Newport Folk Fest 2011: So What Is Folk Music These Days?
Folk music has a wide, contested variety of definitions and it’s difficult to pin down exactly what is and what isn’t folk music. So, along with seeing some great artists, it was part of my mission this weekend to unravel just what folk might mean to me. Rather than take you through each act that I saw at the 2011 Newport Folk Fest (and there were many) in this review, I thought I’d give some snippets and windows into what the Folk Fest is like and what it really stands for, a question I was wondering especially this year with such a diverse lineup.
The amazing acts were numerous and incredibly renown for a jam-packed weekend-long festival, but the Folk Fest isn’t really about that: it harbors great music, but is more of an experience to connect to one’s community, one’s roots (however one might interpret that), or one’s emotional connection to music and one’s surroundings. It’s also a way to enjoy the beautiful New England summer coast in a such a historically rich place where important figures, events, and musicians have come before to stand for what they believe to be a great place to bring music and people together. Indeed, the festival is more of an atmosphere of freedom, community, and musical/artistic innovation than anything else. To paint you a picture, people of literally all age groups attend the Fest, ranging from the youngest of children to aging hippies to young college kids to folks who have been around since the first Folk Fest. The sun is shining over the bridge and harbor as boats, kayaks, and people float in the water beyond the main stage. Stands containing hand-made banjos, dresses, hats, steel drums, jewelry, soap, and many other products adorn the pathways to each stage as the What Cheer? Brigade stomps through every once in a while, horns and marchers separating you from the rest of your group before you even know what hit you. Inside the glorious fort, various music and community organizations set up tents and delicious food stands as the sun continues to rise. It was shaping up to be a hot one, but the slight sea breeze and splotches of clouds kept the late July heat in check.
The day by the Newport waterfront started delightfully with the soothing and heartwarming sounds of the PS22 Chorus, a world-wide known group of children hailing from Staten Island, NY. There was no doubt about it: the group of forty or so kids was extremely talented and passionate as they sang or kept a beat to each song they performed. It was a perfect set to start off the day as the future’s musicians and artists stood before an audience that has been going to the Newport Folk Festival for ages, or for the first time, and expressed their gratitude and compassion for the chance to perform at an event with so much history and host of talent positively brimming around the park. To me, that was enough reason for introducing the PS22 Chorus to the Fest: a love and appreciation of what music can do for people, how it binds us together (even over generations), and how it helps us overcome adversity through a creative means. Despite the slightly less traditional “folk” performance, I couldn’t think of a better way to start the day.
Walking back from the Chorus to laying out and soaking up sun to the relaxing sounds of the Wailin’ Jennys on the main stage, I found that the performances of each act at the Fest felt as if they moved smoothly into one another despite their differing sounds. From acoustic strings and female harmonizing, rockabilly from the likes of punk-rocker Elvis Costello, song circles featuring country legends and newcomers such as Wanda Jackson and Emmylou Harris alike, to the more rootsy or bluegrass sounds of the Felice Brothers, to the jazz, gospel, and soul-inspired sounds of legend Mavis Staples and her backing band, an amazing array of different backgrounds and styles melded into a festival with a cheery, positive atmosphere that seemed to embrace all people from all blocks of life. It’s hard to say why the Newport Folk Fest achieves this like no other one, but my guess is that all the concert goers have a love and appreciation for genuine musicians and artists who take what they know or are passionate about so that they may create stories in order to share their happiness and dedication with the rest of the world.
The excitement could be felt picking up when cult-following band Gogol Bordello came on the main stage mid-day. As soon as the band began their set, the crowd at the front of the main stage went crazy, jumping and chanting and limbs flailing, reminding the concert goers that this year has no shortage of youthful vitality. The Folk Fest somehow excellently allows this to happen in a designated area in front of the stage, so crowd surfers and moshers can go crazy while onlookers can simultaneously relax sitting in their lawn chairs and blankets ten feet away- without any conflicts. I guess the Folk Fest is about respect, too- respect for those who want to enjoy music by watching and those who want to enjoy by dancing without a care (and Gogol Bordello certainly did not disappoint for facilitating that), the variety of ways one can enjoy music, and the respect for the evolution of “folk” music throughout the ages and how it means different things to different people. The band featured perhaps the most diverse group of musicians and backgrounds, and seemed to reflect much of what the Folk Fest might mean for many – the embracing of varying experience but coming together with a passion for making music, experimentation, and creative collaboration – as well as great tunes to jump up and down to.
Delta Spirit continued the more rocking mood on the other side of the fort, and things simmered down as Tegan and Sara took the stage afterwards, stripped down in electricity (they performed a mostly acoustic set) and in inhibitions. The twins fed off each other as well as the audience in what felt like a truly intimate performance. The strums from their guitars and humbled singing reverberated around the tent and the fort, echoing again the amazing talents and minds that had once also graced the stage.
The Folk Fest is a weekend for excitement but not going overboard with exhaustion right away: the day’s non-stop performances slowly wear you down, but you feel good at the end when you’re tired and sun-soaked and can’t wipe a grin off your face (and not just because the sun is shining right in your eyes). Saturday closed out with a sunset performance by modern alternative-rock band the Decemberists, but not before a few band members guest-performed with Mavis Staples and her accomplished crew. In between songs off their latest album, The King Is Dead, and some older tracks, the Decemberists seemed unsure themselves just how they fit in exactly with “folk”- frontman Colin Meloy remarked between songs, perhaps trying to reassure himself, that “don’t be mistaken, this is a folk song,” before playing the opening riffs to “We Both Go Down Together,” possibly alluding to as well as challenging the ubiquitously unclear definition of folk. As the song’s guitar chords and heavy drum beats rang out to the sold-out audience and to the harbor beyond, I think I agree with him: if this weekend was any indication, folk music seems to be all about a piece of music or creation of music that is meaningful to the person making it, the person hearing it, and, in a perfect world, to both of them. It’s music that moves you, emotionally, physically, or mentally. Folk music is so hard to define because any style of music can mean something to someone who genuinely believes in it and has something to say or portray with it, whether that be an ode to one’s homeland or an ode to one’s fellow countrymen fighting for freedom, a love song or a love for Ukrainian dancing. And the Newport Folk Fest will be there to remind us of that.