Backstage "in" South Florida: Frenzied at Newport Folk Festival

Jonathan Wilson and Jackson Browne find a common bond on the Newport stage.
Jonathan Wilson and Jackson Browne find a common bond on the Newport stage.
Alisa B. Cherry

Music vet and New Times scribe Lee Zimmerman offers his insights, opinions, and observations about the local scene. This week: A first time visit to the Newport Folk Festival.

I never really hit the festival circuit during my younger years. Never went to Woodstock, never been to Lollapalooza. Hell, never even hit the Miami Pop Festival, even though I lived only a few miles away. I'm not sure why that was either. Perhaps the whole concept seemed a bit intimidating, all those people, the lack of proximity to the stage, the craziness that was bound to ensue. Well actually, that last factor might have encouraged to me to attend had it not been for the fact that the first two kept me away.



Lately though, my wife Alisa and I have become quite fond of the festival experience and we've made it a point to attend at least a couple a year. Alisa hit Woodstock as a teenager, although when we recently visited the former festival site, she claimed not to remember a thing. Which, I suspect, means that she had a really, really good time.

Nevertheless, my festival treks started in earnest with our visit to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in 2006, which proved truly awesome in terms of the beauty of the surroundings. After three Cayamo cruises, a visit to the Mariposa Folk Festival in Canada, the debut of Orlando Calling, and Bonnaroo -- one of the coolest festivals of the past decade -- we finally made it to the grandaddy of them all: the Newport Folk Festival.

An annual institution that began in 1959, Newport set the stage for every festival that's followed. Early on, it was a beckoning call for those at the vanguard of America's folk and roots revival, including Pete Seeger, Peter, Paul, and Mary, Joan Baez, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and Johnny Cash. And as time went on, it also helped spawn the new rock reality by providing the stage for Dylan to go electric, testing the fervor of the faithful. Much has changed over the decades -- a switch to a new venue at Newport's historic Fort Adams and economic changes that nearly forced the festival's demise in the late '60s -- but today, Newport remains at the center of America's musical map, and is a beacon for both indelible icons and future stars.

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We caught an array of incredible acts, from headliner Jackson Browne to such worthy up-and-coming contenders as Sara Watkins, Deep Dark Woods, Jonathan Wilson, and the Head and the Heart, among them. First up was Sleepy Man Banjo Boys, a bluegrass band from New Jersey whose front line was made up of three siblings, ages 10, 13, and 15. Sara Watkins followed, accompanied, at least part of the time, by Jackson Browne, who as it turned out, would be a constant presence throughout the day in his and other sets.

 

We were especially impressed by Trampled By Turtles, a group that turned up the heat and the volume. They are one of the most rambunctious bluegrass outfits I've ever witnessed. I'd seen Deep Dark Woods, an impressive Canadian combo that specialize in mournful Americana, at Orlando Calling, but Newport's performance was far more emphatic. Likewise, Jonathan Wilson, with a hippie-haired look that echoed his music's '60s sensibilities, notched up our nomination for the artist most likely to make the "Big Time."

It's typical of the festival experience that the musical mood can change rather quickly, depending on the stage selected. Sure enough, the irrepressible Tom Morello altered the tone with his political posturing, offering a mix of defiant, polemic anthems and angry, insurgent indictments. Everything that came after might have seemed anti-climatic, but that wasn't the case. The Head and the Heart, tUnE-yArDs, Punch Brothers, the Tallest Man in the World, and Connor Oberst proved that the definition of folk -- at least under the Newport banner -- can also embrace an incredibly disparate array of performers. Still, Jackson Browne drew the biggest crowd, and we were all willing to watch him even in a steady rain.

At that wet moment, I knew I had finally passed my festival initiation. I'd been overwhelmed by both the music and Mother Nature. I realized the spirit of Woodstock lives on annually in Newport.




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