The 2017 Newport Folk Festival Was Rarely Folk, And That’s OK

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The 2017 Newport Folk Festival Was Rarely Folk, And That’s OK

When Bob Dylan “went electric” at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, many people missed the point. The point wasn’t that electric is better than acoustic nor that rock’n’roll is better than Appalachian ballads. And the point certainly wasn’t that folk music could be severed from its past. In fact, Dylan was emphasizing that folk musicians could remain tethered to their predecessors even as they ventured into new territory.

Dylan reinforced this notion by recruiting members of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band to back him up on songs that sounded very much like the electrified Chicago blues of Butterfield, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. And if Waters and Wolf, who grew up on Mississippi plantations singing field hollers, weren’t folk music, what was? These days, however, if Dylan wanted to shock a Newport audience, he’d have to play a set of Sonny Terry covers with nothing but a harmonica.

In this century, the Newport Folk Festival has been dominated by electric guitars, most often played by rock bands with no apparent connection to Virginia hollers or Delta farms. That was especially obvious this year. Among my favorite Newport acts this past weekend were the Drive-By Truckers, Aaron Lee Tasjan, Ben Gibbard and Robert Ellis—none of whom I would ever describe as folk musicians. I love these guys, but if the word “folk” refers to a particular subset of the musical world, it doesn’t refer to them.

The booing of Dylan in 1965 was due only in part to his plugging in; a good part of it was due to the poor sound that resulted. The festival still struggles with allowing vocals to be heard over the buzzing guitars. It wasn’t until the final three songs of the Truckers’ set, for example, that the lyrics came into focus. When they did, they revealed Patterson Hood as the second-best lyricist on the premises—and perhaps the most political as well. When he led the Truckers through “What It Means,” the key track off last year’s American Band album, he laid out the contradictions of his beloved nation—both in anthemic chords and verbal images—so no one could mistake them.

Matching Hood on this score was Rhiannon Giddens, who sang “Better Get It Right the First Time,” the story of a promising African-American student gunned down when he attends the wrong party at the wrong time. Giddens, the former Carolina Chocolate Drop, led a dazzling set that was a mini-folk festival all in itself. With her all-star band, including Dirk Powell and Hubby Jenkins, she sang and played slave stories, string-band frolics, black-gospel hymns, Cajun waltzes, field hollers, honky-tonk ballads and Civil Rights anthems. Her band moved from style to style with assurance, and Giddens was singing better than she ever has—and that’s saying something.

Rhiannon Giddens.JPG
Rhiannon Giddens

The best lyricist on the grounds was John Prine, who finished up the weekend on the main stage, which was backed by the gray-stone walls of Fort Adams and which looked out on the boats and gulls of Narragansett Bay. Despite a draining battle with cancer, Prine sounded surprisingly good—better than even his early years when he had less control over his instrument.

And after he dismissed his wonderful Nashville band, he demonstrated what just one man and his acoustic guitar can do. With his short, conversational lines and bouncy, catchy melodies, Prine created the impression that he was just chatting away while he fooled around on his instrument. Then a killer phrase would pull everything together and snap the listener’s head around on a song, such as on “Fish and Whistle” or “Mexican Home.”

He was joined by some famous guests for duets: Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon (“Bruised Orange”), My Morning Jacket’s Jim James (“All the Best”), Margo Price (“In Spite of Ourselves”), Nathaniel Rateliff (“Sam Stone”) and Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters (“Hello in There”). It was all well intentioned and under-rehearsed, as these things usually are, and only Price added something special to a song.

Nathaniel Rateliff and John Prine

James tried to further establish his folk credentials by performing a whole set with just his voice and his acoustic guitar. The voice was as amazing as ever, but the bare-bones arrangements undressed his songwriting and revealed it as cliché-ridden and melodically undernourished. He was much better off when he did a few covers, most impressively on Willie Nelson’s “Funny How Time Slips Away.”

Ben Gibbard had tried the same trick a day earlier by playing on acoustic guitar and upright piano the songs he’d written for his band, Death Cab for Cutie, and other projects. Gibbard’s tenor is not a freak of nature like James’s, but it’s quite handsome and hearing these tunes stripped of their indie-rock machinations was revelatory. In contrast to James’s, Gibbard’s lyrics were smart and the melodies well crafted. No one would want Gibbard to perform solo all the time, but he should do it more often. Hearing these song through both electric-rock and acoustic-folk filters yields more meaning and pleasure than only one approach ever could.

Another member of My Morning Jacket delivered a more successful solo show. Guitarist Carl Broemel teamed up with the quartet Steelism for a set that combined jam-band improvisation with country-rock. It worked only because Broemel’s compositions boasted such strong melodies that they could be twisted and turned a dozen different ways and still sound tuneful. When Broemel put down his guitar to play a pedal-steel duet with Steelism’s Spencer Cullum Jr., the glimmering glissandos induced a musical reverie. It wasn’t folk music, but it was irresistible.

Nor was James the festival’s only singer with a dizzying high tenor. Both New Zealand’s Marlon Williams and Julien Ehrlich of Chicago’s Whitney displayed stratospheric male voices, which they applied to Everly Brothers-like popabilly and Smokey Robinson-like pop-soul respectively. Other impressive newcomers included Louisiana’s pop-punk Seratones, Maryland crooner Jalen N’Gonda, and California’s Latino-soul band, Chicano Batman.

Compared to bands such as My Morning Jacket and the Fleet Foxes (whose Newport set was as much a snooze as their new album), The Decemberists boast clearly defined folk-music roots. They’ve been especially influenced by such British folk-rock acts as Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span, and the Oregon band has made that connection explicit with this year’s side project, Offa Rex, which features the group’s five permanent members with the young British singer Olivia Chaney.

This sextet’s Newport appearance was only one of five live shows to support the new album. Chaney, who played harmonium and electric harpsicord to accompany her striking soprano, seemed more devoted to making the music beautiful (a la Steeleye’s Maddy Prior) than to making the lyrics dramatic (à la Fairport’s Sandy Denny). Colin Meloy sang his fair share of the lead vocals, and when he revived the Decemberists song “Rox in the Box,” it fit quite snugly among the ancient Child Ballads.

Colin Meloy of Offa Rex

The Decemberists’ multi-instrumentalist Chris Funk not only sat in with the Drive-By Truckers on their set-closing rock anthem, “Hell No, I Ain’t Happy,” but also curated and emceed the “For Pete’s Sake” shows. These intimate performances, dedicated to Pete Seeger, took place inside the Fort Adams Museum, and on Sunday, two members of the Punch Brothers (who performed later that evening) were featured on the tiny stage.

Punch Brother Chris Eldridge teamed up with his fellow acoustic guitarist Julian Lage, who is a major figure in the jazz world. This unaccompanied duo played both jazz instrumentals and bluegrass songs to blur the boundaries between two fields in a flurry of fast fingering and melodic detours. Banjoist Noam Pikelny then played alone to showcase the songs from his recent solo album, showing off a deep baritone to go with his groundbreaking fretboard technique.

Noam Pikelny

This combination added to both the dread and the possibility of the old-time country songs he sang. He seemed to be awakening the ghost of Dock Boggs, the coal-miner singer whose ‘20s recordings are still spine-tingling and who later shared a Newport workshop stage with Dylan himself. Those are the connections that allow the Newport Folk Festival to live up to its much abused name.