Newport Folk Festival @ Fort Adams State Park 7.28.13
by Ben Stas (English/Journalism), published August 6th 2013
photos by Ben Stas
Though the weather was a tad less picturesque, Newport’s final day offered up another diverse roster that closed out the festival’s 2013 edition in style. Headlined by the inimitable Beck, Sunday brought the weekend’s best cross-section of folk music’s roots and the various directions in which they’ve stretched over the years.
Cold Specks opened the day on a somber note, but captivated the Quad Stage with her sparse brand of gothic folk. Alone on stage, with black dress and black guitar, Al Spx’s voice resonated with an eerie soulfulness. Cold Specks was certainly a bit more thematically heavy than most Newport fare, but even a sunny summer festival can do with a touch of darkness here and there.
At the Harbor Tent, a rare set from veteran folk singer Michael Hurley charmed a small but passionate crowd. With Black Prairie as his backing band, who were set to subsequently perform on the very same stage, Hurley casually wound his way through the off-kilter storytelling and guitar playing that have made him something of a cult legend.
The fusion of traditional and contemporary that began with Black Prairie backing Hurley’s set continued into their own proper timeslot, which saw the band of Decemberists and friends alternating between old-time bluegrass and a more modern folk rock sound with occasional worldly flourishes. Though each member of the six-strong assembly is an undeniable talent, it was Jenny Conlee’s accordion and Annalisa Tornfelt’s vocals and violin that stole the show.
I caught only a few songs of West Coast ensemble Lord Huron at the Quad Stage, but the band’s ethereal fusion of elements electric, acoustic and group-harmonized was soothing and cinematic.
Back at the tent, Bombino performed one of the weekend’s most unconventional and most fascinating sets. Hailing from Niger, and singing his songs in the Tuareg language Tamashek, Bombino was the sole non-English language act at Newport 2013. The language barrier certainly didn’t stop him from establishing a bond with an enthusiastic audience though. Bombino’s narrative connects with folk at the roots of his expressive, hypnotic guitar playing, which twists American blues around danceable rhythms in a creation that’s all his own. He locked into groove after groove with his ace backing band, and his set was totally transfixing.
As the final Quad Stage performer of the weekend, Andrew Bird brought something a bit unexpected to the table. Unlike his set at Boston Calling back in May, which featured a full electric band, Bird scaled back to an acoustic trio for this occasion. His set mixed rearrangements of his own songs, including a few Bowl of Fire era cuts, with covers and folk standards. Bird’s own sterling voice and otherworldly whistling were joined by Tift Merritt, who had performed earlier in the day, on vocals and occasional guitar for the set’s second half. Bird is an outstanding performer in any context, but this unique, rootsy set felt especially noteworthy.
At the Fort Stage, Beck was readying an unconventionally acoustic set of his own to close out the 2013 Folk Festival. Most famous, perhaps, for his goofy but ubiquitous 1993 single “Loser,” Beck was no one’s predictable choice for a Newport headliner. In tracing his body of work from the lo-fi anti-folk of Golden Feelings and the alt-country of One Foot in the Grave to the heartbroken, largely acoustic Sea Change, however, Beck the folk musician starts to make a bit more sense. Outfitted with cowboy hat, harmonica and acoustic guitar, he both looked and played the part.
His setlist did draw heavily on particularly pastoral cuts from Sea Change, but also tossed in a fair number of surprises. A few tracks from his sheet music-only Song Reader project received proper live treatments, and an unaccompanied performance of One Foot in the Grave’s title track (which, strangely enough, doesn’t appear on the original album), saw Beck stomping to the edge of the stage and ripping bluesy harmonica solos. Later, he invited Andrew Bird and Black Prairie’s Chris Funk and Annalisa Tornfelt on stage for a largely unrehearsed (but still quite entertaining) jam session. A Jimmie Rodgers cover even brought Ramblin’ Jack Elliot in on the proceedings.
A Beck set that was heavier on obscurities, covers and his more subdued material than his commercial hits did seem to confuse Sunday’s audience, many of whom filed away long before its conclusion. Those who stayed, however, were treated to something special. This was the sound of a musician who has been all over the map over the course of his career paying tribute to his roots and paying respect to the institution that is the Newport Folk Festival. It was a genuine, earnest, excellent way to close another incredible weekend at Fort Adams.