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At Newport festival, it wasn't all folk, but it was all good

NEWPORT, R.I. -- If folk music can be defined in the broadest sense as heartfelt music made by, about, and for folks, then this past weekend's 47th Newport Folk Festival more than fit the bill.

While an eclectic, decidedly plugged-in lineup bespoke the splintered nature of the genre, as well as the desire to sell tickets, it was nevertheless a glorious weekend to be outside on the water listening to good music of any flavor. And there was plenty to choose from -- mad dashes between the three stages at Fort Adams State Park were always in progress by members of the all-ages crowd.

Lacking a buzz-worthy ``event" -- such as Dylan's return in 2002 or the Pixies' much-hyped power-down last year -- the festival drew 4,000 on Saturday and 4,600 yesterday, down from 5,500 last year and less than half of the 10,000 capacity.

Those in attendance, however, got an earful from performers who may not strictly -- or even loosely -- be considered folk but displayed a reverence for roots music.

``I've got several musical personalities which have merged together in my music, and one of them is unquestionably a folkie one," said Saturday headliner David Gray before taking the stage for a well-received and energetic set that included hits such as ``Babylon" and ``The One I Love" and a setting-appropriate rendition of Bruce Springsteen's ``Mansion on the Hill." ``It's a tradition that I fall back on; it's cast-iron music, something you can trust."

Much trustworthy music was made over the course of the weekend.

Perhaps none more so than that of the dependable Newport veterans Indigo Girls, who closed out the festival last night with their elegant mix of sweet melodies and closer-to-fine harmonies. Several new tunes stood tall next to old favorites ``Land of Canaan" and ``Galileo."

The Girls were among many strong female performers featured in the lineup, including a stellar Rosanne Cash, whose Saturday-afternoon set showcased song s from her superb recent release ``Black Cadillac" and a version of `` Tennessee Flat Top Box ," written by her dad, Johnny.

Folk legend Odetta , 75, canceled an appearance last year due to a broken hip, but she roared back yesterday, mesmerizing a large side-stage crowd with her regal vocals and wisdom on everything from the haves and have-nots (``Poor Man's Blues") to unprotected sex (``Careless Love " ).

Another Newport veteran , Rosalie Sorrels, playing the fest on the 40th anniversary of her debut, impressed with a delicate performance that included a devastating and dreamy ballad about her late son.

In a pleasant surprise appearance, Gillian Welch joined native son David Rawlings for a rousing acoustic performance that had the rustic quality of a lovingly handmade gift.

While Tim Eriksen and his mammoth Shape Note choir welcomed Sunday morning with a church-approved singalong on the big stage, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals still sounded like they were celebrating Saturday night on the second stage, with a hot set of their organ-drenched roots rock.

Like the free-spirited 22-year-old Potter, teen up-and-comer Sonya Kitchell impressed a standing-room-only crowd with her self-assured vocals and blues-informed pop on Saturday.

Saturday's other offerings included a scorching set from rediscovered 60-year-old soul diva Bettye LaVette, whose high-stepping and deeply emotional yet tightly controlled vocals reminded that R&B stands for rhythm and blues.

Festival veteran Chris Smither commanded the main stage with stunning presence, his lived-in voice, and an arsenal of sharp observations. Later, at the small tent, he contributed to an intimate song circle with Darrell Scott -- slaying with his arresting ``You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive" -- and Jeffrey Foucault.

The bayou came to the bay yesterday in the form of the still supremely funky, recently reunited Meters and on Saturday when guitarist Sonny Landreth played a blistering set of Cajun-influenced rock.

Canada was also well represented by the newgrass pop of the Duhks -- who opened the fest with strong banjo - and fiddle-laced Sting and Tracy Chapman covers and originals reminiscent of Indigo Girls -- and the Cape Breton instrumentalists Beolach, who drew big cheers at the smallest stage for their spirited Gaelic instrumentals.

Was it all folk music? Not by a long shot, but almost all of it was good.

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