This past weekend my husband and I took a trip up to Rhode Island for The Newport Folk Festival. It also gave us a chance to spend a few days visiting my husband’s older sister, who lives in Narragansett and whom we hadn’t seen in awhile. Though it’s something I’ve wanted to attend for a couple years, this was my first time at the festival and I enjoyed it so much I’m already plotting my return for next year much to my husband’s chagrin I’m sure. This kind of thing isn’t really up his alley, but luckily he’s willing to go along with many of crazy schemes even if it’s something he would never choose to do on his own.
The festival starts Friday evening and runs through Sunday night, though we just went Saturday and Sunday. The festival is held at Fort Adams in Newport, which I must say serves as the most picturesque place I have ever attended a concert. It’s right on the water looking out at the Newport bridge. Lots of people who own boats pull themselves up next to the fort so they can listen to the music, at least the music coming from the main stage. Fort McHenry in Baltimore should really get on this and start doing something similar.
This year there were 4 stages, plus the Kid’s tent and some other little nook where a lot of the acts went and played more intimate sets. The latter two stages weren’t scheduled but you could follow the festival on Twitter to get alerts about who was going to show up in various places at various times. You could spend your time running around trying to get as much music as possible crammed into every second possible if you wanted, but we mostly just camped out in front of the main stage for both days. Most of the acts I wanted to see were scheduled there, and it seemed too stressful to be running around trying to catch bands all over the place. I just used the 20 minutes or so between each act on the main stage to do stuff like get food and go to the bathroom. The one exception I made was on Sunday when I ran over to see Of Monsters and Men on one of the other stages.
The festival was all very civilized as one might expect from Newport, which was something I much appreciated having gone to other outdoor concerts and music festivals where that was not the case. I am not a huge lover of crowds, so I really was kind of dreading dealing with the 10,000 people crammed into the fort each day. However, it was much better than I anticipated. Even though it was all first come, first serve lawn seating people were very respectful of space. You could park your blankets and chairs in a spot and leave them there all day even leaving them unattended for long periods of time while you moved to other stages and no one would bother them. I think part of the reason it never got unruly is that the alcohol is very segregated. Although you’re allowed to bring in food and drink, alcohol is prohibited and that they do sell at the festival has to be drunk in one of the two beer gardens. I’m sure there were some people who smuggled stuff in and I definitely smelled/saw people smoking pot on more than one occasion, but definitely the majority of the people were just there to enjoy the music. It also made it very family friendly. There were tons of people with kids there. Despite the large number of people it never seemed overly crowded to me and the few lines I had to stand in for food or the bathroom all moved very quickly.
The best decision we ever made in avoiding lines was actually the way we got to the festival. Your major options are to bike or take a ferry from Newport, drive through Newport to the fort, or take a ferry from Jamestown. My husband’s sister offered to drop us off and pick us from the Jamestown ferry. Though it is by far the most expensive option for getting to and from the fort at $18 per person per day it was worth every extra penny. It drops you off right at the entrance of the festival unlike the parking lot, which is apparently a bit of a trek. Plus, not that many people take the Jamestown ferry because unless you live there or have someone to drop you off there’s nowhere to park for that length of time. We pretty much walked right onto and off of ferries at both ends each day. On the other hand we heard nightmare stories of people waiting in their cars for 2 hours to get out on Saturday night, and the line for the ferry to Newport was taking people about 1 1/2-2 hours to get through as we heard when some poor people on our ferry back Sunday night didn’t realize there were separate lines for Jamestown and Newport until they waited for 2 hours to get to the front of the line only to be told they were in the wrong place. If you have a way to get yourself there, the Jamestown ferry is definitely the way to go.
A random aside about the ferry, on Sunday morning we got on the boat and I looked over and saw one of my friends from high school with her family. I haven’t seen her since we graduated 16 years ago, so that was crazy. Her husband is in the Air Force and they’re living in Jamestown for a year. It was entirely random but awesome, and great to catch up with her in person for a few minutes rather than just over Facebook.
