Wednesday, July 31, 2013

My Newport Folk Festival: Day 2

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 CafĂ©. 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?

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

My Newport Folk Festival : Day 1

Opening up the main stage at the Newport Folk Festival is no small matter…it also comes with what I imagine would be a great deal of anxiety and tension. As is their nature, the members of Kingsley Flood did what they do best, play excellent rock n’ roll with an energized set that (I would guess) got even the people across the harbor, walking down Thames Street, rocking to their infectious blend of story telling ballads, “country tunes for people that don’t like country”, and horn driven rock. The entire band danced around the stage, playing to a gradually filling lawn in front of the fort, all of who danced and clapped along to their lively set to kick the festival off with a bang. Just a few years back I was watching these guys in the crowded basement of the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge. Seeing them up there on the stage, captivating the audience with their vigor and good vibes really struck a chord with me. I cannot wait to see where these guys are in a year.

Day 1 of the festival was full of roaming and rambling for me. I tried to catch as much as possible and take it all in. I caught a lot of half or quarter sets, found my way backstage to mingle with other media folks and artists, and just kind of kept an open mind about what I may stumble across. I got to catch my good pal Dan Blakeslee play to a super attentive audience in the Museum Stage’s open-mic series…prior to Dan hitting the stage was a young gent named Dylan who exclaimed how he was going to play a killer solo for the audience, but would play this song instead to which Blakeslee exclaimed “GO ELECTRIC DYLAN!”, with laughter erupting from the crowd. Host Bryan Minto followed up with “Dan Blakeslee, ladies and gentlemen”, further solidifying my belief that Dan Blakeslee knows everyone and everyone loves Dan Blakeslee. But, perhaps the best surprise for me was wandering up to the Quad to catch Blake Mills set. I hadn’t heard much of Blake’s music previously, but to see the fine gents of Dawes backing him up intrigued me, so I stuck around. And I was damn glad that I did.

                Mills’ set was full of witty banter and a general vibrant feeling of “I really like this guy”…partway through his set he played a tune with a few choice words (OK, a lot of choice words) following it with a “sorry, forgot to give the “kiddy earmuffs” warning to the parents on that one”. A really fantastic mix of tunes, a great voice, and incredible songs….plus, I did mention Dawes was his backing band, right? Just a killer set from this year’s “act that took me by complete surprise and made me a life-long fan”. Congrats Mr. Mills, you won the award.

                Through my wandering and rambling I also caught bits and pieces of JD McPherson’s set on the mainstage and was pretty impressed. I can see why he is a Rounder recording artist. Caught a little of Hey Marseilles before hitting up the Kingsley set. Saw a few cool acts in the Late July tent (including the great Mr. Joe Fletcher) and Paste Ruins stages and really just soaked in the people and atmosphere of day 1. Sadly, due to the rain, wet clothes and camera bags, and grumbling stomachs my crew and I headed back across the harbor to get some sustenance and sleep catching only a bit of Feist’s set (of which was pretty damn good). You could tell she really wanted to amp the slowly saturating crowd up and get them to forget about the rain. We did miss Old Crow which was kind of a bummer. I dig the traditional stuff that those guys have brought to the mainstream…but then again, I am sure those guys are as sick of hearing fans yell “PLAY WAGON WHEEL!” as I am when I play at a bar.  At least they didn't bring 'Hootie' out to sing it, right?

                Day 2 was the day that I was most (and least) looking forward to out of the 3 as it had the artists I was most excited for, but also because it contained a lot of difficult choices for me…

Jon McAuliffe "In This Present Form" album review

Jon McAuliffe has been at the songwriting thing for a long time now. A gentleman who immerses himself in not only the writing art, but also the history of songwriting and those that have honed the craft before us. He is a person who understands the songwriting industry as well as the artform behind writing a great, catchy tune.

I have been listening to McAuliffe’s record “In This Present Form” for quite some time now. It’s a very polished work that you can tell a lot of thought went into the arrangements and writing. He writes for the catchiness of the tune and attracting listeners to well written, memorable hooks. You will surely be singing along halfway through the first listen.

“Gotta Get Back to Memphis” really stands out to me a fun jam. With some huge harmonies on the annunciation of the title and piano and guitar driving the rhythm of the song, it works well to hook an audience and reel them in. There is a lot of imagery utilized in the song, focused on the city and getting back to it. It’s a mix of big band and folk that works very well. 

Another track that I am drawn to is “When the Lights Go Out”. It has a bit of a contemporary blues and country feel to it. Arrangements that have been utilized before, but are effective and familiar in a good way.

Very great acoustic guitar sounds, Jon’s pleasant and solid vocals float on top of the solid studio band behind him…again, it’s very polished and I am sure a lot of work went into it to make it that way. While the record doesn’t exactly break new ground or exceedingly excite me about the music, it is a solid folk rock composition that I feel bodes well for the artist and his next project.  A good listen for a long car ride or just hanging out around the house all the way through, with enough diversity and range in its sonic qualities to keep listeners entertained over and over again. 

