Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz
ith acts ranging from Ray LaMontagne to The Staves to Case/Lang/Veirs, the Newport Folk Festival ran the gamut from tried and true to not so well known to brand new (sort of) acts.
And that was the beauty of day one of the festival in enabling attendees to sample a wide range of music and genres, albeit little of it folk as we once knew it.
In fact, JP Harris started the fest with his typically superb traditional country music. The ultra-long bearded Alabaman has the vocal chops and songs to pull it off no problem.
Wild Child, an Austin-based septet, has a soulful edge to their music. Kelsey Wilson, who doubled on violin, infused the songs with her singing. Some were accentuated by trombone and trumpet, adding another dimension to their sound.
Case/Lang/Veirs may have been the most widely anticipated show of the first day given that this was the trio's East Coast debut. They are not exactly unknowns, though. Not when the band consists of Neko Case, k.d. lang and Laura Veirs, who just released their debut after three years of work.
The start of the show was delayed by presumed technical issues, but once the trio got the ball rolling, the packed audience with many ringing the sides of the canopy were treated to a set that showed that this collaboration clicked.
The general M.O. was that one of the three would take lead with the others backing on vocals and a crack band behind them.
lang earned a long standing ovation from the crowd after tackling Neil Young's "Helpless." Lang, whose career has gone through several genre incarnations, was in top form vocally throughout, including her own "Constant Craving." Lang had the biggest personality by far of the three, clearly enjoying the chance to be with her band mates, dancing around with abandon even when she wasn't handling lead.
Veirs, who looks more the role of a school teacher than a musician, was an equal partner to her better-known peers. She sings well and seemed possessed when she lit into "Georgia Stars" from the trio's album. She went from jumping around to playing her acoustic guitar behind her head to eventually hitting the floor. It seemed surprising, but music can apparently do that to you.
Case led the charge on the punchy single "Delirium," while later turning in her own "Hold On, Hold On."
Case, lang and Veirs came together for three-part harmony on the closing, "I Just Want to Be Here," concluding a well-conceived set that showcased the talents of trio.
The Staves was another trio - this one of the sisterly kind. The British trio of Jessica, Emily and Camilla Staveley-Taylor (aided by a drummer) are of the indie folk variety.
Their set was marked by three-part harmonies, a keen sense of humor from keyboardist Jessica and the feeling that they deserve to be heard far more on these shores than an EP. This was a fun set and the type of outing that results in music fans discovering the previously unknown.
Making their mark big time was the Birmingham, Ala.-based conglomerate St. Paul and the Broken Bones. Lead singer Paul Janeway has the James Brown/Otis Redding thing down pretty darn well. He doesn't exactly look the part of the focal point of the sextet, which was aided immensely by a three-piece horn section.
Janeway appears to be a computer geek type, but when he started singing, he held command of the stage and crowd. Never more so than on the slow and soulful "Broken Bones and Pocket Change." By song's end, he left the crowd cheering wildly and a huge grin came over Janeway's face.
St. Paul and the Broken Bones may not necessarily be ground breaking, but they certainly were most entertaining.
So was Aoife O'Donovan, who introduced a few wrinkles into her set. O'Donovan always has enjoyed a sense of comfort on the stage, and that was ever evident during her stint with a backing duo of drums and guitar.
A string quartet of Berklee College of Music students added depth to her songs "Beekeeper" and "King of All Birds." O'Donovan ended with a country-flavored vibe on her cover of Tom Waits' "Ol' 55."
A few veteran bands showed their wares on the first day. Fruit Bats, really the brain child of Eric D. Johnson, turned in a fun set of pop with a bit of crunch to it with lots of good beats and pacing. Nearly 20 years after the group started, their chances of reaching the pantheons may be slim, but it's not for a lack of ability.
Freakwater has been around even longer as Catherin Irwin and Janet Beveridge Bean started the group in 1989 and resurfaced earlier this year with "Scheherazade," their first disc since 2005.
Freakwater's sound is more firmly rooted in country with Irwin the more twangy of the two. Bean and Irwin have an easy-going, loose style on stage with Irwin the stronger vocalist. She showed much vocal intensity on "Falls of Sleep," a slow and mournful song.
The Violent Femmes made their first Newport Folk appearance since 1998. The band has been active since 2013, the third time for the Milwaukee band has resurfaced. In March, the trio released its first album in 16 years, "We Can Do Anything."
Chances are a large chunk of the youthful crowd had little knowledge of the Violent Femmes, but they scored with such songs as "American Music." They also showed their Christian side with "Jesus Walking on the Water."
Compared to other acts, however, the Femmes lacked the spark and excitement. Not was it a paint-by-the-numbers outing either.
The sandpaper-voice Ray LaMontagne has always maintained an intensity about himself and his music. The three songs caught on the main stage were no different, ranging from the pedal steel-flavored "Airwaves" to the fast-paced, pop leaning "Supernova."
Given the number of acts, it's impossible to sample everything in the course of a day. That's the way it goes, but what was most apparent was that there was plenty of good vibes to be heard from the well known to the virtual unknowns. That's the greatness of the Newport Folk Festival.