as you feel at a Stray Birds show. And I wish you would pass the guitar right over to the Stray Birds. That intimacy certainly has been something that is cultivated with the band members and discussed in our conversation. Suzanne, twangville’s photographer, and I were lucky enough to pick their brains about their amazing presence on stage.IMG_9711 The band has been getting lots of press lately. From NPR to WAMU’s bluegrass country, they are not a secret anymore. As the band pulls together tracks for a new record, my wife(trusty twangville photographer Suzanne McMahon) and I got a chance to sit down with the band a while back and in a similar way to their intimate shows. The band waxed philosophical about the importance of connections with the audience, which is certainly palpable.  Singer/fiddler/guitar/banjo player Maya DeVitry explained it very well.

“There’s this Irish fiddle player who came and did this workshop when I was there [at Berkeley College of Music), Martin Hayes, and he talked about inhabiting the melody of these ancient tunes. He would play, not like he was acting, but he was literally inhabiting the melody. I feel like that’s what we do with these songs and these arrangements. We inhabit the song. We try to get inside ’25 to life’ or ‘Birds of the Borderland’ for those 3 minutes. And we also use a lot of eye contact and that’s really intense for people,” said Maya. “I look at people more during a show than I ever do.”

When you attend a Stray Birds show, you can’t help but feel connected to the band. As they come in close for the harmonies and look out over the audience, it’s as though you’re all there together in a trusted community. There’s something built in the shared experience of coming together and “inhabiting” a song. It seems like something that Maya and the band actually invites the audience to do at their shows and be in the song together. Then everyone has that joyful catharsis together. Singer/fiddler/guitar player Oliver Craven also put the personal connections of his life into perspective.

“I think the more I experience difficult things in my personal life, like circumstantial hardships, it puts things in perspective. When I see people in my life having trouble, it reminds me that what we’re doing isn’t the most important thing in the world. As important as it is to us and the people with us in that moment in the show, it’s ultimately not do or die. I think that makes me really relaxed on stage,” said Oliver Craven.

The sense of the relaxation translates into the joy of the audience in that shared experience. That seems to really allow the band and audience to get in closer to inhabit the song. It’s the escape that is just a passing breath of fresh air. And the show back in April at Club Passim in Cambridge demonstrated all of those qualities. The band had a true ability to invite the audience in to “I Wish It Would Rain” and bring those emotions out. Perhaps the same emotions that others may not have been able to express are now on the table. The shared experience in meeting the song and audience is something that the band has truly brought to their shows in a very intimate way.IMG_9609 “Those songs from echo sessions. I think of them like if I’m at a party and people are passing the guitar around, I don’t want to sing one of my own songs. I can hardly ever remember the words to songs other than the ones that we’re performing every night. I have probably five other songs that I remember the words to. ‘Wish it Would Rain’ has been my go to song for years,” said Maya DeVitry. “Echo Sessions is about remembering how fun it is to sing something that you didn’t write. You meet the song. It’s a totally different joy.”

I also asked the band members about their top five records. I got artists, lists of records, and even longer lists.

Top 5ish Artists/Records:

Maya DeVitry

Bob Dylan – Blood on the Tracks

Tom Waits – Mule Variations

Bonnie Raitt – Taking My Time

Nina Simone – (a live one)

Levon Helm – Dirt Farmer

 

Oliver Craven

David Bowie – Hunky Dory

Beatles – Abbey Road

The Traveling Willburys – Volume 1

Tim O’Brien & Darryl Scott – Real Time

Tedeschi Trucks – Revelator

Bob Dylan – Highway 61

Hendrix – Electric Ladyland

 

Charlie Muench

Old & In the Way

Norman Blake

Wood Brothers

Lake Street Dive

Jonathan Byrd

John Fulbright

 

Photos by Suzanne McMahon