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Looking behind, Newport Folk Festival also looks ahead

Fort Adams State Park, Newport, R.I., July 31, 2011

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

Near the end of the sold-out Newport Folk Fest on Sunday, Emmylou Harris looked back in time at an earlier period of the festival, saying, "I knew there was something going on out here. It was great."

But maybe a later generation will say that about the performers at this year's fest. Yes, they were the name acts who headlined, such as Harris and Elvis Costello, who preceded her. But for the uninitiated, it could be previously known acts, maybe none more so than The Civil Wars, who made a name for themselves. And that is the beauty of the Newport Folk Festival - it's a mixture of older acts with stellar reps along with newer acts still trying to make their way in this ever-difficult music business of the 21st century.

The Civil Wars certainly did their share to make a name for themselves this year with an excellent debut studio album, "Barton Hallow." Seeing them twice in concert ensured that the duo - Joy Williams and John Paul White - were not merely studio creations, but honest-to-goodness live performers.

They may have outdone themselves on Sunday before a packed second stage. Only catching them for about half of their set (such is the nature of the festival. If you want to see a lot of acts, you have to cut short your visit to a bunch of sets to see more performers), the excitement was palpable.

The Civil Wars were a most misnamed group when it comes to Williams and White. Their chemistry was incredible - if you didn't know any better, you'd for sure assume they were married (they are married, but to others) both singing-wise and interaction-wise. They have an easy exchange of comments with White often making Williams laugh and drawing the audience into their web.

The duo drew a huge applause after singing the title track, which seemed to put the crowd in their hands. They later drew a standing ovation at the end of the set and an encore.

Other under known groups, who did well were The Secret Sisters, who were all over the place. They do a good job of singing mainly traditional country cover songs from their debut CD. One would think by this point sisters Laura and Lydia Rogers would be getting a bit tired of singing the debut songs. If they were, it didn't show. They harmonized well together with Laura taking most of the lead vocals.

The Rogers duo offer a clean cut, wholesome image, which included singing some gospel/religious songs. They are appreciative of how far they've come and with speed. The praise once again was deserved.

Trampled by Turtles are bluegrass-flavored jam band from Duluth, Minn. They were imposing both physically (a few big guys, some with beards and some being mysterious by donning shades) and musically. Dave Simonett did a good job on lead vocals, while Erik Berry and Ryan Young scored on mandolin and fiddle respectively.

Seeing only a bit of their set, they had cloggers perform later with the crowd eating up the entire show. There's a lot of energy in this band for sure. TBT tour heavily and apparently reaped the dividends because their fan base grew.

The main stage had a strong line-up throughout the day. The Carolina Chocolate Drops significantly altered their sound with the addition of a human beatboxer and with the departure of Justin Robinson.

The Drops do black fiddle music, but with the addition of Adam Matta on beatbox and Hubby Jenkins on guitar was huge from a musical perspective.

Matta was the most significant change as evidenced by a few songs witnessed. He added a percussive sound that is totally modern in sharp contrast with the decades-old sound of the rest of the music.

Rhiannon Giddens played sharp fiddle, danced with abandon at one point and turned in a good outing with Hit 'Em Up Style (Oops!), the Blu Cantrell hit song. Change may have been good for the Drops because their new sound was so different, but went down easy.

Wanda Jackson was a combo of old and new. She dates back to Elvis and the 1950s' and was clearly quite proud of her track record in rockabilly and rock music.

Last time out in New England (Boston actually), Jackson started extremely late and cut the set short because her voice was shot in a most disappointing and unpleasant night of music.

But at the festival, she hit the market. Her set wasn't all that different from other outings mixing up classics as Fujiyama Mama, a number one song for her, but in Japan, not the U.S.

While Jackson told a bunch of stories from the past, she also is squarely planted in the present thanks to Jack White.

The music chameleon produced her new CD, "The Party Ain't Over," out earlier this year, along with picking songs. Interestingly, she offered a solid reading of Amy Winehouse's You Know I'm No Good, although she told the Newport crowd that she refused to sing one of the stanzas because of its racy lyrics, which White changed.

At 73, Jackson's voice shows a tad of wear, but to her credit, this was a far cry from the Boston gig.

Amos Lee, who has enjoyed a good year with the release of the chart topping "Mission Bell," turned in a proficient set of soulful music. Lee was no ball of fire during his hour on stage, but the songs were good, and he sang well. Perhaps not the most dynamic up there, but Lee has a good sound going.

Costello wasn't one to rest on his laurels, although he started with So You Want to Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star and his own Red Shoes.

Costello went more modern, although perhaps the low point of the day was his reading of A Slow Drag With Josephine from last year's "National Ransom." Even with help from The Secret Sisters, the song just trudged along.

But an energetic Costello, aided by long-time mainstays Pete Thomas on drums, Steve Nieve on keyboards and Dave Farragher on bass, ended on a very high note of What So Funny ('bout Peace, Love and Understanding), a song which seems ever relevant.

That set the stage for Harris, who came out during Costello's set to sing a song. Harris' calling card is her powerfully angelic voice, and this gig was no different - even at age 64. There were simply no signs of wear and tear.

Harris played several tracks from her new disc "Hard Bargain," including the haunting, chilling My Name is Emmett Till. The Harris-penned song relates the story of the teenage civil rights martyr, who was brutally murdered in the 1950s.

Harris lightened the mood as well with such songs as Leaving Louisiana In The Broad Daylight and Luxury Liner before closing the regular set with Evangeline with The Civil Wars helping out on vocals.

The great day of music ended with Newport Folk Festival icon Pete Seeger - he sang at the very first one in 1959 - came out toting an acoustic guitar with a bunch of the day's performers on stage. He made clear his singing isn't good any more, but led the audience in singing Turn Turn Turn and Where Have All the Flowers Gone. yes, there was looking back at the state of the world, but also a looking ahead to more hopeful times. With acts such as those appearing at the 2011 Newport Folk Festival, music well may be in good hands.

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