Saturday, July 30, 2011
The Felice Brothers
While I was playing a beach-blanked bingo in front of the Fort Stage, trying to orient myself and advance toward the action without stepping on anyone’s cooler, or head, I heard the unmistakable voice of Ian Felice.
“I don’t think I’ve ever played in front of this many yachts before!” it said.
Then the Brothers laid into a slow one. Spare drums, the swell of James Felice’s accordion, and then, almost reflecting the sound in a fun-house mirror, Ian’s yearning (key adjacent) whine, reciting poetry.
I loved The Felice Brothers from the instant I first heard “Frankie’s Gun,” a beautiful and tortured tale told from beyond the grave in which a criminal relates some touching plans for his loot to his accomplice, who then betrays and murders him in their getaway car. It’s a biting, fast-paced acoustic rocker. But a murder ballad…no wonder these guys were invited to the Folk Festival (twice in a row).
Based on “Frankie’s Gun,” I assumed the brothers were haggard, middle-aged, New York Italians, so I was shocked when I first saw pictures of them, but nothing prepared me for seeing them in person. They are children. Children possessed by daemons of genius. If a legend began that the Felice Brothers had made a deal with the devil to be well worn, wise and wizened before their time so they could be authentic folk stars while still possessing youth, I would believe it. In fact, let’s get that started.
The set was nearing its end when I arrived and it closed with the song “River Jordan” from their new album, Celebration, Florida (“Buy it, please, for the love of God!” whined Ian between songs). These guys know how to write a song, and they know how to orchestrate the hell out of one too, bringing it to a fiery climax with sizzling guitar, accordion and fiddle. So far so good, Newport.
“Immigrant punk” was a great addition to the festival. Even it wasn’t that punky. Gogol Bordello did their Gypsified eastern European thing acoustically. It rocked, but it didn’t have the chaotic energy I had come to expect from these rabble-rousers, once infamous for shows full of burlesque performers and rowdiness that built to a shuttering climax. Maybe it was the audience. Lead singer Eugene Hutz seemed to think so.
Hutz started things off with a characteristic yodel to lead us down “Avenue B.”
“Oh Sally, my darling, your panic is so charming,” he sang, swilling from a 40 during instrumental breaks. Hutz was backed by some female vocalists, an accordian, a fiddle and some drums—“Yo, I need more percussion,” he howled almost immediately. “Ah! That’s the sound of creation!
After busting out “Immigrant Punk,” and “My Companjera” he started getting a bit punchy. “To the people over here, I’m sorry, this is not lying down music! There’s always the people over there for inspiration.” Then a few minutes later, “You guys never heard of breaking furniture? A little cultural difference? You know about breaking furniture! Strictly for the right purposes of course!”
These admonitions to vandalism did not quite insight the Newport Crowd, whose greatest level of participation was a little call-and-response and some bopping.
“Alrightski! Loosen up everyone!” Hutz eventually yelled.
Not his ideal crowd. But we were glad he came.
Toward the end of the Gogol Bordello set, I set out for the fast approaching Delta Spirit set over on the Quad Stage on the other end of the U. On the way there, I passed the Alex & Ani Harbor Stage, and ran into the Song Circle with John Gorka, Ellis Paul, Dar Williams and Queler & Farber, described in Part 1. This was the low key, heartfelt stories told in beautiful voices part of the festival, the most challenging thing to pull off at Newport, because it’s the kind of music that doesn’t have the same impact anywhere that’s not a small bar or coffeehouse. But these are the stars of that circuit and this was enough for taste. Which was all I had time for with Delta Spirit coming on.
Once I had my fix, I hustled to the tunneled archway that leads to the Quad, but I was soon anxiously policed to one side but a handful of nervous ushers. Something had happened on the tunneled ramp, and someone was being loaded onto a stretcher. This was the moment when the spirit of the crowd and the organization of the festival would be tested.
Altamont speedway, this wasn’t. The folkies kept to their sides with nothing more than some irritated grumbles even during later moments when, bizarrely, we’d be herded to the sides of the tunnel for vehicles to drive through this, the only passage way to the second main stage.
It’s a funny thing about Delta Spirit. When you listen to “Ode to Sunshine” and “History from Below,” their first two albums. You can pretty much see why it would make sense to invite them to a Folk Festival. I think the main thing is, you can understand all the words, which are fairly poetic and at times political. There’s storytelling, there are some rootsy anthems and ballads, a gospel stomp.
When you experience them live, however, all of this pretty much fades into the background. You’ve got a loud and exciting rock band fronted by a showman with a hell of a voice, who is really sensitive to his crowd. Live Delta Spirit is not folk, or folk rock. It’s rock, rock.
Matt Vasquez clearly knew he was fronting the only rock band in the festival that day. His swagger was in overdrive. He even looked different, sporting a shorter haircut, a Eurotrashy facial hair config and dress shirt in place of the standard indie rocker flannel.
“You guys are so polite!” He said, echoing Gogol Bordello. “Hey, Newport!”
A resounding chorus of ‘woos,’ and the band ripped into it. ‘Bushwick Blues,” “Trashcan,” all the rockers. A blistering attack of melodic noise. The open air could not swallow them up. This was a show for the kids and the kids loved it. Me too.
I Almost Miss Earl Scruggs Because Pokey LaForge Swings That Hard.
One of the best things that can happen to you at a music festival is: you discover a new band and fall in love. I was on a mission. Earl Scruggs was playing on the Fort Stage on the other side of the U. A legend. An originator. Indisputably one of the top practitioners of his instrument. This is what I imagined Newport to be about.
