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Something old, something new at Newport Folk Festival, and all really good

Jeffrey Remz  |  August 2, 2011

The Newport Folk Festival is a mixture of established stars - I hesitated to use the word old or even older - and new with the past paving the way for the future.

The past of this year's two-day sold-out affair was underscored by the presence of one of the few (maybe only!) true folkie on the bill, Pete Seeger. He was there in 1959 at the get go to the famed festival, and he's been there the past few years to celebrate at the end of the festival. In some sense, Emmylou Harris and Elvis Costello, the last two performers on the main stage on Sunday, also were part of the past.

Both Harris and Costello, of course, have been around for more than three decades. Neither showed any sense of slowing down. Costello keeps putting out new music, offering different styles, while keeping the quality ultra-high. His crack band featuring drummer Pete Thomas and keyboardist Steve Nieve was stellar. Harris also just released a new disc, "Hard Bargain." Both on CD and live in concert, it's hard to find a finer singer out there. With one extremely slight misstep on one syllable, Harris retained an angelic voice.

No song may have been more haunting all day than My Name Is Emmett Till, the extremely sad story of the Chicago youth who was murdered while visiting relatives down south in the '50s. At his funeral in Chicago, his mother purposefully let the casket remain open with a photograph taken of his body for world-wide viewing. Harris sang from Till's perspective, and it made you shake your head about past racism in this country. Harris made music that moved you.

Perhaps the most relieving set of the day was that of Wanda Jackson. The 70-something rock and rockabilly star had a poor outing in Boston earlier this year, showing up very late and playing for very little because her voice was shot. Such was not the case on Sunday with an ace backing band from Nashville. The segment seemed more poignant given that she covered Amy Winehouse's You Know That You're No Good from her latest, "The Party Ain't Over," produced by Jack White. In effect, it showed that Jackson was a survivor and carries on the music traditions of the past while keeping them fresh.

While a few veterans shined, so did the newcomers. The Civil Wars deserved the acclaim they have received. This was the third time I've had the chance to see the duo of Joy Williams and John Paul White this year, and they are getting better and better, if possible. They sold out a small Boston club of about 190 people in February, then opened for the great British singer Adele (they go back on the road with her in Europe in September) in May and closed the night on a second stage at Newport.

Only catching half the set (the nature of the folk festival is that if you want to see a lot of acts, you have to move around between the three stages and suffer the consequences of not seeing a whole set), the rest of the show apparently continued onward and upward after playing the title track, "Barton Hollow," of their lone studio CD. The show apparently only got better from there with a standing ovation at the end and an encore, something that is not a given at Newport. The Civil Wars were exciting and fresh. They're headlining the States this fall. Do not miss them!

Every act on the bill was on top of their game from Justin Townes Earle, whose got a good strong voice with lots of good songs to the bluegrass-inspired Trampled by Turtles (great name for sure from the lively band from the wilds of Duluth, Minn.) to Amos Lee (far better than I thought he'd be given the very negative review in the Boston Globe from a Boston performance a few months back. He was labeled as being dull or something to that effect, the kiss of death for a musician). Okay, Lee may not be Mr. Excitement, but he was not dull, and that soulful voice worked.

The Carolina Chocolate Drops were always a most unique band. How many black groups were out there playing string music? But then when Justin Robinson left the fold, the future of the band seemed uncertain. But they didn't just replace Robinson. They went in a different direction with the addition of Adam Mazza, a human beatbox. His percussive sounds merged old and new, and these folks sure cooked on Sunday.

The Secret Sisters turned in another engaging set. They're clean and wholesome, for sure. When Lydia Rogers told the crowd that they'd be in church in their native Alabama if not playing Newport, you had the sense she was not joking at all. They better get cranking on a new disc already.

Unfortunately, this left no chance to see folks like Chris Thile & Michael Daves (although I did see them in Boston about a month ago, and they were solid), M. Ward and only catch a few songs of The Head & The Heart, who were lively and entertaining.

Such is the price you are "forced" to pay to see a day of great music whether old or new. George Wein deserves tremendous praise for starting this festival 52 years ago and rescuing it a few short years ago. It may not be so much of a folk festival any more, but the music sure was good. Can't wait for Newport 2012.

(For those who missed it, it's available in its entirely at NPR)

©Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •
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