Innovation Ecosystem

A troubadour with a microphone

The story of the 2022 Newport Folk Festival was one where hope was lifted on high by the power of song, illuminated by the “Joni Jam,” featuring Joni Mitchell and Brandi Carlile, and the duet by Paul Simon with Rhiannon Giddens on “American Tune” – with a supporting cast of thousands

Photo by Steve Klamkin

Joni Mitchell and Brandi Carlile, performing at the 2022 Newport Folk Festival.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 8/1/22
With microphone in hand, WPRO’s Steve Klamkin captured the voices of performers at the iconic Newport Folk Festival.
How is the history of the Newport Jazz and Folk festivals taught in Rhode Island public schools? How can the story of Joni Mitchell’s recovery from a brain aneurysm be reported on in medical journals? What are the opportunities for future collaborations of songwriters and poets on stage?
Some of the collaborations that Joni Mitchell undertook included one with Charles Mingus, another with Jaco Pastorius and Pat Metheny, and a third with the Persuasions, speaking to the fluid nature of the flow of musical genres, between folk and jazz and back again. And, of course, Mitchell’s cover of “Twisted,” written by Annie Ross and performed by the vocal trio, Lambert, Hendricks and Ross.
Mitchell wrote the definitive song about Woodstock, but somehow got left behind in New York City when Crosby, Stills, and Nash departed without her to get to the festival. She appeared as part of Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue and also part of Martin Scorcese’s documentary on the Band, “The Last Waltz.”
The beauty of the collaboration with Brandi Carlile is the way in which Carlile created a comfortable place for Mitchell to perform on stage, surrounded by musical friends, similar to the way that Carlile brought Dolly Parton on stage in 2019 at the Newport Folk Festival.

NEWPORT – For years, WPRO’s Steve Klamkin has been performing as a troubadour with a microphone, capturing the essence of the Newport Folk and the Newport Jazz festivals, telling the stories of the hundreds of performers who have graced the stage, often featuring the young and upcoming musicians in a galaxy of stars.

Troubadours, according to the American College Dictionary, are described a “class of traveling lyrical poets” in Europe, beginning in the 11th century. In that sense, Klamkin, like Studs Terkel before him, has made a career of recording both the news and the newsmakers – and the artists.

Klamkin’s genius [although he would demur from the use of that description] is his ability to allow the festival performers to share their own stories, in their own voices, without intruding.

Between the two festivals, in which the musical genres seem to move back and forth effortlessly – where Roots and Rhiannon Giddens can perform at both festivals – the boundaries and walls that often separate us as humans keep getting torn down with kindness.

The “Joni Jam” turned into a big surprise sing-along, because most everyone knows the lyrics from 78-year-old Joni Mitchell by heart, from “Big Yellow Taxi” to “Both Sides Now,” her retelling of the strength and frailty of the human heart – looking at life, love and clouds.

As Brandi Carlile tweeted on Thursday, July 28: I’ve never seen anything like what @jonimitchell accomplished at the @Newportfolk fest on Sunday. She showed the whole world that there’s still so much goodness in us as a species. She did the revolutionary work of true reconciliation. I can NOT come down!!!

The appearance of 80-year-old Paul Simon, as a guest of Nathaniel Rateliff – singing “The Boxer,” “Graceland,” and “The Sounds of Silence” – was a testament to the strength of troubadours in American life.

[For the cognoscenti, Mitchell’s amazing catalogue of songs had already been featured at the 2008 Newport Jazz Festival, in a performance by Herbie Hancock featuring Wayne Shorter, from the album, “River: The Joni Letters.” The album won the Grammy for “Best Album.”]

In years past, ConvergenceRI has been fortunate enough to feature Klamkin’s storytelling – which he does as a side gig – as well as being one of the hardest working news reporters in Rhode Island.

For the last few years, beginning in 2017, Klamkin has been collaborating with ConvergenceRI. The headlines for the stories – and his insightful photographic portraits – provide the backdrop for the rich cultural musical heritage that calls Rhode Island home every summer, pandemics notwithstanding.

[See links below to ConvergenceRI stories, “The circle is still unbroken,” “Hope comes to Newport,” “Young singer-songwriters shape the future at Newport,” and “Something for everyone at the iconic Newport Folk Festival.”]

