Newport Folk Festival Takes Big Tent Approach in 2014
Bob Dylan may have caused a ruckus back in ’65 when he plugged in at the Newport Folk Festival, but 49 years later, crunchy electric guitars are standard equipment here at the festival alongside the flattop guitars, banjos, and fiddles.
Newport these days takes a big-tent approach to folk music that, on its opening day on Friday, encompassed the Child Ballads of Anaïs Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer, the neo-Motown of Lake Street Dive, the bouncy pop of Jenny Lewis, the classic reggae of Jimmy Cliff, and the scruffy roots rock of Ryan Adams. Though it can hard to say exactly what unites these artists under the folk banner, the generally young crowd, who sold out the event months in advance, hardly seemed to mind.
In any case, the performers delivered the goods all day. The Devil Makes Three brought their spiky string band sound to the big stage, paying tribute along the way to (among others) Buck Owens guitarist Don Rich. Phox, a Wisconsin-based band that just released its debut album, played dreamy, harmony-rich indie pop. One standout newcomer was Seattle songwriter Noah Gundersen, who led a band that included his sister Abby on fiddle and harmony vocals and brother Jonny on drums. Gundersen proved himself a master of dynamics, from hushed fingerpicking on his small-body Martin to rock crescendos, often in a heartbeat.
One of the few representatives of the ’60s generation on the festival’s first day was Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, who’s been making some rare live appearances lately after recovering from a near-fatal illness. As Hunter fingerpicked his way through songs like “Bertha,” “Friend of the Devil,” and “Brokedown Palace,” he commented, “I wrote them myself, but they’re folk songs now.” One look at the multigenerational crowd singing along with these ubiquitous tunes was enough to prove his point.
The festival continues through Sunday.