Newport in Review
There is something profoundly special about the Newport Folk Festival. Part of this uniqueness is due to the history of the festival itself. The stages at Newport have been home to a number of firsts and seen the absolute best performers of each grace their boards. Fort Adams is just about the perfect location for a music festival. The main “Fort” stage backs up against the beautiful old stone wall of the fort facing out to the harbor, while the smaller “Quad” stage faces the opposite direction inside the in tact fort battlements. The “Harbor” stage, smaller still, occupies a perfect nook on the route between the two. Not only is the location stunning, the history of Fort itself literally looms over the proceedings. The mid-nineteenth century bastion stands in stark contrast to the modern trappings of a music festival. It is at once completely evident how far we have progressed from our post-colonial past to this present moment. In a slighter way, the history of the festival reveals a similar contrast. Newport Folk has evolved since Jay Sweet took over the booking in 2008 and this evolution has been swift.
What Sweet and the other festival runners have been able to do quite well is preserve the history of the festival while allowing it to incorporate more contemporary musicians and styles. The key to this success is that the artists adapt to the spirit of the festival rather than the festival changing to accommodate the artists. The vibe at Newport is simply the best. For their part, the musicians are excited to play there. They bring a spirit of collaboration and they stray from their prepared set lists. It is often clear that new arrangements of songs have happened at the last moment to account for the inclusion of a musician they have just run into backstage. There is a greater sense of expectation here. The audience expects surprise and more often than not we are rewarded. This novelty is what keeps Newport relevant and thrilling. As an attendee, this uniqueness is addictive and Newport continues to find new ways to encourage it. For example, this year there were two near headlining spots on the schedule that were left “unannounced” until the performers walked onto the stage. These acts ended up being My Morning Jacket and James Taylor, two performers that any other festival would have touted endlessly in the run up to the event.
All of these features serve to bind the modern festival both to its past and to the past of the region. The spirit of Newport Folk is alive and well here even as it changes form. The festival has managed to take the contemporary moment of music into itself without altering its form and feeling. This is why we can have moments like The Decemeberists with Bela Fleck, Abigail Washburn and Brandi Carlile leading the Fort stage crowd in a sing along to “This Land is Your Land”. The folk vibe is still here and the torch is being carried by a whole new generation.