Even Jermaine Clement and Bret McKenzie of the Flight of the Conchords seemed puzzled as to why they were at the Newport Folk Festival. After all, they were famous not for mountain ballads or Delta blues but for doing spot-on parodies of David Bowie, Prince and Isaac Hayes on their HBO comedy series about two inept, wannabe rock stars from New Zealand.
But there they were at the most famous folk festival in North America. So how what did the two men offer as a gesture of accommodation to the folk world? A new arrangement of their disco number, “Too Many Dicks (On the Dance Floor),” as a two-headed Bob Dylan impersonation.
In the end, it didn’t matter if their connection to folk music was extremely tenuous, for they delivered one of the best sets of the weekend. The two men limited themselves to acoustic guitars, acoustic piano and percussion (and were joined by cellist Nigel Collins for most of the set), but they were still able to pull off such famous parodies as “Bowie” and “It’s Business Time,” even without the elaborate studio production of the original TV versions. And, of course, the between-songs banter was as entertaining as the songs themselves.
Better yet, Clement and McKenzie didn’t merely recycle bits from the TV show. They introduced several new songs that were as good as anything they’ve ever done. “Father & Son” was a vicious satire of every sentimental MOR song you’ve ever heard. Clement played a single father visiting his son, played by McKenzie. “Dad,” Just when things seemed unbearable maudlin, McKenzie sang, “You know very well that Mom didn’t die; she hooked up with a guy named Trevor.” Still the highlight of the set was the old favorite, “I’ve Got Hurt Feelings,” perhaps the funniest hip-hop song ever.
The Flight of the Conchords weren’t the only ones stretching the definition of folk music. The festival presented mediocre rappers, semi-famous indie-rock bands, blues-rock juggernauts and self-described “shit-kicking country” singers. After a while it seemed not so different from South by Southwest, only with more picturesque surroundings: instead of trash-littered Sixth Street, you saw sailboat-dotted Narragansett Bay.
Perhaps the Flight of the Conchords were right. Maybe humor was the best response to the situation. Ryan Adams certainly thought so. The almost rock star was performing with the new-grass band the Infamous Stringdusters and singer Nicki Bluhm from a semi-circle of barstools.
“You guys are too good,” Adams told the band after some especially inspired solos on “Oh, My Sweet Carolina” and “Everybody Knows.” “You’re going to raise expectations that my music is this good all the time. I can’t be working like that. Bring it down a notch. Are there any drugs or alcohol you could take right now?” Adams was joking—or at least half-joking.
During “New York, New York,” two military helicopters roared over the stage. Adams stopped the song, urged the crowd, “Run! Run!” and then picked up where he’d left off. When the sound from the Frightened Rabbit set inside Fort Adams leaked outside the fort to Adams’s stage, the singer said, “What’s that?” Misunderstanding the shouts from the crowd, he said, “I’m frightened and rabid?”
He then proceeded to make up a song called “Frightened and Rabid” on the spot. It had multiple verses and a catchy chorus and soon the hot-picking bluegrass band fell in behind him. It was a telling reminder not only of his ample talent but also of the many half-finished songs he has produced. Later he apologized for his set’s sit-down presentation: “We spent all our budget on the helicopters.”
Margo Price and Hayes Carll arrived at the festival with two of the very best albums of 2016. They quickly proved that the records didn’t rely on Pro Tools or such studio tricks, for they delivered their smart, sometimes funny, sometimes sobering songs on stage with impressive authority. When Carll sang “Drunken Poet’s Dream” or “Jesus and Elvis,” the latter featuring his girlfriend Allison Moorer on harmony, the sleepy-eyed Texan proved as expert at deadpan humor as Jermaine Clement.
A half hour after she’d sung a duet with unannounced act Kris Kristofferson, Price delivered the songs from her knockout debut album with a hillbilly soprano edged in blues. A small woman, whose strawberry blonde hair spilled out of a chocolate brown cowgirl hat and over a black-tassel vest, she unveiled a surprisingly big voice. She revealed her roots by singing Jessi Colter’s “Why You Been Gone So Long” and Gram Parson’ “Ooh Las Vegas,” but her own songwriting was surprisingly modern, with an unmistakable feminist sensibility.
