The Newport Folk Festival: Day 3, "Sunday Sunshine"

Winding down Ocean Drive on way to the Newport Folk Festival it’s difficult not to notice the beauty of the area. Rolling farm hills give way to ocean bluffs and white sand beaches. The natural beauty mixes with the gilded Mansions of the Victorian era in the ocean air.

Sunday morning we skipped some of the early acts and decided to enjoy other offerings of the island. No trip to Rhode Island is complete without a proper swim in the ocean and no folk loving hippy can resist the draw of the shopping haven, commune and obscure animal petting zoo that is The Fantastic Umbrella Factory. It’s dilapidated, overgrown barns contain vintage treasures, handmade jewelry, Indian and Peruvian imports and basically everything a folky fashionista’s heart could desire. We rolled out of there after some strange looks from the emus, with new tie dye dresses and sun hats, looking as much like we had abandoned Manhattan as we felt.

First up at the festival was one of the acts I have been most excited to see, since being introduced to his music a few years back. Michael Hurley has been described to me by a friend as “Only the best damn guitar player ever”. Playing on one of the smaller stages, at 71 years old, Hurley is a presence to behold. He is in some ways the epitome of what folk music is about: A man and his guitar, signing about whatever he has seen and felt in a very pure and matter of fact way. Somehow, despite his whimsical lyrics about werewolf’s and potatoes, he is able to communicate so much truth and feeling. Maybe it’s the wisdom that comes with years. Hurley looks as if the festival promoters went to his home in western PA and dragged him unsuspectingly off his front porch on some mountain top just for us to see and hear.

We went from one amazing performance to the next. I knew nothing about Michael Kiwanuka prior to the festival but have been converted to a fan. Kiwanuka has a soulful North London feeling to his earthly electric blues folk. He is very cool, almost too cool for our country fair. His sound is raw but polished. Harking back to the golden age of music he calls Jimi Hendrix to the stage in spirit for a beautiful rendition of Waterfall.

I caught The Felice Brothers next for a some high-energy country-rock. These guys are NYFF legends since a thunderstorm tried to stop their 2009 performance with a power outage and they jumped off stage and played acoustic in the mud for over an hour. The weather was more friendly to the band this year, but there were still several people in the crowd dancing barefoot in the mud left over from Friday’s storm.

I took a break after all the dancing and perched myself on a grassy hill overlooking the boats in the harbor. Beth Orton‘s voice floated over me from the neighboring Harbor Stage and brought me to a state of grace.

Sunday may be the best day to check out the festival. The vibe is more relaxed, the acts are all over the place in terms of sound but in the best possible way. Newport Folk Festival is also accessible by boat, for a free listen people pour into the bay on kayaks, sail boats, yachts and tubes adding to the laid back atmosphere. Over at the quad stage some festival goers seem to have established themselves as permanent residents of the grassy grounds. It is here that we got a look and listen to the sweet sounds of Andrew Bird. Like his name, Bird sings in cooing harmonies and whistling riffs. He was accompanied by special guest Tift Merritt, who added to the overwhelming pleasantry of the performance. The two of them together were like a pair right out of the Prairie Home Companion.

The simple pleasures of the NFF. It’s about people who just want to be comfortable and enjoy each other and some good music and some Del’s frozen lemonade.

The evening sets included two final acts, crowd favorites the Lumineers and 90’s rocker turned experimental-genre-crossing-maybe-folk artist Beck. The Lumineers seem to fit into this increasingly prominent genre of music that is country bluegrass for previously committed fans of mainstream popular rock – country music for urban people. We saw bands like this throughout the festival and they seem to be most loved across the board – Old Crow Medicine Show and the Avett Brothers were also of this growing genre. The Lumineers did a touching tribute to NYFF icon Bob Dylan with Subterranean Homesick Blues.

We moved from one Dylan tribute to the next…Beck came to the stage in full Dylan garb, all black, buttoned to the top, with the hat and harmonica to boot. Beck’s music is less straight forward than many of the acts. Like Feist, he is popular outside of the folk and country world. He used a myriad of instruments such as the mandolin, harpsichord and Japanese drum machine, that get everyone dancing like space age monkeys. When he pulled out his 90’s hit Loser, everyone under 35 in the crowd sang along as the rest headed off to their cars to beat the traffic. Beck dedicated a song to one of his great musical influences, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, a veteran of the country folk world, who then surprised Beck on-stage to sing along to the tribute.

Watching Beck it is easy to see how the NFF can rationalize bringing on all these different types of musicians to the stage. In its vague nature the folk music touches all genres. Throughout the course of the festival we heard the expected: country, blues, bluegrass, female songstresses, a little American rock and then less expected soul, jazz, electronic, yatch rock, ballads and lullabies. The NFF is a place for the music, not the fan fare. Just nice people coming together to take it easy to some good tunes.

Photos By: Nicole Maddox & Sara Greco

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