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Rockers add zest, but folk still rules Newport festival

NEWPORT, R.I. -- The folk world survived a brief visitation from the Pixies on Saturday, and despite concerns that the alternative rock icons' appearance at the venerable Newport festival signaled an audacious snuffing of tradition, the event was neither radical nor especially memorable.

The Pixies' first acoustic concert, filmed for the band's forthcoming DVD, was also a less effective selling point than expected. An audience of 5,500, just over half capacity, attended the first day of the festival, among them a sizable black-booted contingent that arrived at the end of the day.

''I'm nervous," said frontman Frank Black before a set that featured such abstract fare as ''Bone Machine," ''Velouria," and ''Subbacultcha" stripped clean of flesh, muscle, and much of its dynamics. Some songs, however, survived the leap from rock arena to folk fest . ''Cactus Tree," basically a blues, translated to the language of strumming and picking with its stormy heart intact, as did ''Wave of Mutilation," which Black sang in a gauzy near-whisper, and the twisted romp ''I Bleed." The band found time during its two rehearsals for the Newport gig to learn one actual folk song, ''Been All Around the World," a galumphing tune about shooting up.

''The last note felt really good," said guitarist Joey Santiago after the set, his relief underlining the novelty value of the Pixies-at-Newport concept.

Yesterday's headliner Elvis Costello was, by contrast, a natural for Newport. While best known for his early punk-pop anthems, Costello has been investigating roots music throughout his career. He reached back to 1977 for ''Stranger in the House," a country and western tune from ''My Aim is True," and performed a handful of blues-saturated songs from last year's ''The Delivery Man." The setting, however, didn't prevent Costello and his crack band the Imposters from rocking hard, burrowing into tender ballads, and flashing serious soul chops.

Costello was an ideal figurehead for a festival that continues to broaden its scope. Music fans looking for something genuinely fresh found it in Krystle Warren, a 23-year-old singer-songwriter from Kansas City whose earthy, intricate songs and dusky singing herald the arrival of an exciting voice in the folk scene. Another young performer, 25-year-old former busker and fretboard-slapping sprite Kaki King, accomplished the formidable task of making an acoustic guitar sound thrilling and new.

The Nebraska collective Bright Eyes, led by indie hero Conor Oberst, joined with recent touring partners M. Ward and Jim James of My Morning Jacket for an occasionally jubilant, frequently meandering, always intriguing song circle that lassoed the increasingly elusive folk spirit of collaboration and community.

Emmylou Harris had to cancel her appearance yesterday at the last minute because of a family emergency, a disappointment shortly abated by the announcement that Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, attending as guests, agreed to go on in Harris's place. Odetta, scheduled to play on Saturday, canceled as well, because of a broken hip.

But highlights were many, among them a sparkling bluegrass set from Del McCoury (in his first Newport appearance since 1962, when he sang with Bill Monroe's band), the loose grooves of lo-fi senior soul outfit the Holmes Brothers, and Richard Thompson's elegant and intense solo performance. Thompson's son Teddy opened the Borders stage on Saturday with a collection of sweet folk-pop and rootsy rockers that showed his tremendous growth as a writer and performer, while Ray LaMontagne, armed with a handful of dusty chords, rendered the ravages of existence in a voice as dry and lonely as the desert.

If Saturday's show emphasized introspective singer-songwriters -- the luminous musings of singer-songwriter Patty Griffin, crystalline harmonies and mournful tunes from the Lonesome Sisters, and the impeccable country psychodramas of Caitlin Carey and Thad Cockrell -- yesterday's performers, for an audience of 6,000, amped up the energy level. Perennial sideman Buddy Miller, in his first headlining appearance at Newport, threw a country-soul party with help from Larry Campbell and Jim Lauderdale, the perfect follow-up to Old Crow Medicine Show, which took brazen advantage of old-time string music. Across the festival site, proving that size doesn't matter, the irrepressible Mammals nearly started a riot at the tiny Strings stage.

Joan Anderman can be reached at

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