Saturday, August 11, 2007

Tradition gets an update at Newport Folk Festival

Although this was my first time attending the Newport Folk Festival, much of my musical identity was shaped by what happened there in the 1960s--Mississippi John Hurt, Doc Watson, broadside singers like Ochs and Paxton, and of course Bob Dylan.

The modern incarnation is much different than the festivals of the early 1960s, but still is connected by an unbroken thread to its historical roots. For one thing, producer Bob Jones has been instrumental since the beginning and is still the guiding light. For the past 20 years, the festival has been held at beautiful Fort Adams Park in Newport harbor, instead of the in-town sites of the famous early festivals. Actually, the opening night event is held in the original location at the Newport Casino, now the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

[Photo: The scene at Newport]

Musically it has evolved as well. Today's equivalents of artists like Doc Watson or John Hurt are side stage performers. The main stage needs mass appeal, so we get rock-oriented acts like those dominating Saturday's lineup--Grace Potter & The Nocturnals, John Butler Trio, North Mississippi Allstars and The Allman Brothers. The center of gravity was decidedly over in a blues-rock direction.


Not that I am complaining. The Allmans were everything I would want from a festival headliner. And Grace Potter knocked my socks off. Also, the Sunday schedule moved the needle back in a folkier direction with Emmylou Harris and Alison Krauss closing out the festival on the main stage. Plus , there were plenty of solid folk performers on the other stages--Ralph Stanley, the Canadian showcase, the Wainwright family, Cheryl Wheeler and more.

[Photo: Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks of the Allman Brothers Band]

Performers that especially caught my attention were Grace Potter, The Carolina Chocolate Drops and Tom Morello as The Nightwatchman. I'll write in more detail about the performances in subsequent posts. My overall comment is that this is a folk festival in the same way that New Orleans is a jazz festival or Telluride is a bluegrass festival or Ottawa is a blues festival. The labels serve as a loose guide at best, and the main stage performers at any of them are pretty much interchangeable.

[Photo: Alison Krauss]

Site and logistics

The Fort Adams site is nothing short of spectacular, the equal of any festival venue for pure beauty. Telluride may be the ultimate mountain festival location. Newport has to be the ultimate seaside venue. The three stages and other facilities are erected on the grounds of an 1830s-era fortification set on a neck of land at the south end of the Newport peninsula and surrounded by the boats and waterscapes of Newport Harbor.

The logistics ran as smoothly as any major festival I have attended, probably the result of running the folk and jazz festivals here on consecutive weekends for so many years. Site capacity is said to be 10,000 and actual attendance was about 15,000 for the two days. Lines for bathrooms, vendor booths, artist signings were not too long. Traffic was not at all bad getting into the festival, though getting out was a bit of a wait. I was able to get to and from the festival by passenger ferry from the nearby island of Jamestown, where I was staying. Water taxis shuttled people to the wharfs in downtown Newport.

This was the first festival to take place following the merger last January of longtime production company Festival Productions Inc. with Festival Network. FPI is still headed by George Wein and the festival is still programmed by Bob Jones, but the new umbrella organization introduced a few innovations for this year's event.

For one, beer and wine were available on the grounds in a new cafe area for the first time. I was surprised to learn that liquor had not been available previously, and it was definitely a popular addition despite a bit of a bottleneck with the ID verification process. The new company is also very sensitive to public relations--the facilities provided for the press were the best I have seen at any of the festivals I've covered.

[Photo: Grace Potter]

Donut in the audience

On the downside, a new seating plan for VIP ticket buyers set aside the prime territory for customers who filled the seats only during the closing sets. Most of the main-stage performers played to a roped-off area of empty seats while lots of enthusiastic fans jammed on the sides and behind the sound board. A good many fans and a few artists expressed their unhappiness about the new policy.

I had a chance to talk with Chris Shields, the CEO of Festival Network, about the VIP seating issue and other matters. He readily acknowledged that the seating plan had been a mistake. "The last thing an artist wants to see is a donut in the audience," he said. "You have to make sure that audience enthusiasm is at the heart of the festival, right out in front.

"There are other places to put VIPs," he continued. "We will make this a policy for all our festivals to fill the front center with enthusiastic fans."

Speaking of donuts, Dunkin' Donuts was much in evidence as the presenting sponsor for the festival, as was Gibson Guitars, the second major sponsor. Proceeds on sales of donuts went to charity. At least one artist questioned the wisdom of associating the name of such a storied festival with a corporate brand. "I understand why they do it, but I can't help thinking it is a little weird," said Tom Morello is a press conference backstage.


Morello was also struck, as was I, by the contradiction of situating a folk-music community in the midst of Newport's opulence, with its mansions and yachts. But that is nothing new--the folkies and the aristrocrats of Newport have long since made their peace.

[Photo: Tom Morello as The Nightwatchman]

I also understand the realities of festival economics. My only complaint is putting the sponsor in the festival name. Here again, Shields basically agrees and indicates that most other Festival Network events will not use corporate names for branding. "If you brand after a product or a company, and then they change their marketing plan, years of goodwill and momentum can be wiped out," he said.

Shields had that exact experience some years ago when directing the Bell Atlantic Jazz Festival. "Bell Atlantic turned into Verizon the next year, and the new marketing department was more interested in rock-and-roll than in jazz," he said.

Fortunately, Dunkin' Donuts remains interested in folk music--or as near to folk music as you can expect at a major contemporary music festival.

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