Newport Folk Festival trades mellow vibe for vibrant energy

Photos by Selene Angier 

If there was a defining moment of this year’s Newport Folk Festival, it might have been when Ramblin’ Jack Elliott joined Beck onstage for a rendition of Jimmie Rodgers’ “Waiting on a Train.” The sky — streaked with hazy pink light as the sun set over the last set of the three-day-long fest — was heavy with the promise of rain that, incredibly, never broke. (Unlike last year, when the rain on Saturday was downright torrential, as those attendance will recall.)

The image of Beck, city-slicker cool in head-to-toe black, singing side-by-side with the stooped, 81-year-old folk legend in his cowboy hat and jeans, seems a fairly fitting example of what this fest is all about. Newport has a long tradition of bringing artists from different generations together, fostering an environment in which up-and-coming young bands can share stages with their heroes. Or, in this case, established rockers can share stages with their heroes.

The audience at Newport each year is always testament to the diverse line-up. Relative newbies like the Lumineers shared the bill with artists who’ve been in the business of making music since before they were born and, in the crowd, pretty young things with crowns of flowers swayed alongside old men with shocks of white hair. Newport Folk Fest might be the chillest festival in existence, and it’s certainly the only one this reporter has been to where babies and toddlers outfitted with tiny ear plugs just about outnumber the scene kids in attendance.

There was a certain energy, a palpable frisson in the air, this weekend that I don’t recall feeling last year. Low-key vibes still abounded, to be sure, but where last year the energy was relaxed to the point of comatose (I remember being surprised by the sheer number of people sprawled out in deep sleep upon arrival in 2012), there was a sense that people came to get down this time around.

Most of the artists matched this energy, interacting with the crowd and inviting us to get a little loose. Before Frank Turner performed “Wherefore Art Thou Gene Simmons?”, a song he wrote after reading a biography about the KISS frontman and his alleged thousands of sexual conquests (“Disgusting, innit?” Turner said), he asked the audience to sing along while clapping and jumping up and down. “This way, you’ll get to feel how I feel up here,” he said. My companion muttered that this was a little pretentious and, yeah, maybe it was, but I can forgive it, because Turner is an otherwise charming performer, spinning meandering yarns between songs and appearing to be genuinely enjoying himself onstage.

Other highlights of the weekend included the Avett Brothers on the Fort Stage for a Saturday evening headlining set. The brothers have an easy rapport with both each other and the audience and played all their big hits, including a rousing rendition of “Kick Drum Heart” and a wistful, set-closing performance of crowd favorite “I and Love and You.”

Playing that same stage the following night, the Lumineers had the crowd in the palms of their hands. The unlikely indie folk stars are another group who seemed legitimately smitten to be there, and it showed. (A side note: I saw them play an abysmal set — through no fault of their own, the acoustics were terrible — at Governors Ball in New York earlier this summer, and was more than pleased to hear them redeem themselves this weekend.) Mid-set, they came down into the crowd, playing the remainder of their songs from somewhere out in the sea of people where, unfortunately, they were obscured from my view by a frenzy of flashing iPhones and people clamoring to get close.

Still, there were moments of lassitude that could have proved lethal had they not been balanced out by the buoyant highs. The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy played a lazy midday Saturday set, sleepily running through a handful of Decemberists songs in a way that felt a bit like an afterthought. It wasn’t bad but it was — chill.

But then there were other moments, like seeing what can only be described as a starstruck Beck (if someone like Beck is still capable of being starstruck) share a mic with Elliott, calling it “an honor.” There was that line of people who, in response to some unspoken urge, joined hands to form a canopy of arms and cheered on all who walked beneath it. There was that guy named Jonas we met on the pier, who agreeably went and got me a beer when I was feeling too lazy because, hey, it’s folk fest and we’re all friends here.

As the sun began to dip below the horizon, Beck played “Lost Cause” and we all stood quietly as the first mournful strains rang out in the cooling air. It felt, rather, that we’d found something, and that we should hold on to it, if only for a moment.


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