Tift Merritt takes to the stage, wrapped in a light, summery flesh-colored dress. She sits at the piano with a harmonica neck-rack, and the fiftieth anniversary of the Newport Folk Festival begins with her original "I Know What I'm Looking for Now." Dreamy-eyed and diffuse, she comments on a plane swirling in the sky.
Across three stages and two days at Fort Adams in Newport are several of the latest folk, country and indie acts. Saturday brought a particularly strong line-up, including indie/folk phenomenon Iron and Wine, and Britain's veteran punk Billy Bragg. Whether it was Gillian Welsh asking for extra reverb for Jefferson Airplane's classic "White Rabbit" ("I want to be in the batcave," she told the sound engineer) or the Decemberist's rendition of Dylan going electric (including an innocent, woodland squirrel), the most exciting about George Wein's festivals are the new discoveries, bands that have only hit the national stage for a year or less, such as the Low Anthem (June of this year) and Fleet Foxes (June 2008). Surprisingly, these two acts drew large and devoted crowds to their respective stages.
As soon as the Fleet Foxes came onto the main stage, the largest standing crowd waited impatiently through two announcers; the ground was alight with expectation for their set. Starting with their album's opener, "Sun it Rises," the Seattle-based band shook the festival goers, with both their gorgeous layered harmonies and unfortunately loud low-end bass. With only the one self-titled album to their credit, several audience members mouthed the complex lyrics to their radio-played "White Winter Hymnal." Following Gillian Welsh's fantastic set, the Foxes kept a strong momentum, carried by the Decemberists, making these three performances one of the highlights of the day.
Off on the smaller Waterfront Stage, Providence's the Low Anthem prepared their clarinet, baritone, and pump organ for several soulful off their first national release, "Oh My God, Charlie Darwin," as well as some new songs added to the repertoire. The tent was packed, second only to the throng which surrounded Sam Beam's at the Harbor Stage, and overflowed with avid listeners to their alternatingly soft and harsh vocals. After the opening of "Charlie Darwin," the crowd was silent, but the feeling of true roots was palpable. Passing from electric jam to haunted melody, the Anthem's performance was a hidden, though thankfully not unobserved, jem.
In its semi-centennial, this festival still brings a mix of the old and the new together, meshing different styles and ideas under its ever-widening definition of "folk." And for those unable to attend, don't forget to check out NPR's coverage on the anniversary at: http://www.npr.org/music/newportfolk/index2.html. Enjoy!