Monday, August 3, 2009

Report from Newport

Ken Dixon checks in with the following report from this past weekend's folk festival in Newport, known as George Wein's Folk Festival 50:
The ridiculously terminal line of vehiculists departing the farther reaches of Fort Adams State Park in Newport Saturday night was a small price to pay for the harmonic convergence that was the “50th anniversary” folk-music celebration, culminated by an hour-long sing-along with Pete Seeger and the entire day’s lineup of performers.

Under the proscenium of the fading afterglow on the western horizon, my friend, singer-songwriter Lys Guillorn and I were sitting in our folding chairs, watching the bumper-to-bumper cars go nowhere for the better part of an hour.

We shooed away a few mosquitoes and waited for the inevitable, but only beeping horn, before a few actually moving tail lights signaled it was time to squeeze back into the Honda for the drive back to Connecticut, ending a sun-splashed, inspiring day whose peak was the rare appearance of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, but whose historic moment was the nonagenarian legend and grandson Tao Seeger, leading thousands of people in a sundown serenade.

If the transportation theme for the day was bumper-to-bumper traffic and butt-cheek-to jowl seating around the main Fort Stage, the musical undertow was harmonic, from the moment we staggered out of the school bus from the park-parking provinces at 10:45, to nine hours later, when we eschewed the shuttle-bus queue and joined the folkie Diaspora, walking back up the grassy hill to the promontory overlooking the ocean, in search of the car.

First up was Tift Merritt, whose striking voice set the tone for the day.

As we squeezed into the humanity, about 40 yards from the stage, we caught the last few songs of her set, playing the inevitable game of “what kind of guitar is that?” before agreeing it was most likely a refinished small-body Gibson B-25 from the 60s.

“He told me to go because I was impatient and impossible,” she sang.

Billy Bragg appropriately (references to Dylan in ’65 were scattered throughout the day…) plugged in and turned up the politics with the volume in a solo set, talking about how 40 years after the world was wowed by the US moon landing, it’s waiting to become similarly impressed if we can succeed in enacting universal healthcare.

In a concession to folkland, Bragg also played a few tunes on a Taylor acoustic cutaway.

“The more I think about it, the more I find accountability incredibly sexy,” he said before leading a reggae sing-along: “One love, one heart, let’s cut the debt and we’ll be alright.”

Gill and Dave came on at 2:44, seemingly surprised to have made the gig after a five-hour delay in LA and an actual police escort through Newport. “We’re really happy to be here,” she said at the start of the 13-song set that included an extra chorus on “I’ll Fly Away” for folk icon Mike Seeger, who’s dying.

By the 10th song, the heat of the day was getting to Gillian, whose contacts were probably still circling around on the luggage carousel at Logan and the sweat was pouring into her near-sighted eyes.

She admitted her relative blindness. “You’re all like a batik of polka dots,” she announced to the crowd. “I really feel like I’m on drugs.” She asked for some massive vocal reverb as they started slowly into…yes…”White Rabbit,” that 60s warning – or substance-beckoning - song about the “hookah-smoking caterpillar” and other characters from Alice in Wonderland.

Lys caught what she said was a great set from Iron & Wine over at the extremely crowded Harbor Stage tent and got back to our chairs for most of the interesting Decemberists performance, which included an impromptu re-enactment of the apocryphal power-line-cutting moment of ’65, when Pete Seeger suggested that an ax to Dylan’s cable could get him back to acoustic.

Finally it was 7 p.m. and Pete and Tao came out after a short video recollection of the Newport Folk Festival, which was put on hiatus back in the 70s, at the height of the rock years.

“I can’t believe you’re still with us,” Tao said to Pete in what was the most impolitic thing said on stage all day.

After “Turn Turn Turn,” all the musicians joined them on stage for another seven tunes. David played Gillian’s banjo, she had his ’35 Epiphone Olympic for a while. Lys and I put our heads together to find a harmony on “Worried Man Blues” and then it was time for “This Land is Your Land,” followed by applause and cheers for the possibilities and powers of music.

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