Newport Folk Festival @ Fort Adams State Park 7.27.13

by Ben Stas (English/Journalism), published August 5th 2013

photos by Ben Stas

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Sunshine, in place of rainclouds, greeted folk fans on Saturday morning for the weekend’s first sold-out day. The first act I caught was Langhorne Slim & The Law at the Fort Stage, which was about as boisterous and enthusiastic a set as one could possibly ask for at noontime. Slim, born Sean Scolnick, strutted the stage with rock and roll swagger as The Law laid down some fittingly raucous accompaniment.

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Over at the Quad Stage, The Lone Bellow drew a sizeable early afternoon crowd for their brand of wide-eyed, heart-on-sleeve folk rock. Songwriter/vocalist/guitarist Zach Williams gave the performance of a man whose entire heart and soul are poured into his work. He sang each and every song like it might be the last one he’d ever play, which is a surefire way to sell a performance. Rounded out by the vocals, guitar and mandolin of Kanene Pipkin and Brian Elmquist, as well as a drummer and bassist to accent the core trio, the band nailed a rootsy sound without coming across as derivative. Judging by the crowd’s reaction, they made a good impression with their first Newport appearance.

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South Carolinian duo Shovels & Rope were another of the day’s up-and-coming acts who have already garnered quite a fan base. They asked at the beginning of their set, rather politely, if it was okay for them to play some rock and roll at a folk festival. Clearly, no one in attendance was about to take issue with that. The band borrows from the White Stripes template of drums and guitar, husband and wife blues rock, but they keep the arrangement from feeling stale with a twist of southern twang. Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst have the requisite charisma to entrance a crowd, and the songs to get them out of their seats and stomping their feet.

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In the spirit of Folk Festival sets that push the boundaries of what might traditionally be called folk, My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James wowed a Fort Stage crowd with some psychedelic tunes from his new solo record. James donned a purple suit, played his signature Gibson Flying V mounted on a poll at center stage, serenaded a panda bear statue and even broke out a saxophone – all within the first two songs. His band conjured the space-age vibes of Regions of Light and the Sound of God with panache, and even in the 15 minutes or so that I caught, this proved itself to be one of the weekend’s most charmingly out-there sets.

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It was a bit tragic, really, that Father John Misty’s timeslot had to overlap with James’, but that performance ultimately turned into a spectacle of its own. Joshua Tillman, the man behind the Misty moniker, is well-known for his irreverent stage antics, but the folksy Newport atmosphere and a bit too much strawberry moonshine seemed to kick him up a notch higher than usual. Tillman ranted at length between songs about inauthentic folk music, fedoras, whether we’d all be returning to our yachts at the end of the day and how he had only been invited to play there because he was a bearded white guy with a bit of acoustic guitar on his record. It could certainly scan as obnoxious, but the key to enjoying a Father John Misty performance seems to be taking it all with a grain of salt. Tillman’s case is certainly helped by the fact that his songs are pretty fantastic. His wry, surreal lyricism, backed by his versatile band, combined into some of Saturday’s finest tunes.

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The set either got more hilarious or more grating the longer it went on, depending on your level of tolerance. Tillman entered the crowd, temporarily stole one poor girl’s cell phone and eventually began trashing the stage by tossing aside microphone stands while “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” collapsed and melted into a sludge of screeching feedback. And of course, it concluded with a mic drop after the final lyric. It was either the funniest or most blasphemous thing to happen at Newport in a good long while, but it was certainly a set no one would forget anytime soon.

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Calming things down considerably, Decemberists frontman Colin Meloy took the Quad Stage a bit later and offered up a freewheeling stroll through new songs and old favorites. Meloy admitted that it had been a while since his last proper performance, which was evident in a forgotten lyric here or a botched chord change there. The set felt informal by nature though, and mistakes were forgiven. The show became a bit more headline-worthy when Meloy invited his Decemberists bandmates (who were performing as Black Prairie the following day) on stage to play “Yankee Bayonet” and “Down By the Water.” With that band still officially on hiatus, even two songs together were a major treat for fans.

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Back at the main stage, The Avett Brothers were gearing up for their first headlining gig at Newport. The Avetts are longtime Newport veterans, and they’re no strangers to big crowds either. Seth and Scott are the only actual Avett brothers, but there’s a certainly brotherly bond evident on stage between all six of the band’s members. That chemistry powers their finely-crafted folk rock and connects brilliantly with an audience. Broad smiles and huge singalongs characterized their Newport set, proving that they’ve earned that headlining slot and concluding the day on a high note.

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