“We need a strategy,” he said as they looked over their 2012 Newport Folk Festival schedule.
Those were the very first words I heard in passing as we entered the festival grounds on Saturday morning, and he wasn’t kidding. Starting the night before—with the utopian setting sun, cool breeze off the bay and Wilco doing ultimate justice to the acoustics afforded by the old Fort Adams infrastructure—it was a whirlwind jam-packed-music-filled weekend beyond our expectations (although, we did expect it to surpass anything we hoped it to be, so we were right in that regard).
I liked imagining that it was a giant musical carnival, one filled with impromptu on-stage collaborations and surprise performances emerging among scheduled sets. Everyone dashed with excitement from stage to stage, just as one would do from ride to ride and game to game at the carnival, in attempt to catch as many diverse acts as we could, thanks in no small part to the equally music-obsessed festival organizers and producers. General consensus was that Ben Sollee, Taylor Goldsmith and Jackson Brown were the most frequently spotted wandering minstrels, though Conor Oberst and the Söderberg sisters (aka First Aid Kit) and many others randomly popped up on stages throughout the festival (collaboration is both fostered and encouraged at the festival) painting even more layers into the atmosphere.
Starting on Friday evening after our epic journey from Philadelphia PA, where rain and traffic and an accidental detour onto the wrong highway (by me, the guilty party) caused our drive to be almost double what we expected, we arrived into town and plunged into the myriad of events that awaited us. Wilco sounded better than ever as they opened with a punchy “Christ for President” in a nod to the festival’s celebration of Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday and the weekend blasted off from there, crowd tightly packed and on their feet at full attention.
It took every ounce of willpower for us to peel off slightly early so that we could slip back into town to catch Conor Oberst and Friends for the four hour plus set (which we will cover in more detail in a forthcoming post) at the beautiful Jane Pickens Theater. Happily, on our way on foot to the venue, we could hear the rest of the Wilco set bouncing across the water giving us a second, very different perspective of the show—a (very enjoyable) theme that would reoccur over the weekend with us seeing sets from front of stage, in the photo pit, on screen in the media tent, through portals in the old Fort Adams walls, from the backside of stages, and from the outskirts of the audience taking the entire scene in.
Night one down and already about 6 hours of live music under our belt.
[Insert post show food search and 5 hours sleep]
On Saturday we worked on our own strategy of how to properly cover the festival and take in and enjoy as much as we possibly could of the jam packed lineup. Upon entering we caught part of Brown Bird’s set on the Fort Stage, and then hurried over to the Museum Stage to see Sleepy Man Banjo Boys (truly talented beyond words already at ages 9, 13 and 14).
From there we caught (order of appearance may be slightly askew) The Apache Relay for their super-charged set, Alabama Shakes via the screen in the media tent (amazing voice!), and looped around the other two stages, the Quad and Harbor Stages to see Jonny Corndawg, who we both thoroughly enjoyed, and Deer Tick who bowled me over. Preservation Hall Jazz Band (who were joined onstage with Pete Seeger’s grandson, Tao Rodríguez-Seeger and Ben Sollee), I immediately fell crazy in love with. I also did some serious people watching during their set because I really enjoyed seeing how physically affected by the music everyone was—dancing like mad and smiling during the oldtimey upbeat tunes one minute, then moved enough to exchange kisses and embraces during the slower ones the next.
We later caught the entire First Aid Kit set, memorized just like everyone else. Johanna and Klara are like watching sparkling gems, lovely in sight and sound and full of grace as they belt out some of the most beautiful sounds imaginable. In a surprise, but slightly anticipated guest appearance, Conor Oberst took the stage to help finish the set with a bang during “King of the World” (a little side note, if only the The Felice Brothers could have been there for it, too!).
We also caught bits of Honey Honey and later enjoyed sitting in the grass, listening to the story telling and songs by Arlo Guthrie and family as they celebrated the life of Woody Guthrie. All of this, and about 5 times of the amount of music we saw was going on elsewhere simultaneously, including Conor Oberst’s surprise set in the Kids Tent (tip: get the NFF App and PAY ATTENTION to the alerts they push during the festival!)
As the evening marched on, the rain flooded Newport just like the music did, which cut loose right at the end of My Morning Jacket’s closing set on the main stage. During their set, I was excited to see Preservation Hall Jazz Band join them on stage. Jim James and co barreled through the songs as we watched through a tiny portal window inside the fort where we made new friends along the way. Finally the crowds dispersed during a powerful end to the set when the torrential storm picked up even more. We were able to keep semi dry until we realized we needed our passes to enter the intimate Backstage BBQ that immediately followed the festival, at which point we took off on foot to obtain them. When we arrived back at the fort, we, along with everyone else (including our friend Kristi who we had planned to me up there) were soaked from head to toe, but not deterred of our eagerness for yet another segment of the evening to begin.
In short, the BBQ was almost entirely cancelled due to the storm, but for those of us who decided to wait out another round of storms and remain, we watched as one by one musicians rose to the challenge to resurrect the evening with only their voices and acoustic instruments (and some hand claps too). A few highlights from the Backstage BBQ included off the cuff performances from Eric George, Joe Fletcher, Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion , Jim James, Ben Sollee, Spirit Family Reunion with many others. When it was all over we made our way through the tunnel exit which, just hours prior was reportedly under, if memory serves me correctly, at least 18 inches of water. The BBQ itself, in my opinion worth the price of the entire weekend itself just to be present for an event that is sure to go down in NFF legend and history, will be covered in its own separate post in the next few days, including a full photo set. Until then, a sneak peak into the night:
Another full day of music still lay ahead of us the next day including one of the three Deer Tick after parties, but a few events occurred that were out of our control caused us to leave the next morning to be with family. I’d say that we were thoroughly disappointed to miss out on day three (we were) but what we experienced while there was so incredible that we did not leave feeling empty in any way. We did however, begin our countdown to the 2013 NFF, undoubtedly the best and most inspiring festival we’ve ever attended, the moment we left.
Until next year, Newport Folk Festival. We love you!
To see more photos the above bands you can find them on our 2012 Newport Folk Festival photo collection on Flickr. (If you don’t find a set you are looking for check back as we are continuing to upload photo sets as the days go by).