Day 2 of the festival was a much tougher call for me. So many of my already-favorite-acts were slotted on Saturday, but I still wanted that balance of bands I hadn’t yet experienced. The only thing that I knew was certain for the day was that it was going to start with a certain banjo plucking, mando pickin’ young lady who I absolutely could not miss out on…
I gathered my group and after picking up my photo wrist band, headed straight for the Alex and Ani Harbor Stage for Sarah Jarosz’s set. We walked up to an older gentleman tuning a piano for about an hour, so I claimed some seats and left my party to wander a bit again around the vendors, check the Paste Ruins schedule and such. Before I knew it, I checked my watch and hurried back to the harbor stage to find it much more bussling than when I had left. Apparently I am not the only person who was excited for Sarah’s performance. Accompanied by Alex Hargreaves on Fiddle and Nathaniel Smith on cello (the only cellist I think I witnessed sit down to play their cello all weekend, and easily the most talented player as well...the dude just has this groove about him) the trio launched into a set filled with some great traditional stuff, Sarah’s excellently crafted originals, and a few instrumental bluegrass tunes for good measure (a la Tim O’Brien). There was such a groove between the 3 players throughout the performance that you couldn’t help but feel the energy filling the confines of the tent. Jarosz’s voice is the perfect blend of smooth warmth and southern twang. Singing bluegrass inspired music walks a fine, fine line on the twang, but she has perfected her pitch to such degrees that I can’t even begin to explain the chills I get when she sings out. The industry folks always talk about “it”, well whatever the hell “it” may be, this young lady has it in spades. While it’s always hard to watch someone play your favorite instrument a thousand times better than you can ever hope to, this is a sure tie for my top 2 performances of the weekend (the second which was slated a bit later in the day). Ending with Tom Waits's "Come on up to the house" has some great audience participation, (and Jarosz's soulful side really shined) something that is a bit of a staple for the festival.
Still reeling from the beautiful insanity I just witnessed on stage, we went on to the Quad to catch Hurray for the Riff Raff’s set. Alynda Lee Segarra has a deep and warm voice that will just burrow deep into your chest and warm your soul. Part jazz speakeasy and part New Orleans brass street band, her vocal cuts straight through the mix of the rest of the band. I stuck around for a bit for their really great set, then made my way backstage to see if I could snag anyone for a quick word, then went on out to the main stage to check out Langhorn Slim and the Law for a song or two before catching up with my bud Joe Fletcher and his “Nashville to Newport” set in the Museum. I was slated to talk with Naseem from Kingsley Flood at 2 so only could check out a few tunes before returning. Luckily, things ran a bit behind and Joe kicked things off while John McCauley made his way over from a late night running the show downtown at the Newport Blues Café. McCauley admitted to the overflowing room that he was in fact on drugs…on steroids for his vocals cords that were damaged, yet he is still out singing for the masses. A class act who gives a damn about his fans. Still, he sung out with his classic rocky vocal and strummed an acoustic guitar while the audience paid strict attention. Next up was the pint sized songstress, Amanda Shires. With a beautiful voice that seemingly matches her personality, she plucked out two songs on her ukulele before I had to take off for the interview (to my dismay I later learned Jason Isbell then came out to accompany her – I saw them through the window practicing some stuff beforehand…next year I will stick it out!). A genuine and charming songwriter that I really look forward to catching again next time she swings through town.
After checking in with Naseem I hung around to grab a spot up front in the pit for one of my favorite live acts of all time, the couple duo of Shovels and Rope. As bright as the sun was shining that day it cannot hold a candle to the way Cary-Ann Hearst and her larger than life personality brightened up that tent. Michael Trent, the more mild mannered of the pair, also rocked and rolled through the course of the bands high energy set. The group rocketed through a ripping setlist, changing up responsibilities on the drums and guitar (and synthesizer/piano thingy…whatever it was, it added a bit of grit and balls to the sound, not that it needs anymore of either). In the middle of the set Trent stopped to mention that just because it’s a 'folk festival, doesn’t mean we can’t play some rock n’ roll' to the listeners elation. The crowd was dancing, the band was prime, everything about this set just further established that these guys are on top of their game and the world has taken notice. I really couldn’t be happy for the two and hope they only keep going up in the future.
Making my way through the fort and out into the main stage I found Jim James, being, well Jim James. Blowing his horn with a towel over his flowing hair and beard, running from end to end of the stage, and just plain entertaining the audience to the fullest in his signature suit. I couldn’t stick around long, because the set I had been waiting all weekend for was about to kick off…Jason Isbell at the Harbor Stage.
As many times as I have seen Jason play, I think I will just be in shock and awe every single time. To put it very simply, I had my mother and father with me (Newport was their Christmas gift last year) and my wife as well, none of who were previously familiar with Isbell’s music. Well, 30 seconds into the set all 3 of them had their eyes fixated on the stage and nothing could take their attention off of the true passion and beauty that was being laid out before them. THE most perfect blend of kickass rock n’ roll and passionate, heartfelt songwriting is just a the absolute pinnacle of what music can and should be. Isbell delivers flawlessly, with unequalled conviction and poise on this front. By the time the band got around to playing my favorite track of the recently released ‘Southeastern’, I was damn glad I had my big sunglasses on because my eyes were welling up like a 5 year old girl who just got kicked in the shin. My chest was tight, a lump formed in my throat, and damn it felt good to be moved that much by a performer. I really cannot say anything else aside from Jason Isbell holds the place as my favorite and most respected performer of all time after Saturday’s set. An absolutely awe-inspiring and perfectly balanced set.
Staying in our spots at the harbor stage, next up was one of my favorite songwriters of all time, Mr. Justin Townes Earle. JTE, came out onto the stage, dressed to the nines from head to toe. Sparkling new bucks, custom tailored suit, and I am pretty sure I saw him rockin' an over-sized fedora earlier off stage. Regretfully, the set got off to a rocky start with Justin forgetting a few lines and seeming a bit "off". Luckily for all of us, I think it was just first tune jitters and soon he was to his jokey self, addressing he audience with "now ladies and gentlemen", putting a new spin on some of his classic tunes, and wriggling and dancing like the music was electricity conducting through his wirey frame. There is just something completely and totally likeable about the man that is undeniable, yet undefinable. "Mama's Eyes" had the audience melting in the palm of his hand and his lightning quick travis picking style on songs like "Harlem River Blues" had people moving and shaking to his blues inspired rock/folk blend. Spotlighting a few new tunes for a new record to come out in the near future proved to be a good mix for this crowd. I do have to say, despite crowd input (and to Justin's quick negative response of such) I am upset that we didn't get any "Automobile Blues" or a solo "Halfway to Jackson". Next time I suppose!
We ended the day at the main stage with everyone else and their mother to catch the Avett Brothers. While I can dig what the guys do and the high energy they were putting out for the festival, its really not "my thing" I guess. I respect the choice to put them last on the Saturday as it made a lot of sense and I caught myself dancing along to their banjo banging tunes, but if Ramblin' Jack Elliot was in the Museum telling stories at that time... I would have been over there. To each their own...
Saturday Night I was lucky enough to sit in on mandolin with not one, but two friends bands at an after hours show and had an absolute blast. That's kind of like playing "at Newport" right?