I took in my first Newport Folk Festival on Saturday. And out of the hundreds of concerts I have been to, there were a few things about this experience that I had never witnessed before.
First of all, the quiet! Walking through the audience between acts, there was no buzz of the crowd to be had. This is not to say they weren’t enthusiastic. When each performer took the stage, they were very generous with their applause. It’s just that I’m so used to rock shows where the noise is constant, and this was unnervingly respectful and really something to behold.
Similarly, the audiences do tend to listen much more. The two smaller stages at Fort Adams Park had an assembly of chairs under tents, with people like me who didn’t take proper care to get to each stage in advance standing around the perimeter. And to watch those people seated in the middle, you could tell they were really listening to the words much more than a rock audience. It was so remarkable because I just didn’t think that type of studied appreciation existed anymore.
And most of the acts on the first day of the two-day festival were quite worthy of the attention the audience paid. Highlights included…
You’ve seen the uplifting YouTube videos of the school children from Staten Island, but to witness their contagious innocent joy in-person is even more of a must. It’s almost as if each popular number that they cover, they are canonizing by allowing the listeners to hear the songs through the ears of a child. Their version of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” was a true goosebump moment.
This group of Oregonians has a string section that sounds borrowed from Arcade Fire, a horn section that sounds on loan from Neutral Milk Hotel and a singer who sometimes sounds like he’s channeling the wounded intensity of Bright Eyes, but as precious (and possibly unoriginal) as this all sounds, when you mix it all together, you end up with a sound that is as distinct and ferocious as the type of storm that the band’s name pays homage to. There are bits of doo-wop, and funk that pop up here and there and as the seated crowd studied and searched for the meaning within the lyrics, they were not disappointed, as singer Kyle Morton espoused on there being a violence in everyone and letting the devil into his home.
The intense immigrant punk of Gogol Bordello may have been better suited for one of the smaller stages, but their energy did at least radiate beyond the roped off standing area in front of the stage.
“Check, one, two … Everybody’s so polite,” were the first words that singer Matt Vasquez said to the audience. Though he made a valiant effort to change that by rocking out with abandon, it was still a folk audience he was playing to, and the folk audience is just more polite than they type of crowd these rowdy Californians are used to playing to. The band only scheduled a few shows this summer as they are in the middle of recording their third full-length album, which, if their performance at Newport was any indication, will be a breakthrough hit. Vasquez leads the crowd through clap-alongs as if he’s only just discovered the power he has over audiences, and I don’t recall the second guitarist being such a fantastic spazz. Delta Spirit has a slight problem where their great songs like “Trashcan,” “Ransom Man” and “People C’mon” are so amazing that they make any other song that doesn’t reach that high-water mark seem kind of plodding. But the good thing about Delta Spirit is that even when the songs occasionally aren’t as great as their best material is, they still rock out like they’re the best songs the band members have ever heard.
This 72-year-old soul singer has the voice and energy of a girl in her twenties. She is both grounded by her faith and given to fly by this same spirituality, and she just doesn’t seem capable of hitting a bum note. A true highlight of the day was watching Decemberists frontman Colin Meloy join her for a version of the Band’s classic, “The Weight.” The singer seemed almost humbled to share the stage with her, although he himself would wander over to the mainstage to headline the entire festival just minutes later.
Check out more of Selene Angier's photos from both days below....