The weather for this year’s festival wasn’t perfect, but it could have been much worse. Saturday started out hot and humid, but a couple of hours into it the clouds rolled in, which did make it cooler but also portended rain. We had our eye on the radar and chose to leave earlier than planned Saturday due to impending thunderstorms. We got back to the house right as it started to rain, so it was a good call even though I was disappointed to miss City and Colour. Sunday it was cloudy all day long, which kept it cool. We didn’t avoid the rain on Sunday though. It held off for a good long time, but we spent Jackson Browne’s set in the rain. It was okay though because we came prepared with ponchos and an umbrella plus a garbage bag to keep all of our stuff dry. The only thing that was wet were my feet.
Now on to the music that I saw at Newport Folk. If you weren’t lucky enough to be there yourself, if you missed a band you really wanted to see or you just want to relive one that you did NPR Music recorded a number of the bands during the festival, which you can access in their archives.
Here’s a list of the bands I saw during the festival with links out to a song by them in case you’re unfamiliar and want to check them out.
Brown Bird is a local Rhode Island band. I had not heard of them before seeing the line-up for Newport Folk Fest. I liked their music ok. I preferred the stuff that sounded more folk/bluegrassy to me as opposed to the stuff that in my mind at least I think of kind of as gypsy/Greek music.
The Preservation Hall Jazz Band
Last time I saw The Preservation Hall Jazz Band I was in fact at Preservation Hall in New Orleans. It’s a slightly different experience seeing them on a large festival stage compared to the intimate location of Preservation Hall.
Alabama Shakes was the first band on the main stage to get pretty much the entire crowd on their feet. They’re definitely more blues than folk, but I was super excited to see them play live for the first time.
Dawes was a lot of fun and great to sing along with.
I think Patty Griffin was the most folk-like artist who performed on the main stage on Saturday. She has such an extensive catalog of music that I was afraid she wouldn’t play the songs I wanted to hear, but she did play a couple of my favorites including Making Pies.
Sleepy Man Banjo Boys
Sunday started out with a short set from the Sleepy Man Banjo Boys, which features some incredible picking by 3 brothers who are only 15, 13, and 10.
I used to love Nickel Creek, but never really knew what happened to their members after they broke up. Somehow I never made the connection that Sara Watkins was the female member of that group until she mentioned it during her set. Her set was fun because she got members of several other bands out to play with her including Jackson Browne, who she has been touring with. She also played with him during his set. There was also an alert that she was playing some of her Nickel Creek songs in the Kids’ Tent later in the day, which I would have loved to have gone to but it was during the time period in which I was already agonizing over the overlapping sets of The Head and the Heart and Of Monsters and Men.
Trampled by Turtles
I have some friends that are super in love with Trampled by Turtles, but I was only familiar with a couple of their songs prior to seeing them in Newport. They are a lot of fun and have a lot of crazy banjo and fiddle going on.
Charles Bradley and His Extraordinaires
Again blues, not folk but Charles Bradley killed it at Newport Folk.
The Head and the Heart
I’ve written about The Head and the Heart multiple times before on this blog. I was super excited to see them in concert again, and I’ll link to my most recent favorite song of theirs (cause you know it rotates).
Of Monsters and Men
I was very sad to miss the first part of Of Monsters and Men’s set as it overlapped with The Head and the Heart, but I think I probably only missed two of their songs. They were excellent just as they were last time I saw them live.
I didn’t actually see much of Conor Oberst’s set because it overlapped with Of Monsters and Men, and then it took forever getting between the stages because of the tunnel in the fort and the crowd around the Harbor stage in between watching TuNeYaRds (or however you actually capitalize that), but the little I saw was enjoyable.
Jackson Browne though the headliner, was actually the biggest disappointment of the festival for me. He played for an hour and half and didn’t include a single one of his hit songs. He did play “Take It Easy”, which he co-wrote, but really The Eagles are the ones who made that song famous. I realize he has a huge catalog of music and would get bored if all he did was play the best of every time he toured. I’m not suggesting that he only needed to play his greatest hits, but it would have been nice to throw a bone to those of us who stood in the rain watching him for an hour and half and give us at least one song to sing along with. I don’t think that’s too much to ask. Oh well.
All in all it was a fantastic weekend and I can’t wait to go back again next year.