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Festival Favorites: George Wein’s Newport Folk Festival

Here is the latest installment of our summer series. Today we look at George Wein’s Newport Folk Festival which will take place from July 30- August 1 in Newport, Rhode Island.

The Essentials:

Fort Adams State Park, Newport, Rhode Island, July 30 – August 1

The Lineup:

An Evening of Bluegrass & Banjo, Steve Martin performing with the Steep Canyon Rangers, Tim O’Brien, Sarah Jarosz, John Prine, Andrew Bird, Yim Yames of My Morning Jacket, Calexico, Brandi Carlile, Doc Watson & David Holt, Sam Bush, Blitzen Trapper, The Low Anthem, Dawes, A.A. Bondy, Nneka, Horse Feathers, Sarah Jarosz, O’Death, Liz Longley, The Levon Helm Band’s Ramble on the Road w/ Special Guests, The Swell Season, The Avett Brothers, Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros, The Preservation Hall Jazz Band w/ Special Guests, Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, The Felice Brothers, The Punch Brothers featuring Chris Thile, Richie Havens, Tao Seeger Band, Elvis Perkins in Dearland (replacing Justin Townes Earle), Pokey LaFarge & the South City Three, Ben Sollee & Daniel Martin Moore, Cory Chisel & The Wandering Sons

The Buzz:

Newport Folk’s bringing back the Friday night kickoff gigs at the International Tennis Hall of Fame, as true Renaissance man Steve Martin banjoes it up with The Steep Canyon Rangers. Saturday spotlights Yim Yames, a.k.a. Jim James of My Morning Jacket, and Sunday meets various brother-constellations: Avett, Felice and Punch. Although the killer lineup waters mouths with these and many other supernovas, there are myriad reasons to be excited about this year’s edition. For despite its epithet, NFF bridges genre to accommodate a diverse audience, while sticking to authentic acts that make for what Yim Yames has christened the “family reunion” feel.

Collaboration is key, “If you’re not there from note one, you’re going to miss something,” says Jay Sweet, Producer of Newport Folk Festival and Editor-at-Large of Paste Magazine. “We’ve set up everything so the degrees of separation between these artists are very, very few. We set up this lineup specifically so that the amount of collaboration that can happen will be simply stunning.”

NFF is traditionally also a venue for “on the verge” artists. Bob Dylan and Joan Baez broke through here in the ’60s. Last year Joe Pug, Lo Anthem and Deer Tick graced the festival. ’10’s edition sports many up-and-coming artists, such as Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, Horse Feathers and Nneka.

The Back Story:

With a heritage that dates back to ’59, George Wein’s festival is much more than the place where Dylan went electric, “it’s also where The Pixies went acoustic,” Sweet muses, and highlights NFF’s maverick stance as a safe haven where artists could “speak their mind about what was going, especially in a world of modern music which was very tightly controlled by labels. It was a Lilith Fair before there was a Lilith Fair.”

Wein, born in 1925, is still instrumental in the carrying out of the festival, “As far as a mentor goes, the guy didn’t write a couple of chapters, he founded the printing press and wrote the book,” Sweet explains, and continues “he still looks up every single band [that’s recommended for the festival] on Youtube.” At 84, Wein is still the glue that holds NFF together, key in an organization Sweet says is “ blood, sweat and tears, it’s family pulling it together. It really is like having a big wedding every year.”

Headliner Headlines:

The Levon Helm Band’s Ramble on the Road w/ Special Guests and Avett Brothers both recently made jaws drop during their gigs at Mountain Jam; both are to grace Rhode Island on the Sunday, and feet will stomp in grass or mud. Helm’s set has explosive potential, as many artists who have played midnight rambles over the last two years feature in the NFF lineup. For the Saturday, unorthodox violinist, guitarist, glockenspiel player, whistler and singer Andrew Bird hits the stage with genre-defying mélange
of gypsy-jazz-country-indian-blues-pop’n‘rock in his only confirmed U.S. date this summer. “It is something I think is pretty darn special, especially when you look at who else is on that day that might join him,“Sweet comments.

Yim Yames, currently on his Appalachian voices tour, will play solo on Saturday and hopefully guest other performers as well. The Felice Brothers stormed through many hearts during their ’08 iconic gig, when a power-out planted them barefoot in the mud with a drenched audience. “We were in the middle of the worst weather imaginable,” Sweet recollects, “and [the power] goes out right during [The Felice Brothers’] performance, and they just hopped off the stage, rolled up their pants in the middle of the mud and made everybody circle up around them. It was the true spirit of the festival.” After such a performance, odds are fans of the Catskills-goes-New-York-subway-folkers cross fingers for monsoon at this year’s show.

Relix/ Recommends:

Bohemian ensemble band Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, led by Alex Ebert, are sure to bring vibe, singing and swinging on stage. The band has made quite a name for itself since ’09’s first full-length, Up from Below, and has played whistle-along single “Home” on Letterman. California-quartet Dawes plays melody-driven, soulful indie that
detrimental for keeping speed limits, but also – for want of better moniker – lyrically strong folk. Nigerian-born Nneka, currently on the road with Nas and Damian
Marley, splits time between Nigeria and Germany. Her unique social perspective makes for conscious songs; think African soulful M.I.A, roots attitude and beautiful voice.

Helpful Hints:

There is no camping available at Fort Adams State Park, but outdoorsy, old school patrons need not fret. For want of camping experience, Melville Ponds Campground in Portsmouth is located 11 miles from festival grounds. Don’t bring you dog, or fill your bag with alcohol, or put your dog in your bag, or fill your dog with alcohol, as none of those options comply with festival rules. Maximum size for blankets is 8’x10’, and the only legal type of recording device is hand held still cameras.

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