My first Newport Folk Festival experience came as music editor of the Boston Phoenix back in 2010, and in the years that followed, the reactions to the my annual mid-summer trip to Fort Adams State Park have been increasingly more understanding. I’ve spent less time explaining the dwindling notion of traditional folk and more time gushing about which half-dozen acts I’ve been excited to watch as I stuff a lobster roll into my face.
This year’s sold-out-way-in-advance Newport Folk, which kicks off this afternoon and runs through Sunday night when Mavis Staples wraps things up, is a truly grand spectacle of sound and vision. Big-ticket names include Jack White, Conor Oberst, Deer Tick, Dawes, Ryan Adams, Sun Kil Moon, Jenny Lewis, Band of Horses, Jimmy Cliff, Nickel Creek, Jeff Tweedy, Lucius, Lake Street Dive, and others.
But once again, many of the nearly 60 performing bands and artists aren’t what you’d exactly equate with traditional folk music. That storyline is growing tried, sure, but genre walls are at an all time low across all musical arenas, and this weekend is certainly more focused on providing an irreplaceable showcase along Newport Harbor than subscribing to any crumbling belief of what a festival with “folk” in its name should sound like.
With that in mind, here are five acts that jumped out at us when the lineup was announced a few weeks back, and ones we’ve circled on the three-day schedule.
We’d love to be a fly on the backstage tent wall when Jack White chats it up with Reignwolf’s Jordan Cook, a one-man blues brigade that’s going to add the most riffage to the weekend before the former White Stripe holds court. Perhaps the most abrasive performer of the weekend — and probably the only one to ever open for Black Sabbath — the Seattle-via-Saskatoon rock powderkeg is sure to give a highlight performance. This clip from Music Midtown is a good indication (without the shitty weather).
A few years ago we first caught Pokey LaFarge at Newport Folk performing with his South City Three band, and he quipped something to the effect of “This isn’t retro music, this is real music.” It was something my grandfather would probably say, only my grandfather wasn’t born in 1983. LaFarge is a master craftsman of 1920s and 1930s roots and Americana, and there really isn’t anything else like him. We certainly don’t expect his popularity to grow to the point where he’d ever headline Newport Folk, but we absolutely figure he’ll still be relevant enough to play it in 2034. This is a career that’s in it for the long haul.
2014 could be the Year of Cleveland’s renaissance, with athletes like LeBron James and Johnny Manziel giving their sports teams unusual optimism and bands like Cloud Nothings and SomeKindaWonderful providing a sweet musical soundtrack. J. Roddy Walston & the Business are from a different kind of Clevelend, however — the one actually located in Tennessee between KNoxville and Chattanooga. While his crew have been around for a roughly dozen years, but it was stomp-along/shout-along 2013 breakout radio hit “Heavy Bells” that not only catapulted them to national acclaim, but gave the band a song that’s included in pretty much everyone’s 2014 Newport Folk Spotify mix. You’ll be signing it waiting in the queue to leave the festival grounds come Saturday evening.
Austin’s favorite son is also a favorite of Vanyaland contributor Hilary Hughes, and for good reason. Born Alejandro Rose-Garcia, there’s a lounge-singer magnetism to his work in Shakey Graves, a name derived from a camping trip with friends, where they each all gave each other “campfire Indian guide names” monikers like Spooky Wagons and Spinster Jones. We’re not sure when those other two are hitting the road anytime soon, but if they’re in Austin on February 9, they’d have to contend with Shakey Graves Day, which celebrated its third year in 2014. All eyes will be on him come Saturday.
One of the most polarizing new artists of 2014, 24-year-old Irish lad Andrew Hozier-Byrne is taking Newport to Church… so naturally he’s playing on Sunday. The singer’s music has been hard to characterize, which is why its been embraced by everything from alt-rock radio to street-savvy college kids to the NPR faithful (and oddly rejected by nearly as many others). Hozier’s voice is rich and impactful, and his music is lush, orchestral, and opulent. The skies, they might just open up something fierce when he takes the stage.