Why The Newport Folk Festival Is So Special
It isn't the biggest or the flashiest festival of the year, but Newport Folk, which NPR is covering all this coming weekend, is certainly one of the country's most prestigious and historic annual musical gatherings. Its legacy stretches back more than 50 years, with a long list of memorable performances from some of the most influential artists of all time: Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and many, many more.
These days the festival continues to challenge people's expectations for what folk should look and sound like, with a surprising lineup of artists that includes the gothic rock singer Cold Specks, Tuareg guitarist and singer Bombino, and shape-shifting rock artist Beck.
All Songs Considered host Bob Boilen talked with Newport Folk Festival producer Jay Sweet about this year's lineup and why the annual event is so special. You can hear the full interview with the link above or read a transcript below.
So it's that time of year. It's like a little time marker. Every year, NPR Music heads up to the Newport Folk Festival. It's just this beautiful, one of the best music festivals just in terms of shear fun. A beautiful space. An amazing set of bands. It's less frantic than most festivals. You can pretty much see everyone without going crazy. Or you can plant yourself a nice little seat by the main stage and see a whole host of amazing groups. But the nice thing that happens at the Newport Folk Festival is community. And we're bringing on Jay Sweet. Jay Sweet is the producer of the Newport Folk Festival, which means he gets to go around, all year long, and find great music to bring to the stage. Welcome, Jay.
Bob, thanks. This is honestly one of those traditions, over the last five years, you and I have had a chance to do this. And so, thanks again for having me. And I have to say I was blushing after that intro. I know it's radio. But if everyone could see me, I'm red-cheeked.
So if we think of some of the bigger bands. Well, first of all, an extra day. Most of friday, beginning around one o'clock, we usually just do the Saturday and Sunday, so we get an extra day this weekend. So I'm thrilled about that. Bands that people will know would be Old Crow Medicine Show, maybe Amanda Palmer, Andrew Bird, maybe someone like Father John Misty or the Avett Brothers. And they're a story, too, because the first time I saw the Avett Brothers was a tiny, little stage where they were just kicking it up.
I'm glad you brought that up, because they are the band that has grown up with me at the festival. They were my first pick I ever had at the festival, and they played the tiniest stage. And I can't tell you, it's just this amazing ride. Now they're the main headliner at the main stage at the Newport Folk Festival. It's really shown what's happened in the last couple of years.
And the last act to play, which is always a fascinating one, this year is Beck. And that was a huge surprise to see that on the lineup. I'm so thrilled about that.
You and I have discussed this: Every year I have a bucket list. In 2008 I started a list of everybody that would be my dream to bring to Newport. And a lot of the names on that list are not the first names you'd think of when you think Newport Folk Festival. And Beck was one of those names. It's taken me since 2008 to cross that one off. So I'm obviously pretty excited about that.
Do we have a clue what he's going to do?
None. It's terrifying. I don't know! I just buy the groceries. The artists make the meal. I just sit back and hope it tastes good.
This year you can see and hear music for the three days from the festival. We'll go from stage to stage and bring you highlights. We'll record every set from Newport and probably just about all of them will end up on line. But the coverage is huge. I didn't count, but there's 30-something acts?
This year there's more than 50. With the third day, it's a beast.
Let's talk about someone who's never been to the festival. Who are the ones we're going to be talking about three, four, five years from now?
One of the great things about the Newport Folk Festival is we know is that people have this image, because of the words "folk festival," as to what it is. And what Newport has always done has shaken what people think of as folk music. And Cold Specks is a Canadian artist that would shake that stereotype.
A few years back I formed a board of advisors consisting of people such as Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Pete Seeger and Colin Meloy of The Decemberists and Gillian Welch, this amazing group of people that I have an open communication with if they hear something and say "Hey, Jay this is something you should totally check out." And I got a call from one of our board of advisors, Jim James of My Morning Jacket. And he said they were over in the U.K. and they heard this artist and they said, "You gotta come check it out." So the next time [Cold Specks] came around my 'hood, I went to the show and I was definitely impressed. And after the show [Jim James] said "We're going to sit here and drink until you say 'yes!'." So it didn't take long. Jim was one of those guys who said it was important and that [Cold Specks] would do an amazing set at Newport.
