Newport Folk Festival, July 31

It’s clear that the musicians that play the Newport Folk Festival get it. Yes, it’s a beautiful scene, with its view from the stage looking beyond the crowd to the bay filled with folk-loving yachters. But there are other scenic venues – Red Rocks in Colorado and the Gorge in Washington state come to mind.

It is the tradition that makes Newport special. It is 92-year-old Pete Seeger coming out at the end of the festival and leading the sold-out crowd of 10,000 in “Turn, Turn, Turn” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” It’s the ebullient Colin Meloy of the Decemberists telling the crowd, “We’ve never played to a more attentive festival audience.” It was Gillian Welch doing a hand/leg slaps and a little jig while David Rawlings played banjo during her new song “White Horses.”

Yes, the difference between Newport and, say, Bonnaroo or other wildly popular festivals is that this one is all about the music. It’s about looking at the day’s lineup and making a plan to see as many acts as you can: watching gypsy rockers Gogol Bordello on the main stage then catching the early part of up-and-comers Delta Spirit’s small-stage set, but being back at our chairs in time to see 87-year-old bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs.

People come to listen, not to chat with friends. Because this year’s fest was sold out, our seats were fairly far back, near the walkway. The hi-def video screen made it easy to see the acts, but was even more remarkable was that we heard every acoustic note, every quiet harmony. And that’s a credit to the crowd.

We were only able to make it on Saturday, and no doubt missed a lot of great moments Sunday. But here are our highlights:

We had just gotten settled when the Wailin’ Jennys took the stage. I’ve been a big fan of the trio’s sweet harmonies, and they did not disappoint. It was a nice and easy way to start the festival.

Next, it was off to see the N.J.-based rock/punk/folk band River City Extension, an octet led by Joe Michelini, inside the fort. The Quad stage, as it is known, is a favorite. Last year, the David Wax Museum played there and was so popular, the festival brought them back to play the main stage on Sunday this year.

We returned to our main-stage seats to catch the end of a rather subdued set from the Felice Brothers. (Last year they ripped it up on the second stage).

Then came our Gogol/Delta Spirit/Scruggs run, which included a quick stop at the second stage to catch some rockabilly from Pokey Lafarge and the South City Three. Gogol Bordello is led by the manic Eugene Hutz. He played acoustic while sitting (or trying to sit) on a stool! Scruggs, also sitting, can still play and ran though some of his popular tunes.

By then, it was decision time. We wanted to catch some of Tegan and Sara’s acoustic set and even made the trek over to the Quad stage, but as time grew near we worried we’d get caught missing some of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings’ set, so we changed plans and hoofted it back to our seats.

Words cannot describe the beauty of Gillian and Dave’s voices and instruments, how they mingle, meander and mix together. The crowd was dead silent as they sang, so every note rang out. Gillian introduced a bunch of new songs, including “White Horses,” in which she did a little jig. And they absolutely dazzled on the jam-filled crowd favorite “The Revelator.”

The Decemberists closed the show with a most entertaining set, mixing new and old tunes including “The Mariner’s Revenge Song,” which featured guitarist Chris Funk leading the crowd in screams as if they were being swallowed by a whale. It was the ideal song for masses at the ocean-kissed venue. As the sun set, Gillian and Dave came out to join the Decemberists for their encores “All Arise!” and “June Hymn,” a perfect ending to a perfect day.

To see my pics, click HERE

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Tags: david rawlingsgillian welchthe decemberiststhe felice brothersthe wailin’ jennys

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