Convergence

Something for everyone at the iconic Newport Folk Festival

The 2017 musical menu embraced a wide range of styles, artists and genres, from John Prine to Suzanne Vega, from Rhiannon Giddens to Wilco, from the Preservation Hall Jazz Band to Chicano Batman

Photo by Steve Klamkin

Guitarists Nels Cline, left, and Jeff Tweedy of the band Wilco perform on the Fort Stage of the Newport Folk Festival on Saturday, July 29.

Photo by Steve Klamkin

Singer, violinist, banjo player Rhiannon Giddens performs Sunday, on the main stage of the Newport Folk Festival. She is also scheduled to headline the Newport Jazz Festival.

Photo by Steve Klamkin

Country and folk singer/songwriter John Prine, 70, closed the 2017 Newport Folk Festival with an all-star band on Sunday, July 30.

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By Steve Klamkin
Posted 8/7/17
The convergence of traditions and genres at the sold-out 2017 Newport Folk Festival offered a compelling, inclusive vision of the big tent that music can be in a time of divisiveness.
What are the marketing lessons to be learned from the sold-out Newport Folk Festival, where success is driven by content, not hype? In a time of splintered commercial vehicles for music, why does the inclusive convergence of musical genres, with something for everyone, resonate? How important is the continued protection of Narragansett Bay to the future success of music festivals at Fort Adams State Park? How does musical education in Rhode Island public schools embrace the wealth of musical tradition on display at the Newport Folk Festival?
Christian McBride assumed the helm this year as artistic director of the Newport Jazz Festival, taking over for legendary impresario George Wein. A virtuoso on bass, McBride, who at 45 is roughly half the age of Wein, brings with him a commitment to the next generation.
His organization, Jazz House Kids, in Montclair, N.J., offers year-round musical training in arts education and performance for students K-12. Jazz House Kids’ mission it to build vibrant communities through music, mentoring, education and apprenticeship, cultivating tomorrow’s global citizens.
On July 28, the week before the Newport Jazz Festival, McBride, aka DJ Brother Mister, was spinning old-school soul and funk for a dance party to kick off the Montclair Jazz Festival, scheduled for Aug. 12, the week after the Newport Jazz Festival, which will feature more than 150 students in eight Jazz House ensembles.

NEWPORT – Keeping with recent tradition, the 2017 Newport Folk Festival was another sell-out, 10,000 people filled Fort Adams in Newport to hear a wide range of musical styles for each day of the three-day run.

Sounds ranged from traditional folk and bluegrass to indie rock and even jazz, a nod to the offshoot of the folk festival from the iconic Newport Jazz Festival just one week later. There were familiar as well as new artists.

From the start – an open-microphone in the small “Museum Stage” that gave newcomers the chance to deliver their one best song – to headliners on the harbor-facing “Fort Stage,” like legendary country/folk singer John Prine, who closed out the festival with a succession of special guests, including Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, there was something for everyone.

“It’s the number-one festival, not only regionally, but anywhere in the world. If you say Newport Folk Festival at least in a certain community of people, they’re going to know, ‘Wow, that’s like the Super Bowl’ in a lot of ways,” said local musician Bill Bartholomew, who performed for his second time on the indoor “Museum Stage.”

“It’s a great opportunity just to be here. You’re going to bump into people from all facets of the business, whether it’s radio or other sorts of media. Everybody is here.”

Highlights included the bands “Fleet Foxes,” “Wilco,” “The Avett Brothers,” “The Head and the Heart,” and singers Regina Spektor, Angel Olson, Robert Ellis and John Paul White. Newer acts included the electrifying “Chicano Batman,” British-based singer L.A. Salami and “The Wild Reeds.”

Tribute to Chuck Berry
There was a touching musical acknowledgement to pioneering rocker Chuck Berry, who died in March at age 90. The all-star tribute featured guitarist Charlie Sexton, singers Nathaniel Rateliff [of The Night Sweats], Kam Franklin [of The Suffers] and Shakey Graves, backed by “The Texas Gentlemen.”

Rhiannon Giddens brought a country and jazz sensibility, playing violin and banjo. A member of the “Carolina Chocolate Drops,” Giddens was also scheduled to headline the Newport Jazz Festival August 4-6.

The “Preservation Hall Jazz Band” continued what is hoped to become a tradition of performing at both the Folk and Jazz Festivals, especially with the recent addition of tuba player Ben Jaffe to the Folk Festival’s board of advisors.

This was the first chance to play at Newport for “The Seratones,” an energetic and colorful four-piece rock band from Shreveport, Louisiana.

“It’s beautiful up here, man,” said bass player Adam Davis, as fellow band members agreed that New England in the summertime was a nice alternative to their very hot hometown.

“We’ve been supporting the ‘Drive-By Truckers,’” said the Seratones’ dynamic singer and guitarist A.J. Haynes. “Tonight we play the “Deer Tick” after-party, tomorrow we play Saint Johnsbury, Vt., and then go home and work on writing.”

The weather was a swirl of changes throughout the three-day festival: hot and humid on Friday, cloudy and very windy on Saturday, sunny and gorgeous on Sunday.

The festival embraced popular TV culture, with song and dance act “Nancy and Beth” – actresses Megan Mullallly of “Will & Grace” and Stephanie Hunt of “Friday Night Lights,” along with Mullally’s husband, actor Nick Offerman of “Parks and Recreation.” Offerman also performed a funny and at times vulgar solo show in the tiny, packed Museum Stage.

Crowds overflowed the smallest outdoor venue, the “Harbor Stage” as Nathaniel Rateliff delivered a rocking unannounced set. Country singer-songwriter Nikki Lane played to a packed house at the Fort Stage inside Fort Adams.

It was a homecoming of sorts for Suzanne Vega.

“It’s been about 25 years since I played here at Newport,” the very literate singer-songwriter told the crowd, as she launched into a set that included her hits “Luka” and “Tom’s Diner.”

The festival’s future is secure if 14-year old Kitty Amaral, who headlines “Kitty Amaral & the Cosmic String Coalition,” is any indication. The group patterns their bluegrass style after the legendary Bill Monroe and they also play Western swing and other styles.

“It’s amazing, because it’s one of my ‘bucket list’ festivals,” said the Virginia-based Amaral. The singer and fiddle player said she has been playing music for 10 years and wants to pursue a career in music.

“I’ve always wanted to play here, and I’m feeling so excited and so happy to finally be able to check it off my list.”

Steve Klamkin is a reporter, writer, photographer and videographer at WPRO, and host of the WPRO Saturday morning news program.

Editor's note: Rhiannon Giddens, who appeared Saturday afternoon on the Fort Stage at the Newport Jazz, sandwiched between Christian McBride's Big Band and the Brandford Marsalis Quartet, appeared to steal the show. She covered Aretha Franklin, Odetta, the Staple Singers and Ethel Waters, mixing blues, gospel and Cajun tunes. Her 2017 album, Freedom Highway, sold out at the merchandise tent after her performance. Marsalis joined her on stage to accompany her for a song. As a sign of the times, the merchandise tent offered both CDs and vinyl LPs.

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