I scampered through the archway as fast as my dirty Crocs would carry me, and tried to barrel passed the Alex & Ani Harbor stage, only to be stopped in my tracks by the sound of lighting fast country swing, something you just don’t hear that much. At least where I’m from. I whirled around and saw a man who from a distance looked like Leon Redbone honking into a harmonica. “Drinking Whisky Tonight,” the band beside him was singing.
There was scatting, a slide guitar, almost Django-like acoustic—the style that can sounds like a harp one minute, a banjo the next and a train after that—virtuosic harmonica, and rollicking upright bass. It sounded like Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, but it was, as it turned out, Pokey LaForge & the South City Three. After muscling up as close as I could, I was mesmerized by a jam/duel between the instrumentalists. They seemed to be passing around licks and trying to stump each other. You’d here a couple bars from classical masterpiece, then an ambulance siren, then a birdcall. It was awesome.
Pokey, you’re a charmer. If I can ever get the opportunity to buy a ticket for your show, consider it done. I will hit your Myspace page the minute I get home, if such a thing exists. But right now, I gotta see Earl.
I made to the closer of the set. The ancient but very much still chop-possessing Scruggs was playing with a sizable combo. I heard him announce one they played in the 70’s during the airing of “the TV program…”The Ballad of Jed Clampett.”
I rolled my eyes. But I should have known better. Scruggs’ mandolin, vocals and strings arrangement made the tale more gorgeous, soulful and Appalachian than I could have imagined.
Devil Makes Three
After hearing the single greatest cover of a television theme song possibly ever rendered, I decided I needed a break from the relentless scorching sun that had inspired to very many of us at Newport to rock the big straw hat and shades look and had made the frozen treat and beverage venders so very happy throughout the weekend. So I walked over to the water’s edge to check out the aquatic folk scene and get my sea breeze on.
No doubt about it, the sailors and kayakers were having a party. Somewhere, a brass band was throbbing forth. Was there a band on a boat somewhere? Was it the punk horn outfit What Chear? Brigade, who had played the perimeter of the park in the morning, blasting away somewhere out of site? Were we dealing with a phantom yacht with a serious sound system? The mystery lives on.
Refreshed, I headed back to the Alex & Ani tent for one of the bands I had come for: the modern bluegrass trio, The Devil Makes Three. I say bluegrass, I suppose because the California trio play strings only—acoustic guitars, upright bass and sometimes banjo—and have an olde timey country twang. But they’re not about covering traditionals. They write their own songs—and they’re genius. They’re bouncy, hooky, up-tempo songs with quickly tripping vocal lines which mainly describe misdeeds and misadventures, as their clever name suggests.
These guys were sick to watch. Every bit as good as I had guessed. The jammed packed Alex & Ani crowd seemed to be leaping up and down for the entire set. Front man Pete Berhard, clean-shaven in a short black, brimmed hat and tatted-up arms, stole hearts as the band’s crooner, with his bandmats jumping in for three part harmonies. To his right, guitar and banjo player Cooper McBean, looking like a Hell’s Angel with crazy amounts of hair and beard, including long Willie Nelson braids, took a wide stance and bared into his acoustic axe. To Berhard’s left, was the angel of the group, Lucia Turino, an adorable brunette who bopped and twisted with wide eyes and toothy grin as she plucked an upright bass into which she could have fit, bodily. She looked like she was waltzing with a wooden linebacker.
While a PR person passed out cattle skull logo stickers to the hopping crowd, the Trio dug into pieces of all three of their albums, “The Devil Makes Three,” “Longjohns, Boots and a Belt,” and the newly released, “Do Wrong Right.”
Gillian Welsh & David Rawlings
If Devil Makes Three was red hot, then diving into the photo pit to get some snaps of Gillian Welsh & David Rawlings was a refreshing plunge into the cool waters of the crick. Cool. So cool. This act was a natural for the festival. A superstar of the crossover country world with clear old timey/bluegrassy roots, the honey voiced Welsh has just released “The Harrow and the Harvest, an album of new originals, with the accompaniment of the accomplished guitarist.
At first I was a bit startled at the sight of the slender woman in the strapless dress smiling in front of the mic. If I had been a few rows further back I would have sworn she was a teenager. She is aging gracefully, and she certainly sings with the kind of grace that massages your soul, filling your mind’s eye with gently flickering pictures of rural imagery.
“We are pretty happy to be playing folk songs for you tonight,” Welsh said at the top of her set. “I hope they become folk songs. That means people like ‘em.”
“The Way it Goes,” from the Harrow and the Harvest, was a highlight.
The last acts at the festival start between 5:30PM and 6:00PM. The last Peter Pan leaves the city of Newport at 7:00PM. Please note that while the posted schedule lists the last water taxi leaving Fort Adams Park at 6:00PM, during the folk and jazz festivals, boats run until the bitter end. Still, I needed to play it safe. This meant that I was only going to catch a couple of opening songs from one of the day’s three closers: Indie folk rock stars, The Decembrists, soul legend Mavis Staples, or Woody Guthrie disciple Ramblin’ Jack Elliot.
I love all three of these acts. I had never seen any of them perform live.
I chose Mavis.
Crouching in the photo pit for about 15 excruciating minutes of sound-check, I prayed to gods I don’t even believe in that Mavis would come out and start her set some time in the vicinity of the scheduled start.
It was not to be. On my way to the water taxi, I caught a glimse of Ramblin’ Jack, looking and sounding more than a little bit like Mark Twain. He was telling one of his famous, long, winding, humorous tales of the road. I’ll bet it was a good one.
Fortunately, on Day Two, I would find a way to stay until the bitter end. I would experience Mountain Man, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, The Cave Singers, Wanda Jackson, Justin Townes Earle, Amos Lee, Middle Brother, M. Ward, Elvis Costello and EmmyLou Harris.
Check out Part 3 of the Journal.