It makes sense that the country acts would have a stronger connection to America’s folk roots than the many rock bands at the festival. Some of those bands were impressive (Frightened Rabbit, Fruit Bats, Strumbella) and some were unimpressive (Villagers, Matthew Logan Vasquez), but their links to non-commercial, working-class music were hard to find.
The Banditos did a remarkable job of reincarnating Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company (with all the strengths and weaknesses of the original group), but San Francisco acid-rock is hardly a folk tradition. And the Arcs, the rock’n’soul side project of the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, turned in a terrific set, but their notion of folk roots was to cover the 1971 Motown hit, “Smiling Faces Sometimes.”
By contrast bluegrass icon Del McCoury could boast that he’d first performed at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963 as a member of Bill Monroe & the Blue Grass Boys. He returned this year as half of Del & Dawg, his duo with mandolin virtuoso David Grisman. Grisman insisted that McCoury give the crowd a quick tutorial on the role of the brief single-note “runs” in bluegrass rhythm-guitar playing. That set up Grisman’s delightful instrumental “G Run Blues.”
But the emotional peak of the set was the tribute to the recently passed Ralph Stanley, described by Grisman as “one of America’s greatest throat singers.” McCoury, the greatest living bluegrass singer today, brought the crowd to its feet with his version of Stanley’s “Man of Constant Sorrow.”
Some youngsters revealed their folk roots too. Louisville’s Joan Shelley seemed to be channeling England’s late Sandy Denny as Shelley performed the songs from her debut album with collaborator Nathan Salsbury. Baltimore’s Anna Roberts-Gevalt and Elizabeth LaPrelle sang old-time mountain songs with lovely voices and no affectation. Neko Case, k.d. land and Laura Veirs, the rare supergroup that’s actually more than the sum of its parts, offered Veirs’ tribute to folk singer Judee Sill and lang’s spellbinding treatment of Neil Young’s “Helpless.”
The best part of any festival, however, is when the performers don’t merely deliver the same show they would do at any stop on their current tour but take advantage of all the musicians on hand to try something different. The festival helped make this happen by recruiting a string quartet from the Berklee School of Music and making it available to performers. Both Margo Price and Aoife O’Donovan both made good use of the opportunity. The festival also booked the Texas Gentlemen, a sextet of Lone Star State session musicians, to serve as a backing band for Kristofferson, Joe Ely and Terry Allen.
Glen Hansard had started his song “Lowly Deserter,” when he stopped and asked someone to come from backstage and play tambourine. Out popped Elvis Costello with a circular rattle in hand. Three songs later Costello returned to sing two verses on the old Brendan Behan folk song about prison, “The Auld Triangle” (aka “The Banks of the Royal Canal”). In between, Hansard and his unusual accompanist, jazz trombonist Curtis Fowlkes, played a version of Woody Guthrie’s “Vigilante Man” that seamlessly incorporated a certain presidential candidate into its tale of reactionary thuggery.
Costello began his own set as a trio: himself on acoustic guitar with the folk-rock duo Larkin Poe backing him up on mandolin and electric dobro. After four songs like that, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band came marching out on stage, the clarinet trilling and the tuba bleating. Costello introduced “Sulphur to Sugarcane” as “a song for the campaign season” and went on to impersonate a loathsome lothario who leers, “I wouldn’t cheat you, honey. When can I see you again?” Still later Costello joined the Dawes spin-off group Middle Brother to do a rousing version of “Everyday I Write the Book.”
Amid all these entrances and exits, Costello sat down alone at the piano and previewed a song from his work-in-progress, a stage musical based on the 1957 movie A Face in the Crowd about an amoral show-biz star who becomes a right-wing populist. “In this song,” Costello said, “he makes an appeal to your worst instincts. Not that it should remind you of anyone you know.”
Or maybe it should. Perhaps the best way to respond to this summer of blood and bluster is to take the sharpened weapon of humor and place it in the hand of the social-justice tradition that has been a part of American folk music as long as there’s been a Newport Festival to celebrate it.
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Matthew Logan Vasquez
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Flight of the Conchords
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Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats
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