July 31, 2012

Jackson Browne, Patty Griffin, Wilco and the Guthrie Family Reunion Shine at Newport Folk Fest

By Erik Philbrook

Folk music's past, present and future converge at venerable festival

Between blasts of blissful sunshine and angry torrents of heavy rain, an eclectic group of more than 50 musical acts gathered July 27-29 at the 53rd annual Newport Folk Festival at Fort Adams State Park in Rhode Island. Opening the bill were rock experimentalists Wilco and closing it was legendary singer-songwriter Jackson Browne, and everyone who appeared in between, whether overtly folk-influenced or not, performed with added zeal, fully aware that they were inhabiting musical holy ground.

ASCAP members illuminated the festival's four stages over the weekend. Patty Griffin, fresh from the public announcement that she had married rock legend Robert Plant, performed solo on the Fort Stage overlooking Narragansett Bay and treated the audience to songs from her upcoming new album. The Guthrie Family Reunion, led by patriarch Arlo Guthrie and featuring his daughter Sarah Lee Guthrie and her husband Johnny Irion, as well as several other family members, perhaps best embodied Newport’s folk music heritage. Although several younger acts, including Levon Helm's daughter, Amy Helm, who performed The Band's song "Twilight," and First Aid Kit (STIM), who performed a cover of Joan Baez's "Diamonds and Rust," made sure they paid homage to their Newport predecessors.

Newer artists, from City and Colour (SOCAN) to tUnE-yArDs, represented the state of acoustic-oriented music today, which stretches the boundaries of what many would consider "folk" but in a way that also draws their audiences into a communal experience that the best folk music achieves. Sara Watkins and the Punch Brothers' Chris Thile, both of whom emerged from the Grammy-winning bluegrass group Nickel Creek, were perfect examples of folk's evolution as a musical genre still ripe for experimentation and modern-day relevancy.

Each night during the festival, ASCAP sponsored the Partisan Records after-parties at the Newport Blues Café in Newport. All proceeds from the after-parties went to benefit the Newport Festivals Foundation and the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation. Several festival performers dropped in to deliver intimate and loose performances to sold-out audiences in the 300-person room. A major highlight was the appearance by festival headliner Jackson Browne, who wowed the crowd on the Café stage only hours after performing for thousands of people at Fort Adams State Park.

This year's event drew a sold-out crowd of 10,000 for over two days. At 53 years old, Newport is aging gracefully and maintaining one of America's greatest musical legacies.