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Newport Folk Festival wraps with Browne

Fort Adams State Park, Newport, R.I., July 29, 2012

Reviewed by Lee Zimmerman

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Way before Woodstock, and certainly prior to Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo, South By Southwest and all the other modern music festivals that have to dominate the current cultural landscape, there was the Newport Folk Festival, an annual institution that began in 1959 and has been going strong ever since. Early on, it was a beckoning call for those at the vanguard of America's folk and roots revival - Pete Seeger, Peter Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and Johnny Cash among them - but as time went on, it also helped bolster the advent of a new rock reality, brought on by Dylan's decision to go electric and test the fervor of the faithful.

Much has changed over the decades - a switch to a new venue at Newport's historic Fort Adams and economic changes that nearly forced the festival's demise in the late '60s - but today, Newport remains at the top of America's musical map, and the place to see those that are taking traditional music into the future.

Sunday at Newport 2012 was filled with extraordinary performances that remained true to the spirit of the festival's innovative offerings. Literally every artist present extolled the joy and prestige that this gathering brought with it, and the spirit of friendship and fellowship manifest in the various guest appearances and collaborations brought a uniqueness that Newport can claim as its own.

More importantly though, it stayed true to its mantra of pointing the way towards tomorrow by featuring not only venerable icons - Jackson Browne being the day's headliner - but also up and coming acts like Sara Watkins, Of Monsters and Men Deep Dark Woods, Jonathan Wilson and The Head and the Heart among them, all of whom point the way towards tomorrow.

There could have been no more dramatic evidence of this than the first act on Sunday's bill, Sleepy Man Banjo Boys, a family bluegrass band from New Jersey, even though in theory Appalachia might have been a better bet. The group's front line was made up of three siblings, ages 10, 13 and 15, although their instrumental dexterity belied their tender ages. Their all-too-short set was followed by Watkins on the main stage, accompanied at least part of the time by Browne, who as it turned out, would be a constant presence throughout the day in sets other than his own.

After Watkins' somewhat sedate performance, it was left to Trampled By Turtles to turn up the heat and the volume via one of the most rambunctious bluegrass outings witnessed. Their nimble combination of banjo, fiddle, guitar and mandolin took the proceedings from mellow to manic, all in a matter of seconds and song change. Mostly, it was the tunes delivered at a breakneck pace that enthralled the audience with many making dancing a priority during the majority of the time they held sway on stage.

Like any festival of similar ambition, the festival forced choices to be made, given that four stages were needed to host all the acts. Harbor Stage often seemed the best bet, what with its intimate ambiance and superb sight lines, available even to those who weren't fortunate to grab a seat.

The first act of the day to grace this venue was Deep Dark Woods, an impressive Canadian combo whose bearded band members and austere selections brought to mind The Band, another outfit whose ranks hailed mainly from north of the border and whose penchant was mostly Americana.

"We'll play some sad, depressing songs for you," singer Ryan Boldt promised in a self-effacing tone, and true to their word, their somber narratives rang with a gothic grace and Pentecostal purpose. Nevertheless, they proved a real crowd favorite and deservedly so.

Still it was Wilson, who played midday on the Harbor Stage, that notched up a nomination as the festival's primary superstar in the making Sunday afternoon. Looking like a '60s survival with his long flowing hair and vintage hippie apparel, he played songs that matched, mostly taken from his stunning debut album "Gentle Spirit" as well as a few from a new effort promised later this year. His sweet laurel Canyon-like odes proved so convincing in fact that they lured one of the original Southern California troubadours, Browne himself, onstage in what proved to be a perfect bond. Once Watkins joined the band, the scene looked like something taken straight out of the Sunset Strip, circa 1968.

The irrepressible Tom Morello, even working mostly on his own, turned the tone political, offering a mix of defiant polemic anthems and angry, insurgent posturing. Given the fact that he brands himself inexplicably as The Nightwatchman, he seemed mostly intent on delivering blustery song sermons designed to rally the masses in true protest folk tradition, One Man Revolution and This Is A Union Town clearly got the point across, but Morello's exhortation that "the only way to save yourself is to save others" also summed up those sentiments succinctly.

It's to the festival organizers' credit that their definition of folk can also embrace such disparate performers as The Head and the Heart - a favorite from last year whose rousing performance left their audience enamored and coaxed Saturday headliner Ben Sollee back on stage to join them - and Tune-Yards, an eccentric experimental combo adept at pairing synthesizers, yodels and old time instruments.

The festival also accommodates more traditional fare - albeit done with a twist - as per the innovative bluegrass approach of The Punch Brothers as well as the solitary sound of Connor Oberst, onetime boy wonder from Bright Eyes, whose freewheeling solo set often seemed a bit too stodgy and self-conscious, even with the assist on backing vocals from First Aid Kit, the lovely Swedish sister act who had their own headline set the day before.

Ultimately, Browne found the crowd was his for the taking, thanks in part to the fact he was bequeathed the festival's closing set and the most prominent marquee name of the weekend. His willingness to show support for others was amply repaid by the other artists he had performed with throughout the day, among them Morello, Wilson, Watkins and Dawes, another holdover from the day before, and like Wilson, an outfit that echoed the spirit of Browne's '70s canon.

Ironically, Browne's performance was light on those earlier signature songs, but a mandatory take on These Days and Take It Easy helped satisfy the crowd's craving for hits, and a final run through, en masse, of Warren Zevon's Lawyers, Guns and Money affirmed not only his generosity of spirit but his willingness to offer homage as well.