Saturday, August 26, 2006

Newport report (Part 1)

Here's a two-part report on the recent Newport Folk and Jazz fests from contributing blogger Peter Keepnews. Thanks, Peter.

A music festival, especially the outdoor kind — regardless of genre — is not supposed to be the occasion for a lot of deep thinking about What It All Means. But in spite of the beautiful weather, the beautiful surroundings, and the (intermittently) beautiful sounds, it was hard to keep such thoughts out of my mind at Newport this year.

But maybe that’s just me.

This was, by my unofficial count, the sixth year in a row that my wife and I have spent early August in Newport, where the folk and jazz festivals are always held on consecutive weekends. I don’t know how many other people attend both festivals — I suspect the number is small — but Irene and I happen to have very broad musical tastes, and we always find plenty to love at both events.

One other thing about Irene and me: We both dislike musical categories. One of the highlights of last year’s Newport Folk
Festival for both of us was Elvis Costello. What was he doing at a folk festival? Who knows? Selling tickets, I guess. (Also on the bill last year were the Pixies, playing an all-acoustic set. I guess for some people “folk” equals “unplugged.”) And a few years ago, the headliner at the Newport Jazz Festival was Isaac Hayes. Is he jazz? Uh, no. But he put on a hell of a show, and we dug it.

All of which is simply to say: We are not purists.

But still, what were the Meters doing at a folk festival? What was Dr. John doing at a jazz festival — and why were two acts so
stylistically similar not at the same festival? How is it that Angelique Kidjo performed at the folk festival a few years ago and at the jazz festival this year — and did virtually the same set, with exactly the same band, on both occasions?

Or doesn’t it matter?

George Wein, the still-active founder of both festivals, acknowledged to me not long ago that today’s Newport Folk Festival
(or, to give it its official corporate name, the Dunkin’ Donuts Newport Folk Festival) is not the same animal as the original one. “It’s really more of a singer-songwriter festival,” he said. Which is fitting, I guess, because what tends to get called “folk” these days is a far cry from the kind of very, very traditional music that used to be performed in coffee houses, around campfires and, yes, at Newport.

Of course, you could say that things started to change at Newport way back in 1965, when Dylan plugged in. And I am not, as a rule, the kind of guy who thinks turning back the clock is a good idea. I wasn’t overly upset that I didn’t hear anyone at this year’s folk festival sing “We Shall Overcome” or “This Land Is Your Land” or, for that matter, “Maggie’s Farm.”

And it’s not like there was no one there who fit even a relatively strict definition of “folk.” The Indigo Girls? Sure, why not. They play acoustic guitars, sing nice harmonies, and write songs about things that matter to them and their listeners. Rosanne Cash? Well, okay. Anyway, her set was great. And her dad played Newport more than once — which might well have irked the folk purists of his day, but who deserves to be considered a folk artist more than Johnny Cash?

Other artists scattered over the weekend had very solid folk pedigrees and gave inspiring performances — Odetta, Chris Smither, Tim Eriksen, Riley Baugus, Patty Larkin. I consider David Rawlings and Gillian Welch to be more alt-country than folk, but who knows what the hell alt-country is anyway? They were, to use a phrase I invoked more than once that weekend, close enough for folk music. In fact, they were one of the best things I heard at the festival.

But what about Bettye LaVette? She’s a hell of a singer, only now garnering some of the attention she deserves after many decades in the business. But her genre is rhythm and blues, sixties vintage. Is that now considered folk music? Why? Because enough time has elapsed since its heyday? I enjoyed her set, but I wasn’t sure why she was there.

I guess none of this would have bothered me so much if not for all the artists who were not there. You would never know it from this year’s Newport lineup, but there is a whole new folk movement out there, unfortunately saddled with the name “freak-folk” but a lot more inventive, thoughtful and diverse than that name might suggest. Where were Devendra Banhart, Sufjan Stevens, Joanna Newsome?

For that matter, where were the big (or bigger) names? Maybe it was just bad luck or bad timing that the Newport people couldn’t do better than, for example, David Gray, who closed the Saturday show on the main stage. I have a feeling that they tried to get Bruce Springsteen, who has of course been doing his own version of folk these days and who would have been a good fit as well as a big draw. Certainly, Newport usually has more big-deal headliners (with at least semi-legitimate folk pedigrees) than it did this year. I’m hoping that this year’s lineup was an anomaly, and that next year will be a little more exciting and adventurous.

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