New folks at Newport rock festival's traditions

Jug bands, fiddlers left out of '08 lineup

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Joan Anderman
Globe Staff / April 17, 2008

In 1965, Bob Dylan turned the folk world on its ear when he plugged in an electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival.

In 2008, things are going to get a whole lot louder.

Under new management and with a young producer at the helm, the venerable Newport Folk Festival is stepping out of the past and into the rock 'n' roll mainstream. Gone are the jug bands, Cape Breton fiddlers, and bluegrass patriarch Ralph Stanley. This year's lineup features good-time tunesmith Jimmy Buffett, swaggering rockers The Black Crowes, and indie-soul chanteuse Cat Power.

"For me the theme was bridging the gap," says Jay Sweet, a 37-year-old editor at Paste, an indie-oriented music magazine. Sweet is coproducer of this year's event, which takes place Aug. 1-3 at Fort Adams State Park. "We're going to try to bring in more sizzle, in the artistic sense. We're creating a festival for musical omnivores."

In the bargain, they're creating New England's first real rock festival, which Sweet hopes will someday rival the genre-spanning sprawl of Tennessee's Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival. "If we do it right and book it right, the kids will come," he says.

Newport has long been known for pushing the boundaries of folk by booking unexpected artists, from '60s screamer Janis Joplin and punky troubadour Ani DiFranco to jazzy hitmaker Norah Jones and alt-rock heroes the Pixies, while presenting a vibrant blend of new and old-school styles.

It's what is not on the roster for this year's event - straight, traditional folk music of any stripe - that signals a dramatic reinvention of the Newport Folk Festival.

"I don't like the idea that it's just dissipating into another festival like so many others," says Joan Baez, who launched her career at the 1959 festival. "It seems that it's all about money and not much about holding onto something that's been pretty precious for a lot of years."

In the past decade, attendance at the Newport Folk Festival, founded in 1959 by live-music impresario George Wein and managed until last year by Wein's Festival Productions, has averaged only half to two-thirds of the site's capacity of 10,000 concertgoers a day. With alt-country collective Calexico, reggae royalty Damian and Stephen Marley, My Morning Jacket howler Jim James, and second-generation folk-rocker Jakob Dylan on the bill, the event's new owners expect 2008 to sell out. (Tickets go on sale April 23.)

"This year should mark a turning point in revitalizing Newport Folk," says Tom Shepard, chief executive officer of Festival Network, a San Francisco-based company that purchased Festival Productions last year. "In these economic times, when you can spend less in a day on an unforgettable experience for the entire family at Newport than you would going out on the golf course, I'd say we've developed a value proposition."

But at what cost?

"This signifies the death knell for traditionalists," says Betsy Siggins, executive director of Passim Center, the Harvard Square folk-music institution. "But I see a constant broadening at Passim of the music you can hear in a folk setting, and, personally, I think this is a strong concert. Would I love to see [85-year-old guitarist] Doc Watson and people I still think have great value? Yes. Do I hope they bring in more traditional music down the line? Yes. But it's a tough time for folk; they're looking for a home run the first time out of the gate, and I wouldn't miss it for anything."

The graying of the core folk audience is sparking similar reinventions nationwide, as traditional festivals strategize ways to reach younger listeners. On Monday organizers of the Philadelphia Folk Festival, now in its 47th year, unveiled the lineup for this summer's event, which includes fringe singer-songwriter Kimya Dawson, psychedelic folk band Espers, and roots-rocker Steve Earle as well as heritage acts such as Tom Paxton and the Cajun dance band Beausoleil.

The legacy artists at Newport are Levon Helm, longtime drummer for the influential rock outfit the Band, and Gillian Welch, an L.A.-bred musician who channels the sounds of Appalachia and is equally at home on bluegrass bills and cutting-edge rock stages. Welch doesn't believe the influx of contemporary music threatens the festival's legacy, but rather that the spirit of Newport will imbue the artists who play there.

"I live in Nashville, and a lot of acts come through Ryman Auditorium who have nothing to do with old-time country music, but it's famous enough and has a deep enough tradition that it invariably affects the shows there," Welch says. "Performers are very aware of the legacy, and I can envision the legacy at Newport having the same effect. I know that Jimmy Buffett will have at least one folk song in his set because he just cut one of mine on his last album."

Indeed, Buffett - whose "Margaritaville" is a staple at arenas and tailgate parties - is considering playing a stripped-down set with just two acoustic guitars at his Newport debut. "I threatened to do Newport before I was gone, and I seriously want to honor the heritage of the festival," Buffett says. "I came up as a folk singer. I've always loved the idea of being a balladeer. You know, I might do Gordon Lightfoot's 'Canadian Railroad Trilogy.' I am not going to do a Parrothead show."

Even if he did, it wouldn't worry Bob Jones, the longtime producer of the Newport Folk Festival, who like several of his Festival Productions colleagues is now working at Festival Networks.

"We've always stretched the limits, and there are always people saying, 'What are these people doing here?' " notes Jones, who acknowledges that this year's lineup is skewed heavily toward rock and pop.

"Yes, it feels a little unbalanced. Next year, which is going to be the 50th anniversary, we'll see a wider range of traditional acts. But there are so many other festivals that cover that. We might have bluegrass, but it'll be out on the edge of bluegrass. And I think that will be more interesting to the young listeners we have," he says. "Or hope to have."

Joan Anderman can be reached at

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