Newport Folk Festival @ Fort Adams State Park 7.26.13
by Ben Stas (English/Journalism), published July 31st 2013
photos by Ben Stas
Rhode Island’s venerable Newport Folk Festival made its return to Fort Adams State Park last weekend, kicking off the festival’s first-ever three-day iteration with a rainy Friday. In keeping with the festival’s mission the past few years, Newport’s 2013 edition presented a balancing act of sorts between tradition and modernity. There were bands who dressed and performed as if the entire previous century had passed them by, and there were acts who kept their drum machines next to their acoustic guitars or denied their own folksiness entirely. At Newport though, that juxtaposition of where folk music has been and where it’s headed next is all a part of the charm.
My Friday at this year’s festival began ominously, with a broken break line in my car and unfriendly grey skies above. Thankfully, things began to look up once the music began. Hey Marseilles at the Harbor Tent was my first stop, and the Seattle band offered a charming excursion into tightly-orchestrated folk rock. They were six members strong in a lineup that felt balanced, weaving cello, viola, keys, bass, guitar and drums into richly satisfying songs.
The Last Bison put a family spin on sweeping, Fleet Fox-y Americana with their set. The band’s lineup includes three members of the Hardesty family (father Dan, son Ben, daughter Annah) and two of the Benfantes (brothers Jay and Andrew), accompanied by friends Amos Housworth and Theresa Totheroh. Ben Hardesty and his sonorous voice filled the passionate, bearded frontman role well, and the entire band evinced the earnestness of a group of people genuinely excited to share their music with a crowd.
The rain had begun to pour by the time The Mountain Goats took the stage, though the shelter of the Harbor Tent kept at least a portion of festival-goers dry. I’ve long thought that John Darnielle’s brilliant storytelling songwriting would be a perfect fit for Newport, and he and bassist Peter Hughes and drummer Jon Wurster proved that to be the case with a spirited set. Darnielle pared down his usual inter-song chats in order to play as many songs as possible in an hour-long timeslot. He, Hughes and Wurster were all smiles and enthusiasm as they touched on fan-favorites, a new song and even a rare appearance of “Cubs in Five.” They made a grand Folk Fest debut, and I’m surely not the only one who hopes to see them back in the future.
Side note: between the Swans t-shirt and the jacket emblazoned with Mercyful Fate and Sarcofago patches, Darnielle was undoubtedly the most metal guy at the Fort that weekend.
As the abbreviated day one drew toward a close, Feist was wrapping up a subdued set on the Fort Stage that complemented the dreary weather. She was certainly less energetic than I’ve seen her in the past, and working with a smaller band as well. A sparse, thoughtful set felt right in the context though, even if it was a bit less engaging than one might’ve expected.
Friday headliners Old Crow Medicine Show seemed to stop the rain and draw out the sun by sheer force of bluegrass. The Nashville-based band strummed and picked their guitars, banjos, mandolins and other stringed ephemera with infectious energy and a rather stunning level of technical proficiency. Old Crow tore through their hour and a quarter on stage with down-home charm and a varied songbook that juxtaposed politically conscious tunes with love songs and odes to whiskey drinkin’. They were a fitting choice to close a Newport Friday night.