Preview: Newport Folk Festival 2013

by Ben Stas (English/Journalism), published July 23rd 2013

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Next weekend marks the return of the heralded Newport Folk Festival to Rhode Island’s Fort Adams State Park. By now one of the longest running and arguably most famous music festivals in the country, Newport has paid host to numerous legendary performers and performances. This year sees the festival officially expanding from two days to three, after last year’s Wilco-headlined ‘Folk Friday’ doubled as a third day test run. 2013 also features what is possibly the festival’s most modern lineup ever. Contemporary headliners like Beck and The Avett Brothers are now occupying the slots held by legacy acts like Jackson Browne and Joan Baez in years past. Such shifts partially stem from the festival’s current status as a non-profit – and the typically high prices commanded by big names of the 60s and 70s – but the festival also seems to be gearing itself toward a younger, hipper crowd. Whatever the reasoning, Newport’s current approach is working wonders. Weekend passes for this year sold out well in advance. Currently, only Friday passes remain on sale.

If you’re heading to the Fort, read on for a preview of the weekend’s can’t-miss sets. Relive the festival in spirit, whether you attended or not, with a full recap and plenty of photos in the following weeks here at Tastemakers.

The weekend’s main acts will be divided between the Fort Stage, the Quad Stage and the Harbor Tent, with open mic sessions and workshops happening at the indoor Museum Stage and kid-friendly sets from Elizabeth Mitchell and You Are My Flower happening throughout each day at the Family Tent. Gates open at a sleep-in-friendly 1 p.m. on Friday, but a more earlybird-oriented 10 on Saturday and Sunday. Plan your post-festival escapades accordingly.

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Friday’s lineup boasts a headlining set from old-timey Americana pickers Old Crow Medicine Show (Fort Stage, 6:30), preceded in the same location by Canadian indie-pop songestress/Broken Social Scene member Feist at 4:55. Whether you’ve been following her since 1999’s Monarch or the inescapable iPod commercials prominently featuring “1 2 3 4” are your only exposure, Ms. Feist puts on a fun show. She’s a ball of energy on stage, and her backing band is top-knotch. Prepare to make a rough decision during this timeslot though, as folk-rockers Phosphorescent (Quad Stage, 5:00) and the ever-brilliant The Mountain Goats (Harbor Tent, 4:45) will also be competing for your attention. The Goats’ John Darnielle is one of the best lyricists and live performers around, bar-none, so my recommendation must point that direction. Read here if you need additional convincing.

Other Friday highlights include a set from Deer Tick frontman John McCauley (Quad Stage, 6:10) and a left-field (literally and figuratively) appearance by Dresden Doll Amanda Palmer (Harbor Tent, 6:05). For an afternoon dose of vocal harmonies and elegantly orchestrated folk, also check out newcomers The Last Bison (Harbor Tent, 3:45).

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Saturday’s headliners will be Newport Folk veterans The Avett Brothers (Fort Stage, 6:15), who, as their online introduction notes, have done just about everything but headline in years past. With a decade-deep catalog of roots-y folk-rock and a few rounds of large-venue touring under their belts, the Avetts should make excellent headliners.

Saturday also marks the return of two other familiar faces to the Fort: Jim James (Fort Stage, 3:25) and Colin Meloy (Quad Stage, 3:55). James’ main outfit, My Morning Jacket, headlined last year’s Saturday outing with a killer set that was cut short by a poorly-timed thunderstorm. Hopefully he’ll be greeted with superior weather as he performs songs from his new solo record this year. Meloy’s Decemberists headlined the festival in 2011, and one of his few live dates this year will be this Newport appearance. Expect plenty of Decemberists favorites with this one, reconfigured for some unique stripped-down arrangements.

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Father John Misty (Quad Stage, 3:55), the current moniker of psych-folk troubadour and ex-Fleet Fox J. Tillman, is another Saturday must-see (even if it means only catching the first half of Jim James). Tillman is touring his 2012 record Fear Fun, which is chock-full of excellently offbeat tunes. His stage presence is also on the amusingly eccentric side.

Sunday’s headliner, and my personal most anticipated set this year, will be the multitalented Beck (Fort Stage, 6:15). From lo-fi folk weirdo to unlikely pseudo-rapper, occasional dabbler in funk and downcast singer/songwriter, Beck has assumed just about every musical identity there is. Impressively, he’s done it all well. His Newport set has been advertised as a special acoustic affair, but it’s anybody’s guess what songs he’ll break out. A few from 2002’s sad-but-excellent Sea Change would be a fair bet, as would a few previews of his two (!) upcoming records.

Before Beck, catching at least a few minutes of Andrew Bird (Quad Stage, 5:25) or Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and Dawn McCarthy (Harbor Tent, 5:40) would be a good use of your time. ‘Prince’ Billy is the current alias of prolific alt-country songwriter Will Oldham, and he and McCarthy are currently touring their collaborative record of Everly Brothers covers What the Brothers Sang. Bird, the whistling, violin-wielding one-man band, never fails to put on a show that’s stunning in both sonic beauty and technical wizardry.

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Also of note on Sunday will be a set from Black Prairie (Harbor Tent, 1:35), headed by Decemberists members Chris Funk and Nate Query and featuring every member of the band who isn’t Colin Meloy (along with some Portland friends). Their sound is rooted in traditional bluegrass, which is an intriguing counterpoint to The Decemberists’ baroque, theatrical stylings.

This year’s lineup of course features many, many more acts who appeal to just about every taste, and you can check out the full lineup here. Tickets are almost entirely sold out, but you can still score Friday passes if you act fast. And don’t forget, Craigslist can be your friend.

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