This year, the week before the Newport Folk Festival, Klamkin had covered the brief visit of President Joe Biden to Somerset, Mass., in the midst of a heat wave, to talk about the climate threat. Then, in the week between the Folk Festival, which had closed with the special Joni Jam, featuring Joni Mitchell, Brandi Carlile and a host of guest performers, Klamkin was back at his daytime job – serving as the news anchor at WPRO.

What makes the reporting by Klamkin so special is his ability to talk with performers, to find common ground, allowing them to tell their own stories. The wonder of the Newport Folk Festival is that tickets sell out, online, the demand exceeding the appetite, with little need to hype the performers. The news and the performances are shared on Twitter and other platforms, and the dream of George Wein, who created both festivals, has emerged as a potent force – the next generations of students, performers, and audiences has found a home where everyone is welcome, where musical genres flow back and forth as easily as the tides in Newport.

The human stories behind the festival – the young performers appearing for the first time on stage, the new troubadours finding their audiences, and the arc of history turns toward justice and kindness – can be found in Klamkin’s interviews.

First time at Newport
In his interview with first-time performer John Craigie at the 2022 Newport Folk Festival, Klamkin drew Craigie out to talk about the experience. Craigie, in his early 40s, has eight studio albums, two live albums, and two cover albums – and has opened for Jack Johnson on his national 2017 tour, where the two performed Craigie’s song, “I wrote Mr. Tambourine Man.” Still, this was his first time as a performer at Newport, and Craigie relished the experience.

As Craigie explained it to Klamkin, what informs his music is the art of storytelling: “Stories speak to me. Human experience as I travel around, experiencing them myself, reflecting that to the audience, the tradition of the troubadour, right? He [or she] would go around, town to town, with the news and stories about what was going on. I know we live in a different era, but there is still a need for that today.”

KLAMKIN: “What kind of story turns you on?”
CRAIGIE: “Anything that is relatable. The best song for me is one that is personal and universal. It hits someone in a way where they say, ‘Man, I’ve gone through that, but also, I see now that everyone has.’ Those are the moments that I look for.

KLAMKIN: And, it doesn’t matter whether you sell a million or a thousand records. It’s what you feel.
CRAIGIE: We are all just trying to stay alive. But, in the end, a successful artist’s career to me is just to be seen and heard – and heard. It gets to those moments with the audience where they are experiencing it together. You can’t put a price on that.

Craigie, whose latest album, “Mermaid Salt,” came out in 2022,  has been likened to the tradition of Woody Guthrie, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and Pete Seeger. Part of what makes the Newport experience so great, Craigie told Klamkin, was the opportunity to hear other performers. Craigie said he was thrilled to be able to catch Courtney Barnett’s set, calling himself a huge fan. “Obviously, the Paul Simon experience was amazing,” Graigie continued, saying that he was also looking forward to Brandi Carlile’s set later on Sunday evening.

Craigie talked about the strong influence Paul Simon had on him as a songwriter. “Anyone who is a songwriter, they were influenced by him,” Craigie opined. “He is one of the pinnacles, right up there with Dylan, Lennon and McCartney, and John Prine.”

To the music, with love
For Martin Earley and Calin Peters of The Ballroom Thieves, the performance at the 2022 Newport Folk Festival was a return engagement of sorts – they had last played a stage in Newport in 2015.

Klamkin spoke with them right after they had finished performing, supported by an enthusiastic fan base.

PETERS: We’ve been here a number of times. We love this place. It’s a dream to come back. They treat the artists so well; they treat everyone so well. It’s so full of kindness and love.

KLAMKIN: Everyone is touring this summer, everyone is pent up, anxious to get back on the road. What’s it like to be getting back in front of real live audiences?
EARLEY: We played online shows, but its nothing in terms of a replacement for being in room with real people, and feeding off the energy of the audience, creating a moment together that will never happen again.

KLAMKIN: You two have a vibe that meshes with the audiences so well. What is that about?
PETERS: We just love playing music so much. We love each other. We love performing on stage. There is something special about performing on stage during the day. It’s so bright and energetic, so very different from performing at night in a club. We just have such a fun time. I like festivals.

