Sign up for newsletter
 

Folk Festival 50 celebrates old and new

Fort Adams State Park, Newport, R.I., August 2, 2009

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

Other recent concert reviews
The 50th anniversary of the Newport Folk Festival - now called Folk Festival 50 after the festival became entangled in management snafus - proved to be a chance to intertwine very old and new.

On the one hand, Sunday's line-up attracted newer acts with nothing to do with folk, like Deer Tick, an alt.-country band from Providence, and Elvis Perkins in Dearland, a rock-flavored band with panache from upstate New York, and folks who know their Newport history - prime example number one, Pete Seeger. Chances are that there should have been some style of music everyone could latch onto, even if not everything squarely fit into folk (how else to explain acts over the weekend like The Decemberists?).

Seeger was part of the closing act for both days of the festival. At 90, Seeger is still putting out CDs and celebrated his birthday in May with a Madison Square Garden bash with friends like Bruce Springsteen.

Seeger trotted out with his banjo firmly in hand for about a half hour on Sunday. He still picked away, probably not as nimbly as in his heyday, but there were no excuses to be made either. He sang some leads and backing vocals and told a few stories.

Seeger was at the very first festival, and he told about how his wife complained that festival organizer George Wein did not have any old time acts at the festival. Seeger said several artists got together, writing Wein to complain. Apparently, the rest is history.

Seeger came out with The Mammals, the group including his grandson, Tao, who handled a chunk of the lead vocals and seemed quite glad to be singing with his grandfather. Seeger still exudes and gives off a lot of energy at his age.

The spirit moved Joan Baez, who appeared earlier with her own set, to dance with Jason Carter, fiddle player for the Del McCoury Band and others during a grand finale of everyone still around who played that day.

Judy Collins, a longstanding friend of Seeger, preceded him with a good half-hour set, which showed that her voice remained quite a pleasurable instrument at this point in her career. A duet with Baez on Diamonds & Rust, which Collins said they'd record for a future CD of hers, could have worked better - they just didn't sound all that together. Collins also suffered a bit from wallowing in nostalgia about the good old days of Newport.

Arlo Guthrie was very sharp being of strong voice and telling a lot of stories. He stood out particularly on Ledbelly's I'm Alabama Bound, telling the story of how he met him when he was two and later went on a successful search for his grave while in Louisiana. Guthrie must have sang City of New Orleans who knows how many times, but it sounded quite fresh.

Among the newer acts was Neko Case. She started off as a country/alt.-country darling earlier in her career, but she has evolved into rock-flavored singer-songwriter. Case owns one powerful voice mixed nice and high so she was easily heard.

The main problem was that almost every song clocked in at about 2 1/2 minutes. They sounded good and her voice bends a lot, holding notes, but one wishes she would give her songs more room to breathe to build the momentum.

The fest presented a chance to see a lot of bands, even if not staying for an entire set because of the need to see someone else. For example, while only catching the final two songs of Deer Tick, it was easy to see why the overflow crowd (not a surprise given the fact that the group is from Providence) was lapping it up. Deer Tick is a band on the upswing nation-wide.

Balfa Toujours played a great set on a side stage. The Louisiana Cajun band had not played in New England for at least five years, and they had better return a lot sooner based on their outing.

The sound was mainly built around two fiddles and some accordion from Dirk Powell. Guest bassist Todd Phillips kicked in as well. The group, singing mainly in French, certainly had the packed house dancing and shaking to the good sounds. There were enough changes, different vocalists, emphasizing accordion and more to maintain an enervating sound.

This was a coming home of sorts for Balfa Toujours. The Balfa in the band name goes back to Dewey Balfa, the late, great Cajun musician, who did much to spread the music way beyond the confines of Louisiana. Acoustic guitarist and singer Christine is his daughter and married to Powell. Great nephew Courtney Granger played fiddle. Dewey Balfa played Newport in 1964 as a last minute replacement. He would have been proud of how well his namesakes did 45 years later.

Elvis Perkins in Dearland is somewhat of a rock band with a twist that has increasingly captured acclaim. The band certainly widened the audience based on the number of high school and college students they drew (Seeger and Collins skewed about four decades older).

Perkins first gained notoriety as the son of the late actor Anthony Perkins of "Pyscho fame." But that has zero to do with the music he played, which leans more towards softer rock sounds than anything else. However, the fun started big time with band mates Brigham Brough (bass, vocals, saxophone), Wyndham Boylan-Garnett (organ, harmonium, trombone, guitar, vocals) and Nick Kinsey (drums, vocals). These guys bring a lot to the stage particularly when they resorted to their sax and trombone. Several times, Kinsey brought a drum with a cymbal attached to the front as well for good effect.

As an added treat, Tim Eriksen, who once upon a time was with Cordelia's Dad, came out with his Shape Note Singers, who had previously played to offer a song together. Eriksen, who stood out with his black outfit and bald pate, was superb dishing out a religious song with about 22 Shape Noters behind him plus EPID.

Perkins was an earnest singer with a bunch of good songs, but at some level his intensity limited him because he did not seem entirely comfortable in the lead role. He would do well to loosen up more with the crowd, and his music will go even further. Still, a very good performance from a band that plays with a lot of energy and fun.

Guy Clark dished out his brand of Texas singer/songwriter/country music with sidekick Verlon Thompson, a songwriter as well. Clark's voice was weathered, but his main strength was the quality of the songs, such as L.A. Freeway. As always, Clark painted great stories with his words. After a bit of a gap, he has a new disc out in September.

The closing coda to the past, present and even a look to the future came after the last notes sounded. Seeger came back out walking with Wein, who used a cane and waved it to the crowd. The FolkFestival 50 was alive and well and over, and Wein apparently promised it would return yet again next year. Chances are there will once again be something for everyone.