A moment during David Rawlings’ mesmerizing set summed up the disparate musical personalities assembled in Newport last weekend. Completing the rousing “Sing, Buddy, Sing,” the guitarist said he’d planned to leave it off because someone told him it was “too folk-y.”
“But this is the Newport FOLK Festival,” exclaimed Gillian Welch. “Where else are you gonna play it?”
The potent combination of Rawlings and his longtime partner was a festival high point. He wrestled his relic of a guitar like the Devil himself was inside, choking out brittle notes and quivering in a holy fever. Their songs – “Elvis Presley Blues,” “Diamond Joe” and “When You’re Young” – seemed like smooth stones plucked from a river, polished by time, fully realized. That they came from Welch, the adopted daughter of a television writer, made them all the more astounding.
Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor contributed fiddle fills and smooth harmonies, especially on “I Hear Them All,” a protest song he wrote which drew spontaneous cheers for the line, “I hear soldiers quit their dying one and all.”
“Folk music” is an abused, catchall moniker, and Newport made a hash of that legacy. Along with the Rawlings/Welch set, nodding acknowledgement to the traditional came from Rosalie Sorrels and Odetta; both had graced the festival stage nearly 50 years ago. Chris Smither and Patty Larkin also gave well-received solo performances. Smither debuted “Origin of Species,” a hilarious send-up that ended with the priceless, “I’ll just sit back in the shade while everybody else gets laid/that’s what I call intelligent design.”
Amidst wryly-comic stage banter and deceptively easy sounding songs, Larkin reminded fans of what a gifted musician she is. Newcomers like Howie Day use tape machines as accompanists. All Larkin needs is one six-string guitar to sound like she’s playing with a whole band.
Tim Eriksen took the music even further back in time, bringing a “Sacred Harp” choir to begin Sunday morning. For such a large ensemble, the effect was surprisingly intimate – a church service straight out of “Cold Mountain.”
But the weekend was mostly given over to the folk genre’s looser definition, spilling over to Delta blues, rebel country and precocious jazz.
Sonya Kitchell fronted a talented band that looked too young to drink coffee, let alone alcohol, and the 17-year old sang like Janis Joplin without the Southern Comfort, ferocious and sophisticated. Madeline Peyroux gave a somewhat over affected performance, ably channeling Billie Holiday, but occasionally chewing too hard on her words.
Grace Potter and the Nocturnals were the most disappointing, with an overwrought, nuance-free set utterly lacking in charm. Potter’s attention-starved histrionics suggested the recent wave of YouTube “Mentos in Diet Coke” videos – a series of big, sticky explosions that left only an empty bottle. Their sound was also too loud, drowning out the Cabin Dogs, playing a hundred yards away on the Water Stage.
While Potter’s gang carried on like they owned the place, Betty LaVette, a seasoned professional with over 40 years in the business, coyly played the part of newcomer. She won over the crowd with a mix of tough blues from her latest record, “I’ve Got My Own Hell To Raise,” and a buoyant attitude elevated by her newly rejuvenated career. LaVette’s main stage set was arguably the best of Saturday’s performances.
Rosanne Cash, who’ll be in Hanover October 7, gave a somber, gripping performance, drawing from “Black Cadillac,” an album which, she explained, “started as a record about loss and ended up being about what remains.” She didn’t stray far from that theme, even in her choice of songs from other records. On “Tennessee Flat Top Box,” guitarist John Leventhal sampled “Folsom Prison Blues,” and Johnny Cash’s ghost hovered over the big lawn. “I’m going home to see my mother,” she sang to cheers in the gospel standard “Wayfaring Stranger,” and segued into another of her father’s songs, “Big River.”
What remains, it seems, is the music.
Most of the action was on the two small stages, which led to several mad dashes throughout the weekend, and overflow crowds were the norm. It was frustratingly impossible to see all of one performer without missing another. Beolach, the young band of Celtic traditionalists from Nova Scotia, gave a polished set on the smaller Water Stage. Indigo Girl Amy Ray arrived a day early to check out the Harbor Stage, and was most impressed with Mary Gauthier’s gritty performance.
A songwriter’s circle with Darrell Scott, Chris Smither and Jeffrey Foucault was satisfying. Though Scott and Foucault hadn’t met before their set, Scott effortlessly supplied guitar fills to “Northbound 35” and other songs he’d presumably never heard before. Scott’s also played a solo set peppered with hits he’d written for others, including the Dixie Chicks’ “Long Time Gone” and Travis Tritt’s “It’s a Great Day to Be Alive.”
Attendance was down from previous years, possibly because Newport’s a driving destination in a period of spiraling fuel costs. A more likely reason? “Folk” is less inclusive than the promoters assumed. Overall, the show was a scattershot of good music aimed at too many targets.