I particularly like this festival, which is very health focused.

EARLEY: There is something about this festival. I think it’s the kindness. To distill it down to one word, it’s kindness. And, that is something we care deeply about.

And, I think we fit in to the festival in that way, we fit into what hey are trying to create here, with the audience who are attending.

As part of the ongoing activities at the Newport Festival, performers are encouraged to link up with a charity. For Peters and Earley, it is the Girls Rock Camp in Charlotte, N.C. As Early explained to Klamkin, “No kid ever has enough opportunity to play music, with people who accept them, who are just like them.”

KLAMKIN: Where are you from?
PETERS: Martin is from Switzerland, and I’m from Boston. I went to Berklee [College of Music} in Boston. I am so grateful that I got in, and that I got to spend four years learning as much as possible.

MARTIN: My parents moved from Switzerland when I was 13 to Bangor, Maine, from Basel to Bangor. I started playing guitar in high school.

KLAMKIN: What’s next?
PETERS: We have a tour planned for Scandinavia, in August. We come home, we have about a week, and then we get married.

KLAMKIN: When is the wedding?
MARTIN: Sept. 10.

KLAMKIN: Mazel tov!

Deep roots
Last year, Roots played the Newport Jazz Festival. This year, Roots played the Newport Folk Festival. Ray Angry, the keyboard player with Roots, spoke with Klamkin about the experience of coming to Newport.

KLAMKIN: How did Roots come to be at the Folk Festival? You were at the Jazz Festival last year.
ANGRY: First, I do not speak for the Roots. For me, I think it is an honor. We all love music. Why not? It’s a beautiful day. It is nice to connect with people from different genres as well.

KLAMLIN: It’s iconic. There is such a long tradition. What does it mean to be playing the festival this year?
ANGRY: It means a lot to be part of the rich history, all the incredible artists that have performed at Newport. It is an honor to be here.

KLAMKIN: Looking at your CV, you have a list of accomplishments longer than my arm, longer than both of my arms. How did you become grounded in music?
ANGRY: I started out in music as a classical pianist, attending the New World School of the Arts in Miami, Florida., grounded in the world of classical music, in gospel and classical.

I went to Howard University in D.C., and that’s when the world of jazz opened up for me. I just love music, and I have been blessed with some incredible, incredible mentors. I have been enjoying the journey. Working with the Roots on the Tonight Show, it has been a blessing, a dream come true.

KLAMKIN: Not that many people make that journey from classical to everything else.
ANGRY: They should. It’s music. There are only 12 notes. Inclusiveness in music is very important to me.

KLAMKIN: What do you like best about performing?
ANGRY: Performing with the Roots, I love working with them so much, it's so much fun. For me as an artist, it’s about growing, and not being complacent. Being at the festival, it’s almost like a high school reunion, seeing all your friends.

KLAMKIN: George Wein, in his later years, saw the festivals as an opportunity to bridge the gap, to have collaborations between artists, known and unknown. That was his driving motivation. It seems he has been successful.
ANGRY: That is why I go out of my way to support young artists. Honestly, that’s at the heart of what I would like to do – to have an impact on the world, to make someone who doesn’t have the belief yet to believe in themself. I am here to inspire.

KLAMKIN: Who are you looking forward to seeing?
ANGRY: Brandi Carlile.

Closing notes
The reverberations from the Newport Folk Festival are still being felt around the globe, as the performances from Joni Mitchell, from Paul Simon, from the Roots, are being shared again and again and again on social media, across generations.

The back story of Mitchell’s performance was her amazing recovery from a brain aneurysm, after which she had to teach herself to learn how to play the guitar again, a lesson about hope and perseverance.

At a time of great racial unrest, the choice by Paul Simon to have Rhiannon Giddens sing “American Tune” was an appropriate answer for all of us. Giddens is the new artistic director of the Silkroad Ensemble, taking the baton from Yo-Yo Ma.

As Giddens tweeted: “It’s also very important to say that Paul changed the lyrics, not me – and this song has become one that is so dear to my heart for its ability to say what I have been feeling for a long time.”

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