Music Review

Adding to legacy at Newport

Venerable folk fest receives jolt from acts both old and new

By James Reed
Globe Staff / August 2, 2010

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NEWPORT, R.I. — Having admired the careers of Joan Baez and Pete Seeger, Steve Martin confessed that he, too, had written a protest song to commemorate his debut at the Newport Folk Festival this past weekend.

“It’s called ‘Let’s Keep Minimum Wage Right Where She’s At,’ ’’ the actor and accomplished banjo player said deadpan Friday night at the International Tennis Hall of Fame, kicking off the folk fest with a rousing bluegrass revue.

He was joking, but the underlying message couldn’t have been more relevant. Because it’s so steeped in music history — where Bob Dylan went electric, where an unbilled Baez catapulted to fame at age 18 — the Newport Folk Festival and its legacy tend to loom large in the minds of the musicians who perform here every year.

Perhaps no other American music festival so strongly inspires its artists to connect the dots between their music and what preceded it. Sarah Jarosz, a New England Conservatory student and rising Americana musician, sprinkled covers of Dylan and Patty Griffin into her set Saturday morning at Fort Adams State Park. Around the same time on a separate stage, recent Berklee graduate Liz Longley sweetly said, “I’m a huge Joni Mitchell fan,’’ before playing a moving acoustic rendition of “River.’’

To celebrate Newport’s 50th anniversary, Seeger headlined both nights last year, leading nearly the entire lineup in spirited singalongs. While his presence lent the festival gravitas and cohesion, this year’s edition was more scattershot but with lively performances by the likes of bluegrass masters (mandolinist Sam Bush), indie folk-rockers (Blitzen Trapper), and soul revivalists (Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings). The variety paid off too. This year’s attendance surpassed 16,000, up 500 from last year’s count.

Pity the folks who missed an ardent set from Nneka, a singer-songwriter of Nigerian and German heritage whose hip-hop and R&B resounded with warmth and defiance. Oddly, she seemed resigned and indifferent in between songs; such is the peril of opening the main Fort stage at 11:30 in the morning.

Nneka was among a handful of artists trafficking in different sounds and moods. Calexico, an Americana collective from Tucson, emanated a lovely desert noir vibe tinged with Mexican flourishes, replete with two horn players and an accordionist. New York’s O’Death, which rightly calls its music folk metal, ignited the first fits of dancing I saw, rivaled only by the contagious fan fervor for Dawes, the California country-rock quintet that made Newport its star-making moment.

Brandi Carlile was also a revelation, a little bit country and quite a bit rock ’n’ roll with a big voice that swallowed whole everything she sang. The same fiery spirit imbued the Low Anthem’s set earlier on the same stage, with the Providence-band once again proving its quick ascent was warranted.

Saturday’s lineup leaned heavily on up-and-coming acts, but it was Doc Watson who attracted a spillover crowd of faces young and old. The seminal guitarist — whose flatpicking style influenced nearly everyone on the bill, whether or not they realized it — held court with standards such as “Shady Grove’’ and “Anytime.’’ Fellow guitarist David Holt remarked that Watson was doing pretty good for someone who’s 87, to which Watson dryly retorted, “Or 30.’’

In separate performances, singer-songwriters A.A. Bondy and Andrew Bird built distinct but similarly slow-burning sets that lingered well after they left the stage. My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, performing as Yim Yames, was even more mercurial, somehow sounding both ethereal and embracing in his reverb-drenched set.

When James made a cameo in John Prine’s headlining slot for duets of “All the Best’’ and “Paradise,’’ it clearly wasn’t just homage. The gap between Newport’s past and its future was officially, and beautifully, bridged.

Like lived-in houses, Prine’s poignant songs — delivered in his world-weary husk of a voice — were familiar and comforting, a soundtrack to the sun setting over Narragansett Bay.

It became obvious yesterday that James was the linchpin of this year’s festival. Like a parlor game of “Where’s Waldo?,’’ you never knew where he’d pop up, but it turns out James was connected to various artists through previous collaborations. One minute he was adding a yodel to the Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s rollicking set and a half-hour later he was singing high-lonesome harmonies with Ben Sollee and Daniel Martin Moore.

A sense of electricity rippled through the festival yesterday, thanks to dynamic bands that knew how to work a stage. Jones & the Dap-Kings peddled a relentlessly contagious brand of soul and funk, replete with Jones’s nasty voice and a brisk rundown of classic dance moves.

Like last year, the Avett Brothers were the fest’s bona fide rock stars. Overcoming technical difficulties early on, the North Carolina band went on to shred its way through emotional roots rock that fired up the crowd.

But if Newport had an unofficial ambassador of good will this year, it was Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros, whose communal indie folk — best heard when shouted at full throttle — galvanized what seemed like the entire festival attendance. You could hardly scuttle past the stage since it was so congested with folks trying to sneak a peek at the band’s messianic frontman, Alex Ebert.

A retro charm pulsed through April Smith and the Great Picture Show’s set, right down to the encore of Melanie’s ’60s hit “Brand New Key.’’ Likewise, Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three channeled a sepia-toned era with their irresistible take on Western swing and old-time jazz. Blurring the line between Americana and Mexican music, Bay State band the David Wax Museum celebrated its Newport debut with an engaging performance.

The Swell Season, the duo of Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova born of the 2007 film “Once,’’ were another striking pair of contrasts. Her elegant piano playing underscored the intensity of his singing and guitar prowess.

Levon Helm, the legendary former drummer of The Band, closed out the ceremony backed by veteran musicians who switched seamlessly from lean country rock to extended jams. Since he hasn’t been in good voice for the past year, Helm let his bandmates take the lead on almost all of the vocals.

Helm’s special guests included Richie Havens, who earlier in the day played a hard-driving set, and the Swell Season’s Hansard, each taking a verse of “The Weight,’’ one of The Band’s most iconic songs.

For a finale, Helm assembled several of the weekend’s bands for a singalong of Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released.’’

Watching young concertgoers and their parents sway side by side and sing along in unison, you sensed they left with a greater appreciation of what the Newport Folk Festival is all about.

James Reed can be reached at

GEORGE WEIN’S NEWPORT FOLK FESTIVAL At: Fort Adams State Park, Newport, Friday through Sunday