Roughly equidistant from New York and Boston, Newport, RI, is an old-money vacation town where, for one summer weekend a year, flashy cars, big yachts, and bigger estates share attention with folksingers like Pete Seeger and Joan Baez, whose lyrics preach about the dangers of a lavish lifestyle.
It's an irony that's survived for the 50 years of the Newport Folk Fest, the event where Bob Dylan notoriously went electric in 1965. This weekend Baez and Seeger returned, tapping an all-star cast of younger torch-bearers like Neko Case, the Decemberists, and Fleet Foxes to help them celebrate its golden anniversary.
The two-day event -- this year called Folk Fest 50 -- captured a friendly, bohemian vibe that few other festivals do. The crowd was incredibly respectful to the musicians, and the view couldn't be beat: The grounds come right up to the harbor, where hundreds of sailboats glide just offshore and the sun sets in the distance as the music is playing.
But don't dismiss this folk music as just pleasant sounds to listen to on a beautiful day. "Folk music is the heaviest, darkest music there is," says Nightwatchmen guitarist Tom Morello. "Whether it's Springsteen's Nebraska or those early Dylan songs, it's much heavier than anything in the Sepultura catalogue." Explains singer Arlo Guthrie, son of that great folkie Woody Guthrie: "I love that people can put something bad into a song and it makes people happy -- that's folk."
Here are the seven most memorable moments from Newport:
Billy Bragg's Rant: Acidic political ramblings have become much a part of the leftist Brit singer/songwriter's set as tunes like "Sexuality." But during his Saturday afternoon set he took a moment to call out those he blamed for the economic collapse. "Blame the bankers, blame the bankers," shouted Bragg. "Oh, shut up and play, you fuck!" hissed one Topsider-sporting sailor from an anchored yacht.
Avett Brothers' Inspiring Set: "We never thought we'd play at the same show as Ramblin' Jack Elliott," frontman Scott Avett said from onstage early Saturday, referencing the 77-year-old folk singer, who just finished his set across the grounds. The North Carolina quartet then busted through "Murder in the City," a banjo ballad about a father asking his family not to avenge him if he's killed by his enemies, playing it with such convincing emotion you'd think it was true.
Rhode Island Locals Deer Tick and Low Anthem's Success Story: Last year members of these rising Providence bands worked on the recycle team at the fest. They handed their CDs to those in charge, and a year later both bands are on the bill -- and with good reason. Their sets trafficked in pensive songs about heartbreak and tough times tinged with harder-edged moments.
Fleet Foxes' Voices: "This is the quietest festival ever," cracked drummer Josh Tillman. "You guys deserve a hand -- you're the best crowd. And I don't mean that in a 'I-say-this-every-night' kind of way. I mean it. Seriously." The crowd was cordial and hushed as frontman Robin Pecknold led the Seattle group through the multi-part harmonies of songs like "White Winter Hymnal" and "Sun Giant," giving hope for the prospects of Folk Fest 100.
Decemberists Tell the Story of Bob Dylan Going Electric: Colin Meloy is a sucker for whimsical stories. So it's fitting that Meloy told Newport Folk Festival's most famous story and added a "merry squirrel" into the mix. "This is the tale of how Bob Dylan went electric," he introduced over an accordion melody. Each band member played a different character -- Dylan's onetime flame Baez and Seeger, who tried to cut the power, included -- and got the crowd laughing along.
Neko Case's Chilling Alternative to Humidity:The sometime New Pornographers siren had a suggestion for concertgoers unwilling to move an inch in the overbearing humidity Sunday: "Hey, live vicariously through us!" To do so would also mean venting frustrations about noncommittal men ("People Got a Lotta Nerve") and envying celestial bodies ("I Wish I Was the Moon"), but thankfully for fans, all were delivered with a reverby chill.
Fleet Foxes, Morello, Meloy, Kweller, and More in All-Star Sing-Along with Pete Seeger: At 91, Seeger needs a little help onstage. And while his grandson, Tao Rodríguez-Seeger, supports the folky throughout most shows, every performing artist from Saturday's bill joined Seeger for a version of "This Little Light of Mine" that went on for over 10 minutes. The hipsters and the hippies sang in unison. This community and love of music is really what Newport Folk Fest is all about, and its indicative of folk's staying power that the fest's ringleader, Seeger, saw his vision come this far.
Pete Seeger / Photo by William Goodman