I'm looking forward to that one. Sometimes [Newport] rocks out, and one of the places I know it's going to happen, because I've seen Bombino, as I'm sure you have, will be when Bombino takes the stage. That's at the smaller stage, the Harbor stage.
Yeah, sometimes you want to create a hot, sweaty, cramped ... everybody getting together and communing. That's going to be one of those sets where a lot of people don't know what to expect. And I think they're rightfully going to blown away. But you've seen Bombino, why do you think he's gonna slay it.
He hits this place in music — this music from Mali, North Africa — but there's such a commonality as to why people like rock and soul. And yet it's neither of those things. All of a sudden, it doesn't take but a moment — and it doesn't matter what the garb is they're wearing — to find a commonality and just rock out. That beat is undeniable.
It's the root of everything. It's the root we play. That's where the root came from. That is the root. And I mean that in all sense of the word. And that to me is why I think, as you said, within the first four bars, people are going to feel that time signature and are going to be like, "Wait!" It's almost bend-your-knees, you've-got-to-move. It's infectious.
But to hear someone who was also, in his teen years, influenced by Jimi Hendrix records. I mention community. I will say it a lot every time I'm at Newport. Workshops happen there. Explain ...
Well, one of the things that had fallen away in over the last decade were the workshops, which were the basis of the original festival. These shows grew out of the workshops. So these workshops were basically where an artist, a Pete Seeger, a Ramblin' Jack Elliott, an Odetta, or somebody would basically, in a round, in a small open space at the festival would go around and lead a workshop on blues playing. Or Pete Seeger would do a workshop on the craft of playing the banjo. Or a harp, or singing the blues. Whatever it'd be. There'd be this open Q and A. A kind of loose feel. So Chris Funk of The Decemberists and Black Prairie, called and kind of berated me for not having these in the last couple of years. So I threw it back in his face and said if I build the space will you run them. And he said absolutely. And who he has lined up — and it is going to be a bit of a secret because these are happening in a very small space on the festival grounds — and it's at the museum of yachting. And these things are going to be where artists from the festival will come down and explain what it means to play the banjo, what it means to play violin. What it means to play a guitar or sing the blues or whatever it is Chris has lined up. So we're calling them "Folk With Funk." The "Folk With Funk Workshops." I have to give a lot of credit to Chris and Martin Guitars for providing all the instruments so people can just show up. And if they want to jump on stage and do something, there'll be instruments for people there to do that.
And often, the other thing that happens is musicians who don't normally play with other musicians at other festivals, are usually in and out — that doesn't happen at Newport. So Colin Meloy is going to be there and Chris Funk will be there. Maybe they'll put their arms around one another. And other things can happen.
It's always the highlight for me. If you were to ask me what are my favorite things, it's the one-of-a-kind. All I can say is that we've been asked by many artists this year to be introduced to other artists they haven't met. So I guess we're the matchmaker. I think that's Newport in a nutshell. You have to understand that when you come to Newport you're part of long legacy — a much longer story line. And that you're just another chapter or verse in that story. I think most artists get it. And if they don't get it before hand, once they're on site, they get it very quickly.
Our coverage will begin Friday afternoon on NPR Music. You can watch it and hear it, it'll be on local public radio stations, too. WFUV is a major partner. MVYRadio at Martha's Vinyard, and Folk Alley will all be there. And it always is one of the best times I ever have. And it certainly is my favorite summer thing. Thanks, Jay Sweet.
It's always a pleasure. And I'll see you down at The Fort.
We usually try to meet for one beer at some point. Which show is going to be this year.
I know we'll drink at Bombino, but where else?
I am going to meet you at the Lone Bellow show at the Quad stage, 1 p.m. Saturday.
See you, man.