Festival organizers shake up the lineup in Newport
By Eric Tucker THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
July 27, 2008
Trey Anastasio probably wouldn't be confused with a folk act, even if
the former frontman for the jam band Phish stepped on stage solo with
an acoustic guitar. The same goes for the Black Crowes, whose bluesy
guitar-driven rock would easily drown out the average acoustic troubadour.
But both acts are on the bill for next weekend's Newport Folk
Festival, which this year features a genre-bending mix of marquee
performers that draw big crowds but don't fit snugly under the
traditional folk umbrella. The lineup is a way for the venerable
festival to stay relevant amid a glut of summertime concerts while
deepening the audience base for a tradition-rich event best known for
the year Bob Dylan swapped his acoustic guitar for an electric one.
"If you just keep putting up the same lineup year after year that's
safe, you start narrowing and your audience gets smaller and
smaller," said Jay Sweet, an associate producer with the festival's
new production company, The Festival Network.
The festival is scheduled for Saturday and Sunday at Fort Adams State
Park in Newport, R.I., with performances Friday at the International
Tennis Hall of Fame at the Newport Casino.
The Black Crowes and Anastasio, performing a solo acoustic set four
years after Phish dissolved, headline Saturday's lineup. Jimmy
Buffett, who is rooted in folk but is best known today as the bon
vivant balladeer of carefree living, plays the following day.
Stephen and Damian Marley, sons of reggae icon Bob Marley, Cat Power
and alt-country band Son Volt will also be there, along with Levon
Helm of the Band, Jakob Dylan and more traditional folksters like
Richie Havens, who performed at Woodstock in 1969.
A newcomer to the festival, Damian Marley said he sees parallels
between folk and reggae and between his father's music and Dylan's.
"Folk music was kind of used as a voice to express against the system
or what is society's norms," Marley said in an interview with The
Associated Press. "Reggae music has been used in that same way, to
express the struggle of the people."
Anastasio said he was grateful for the chance to play Newport.
"The folk music definition has changed in this fast music world, and
musical styles are blending really quickly," Anastasio said in an
e-mail. "It is forward-thinking and open-minded of the Newport
festival to embrace different styles."
Dick Pleasants, who hosts a morning show on WUMB-FM, a Boston station
specializing in folk music, said he saw nothing wrong with
diversifying the lineup or trying to draw more fans but said it would
be sad if the festival were to move away from its more traditional folk roots.
"I would hesitate necessarily to call it a folk festival anymore,"
Pleasants said. "But it could be the Newport Music Festival."
Sweet, in his first year as producer at Newport, said organizers
weren't trying to break from the festival's storied legacy but wanted
to revitalize the event through a lineup of artists with broad
crossover appeal and the potential to excite the crowd. That's
especially important as more music festivals sprout throughout the country.
The goal is to expose audience members to artists they're unfamiliar
with, so old-time folkies drawn to, say, Havens or Gillian Welch
could join legions of Phishheads at Anastasio's acoustic performance.
"I don't think you last this long unless you are continually helping
artists, supporting artists who take risks," said Sweet,
editor-at-large of Paste magazine, a music and film publication.
"This festival has always been known as a place for artists to take chances."
He said he was hoping for a sellout 10,000 fans a day.
Since 1959, the festival has hosted a who's who of folk performers
and singer-songwriters, from Joan Baez, Pete Seeger and Peter, Paul
and Mary to James Taylor, the Indigo Girls and Mary Chapin Carpenter.
But it's occasionally offered less conventional selections, such as
Janis Joplin, the Pixies, and last year, Tom Morello from Rage
Against the Machine.
Dylan, who debuted there in 1963, memorably pushed the boundaries two
years later when he took the stage with an electric guitar in a
much-ballyhooed performance that drew jeers and is credited for
helping break down the barrier between rock and folk.
This year's lineup gives a more expansive take of who and what can
constitute folk music, which some fans and folk scholars say has
always been loosely defined.
"The audience changes and time changes," said Paul Dube, a Rhode
Island musician who books acts for a folk coffeehouse. "We can't just
think of folk music as a songwriter sitting behind a guitar or piano
singing original songs all night."
David Hajdu, a Columbia University professor and writer who has
attended about a half-dozen Newport festivals, said the question of
who should properly be classified as folk is as old as the genre
itself. He said the festival has always been more a tourist
attraction designed for mass appeal than a pristine showcase of
"It's not a scholarly academic festival. It's not like a
university-funded and organized anthropological festival of folk
music in the purist sense. It never has been," said Hajdu, author of
"Positively Fourth Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob
Dylan, Mimi Baez Farina and Richard Farina."
Sweet said Newport fans have historically been open to new
experiences, while artists who perform there understand the
"Curiosity," he said, "is through the roof this year."