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Avetts, Swell Season, Sharpe lead Newport Folk charge

Fort Adams State Park, Newport, R.I., August 3, 2010

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

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Levon Helm's Band were the closing act of this year's Newport Folk Festival, but if you couldn't find something that you liked earlier on a beautiful day, you must have tin ears because the entertainment showcased everything from the up-and-coming to someone who appeared at Woodstock (Richie Havens), and almost all of it was quite good.

Helm and his large band may have headlined, but truth be told, it was disappointing. The musicianship is still there from Helm, who's in his 70s on drums, but he barely sang. When he did, it was unfortunately, very very ragged. To be kind, his voice is not what it used to be. It was really a big shame because he was the voice behind a lot of hits from The Band and has really good solo material.

Unfortunately, his own recent material wasn't the focus at all of his show. Fortunately, Helm has a very strong band anchored by guitarist Larry Campbell and several vocalists capable of putting the material across including daughter Amy Helm, Teresa Williams and keyboardist Bryan Mitchell.

Prior to Helm, the main stage was home to a bunch of excellent acts, highlighted by The Avett Brothers and The Swell Season. The former have played here before, while Glen Hansard, one-half of The Swell Season, said he has always wanted to play here.

The Avetts are road hogs and never fail to impress in their overwhelmingly energetic in your face brand of rootsy music that has evolved over time from country to a mixture of roots, folk, rock and more thanks in part to uber producer Rick Rubin.

Brothers Scott and Seth Avett both assume lead vocals with Seth the more raucous of the two, sometimes barking out his lines. If you've never seen a cellist get so emotionally involved, check out Joe Kwon. He can dance with his cello in the air and sing along (unmiked).

The Avetts didn't play it safe either - offering Die Then Grow live for only the second time ever. An hour of the Avetts, closing with Kick Drum Heart and the title track of their latest I and Love and You just didn't seem like enough time.

The prominence of The Swell Season was due to the movie "Once" featuring Hansard, who previously earned his spurs as lead singer of the Irish rock band The Frames, and Czech singer Marketa Irglova.

They were not one album wonders, and based on their performance Sunday, that is no surprise.

Hansard is the focal point for sure as he's got an engaging, extremely study and expressive voice with a lot of power behind it. He also has a winning stage presence with a sense of humor on one hand and the ability to rescue a concert goer who was being given the boot for reasons unknown.

Irglova mainly played piano, adding fills and backing harmonies to Hansard. But she also has a nice voice in taking lead, although she could use more stage presence.

Four members of The Frames backed up the pair to good effect. There's a lot of life in this group besides the beautiful Falling Slowly, the pretty centerpiece of "Once."

Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings also held court on the main stage, and the former prison guard at Rikers Island in New York has a vocal toughness in delivering songs about love gone bad in her soul revival style.

Jones was a superb singer, able to be tender and tough with no difficulty whatsoever. Her band fit the bill also, although once again her band leader could do with less talking. Fortunately, Jones has a slew of songs that work well with her abilities.

Tao Rodriguez Seeger was a connection to the Newport Folk Festival of yesteryear. He's the grandson of Pete Seeger and played with his grandfather on the some stage last year. The younger Seeger does not have a high profile career going, but that's not because he's lacking in ability. Seeger has a good voice and isn't afraid to tackle politics in his songs either.

Probably the biggest act on the smaller stage was Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. Based, however, on their turnout, they certainly didn't deserve to be there. Nor based on the quality of their music, which almost made you feel like you were in a funky church sometimes. While only catching a short chunk of their 53-minute set, Sharpe and his large collective of 10 was quite impressive.

First off, they drew a huge crowd that sprawled on the sides and ends. Sharpe et al have gained acclaim and a lot of play for their single Home. It's loose, a bit raucous and extremely full of a lot of energy.

Sharpe (aka Alex Ebert) cuts an impressive figure decked out in an open chested white suit and a red scarf with a bit of a crazed look about him.

It's all put to good use with the music kept at a very high pace and pace with little downtime. The songs tended to stretch on awhile, but that was no negative.

"This feels amazing," said Sharpe after finishing off Up From Below. It did for the crowd as well, especially after a rousing version of Home trading verses with Jade Castrinos with the crowd fully into it. This outfit was made for larger stages.

The Punch Brothers, the quintet led by Chris Thile of Nickel Creek fame - turned in a sturdy set. Thile's a good singer and quite a fine mandolin player, of course. The key, though, was that the sometimes somnolent sound of the two CDs was not evident.

Like any decent group, the music ought to jump out when played live, and that was the case with Thile et al. A strong band including Gabe Witcher on fiddle, Chris Eldridge on guitar, Noam Pikelny on banjo and Paul Kowert on bass didn't hurt either.

One of the beauties of the Newport fest was the ease of going from stage-to-stage and catching a least a bit of a lot of acts. The two side stages are not far away at all, and one was moved inside the fort, making traffic flow even easier than previous years.

That opportunity also meant checking out acts very much under the radar. Among those that stood out were Pokey Lafarge and the South City Three and April Smith and the Great Picture Show.

The former was a quartet from St. Louis playing old style music in throwback clothing (two-tone shoes for LaFarge) that bordered on bluesy and jazzy overtones (which means that in today's world, it's considered rootsy and Americana, perhaps even somewhat country-flavored).

LaFarge and company offer feel good music, highlighted by La La Blues, including the lyrics "I'm so happy I'm singin' La La La." Not exactly high-end lyrics, but the playing and singing were infectious throughout.

Smith has a powerful set of vocal chords, which served her very well. She put her own stamp on Melanie's Brand New Key and sang with confidence.

On the low-fi rootsy end of the day were Daniel Lee Moore and Ben Sollee. They teamed together for a disc earlier this year. Kentucky natives, Sollee is on a mission to combat blowing up mountaintops in his home state to make way for coal.

The same sense of passion did not come through in his music with Moore being more expressive and turning in a fine stint on cello. This didn't mean the songs weren't good. It was just that their set was in contrast to just about everything else heard throughout the day. Jim James of My Morning Jacket fame, who played on his own Saturday (that that was as his alter ego Yim Yames) aided the duo on guitar, although he stayed in the background.

Cory Chisel and the Wandering Sons offered soulful rock music. Chisel proved to be a very strong singer and impressed in his stint on a side stage.

The day ended on the main stage with an ensemble reading of I Shall Be Released. A nice ending to a great day of diverse, enjoyable music.