Innovation Ecosystem

The circle is still unbroken

Music did return to Newport, and with it, a vision of finding common ground after a pandemic

Photo by Steve Klamkin

Matthew Houck performs as Phosphorescent at the 2021 Newport Folk Festival, with the sky reflected on the piano.

Phto by Steve Klamkin

Christian McBride and George Wein at the close of the 2021 Newport Jazz Festival

Photo by Steve Klamkin

Natalie Hemby at the 2021 Newport Folk Festival

Photo by Steve Klamkin

A tribute to the late John Prine at the 2021 Newport Folk Festival

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By Steve Klamkin, WPRO News Reporter [Special to Convergence RI]
Posted 8/9/21
The return of the Newport Folk Festival and the Newport Jazz Festival to sold-out audiences has two important messages: the power of music to bring people together and the potential for innovative responses to the pandemic to create best practices for how to overcome misinformation.
What college or university will consider offering a business course on the Newport Folk and Jazz festivals as a business case for success? How important is it for children to teach their parents well in the traditions of musical heritage? Which college or university in Rhode Island will be the first to honor bassist Christian McBride with an honorary degree? Would Taylor Swift ever consider becoming a surprise guest at the Newport Folk Festival?
This year, the 50th anniversary of Joni Mitchell’s album, “Blue,” it is sometimes forgotten that Mitchell has often collaborated with jazz musicians, including Charles Mingus and Herbie Hancock, Jaco Pastorius and Pat Metheny. Indeed, Herbie Hancock, who won the Grammy album of the year in 2008 for his “River: The Joni letters,” featured Mitchell’s songs in a live performance at Newport Jazz Festival in 2008.
Each year, the two festivals feature numerous crossover artists. This year, one of the crossover performers was Yola. In past years, the crossover artists included Rhiannon Giddens. If the Newport festivals can break down the silos in music, the question is: why can’t commercial radio find the points of convergence?

NEWPORT – “Music will be back in Newport this summer,” proclaimed Rhode Island Gov. Dan McKee, soon after he assumed office last winter, and McKee delivered on that promise, leading to nine sold-out concert dates for the Newport Folk Festival and the Newport Jazz Festival.

Organizers, fans and musicians all applauded the effort to bring back some semblance of “normal” after the year-long COVID shutdown that left most Americans cooped up at home and brought the entire music industry to a standstill.

As he grabbed a bullhorn to welcome fans lined up at the gate on the first day of the Newport Folk Festival, Executive Director Jay Sweet talked about steps taken to ensure an experience safe from the virus. He repeated a mantra that he has extolled for years, to “be present, be kind, be open, be together.”

“When it comes to the music, just let music do its thing,” Sweet said. “It is the glue that holds us together. We need it more than ever, OK? It is our social glue. It is the ability for us to mend fences and to make new bridges. Let music do its thing and everything will take care of itself. I love you. Folk on!” he said, echoing the theme of the six-day gathering.

Proof of concept
Concertgoers had to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test to gain entry to the festival grounds at Newport’s Fort Adams State Park, but that was little trouble for die-hard music fans of both folk and jazz.

“It’s very special,” said Marian Starkey of Portland, Maine, as she returned to attend her fourth Folk Festival. “I remember last year when COVID first became a thing, obviously, there are bigger concerns than live music,” she recalled, soon after settling in to a front-row seat while waiting for singer Erin Rae, the first performer of the festival.

“But I remember thinking, 'OK, this should all be blown over by the time the Newport Folk Festival happens in July, and like, I can do quarantine, and I can hang out and miss concerts and stuff until July.'"

“It was pretty devastating when it was announced it was being canceled. So, I feel like I’ve been waiting for this for two years, and yeah, I couldn’t be more excited to be here,” Starkey said.

A family affair
From the fans to the musicians, there was no difficulty getting together in what, for some, has become a family affair that has great meaning in their lives.

“Well, as you can see, we had a sell-out,” said Christian McBride, world-renowned bass player and the Musical Director of the Newport Jazz Festival.

Like most musicians, he found himself out of work for more than a year, so when it came time to assemble a line-up, he found musicians eager to take part.

“In terms of getting musicians to say yes, that was the easy part,” McBride said. “Everybody said yes. We need to play; we need to share our art with the world. Everybody thought about staying safe, but no one said no, we can’t make it.”

Folk musician Andrea van Kampen performed for her first time at the Newport Folk Festival. The Lincoln, Nebraska native spent much of the pandemic at home.

“I’m from the Midwest, and it was a little less constrictive than the coasts,” van Kampen said. “You know, we were still able to go outside and have gatherings outside and things, so I feel fortunate for that. It definitely was isolating, and hard not to have shows to play, as well,” she said.

Support from the Governor
Gov. McKee said that one of the early phone calls after he took office came from the festivals’ executive producer, Jay Sweet. He told the Governor that it was unlikely the festivals would survive another year without music.

“It’s been wonderful to have such great support from the Governor, because we are a non-profit organization, and we have to raise money,” McBride said. “Obviously, we have to stay safe but there are some very basic business things to keep in mind. We had to do something. We already missed a year, and we’re just really grateful the governor had our back,” McBride said.

[Editor’s note: Gov. McKee’s daughter is a folk musician who lives in Newport.]

On pins and needles
Two-time Grammy Award-winning songwriter and singer Natalie Hemby, who has written No. 1 hits for Miranda Lambert, Little Big Town and Toby Keith, relished the chance to sing at Newport Folk Festival with her own band to support her just-released album “Pins and Needles.”

The daughter of country music stars and member of the much-heralded female country super group, “The Highwomen” which debuted at the last Newport Folk Festival in 2019, Hemby, 44, said she is just grateful to be performing once again.

“It’s taken me a long time to get where I am. I have been put through the wringer, and I literally just prayed one day to God, and I was like, I just want to do music and I don’t really care what that looks like anymore.”

Hemby continued: “I don’t care if I’m supposed to sing in a choir or play in a coffee shop or teach music, whatever that may be. I just want to do it because I feel like that’s what I was created to do. And, I feel that’s just finally come around years later,” Hemby said.

A tradition of finales
Known for its finales, the Newport Folk Festival included tributes to the late John Prine, a surprise appearance by soul singer Chaka Khan and a closing set by hometown favorites Deer Tick.

The Jazz Festival culminated with a performance by Golden Globe winner and Academy Award nominee Andra Day.

Festivals founder George Wein, now 95 years old, did not attend, but “dialed in” to both shows.

“I wish I was there,” Wein said in a FaceTime call, on a phone held up by McBride. “Keep coming back,” he told the sold-out crowd. “Just seeing you people makes me very happy,” he said, holding out the promise of continuing the tradition he started in 1954.

Steve Klamkin, WPRO news reporter, is a frequent contributor to ConvergenceRI, covering the Newport Folk Festival in 2017, 2018, and 2019.

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