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JImmy Buffett, Avetts, Gillian Welch, Levon Helm spice up Newport Folk

Fort Adams State Park, Newport, R.I., August 3, 2008

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

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The setting was perfect for a Jimmy Buffett concert. The sun was high in the sky at the Newport Folk Festival. To the backs of the audience was the lovely Newport harbor with a slew of sailboats out on the bay. That meant only one aspect was needed - good time Buffett songs and atmosphere, and that the summer favorite supplied and more.

Buffett was the headliner on the final day of the three-day fest, which is no longer strictly folk and hasn't been for awhile. Pete Seeger would have pulled the plug on many acts during the day if he were attending.

Buffett was the perfect closer, providing lots of fun in music that doesn't cut all that deep, but what the hell? It's summer. And with a start of "Why Don't We Get Drunk (And Screw)" and Van Morrison's "Brown Eyed Girl," Buffett and his very fine Coral Reefer Band were up and running.

Buffett cutely introduces almost every song, making it clear what he is about to play. He also played to the local crowd, apparently having spent a lot of time among the boating set in this wealthy Rhode Island city, making numerous local references. This was not your typical gratuitous attempt at ingratiating oneself with the locals either.

Buffett trotted out his usual suspect hits from the lively, pretty sounding "Come Monday" to "Margaritaville," and just about everything worked exceedingly well. The sound was most easy to get into. The crowd, both young and old, stood the entire time, grooving to the music.

The Coral Reefer Band were certainly up to the task from keyboardist Michael Utley and Robert Greenidge on steel drums. They've doubtlessly played these songs hundreds of time, but it sure didn't feel like it. Buffett and company know how to keep the party going.

Preceding Buffett was Levon Helm, the former drummer of The Band, who put out a fine CD last year, "Dirt Farmer." Helm, 68, was steady handed on the drums in an hour-long set that proved to be more of a revue. Helm's voice is a bit on the craggy side, but made it work. Helm included several standards of The Band, including "The Weight" and "Ophelia," making them sound real fresh. He also ceded the lead vocals to others, including his daughter, Amy, who helped produce his last CD.

Particularly spicing the effort was the backing horn section, including long-time ace Howard Johnson on tuba. Guitarist Larry Campbell, who has done time with Dylan and co-produced "Dirt Farmer," was a particular delight on guitar. Helm is a musician making real good music not just relying on his glorious past.

The day enabled concert goers to catch many bands, though not necessarily for all that long because of scheduling conflicts.

A particular highlight were The Avett Brothers, who drew a very healthy, younger trending crowd, on a side stage. Led by North Carolina brothers Seth and Scott Avett, the group tends to play higher energy old time/bluegrass music. This is not the music of yesteryear however as these guys can turn it on to make their music loud and fast and make you suspect there's something going on.

They played several selections from their just released EP "The Second Gleam" (the CD only features the brothers instead of upright bassist Bob Crawford, who is also a member of the band), a far softer affair than their CDs and live efforts.

Having recently signed to American/Columbia with Rick Rubin producing, it will be interesting to see where The Avetts go from here. Right now, they certainly have a following and a different sound that serves them well.

Gillian Welch dished out a very satisfying set on the main stage with long-time sidekick David Rawlings, a Rhode Island native. Welch hasn't offered much by way of new recordings in a number of years at this point, but she played new music. Welch, who seems to grow increasingly confident, said they had recently played with Paul Simon in Brooklyn and played a song resulting from that.

Welch displayed a sense of humor, which, while certainly not as humorous and fine-tuned as Buffett, referred to the water surroundings several times. While Welch was billed as the attraction, Rawlings, once again, showed he was far from second fiddle. Taking a turn on lead vocals on one song, Rawlings more importantly is an ace guitar player on acoustic. His playing is inspired, taut and energetic.

Son Volt offered their typical set of Jay Farrar's enticing vocals, which suck you in, and then establish a satisfying mid-tempo groove to the music. This set was not all that different than other efforts by the band in recent years. While Son Volt may sound good, one gets the sense that there is not a lot new under the sun either.

Calexico enjoyed a solid set on the main stage earlier in the day. There was nothing unexpected in the Tucson, Arizona-based band's sound, which means a Mexican influence to the proceedings thanks to horns and good singing from Joey Burns. Jim James of My Morning Jacket, who did a solo set on rainy Saturday, guested on one song.

The Newport Folk Festival has been hailed for its music over the years. While the focal point may not exactly be folk any more, the music remains top notch. Buffett brought together past and present at the very end. He noted how he was told Dylan played his "A Pirate Looks At Forty" during a show in Hawaii and how honored he was. Buffett said he was returning the favor, but going acoustic, closing with the most serious "Blowin' in the Wind."