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Variety rules day one of Newport Folk Festival

Fort Adams State Park, Newport, R.I., July 25, 2014

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

Nothing was particularly predictable at the opening day of Newport Folk Festival 2014, except a plethora of really good music that tended not to veer towards the stated title all that much.

Of course, the festival has changed gears a lot in recent years with the idea of a pure folk singer a rare sighting throughout the lovely setting with the water and sailboats in the distance.

And on the first day of three-day sold-out fest, it was more the soulful, funky side that seemed to rule.

Perhaps that was no more evident than in the captivating set of Irish singer Hozier (make that Andrew Hozier-Byrne, but he goes by Hozier). The 24-year-old has not even released an album in the states; he only has two EPs in his native country and has never mounted a proper tour there either.

But he sure enthralled the crowd with his almost entirely solo set in mid-afternoon with one heck of a full bodied voice that is on the ultra powerful with his blues-oriented songs. He sure knew how to fill a room with his vocals. Hozier is a keen wordsmith as well, as evidenced in his closing (and most well-known song), "Take Me to the Church," which has racked up more than 5 million YouTube views. He'll back on Sunday in a set with his band. It's almost hard to imagine him being more powerful than he showed on his lonesome. His cellist, Alana Henderson, helped out on vocals on "In a Week."

Lake Street Dive is more of a known quantity with the now Brooklyn-based band living up to the continual buzz that surrounds them. The group is lead by lead singer Rachael Price. She was a very strong singer, but what also served her well was her relaxed, but engaging stage presence.

The group was on the soulful side, but not entirely easy to categorize. Lead guitarist Mike Olson spiked the songs, but he also threw in a different mix when he played trumpet (one of several bands to employ the instrument today).

Near the end, Mavis Staples came out to sing "Hello? Goodbye!," a clear highlight of the set with Price excited to have Sunday's closing set headliner aboard. And they both seemed to thrive, playing off one another. So did the crowd here and throughout Lake Street Dive's time.

A time-honored beauty of NFF is the ability to catch multiple bands, many doubtlessly unfamiliar to the masses there. Probably fitting that bill was Mandolin Orange, a North Carolina-based duo of Andrew Marlin on guitar and Emily Frantz on violin.

Playing an early afternoon set, they amply showed that when you play sets like theirs, the stars do not need to come out. Marlin was on the soulful side, veering towards a country sound with Frantz's fiddle playing. Marlin, who showed a humorous demeanor delivering his stage patter, also set the tone with his acoustic and electric guitar and mandolin skills.

But best of all was their vocal harmonies with Marlin assuming most of the lead vocals and Frantz contributing her pretty backing vocals.

The Devil Makes Three were interesting on the visual side alone. There was gray-haired Pete Bernhard in a sharp black suit with a red tie ("Here I am in this jacket. I got dressed up for all you people out there," Bernhard joked in one of several funny lines), flanked to his right by long bearded, heavily tattooed and cool looking Cooper McBean (they have been friends since they were 12 in their native Vermont) and upright bassist Lucia Turino (who joined the friendship in high school).

Fortunately, there was far more to The Devil Makes Three than simply their looks. The trio occupied a space somewhere country and a bit of a throwback vaudeville-type sound with bouncy songs like "Hallelu" and "40 Days." Bernhard has a bit of a sandpapery voice, while also supplying lots of good guitar licks to keep the music chugging along.

McBean (Blind Willie McTell's "Statesboro Blues") and Turino (Don Rich's "Walk On Boy") took turns on lead vocals as well. For some bands, that would prove distracting since the band might not have a particular core, but in the hands of The Devil Makes Three, that did not prove problematic since all can sing.

The trio turned in an engaging 48-minute with a lot of variety musically, singing wise and looks.

Jenny Lewis was in high spirits - with good reason. The West Coast singer has a brand new disc, "The Voyager," out Tuesday, which was produced by the day's headliner, Ryan Adams. The disc is her first solo effort in six years ("Acid Tongue" from 2008).

Lewis was indicative of the expansive nature of NFF. The red-headed, mainly sunglassed Lewis has ventured into country in the past, but she was squarely in the indie pop end on this day.

Lewis, decked out in a white flared pants, white shirt, purple robe and sunglasses for almost the entire hour-long set was in fine form vocally mixed well above her band (not unusual for the NFF. The vocals often were front and center). She was engaging and was obviously excited to be playing the Festival.

But she was not afraid to cede some ground to her band, particularly keyboardist Natalie Prass, who also took the lead vocals on one song, while often providing backbone to the material.

One could have accused Lewis of trying the patience of her fans. After all, one-half of the 14-song set were from "The Voyager." No problem, though, because the bright-sounding songs were not all that hard to get into. Lewis kept it light in another way with her guitar having the same design as covers for the keyboards, not to mention her shoes!

Also straying from NFF's roots were Band of Horses, a more meat and potatoes rock band, who got better as their set developed. The group has their softer side, as evidenced by their hit "Ghost in the House" with lead singer Benjamin Bridwell's vocals reedy and high pitched.

But they also knew how to rock with keyboardist Ryan Monroe often underpinning the songs, imbuing them with a bit of a Southern Rock feel. Monroe helped BOH get into a good groove ("The General," "Ode to LRC" and kept right on going, before slowing it down a bit ending with "Am I A Good Man?"

As usual, the Newport Folk Festival provides a tremendous amount of sonic variety. Based on how it went down on day one, no problem there.

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