Guest Festival Review: Newport Folk Fest

Guest Festival Review by Govind Shanadi

The Newport Folk Festival marked the 50th anniversary of Bob Dylan plugging in to the dismay of Alan Lomax and other folk purists. To its credit, the festival has mostly stayed true to its mission of highlighting up and coming artists and 2015 was no different.

There were three main stages, with all stages and performances listed in smartphone apps only, showing it has kept up with the times. The best way to approach these musical festivals is to find a handful of performances that you really want to see, while roaming between stages to catch unexpected gems.

The music festival started each day around 11:00 and usually wrapped up in the evening unlike many of the popular fests today, which go much later. But the first thing you notice about this festival is the setting.

Newport is a small town in the small state of Rhode Island. It is on the Atlantic ocean and some festival-goers even sail into the city. The harbor is dotted with sailboats and some, along with kayakers, position themselves in the water to see the main stage.

The city and festival work very well together, unlike many festivals which are in more rural areas and seem more like temporary cities.

Moreover, there is a Civil War era fort that serves as the backdrop for one of the stages. In other words, there is not a better location to hold a music festival.

In terms of size, it’s not one of the bigger festivals and the audience definitely skews older. But it’s an audience that’s mostly savvy to the history of folk, rock, roots, and country music. Positioned within easy driving distance of New York City, Boston, Philadelphia and maybe even DC, many concert-goers are here on a yearly basis.

Saturday featured performances by both Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson. Simpson’s set, which can be found online, was simply electrifying. Other highlights include My Morning Jacket playing with Roger Waters of Pink Floyd.

There were rumors the Dylan himself would show up, but any real Dylan fan knows that’s not in his DNA. He did, after all, release a documentary called Don’t Look Back. But there was a rotating set of musicians covering many of his most iconic songs. Bringing in a major star is not what the Newport Folk Festival is about and the organizers did a solid job of acknowledging what happened 50 years ago to the day, while still forging ahead in highlighting today’s most promising musicians. If that’s not enough to make you want to attend, the festival discourages video recording on smartphones and bans selfie sticks.

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