Check out Jon’s website online at:

Newport Folk Festival: The Locals (for me at least)

As a follow up to yesterday’s letter to the Newport Folk Festival, another thought came to me last night while I was falling asleep and wishing I was going to wake up to the Newport sunshine and stonewalls of Fort Adams…seeing friends and colleagues perform at this festival is another thing that makes it so great. 

Both the open mic in the museum and the Martin guitar tent open mic provided TONS of aspiring folkies to sing a tune for a captive audience in the great acoustics of the museum stage or for who knows how many folks walking past the Martin guitars tent. I was able to catch three of my good friends and favorite musicians, Dan Blakeslee and the duo of Ian Fitzgerald and Courtney Gallagher. Not only does it give me hope to maybe grace one of the Newport stages someday, but seeing the banner hanging behind people whose music I truly love and respect makes me very proud to call these folks friends.

Off around the corner at the Fort stage, another local act was making me proud…

To be continued.

Monday, July 29, 2013

A Letter to George Wein, Jay Sweet, and the Newport Folk Fest

     Another weekend of the annual Newport Folk Festival has come and gone, as the sun set over the Newport harbor and the golden hue settled on the fort, an intense bittersweet feeling overcame me. Sure, I know I will be back next year for even more enjoyment, but the anticipation of this yearly gathering has subdued a bit. I feel drained by the dancing in the rain on Friday, the sun beating down throughout the weekend, and the incessant and untamed movement of my dancing feet (seriously, I just couldn't stop them!). I also feel melancholy, its over but its not really over, there is work to be done for next year. Newly found music to add to the list of bands to catch when they swing through town and old favorites re-established as such. We get back to playing our own gigs, suffering through our day jobs, seeking out great music to see throughout the year, but nothing quite compares to the significance and community ambiance that the festival brings every year. I just wanted to say that I have a great amount of respect and love for everyone who sinks their time, heart, and dedication into this event every year so that so many people can feel the experience that is the Newport Folk Festival.

     What it boils down to is that there is just something special and magic about NFF that other festivals cannot touch. The people are respectful and the event is extremely well organized. It’s a family friendly festival, which I don’t think truly exists anywhere else. You are hard pressed to find someone stumbling around or excessive substance use at Newport. Trust me, there was a time when I would have felt otherwise, but as I get older there is a gentle comfort I take in knowing that Newport Folk is different. I genuinely feel safe in a crowd of 10,000 people (not something I can admit often in this day and age). People are there because they love what it stands for, the history of the Newport Folk Festival and where it is going in the future. It’s a living and breathing museum that each and every attendee is part of and contributes to.

     Dylan may have started something back in 1965, but the team at NFF has continued to grow, adapt, and push the boundary of what “folk music” really is. You will be hard pressed to experience two similar acts over the course of the weekend and find it even more difficult to stumble across something you won’t genuinely enjoy. WARNING:You WILL find new music that you will fall in love with. The team puts obvious, extensive efforts into their choices, and for that, I thank you! Another welcome addition this year was the open mic in the Museum, making us all feel like we are a little piece of Newport Folk as musicians who may not yet be ready for those bigger stages. I saw that banner flying behind two good friends and I felt a sense of pride and content seeing them singing their songs for the silent and attentive room. The performances both large and small are heartfelt and genuine here. I think it may be a Newport necessity that I shed tears for at least one performance every festival (Isbell, you got me this year) but other musician friends told me the same in confidence. That they were moved to shedding a bit of salty water, as well.

     Last but not least, I am deeply moved by the love shown for Dave Lamb. This harkens back to the fact that Newport is truly a family. You cannot deny that both the people behind the scenes and dancing on the lawn have developed a tenderness for the music family of Newport that goes far beyond “they play pretty good music”. That to me is extraordinary. There is an authentic and deep seeded passion for the fans, the artists, and event staff alike, that is unparalleled by anything I have experienced. People applauding Mr. Wein with true appreciation, as he makes his way around the grounds in the “Wein Machine”, performing musicians standing next to fans watching another artist's set because they are fans of the music as well, and the audience support from the Martin open-mic tent to the Fort stage are all just a tiny piece of what makes this “thing” remarkable. It’s beautiful to see so many people come together to celebrate folk music, unity, and just plain forgetting about life for a while to be swept away by the fest.

     I love this festival, I love the people who make it happen, and I really look forward to all the years to come. So from the bottom of my heart, thank you all so much for keeping the momentum going and this living piece of history, pressing on. Thank you for caring enough to develop smaller artists and present them to a broad audience. Thank you for giving deep thought and unique diversity to the acts you book each year. Thank you for caring enough to make this thing continue on. It means the world.

Red Line Roots

P.S. Pictures, reviews, and other things to come later this week....stay tuned!