NEWPORT, R.I. — Multi-stage festivals present the attendee with a choice. You can be a stayer or a strayer; you can plant yourself in one spot, and enjoy (or, sometimes, not) the entire performances of whatever takes the stage in front of you; or you can move from stage to stage (and, usually, from crowd to crowd; with the approximately 10,000 folks on-site Saturday, there was no escaping that) and attempt to catch as many acts as your coordinating skills allow, even if that means hearing only a song or two from some.
With two dozen performances spread over four stages that were in nonstop (and blessedly punctual) operation, the choice of the latter strategy on Saturday yielded only snippets of the sometimes winsome sometimes off-kilter singing and songs of Australia’s Julia Jacklin, of the high-test pistol country of Nikki Lane, and of sister trio Joseph, heard applying their harmonies to the Rolling Stones’ “Moonlight Mile” to marvelous effect. The payoff was hearing more from others.
It is now established fact that Newport has a wider musical scope than its genre reference might imply (and one could hear comments reflecting that fact from various stages; at one point during their set, Chicano Batman’s Eduardo Arenas yelled “that’s as folk as we’re gonna get, people!”). Saturday, that scope encompassed everything from Arenas and company to Jim James to the Drive-By Truckers.
Chicano Batman kicked things off on the main stage; their psychedelic Latin rock ’n’ soul mélange was a great way to energize what started out as a gray and windy day. Later, Angel Olsen gave a bracing rendition of her moody, visceral rock; her caterwauling howl during the likes of “Shut Up Kiss Me” and “Give It Up” was made all the more intense by being twinned with the vocals of band member (and Mount Moriah frontwoman) Heather McEntire. Olsen announced early on that she was going to play some slow jams; it was, she said, that kind of day. As her set progressed, though, sunshine broke through the cloud cover.
New Zealander Marlon Williams’s performance of his down-under country music was one of the day’s highlights, not least for demonstrating his vocal capacities, particularly mid-set when “his boys took a wee break” and he unleashed his croon on a mournful ballad that provoked a standing ovation, followed by an equally marvelous turn through the almost-Tin Pan “Love Is a Terrible Thing.”
There was, of course, also folk music more narrowly construed to be heard, much of it from collaborative efforts. J.P. Harris, who played old-time music (and made the banjos he played) before turning to hardcore honky-tonk, teamed up with Old Crow Medicine show’s Chance McCoy for a performance that drew upon old-time, fiddle tunes, a few originals, and some of Leadbelly’s blues.
Later, on the same stage, Billy Bragg and Joe Henry played songs from their recent railroad project recording “Shine a Light” (the Avett Brothers were performing on the main stage at the same time, which somewhat eased the crowd at the Bragg and Henry set). Bragg’s gruff vocals joined with Henry’s reedy tenor for “Railroad Bill,” “John Henry,” and other train songs, and the pair interspersed observations on the historical and cultural significance of American railroads in between. They were at pains to note that they weren’t playing these songs out of nostalgia; the songs, like the railroad itself, are “a living tradition with something to say.”
Offa Rex, the collaboration between Olivia Chaney and the Decemberists, took the main stage mid-afternoon for a set of what Decemberists’ frontman Colin Meloy called “capital F folk music” in the form of old British, Irish, and Scottish folk songs filtered through the lens of the ’60s British folk revival. Live, the psych-folk vibe of some of the songs from the group’s album, “The Queen of Hearts,” was even more pronounced than on record. At quieter moments, when Chaney sang “Willie o’ Winsbury” and “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” with minimal accompaniment, the effect was mesmerizing.
Like the folk festival itself, Jeff Tweedy and Wilco have traveled a long way from where they began; the stylistic shape-shifting of their music was evident during a 75-minute closing set that ranged from the Beatlesque pop of “Someone to Lose” (one of three they did from their latest, “Schmilco”) to the muscular guitar rock of “I’m the Man Who Loves You” to Tweedy crooning the Nilsson-channeling “Hummingbird.” But Tweedy and company took a backward look of sorts to finish, when they played “Christ for President” and then were joined by Bragg for a performance of “California Stars.” Both songs are from “Mermaid Avenue,” the Bragg and Wilco ghostly collaboration with Woody Guthrie, and given the setting, they were a fitting end to the day’s proceedings.
Newport Folk Festival
At Fort Adams State Park, Newport, R.I., SaturdayStuart Munro can be reached at email@example.com