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

Corb Lund – Counterfeit Blues

Corb Lund built a time machine.  He took his long-time band, The Hurtin’ Albertans, down to Memphis and recorded a number of his live show staples and made them sound more original and rootsy than when they first laid down the tracks 8 – 10 years ago.  Retransmitting the ambience of the famed Sun Studios, Counterfeit Blues has all the lo-fi goodness and live energy that makes the best roots music so compelling.

The album starts with Counterfeiter’s Blues, alternating disgust at being fed fake goods at every turn and depressed acceptance that it’s the nature of the world we live in.  I think I can safely say Corb and his boys don’t use Auto-Tune.  Another set of wry observations on the world gone awry is Truth Comes Out, a lament on the damage of encroaching civilization that comes off like a good Fred Eaglesmith song.  Speaking of wry observations, (Gonna) Shine Up My Boots is the story of looking forward to girls and fun on a Saturday night, but realizing that maybe all you’re going to do is get drunk.  Any young man living on a farm or ranch in flyover country who can’t relate to this tune is kidding himself.

Some of Lund’s best material is full on, sing along, snap your fingers, rockabilly material.  Truck Got Stuck will stick in your brain, and this version takes a nice jab at Agriculture Canada.  Big Butch Bass Bull Fiddle is a tongue twister that’s as much jazz as it it country.  My favorite is the under-appreciated Hair In My Eyes Like A Highland Steer that needs a Wood Brothers cover to prove me right.

CorbLund-CounterfeitBlues Finally, I have to mention Hurtin’ Albertan, a classic Lund number, and a heart-on-my-sleeve anthem to his home province.  In many ways this tune summarizes Corb Lund and his band.  It’s rock ‘n’ roll, it’s (North) Americana, it’s fun and upbeat and immediately likable.  There’s nothing counterfeit about it.

Madisons – You Can Take Your Sorry Ass Back To West Texas!

If there is such a musical genre as Americana Noir, the Austin-based Madisons may be one of the leading disciples.  Front man, and sole songwriter for the band, Dominic Solis has imbued their second album, You Can Take Your Sorry Ass Back To West Texas! with a darkness that is equal parts fear and curiosity.  Solis’ vocal gruffness reminds me a little of Ryan Bingham, but the other six members of the band pitch in to provide a musical richness that push the overall sound in an indie direction.

Much of the darkness on the album comes from the lyrics.  Solis spins tales of the seamier side of society where the people you run across are not folks you want on your friends list.  And yet they’re all people we’ve known, or known about, and you can’t help but wonder what happened.  In My Pocket Forever tells the story of a 14-year-old pregnant girl burned alive by the 28-year-old who got here that way.  A Long Slow Death In San Marcos Texas talks about a girl who was the reason a neighbor hanged himself.  Losing Pictures opens with, “Mary never knew she was a terrible person, but that’s what she came to learn.”

Fortunately, the sadness on the album is hidden from plain sight by the instrumental sounds, so you can listen on the surface if you aren’t in a mood to dig too deep.  Group co-founder Oscar Gomez adds some sweet horns to several tunes, including You’ll Never Know and The Fiscal Year.  Violinist Jocelyn White takes the vocal lead on Sucker Punch, and delivers something like what you’d hear if Carrie Rodriguez fronted a Portland indie band.  Carolina is an uptempo indie-grass number with everyone taking an instrumental solo and where Solis singing that, “my mental state is in a state of decline” seems light-hearted.

madisonscover Although several songs on this album come across a first listen as modern bluegrass happy tunes, there’s no way to sugar coat the underlying topics.  Similar to many people’s favorite album of last year, though (Jason Isbell’s Southeastern), You Can Take Your Sorry Ass Back To West Texas! rewards multiple listens.  Like good film noir,  you just have to keep going back to see more of the ne’er-do-wells.