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  • Rich Kassirer

Concert Review: Newport Folk Festival, Aug. 1, 2010

Levon Helm at the Newport Folk Festival.
Levon Helm at the Newport Folk Festival.

The challenge for a music festival is striking the right balance in the acts, mixing new and old, loud and soft, energetic and laid back. Too much one way or the other and you lose portions of your audience.  Festivals also require a philosophy that the vibe is more important than the actual performances. Not that great performances by band don’t happen, it’s just that most of the time what you get are shorter sets so the musicians don’t really have the time to warm up to the point of hitting their peak. Mostly what festivalgoers want is great weather, good tunes, and good vibes.

  George Wein or whoever works the magic at the Newport Folk Festival recently deserves some serious kudos. First, the weather was perfect (I don’t think George can take credit for this) and the vibe was as well. And both weekend day lineups were a masterful mix of musicians.

  There is an equal challenge for festivalgoers: Do you try to catch a bit of all the acts? Do you miss some to catch full sets of others? Do you just sit in front of the mains stage and catch all the big acts?

  On Sunday, the main-stage acts included Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, the Avett Brothers, Richie Havens, Swell Season and Levon Helm. A damn good lineup by itself, mixing folk, soul, rock and country. But if we just stayed there, we’d miss on the smaller two stages the likes of the David Wax Museum; the Felice Brothers, Cory Chisel and the Wandering Sons, and many others.

So I carefully planned our course of action the night before. We had to plan getaways in the middle of a few sets and miss others altogether to make it work. And then there was the problem of crowds at the smaller stages, which we didn’t foresee.

In all, what we took in was awesome. Here are some highlights in order as I remember them:

Our first decision was to pass on Rodriguez-Seeger and trek to the Quad Stage to catch the David Wax Museum, which had won a contest to play at the festival and is an up and coming band playing a cool mix of country, folk and Mexican music influences (note: their upcoming album is produced by my brother Sam). One of the band members, Suz Slezak, plays a donkey jawbone as well as fiddle.

  We then left halfway through their set to catch the last couple tunes from Cory Chisel at the Harbor Stage. I had recently chosen Chisel as an artist to watch in one of my recent issues and wanted to catch him live. The Harbor Stage proved to be the hardest to get into, usually very crowded and there wasn’t great space for overflow. Chisel’s got a good voice and his songs are decent; the band seems only mediocre.

We headed back to the main stage next for the neo-soul of Sharon Jones and the awesome Dap-Kings. She danced and sang through her hits like “If You Call,” “How Do I Let a Good Man Down” and “When I Come Home” and had everyone up and moving too.

The Avetts were next so we didn’t budge. They are such a dynamic band, especially live. Songs that might have been subdued on their albums are jolted with energy on stage. They mixed plenty of older tunes like “Shame” and “The Fall” into their set alongside “Tin Man” and “January Wedding” from their latest album, “I and Love and You.”  We saw the band enjoying the David Wax Museum set from the side of tent earlier in the day, and this would not be the last we’d see of them.

 We traveled quickly back to the Harbor Stage to catch the Felice Brothers. We’d seen the crazy bunch a while back and wanted to catch their act again. The tent was so full, we couldn’t even see them, so we sat off to the side and listened for a while. Loved “Run Chicken Run,” but after a while it was just too crowded and too hot to stay. Plus, we had to get back and catch at least some of legend Richie Haven’s set. He has to be in his 70s now and it seemed wrong to pass up the chance to see him for the first time.  We got back to our blanket in time to hear him sing the Beatles tune “Here Comes the Sun.”

By now we were pretty happy not moving around anymore. We had some drinks, some food, and the sun was starting to head westward. We knew we were missing some great acts at the other stage: Elvis Perkins in Dearland and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. But we knew those stages would be hard to get close to and we’d just run out of energy for the challenge.

We took one more loop around before settling in and heard a cheer over by the harbor. There, up on a forklift in front of the harbor were… the Avett Brothers, being filmed playing their acoustic instruments about 50 feet in the air. Pretty cool.

Back to our seats for the Swell Season — Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova backed by members of the Frames. At one point, Hansard was being harassed by a loving fan in front. He leaned over and jokingly said the the guy, “I’ve been wanting play here forever, and your ruining my day!” Hansard asked the crowd to sing melody lines in a couple of tunes and Marketa delivered a heartfelt “If You Want Me,” playing the guitar front and center. At the end of the set, the Low Anthem and Rodriguez-Seeger came out to join them for a rendition of the Clancy Brothers’ “The Old Triangle.”

As the sun sank, on came Levon Helm and his large band, which included his daughter Amy and guitarist/mandolist/fiddler Larry Campbell. Helm’s vocals are obviously not what they once were. The many other band members took turns leading the way and backing Helm as needed. We couldn’t stay for the whole set because we had to beat the crush home to the kids (that’s life!). But they opened with “Ophelia,” as well as “The Shape I’m In,” which was fun, “Long Black Veil,” and a few others.

 In all, a great full day of music.

For my pics, click HERE 

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