In Newport, folk that spans influence, age

By James Reed
Globe Staff / August 1, 2011

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NEWPORT – “We’re pretty happy to be here playing folk songs we wrote,’’ David Rawlings said Saturday afternoon with a wry smile, prompting his partner to reflect on the truest definition of folk music.

“If we did our jobs well, they’re going to prove to be folk songs,’’ Gillian Welch said. “That means folks like ’em.’’

That was as good as any guiding principle for this year’s Newport Folk Festival, which began on Saturday and wrapped up last night close to sunset. On three different stages, no matter how far the bands stretched the parameters of folk, the music was still compelling and indebted to what preceded it.

This year’s 52d anniversary marked a first for the festival: Tickets for both days sold out two weeks in advance, a fact reflected in the huge crowds that packed Fort Adams State Park and sent traffic inching along starting in downtown Newport. The final tally was 20,000 attendees for the entire weekend.

More so than in previous years, Newport truly felt like a young person’s festival, with acts that embodied a youthful vitality mirrored in the fans rooting for them. Led by mustachioed and shirtless frontman Eugene Hütz, Gogol Bordello ignited a Balkan dance party derived from punk and Ukrainian folk music.

Yesterday, Trampled by Turtles gave the impression you were hearing a bluegrass band on a warped record speed. It’s no wonder they broke a guitar string. On the same stage later on, a spill-over crowd moved in to hear the explosive heartache from Middle Brother, a country-rock supergroup of sorts that includes the lead singers for the indie bands Deer Tick, Delta Spirit, and Dawes.

Staying true to one of Newport’s hallmarks, the spirit of collaboration was alive and lively, across genres and generations. Headlining Saturday night, the Decemberists’ Colin Meloy invited Welch and Rawlings to sing a pair of songs. “June Hymn’’ was a fitting send-off into the setting sun: “Here’s a hymn to welcome in the day/ Heralding a summer’s early sway.’’

During an intimate song circle featuring singer-songwriters Dar Williams, Ellis Paul, John Gorka, Liz Queler, and Seth Farber, they were nearly upstaged by a surprise guest. It was the first of Pete Seeger’s handful of unannounced cameos over the weekend. At a spry 92, he remains the festival’s heartbeat, much like his old friend Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, who later invited Seeger to join him on a grizzled version of “Worried Man Blues.’’

They were a reminder that Newport is often about honoring tradition by bringing it back to life for new audiences. Hooting and hollering and dancing, the Carolina Chocolate Drops revived the art of African-American string band music.

Just before that, kicking off the main Fort stage yesterday morning, Massachusetts’ own David Wax Museum schooled the crowd on its collision of Americana and Mexican folk songs. It was a remarkably assured performance for the group, which had graduated from a smaller side stage at last year’s fest. (And Suz Slezak had the distinction of being the weekend’s only musician who played a donkey jawbone.)

Mavis Staples was emblematic of the festival’s commitment to social justice, singing freedom songs that reached back to the civil rights era. Backed by a monstrously tight band, she took Newport straight to church, until you wondered why there weren’t pews or at least hymnals under the seats.

In fine, ferocious form, Wanda Jackson was a living link to at least three generations of rock ’n’ rollers, from Elvis Presley to Elvis Costello to Jack White. Jackson is famous for her rockabilly roots but reminded the crowd that she’s also had a successful run in country and gospel.

Several performances hinged on the intimacy between the musicians themselves. Gathered around a single microphone, mandolinist Chris Thile and guitarist Michael Daves stood close together with high harmonies that recalled the Louvin Brothers. From Alabama, the Secret Sisters locked their voices in sublime sibling harmonies in a salute to the greats they grew up admiring (Bill Monroe’s “The One I Love Is Gone,’’ Patsy Cline’s “Leavin’ on Your Mind’’).

Performing at the same time on a separate stage, Mountain Man held a crowd rapt with little more than their voices and an occasional acoustic guitar. Whether trilling or yodeling or cooing, the three young women from Vermont elevated the art of harmony singing to a celestial plane.

Tegan and Sara, the irrepressible twin-sister act from Canada, tapped into their beginnings as a folk band, right down to their stage attire. When Tegan Quin took off her black sunglasses, Sara quipped, “Now you’re really folk.’’ Meanwhile, the Civil Wars could turn anything into a sultry, after-hours folk song, including Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.’’

In recent years there has always been a New England act that gives a star-making performance here. This year the honor went to Providence’s Brown Bird, the rousing Americana duo of guitarist David Lamb and upright bassist MorganEve Swain. In a tip to Newport’s legacy, they stoked the crowd with a closing cover of Johnny Cash and June Carter’s “Jackson.’’

Costello continued his reign as a heartfelt torchbearer of American roots music, dipping into country and rockabilly and transposing his own songs to fit those genres.

Closing out the festival last night, with sailboats gliding by in front of her, Emmylou Harris gave a sturdy performance that wasn’t especially mindful of Newport or its legacy but still inspired. Once she finished her set, Seeger emerged to lead many of the day’s performers in a group sing-along, in keeping with an unofficial Newport tradition.

It was a tricky proposition, though. The entire weekend had been a striking balance between folk music’s past and future, and yet the closing songs hadn’t exactly survived the ’60s: “Turn! Turn! Turn!’’ and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?’’ It’s a safe bet that most of this year’s performers could never answer that question.

James Reed can be reached at

NEWPORT FOLK FESTIVAL At: Fort Adams State Park, Saturday and Sunday