Tuesday, August 5, 2008

2008 Newport Folk Festival

Fort Adams is a uniquely beautiful venue, and Sunday was picture perfect for the first ever appearance of Jimmy Buffett at the Newport Folk Fest. With the bright clear sunshine, gentle breezes coming off the water, boats in the harbor, and a relaxed vibe, it was a parrothead’s dream! The whole day was perfect. Willy Mason opened the main stage, complete with a saw player (!), something I actually witnessed twice in 4 days, having just seen the Asylum Street Spankers on Thursday. But Willy's material seemed too somber, so I went to see Ryan Fitzsimmons on the Waterside stage instead. Full of energy, he gave his all in the 20 minute set - too bad he wasn't on the main stage. Brandi Carlile was a new discovery for me. I had never heard of her before but enjoyed her singing and songwriting. She played acoustic guitar and sang mostly original material, accompanied by a rocking 3 piece band that included 2 twins. She belted out "Folsom Prison Blues", and ended with a soul-stirring encore version of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah". Over the Rhine (from Cincinnati) and Calexico (from Arizona) played overlapping sets on two different stages, and although they featured different instrumentation, seemed to have a similar, cinematic sound. Perhaps not coincidentally, the singer from Over the Rhine told a story about how she and her keyboard playing husband had just returned from a trip to Santa Fe - maybe there's a southwest connection there somewhere. I like the dream-like sound of Calexico, a band which mixes Mariachi horns, pedal steel, and accordion with their guitars, sounding like something out of a spaghetti western at times.

Even with Jimmy Buffett as the featured act, it did not seem as crowded as other years. I think all the true parrot-heads were enjoying the show from their boats - from spartan kayaks to luxurious yachts and everything in between. Plus drinking in the state park is confined to a tent way out near the water.
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Without a title sponsor, the Newport Folk Festival seems to be searching for new ways to make money. This year they offered a VIP package for $500 a day ($850 for 2 days) that included food and drink served in a shaded lounge, a bag of goodies, and a reserved seating area. At least this year, the reserved seating was toward the back, so the seats, which remained empty for most of the day, were not taking up prime viewing space up front as they did last year. Who would want to sit in those little plastic chairs in the sun with no cooler, when you can bring your own chair or blanket and relax? That's so much more "folk-fest" than reserved seating - who ever heard of such a thing?

Last time I went to the folk fest in an election year, it seemed everyone had a political statement to make. This was noticeably missing from Sunday's performances. Except for a brief announcement from Clean Water Action, there wasn't a lot of political grandstanding from the main stage. Maybe that's not very "folk-fest" either but I didn't mind - it was a relief actually.

Back to the music, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings played a great set of Americana/ bluegrass music, highlighted by their fine harmony singing. She played some banjo too, and they did a version of "Jackson" by Johnny & June Carter Cash, saying everyone always requests it of them, so they decided to learn it. Something about the setting and the history of the Newport folk fest seems to inspire the performers, and they urged the boats to toot their horns if they could hear, and they did.

I caught some of Jake Shimabukuro, the young Hawaiian ukelele phenom who has been seen by millions on youtube. The small tent was packed, and he was marveling at his new-found fame, which he said he never imagined. I guess he has toured with Bela Fleck and had recently discovered bluegrass, so he treated us to an original composition based on Orange Blossom Special, plus his signature version of "While my Guitar gently Weeps."
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Levon Helm stole the show with his Americana revue, performing a mix of blues, country, bluegrass, and songs from the Band's catalog. There were so many musicians on stage - horns, including tuba, trombone, sax, trumpet - keyboards, harmonica (little Sammy Davis), accordion, banjo, fiddle. He played mandolin half the time, while daughter Amy got behind the drums, and also sang quite a bit. His voice sounded somewhat strained at times, but lent a familiar air to some of the bluegrass songs, ala Ralph Stanley. Their version of "Ashes of Love" had a kind of Cajun rhythm to it. There was always someone new stepping up to take a solo or sing, including Gillian Welch & David Rawlings. It kind of reminded me of Bruce Springsteen's Seeger sessions. I guess Levon figured, hey, I've been doing this type of music a lot longer than the boss so why not do it all the way? After that I would have been happy to call it a day, but wait, there's more (!)

Jimmy Buffett started out with a solo performance of "Why Don't We Get Drunk and Screw", but was soon joined by the full band, contrary to what some of the advance billing suggested. He seemed to revel in the opportunity to finally play at Newport after 40 years, and acknowledged the sailors in the extended audience out in Narragansett Bay. He's always good at throwing in local and timely references, like conjuring up a volcano on Block Island in the intro to "Volcano", and changing lyrics to songs like "Fruitcakes" ("the future will be here soon - we should be living like George Jetson, but we're getting screwed by oil tycoons"). In keeping with the festival format, the show included some special guests, like ukelele star Jake Shimabukuro playing backup on several songs. Jake also played part of his claim-to-fame version of "My Guitar Gently Weeps". The darlings of the day, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, joined him for a toe-tapping version of Gillian's "Elvis Presley Blues", on which Jimmy played a National steel guitar. And of course there was the full complement of songs and stories of drunken debauchery, island mischief, and good times on the high seas - or is that high times on good seas? I am not really a parrothead, having only seen him once before, when his local summer tour appearance did not coincide with Rhythm and Roots. But I enjoy a good show, and I don't think there could be a better setting in which to experience a Jimmy Buffett concert. Jimmy even ordered up a rainbow during Margaritaville, and a "pirate ship" fired its cannons for him. Does it get any better than this?

The one thing I dislike about the Newport festival is the difficulty in getting out of there - if you stay until the end it usually takes over an hour to get out of the parking lot. But we made our escape during the "encore" of One Particular Harbor and made it home in no time.

It was such a beautiful day I couldn't help but take lots of pictures... here's a sampling on webshots.

and we can relive some of the performances, which are available on NPR

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