August 25, 2009

It's Never Too Late for Folk

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This article was originally published online on Jul. 8.
NEWPORT, R.I. – The Newport Folk Festival – having endured Dylan’s controversial ’65 burst of electricity, financial turmoil and an addiction to corporate sponsorship – has come a long way from its folksy, populist incarnation of 1959. But at this 50-year benchmark, Newport’s architects have struck gold in grafting the Festival’s roots to anachronistic, serene Fleet Foxes and progressive-folk-rock showmen The Decemberists. Seeger’s even leading a sing-along at age 90, for Pete’s sake.
Ubiquitous NPR tents, didgeridoo crafters and hemp salesmen punctuated the festival grounds in Fort Adams State Park, situated on the outskirts of mansion-laden Newport. Along Brenton Cove, the horizon is lined by a patchwork of bleached white sails, as two scraggly folks to my right discussed the psychic and political ramifications of a “world devoid of expectation and afterthought.” Festival goers donned Birkenstocks, flowing dresses, monochrome T-shirts or just plain flesh.
On the main stage, bluegrass-folk songstress Gillian Welch prepared to unleash “that psychotropic vibe.” Labeling the audience a “colorful battalion of polka dots,” Welch begged the reverb guy to throw her “down the bat cave” as she echoed a haunting cover of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit.” Predictably, the singer’s foray into psychedelic rock subsided, as Welch turned to timeless bluegrass ditties and idyllic folk tunes. Showcasing a deft hand on the banjo, lead guitarist David Rawlings delighted the nostalgia thirsty crowd.
A glance away from the stage, however, quickly broke this aura of folksy Americana. Massive picnic blankets, overstocked coolers and sybaritic lounge chairs were packed densely across the main stage’s viewing turf, with the crowd’s older contingent authoritatively staking out tracts of prime real estate. Squashing the equality vibe, ushers dutifully protected a VIP lounge abutting the stage from the lowly mass of general admission plebeians.
Literally sprinting onto the stage, Fleet Foxes to the rescue! Blasting tremendously naturalistic tunes, barefoot, flannel clad lead vocalist Robin Pecknold sent the crowd swaying to his crisp, alluring voice. Folk-rock number “Blue Ridge Mountains,” adorned with melting, golden harmonies, has Pecknold singing of pristine, fundamental beauty, “In the quivering forest / Where the shivering dog rests … And a yellow moon glowed bright / Till the morning light.” As Fleet Foxes bolted off, even those endowed with chairs rose to applaud the band’s harmonic mastery.
To great disappointment, hundreds were denied access to Iron & Wine’s set, as access to the Harbor Stage was restricted due to capacity constraints. Back at the main stage, a wooden old-timer lectured the crowd on fundraising quotas and Congressional imperatives, as cries of “We’re here for the music!” rang through the crowd. Finally sparing the impatient audience after 11 excruciating minutes, he tepidly introduced “Ore-a-gone” natives, the Decemberists. Fans erupted in a wild, frantic fit of applause, as the old man was driven from the stage in a frazzled huff.
Charismatic vocalist and veteran songwriter Colin Meloy, channeling the Decemberists’ unique blend of folk-rock and baroque pop, kicked off with anthemic, heart wrenching ballad “The Crane Wife 3.” Turning up the tempo on “Yankee Bayonet,” Meloy and backup vocalist Laura Veirs took turns conveying the pain of physical separation and promise of emotional union, “But oh my love, though our bodies may be parted / Though our skin may not touch skin / Look for me with the sun-bright sparrow / I will come on the breath of the wind.”
In homage to the guitar-fueled inferno of Hendrix’s ’67 Monterey Pop set, Malloy doused his ax with beer, manipulating, beckoning and fanning the imaginary flames atop controlled distortion. The Decemberists, venturing brazenly into the crowd, even treated fans to an interpretative reenactment of Bob Dylan “smoking a cigarette dramatically [and] going electric.” Preaching the refreshingly apolitical mission of “MATCOF … Musicians Against The Calling Of Freebird,” The Decemberists launched their 2009 progressive rock opera, Hazards of Love. Female vocalist Shara Worden, a recent edition to the band’s lineup, captivated fans with her bluesy, sinister portrayal of the opera’s villain, the “jealous forest queen.”
Following The Decemberists’ prog rock extravaganza, the audience took a seat for the forebear of folk, populism’s favorite son, Pete Seeger. Crackling shrieks of “We love you Pete!” from all directions, as universal genuflection was showered upon the folk icon. An avid defender of First Amendment rights during the 1950s Communist witch hunts, Seeger refused to divulge to the House Un-American Activities Committee his philosophical leanings, political beliefs or how he voted in any election. “These [are] private affairs,” he contended, and “very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under compulsion.” Tragically, Seeger’s intrepidity earned him a label as a Communist sympathizer, and he was blacklisted from both performance venues and American television. The folkie reemerged as an environmental activist in the 1960s, co-founding the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater to effectively tackle the river’s pollution crises.
Seeger, who helped organize the inaugural Newport Folk Festival back in 1959, did not appear frail or infirm. Gliding onto the stage, guitar in hand, Pete was ready to spread infectiously uplifting tunes and communal triumph. “Well, folks, I don’t have a lot of voice left, but I’ll show you the words so you can sing it along with me.” For nine decades, Seeger has echoed passionately that music has the power to “surround hate and force it to surrender.” Climaxing with “Turn! Turn! Turn!”, the folk icon led his fans on a search for “a time for peace.” Summoning all the air he could muster, Seeger sent his gaping fans into a bout of nostalgic euphoria, as he emphatically promised: “I swear it’s not too late.”