This week’s edition of Music Notes is dominated by my weekend at the Newport Folk Festival.
A few initial words. First, LIVE MUSIC! OH MY GOD LIVE MUSIC! I cannot say in the words I know how wonderful it was just to see live music again. Really, talk about three days of being filled with complete joy just for getting the chance to hear live music, nevermind the amazing acts I saw. The musicians were in the same mindset. For some, this was the first show they had played since the pandemic. For one legend, which I will get to later, it was the first show since 2018. Were people rusty? You bet. There were forgotten lyrics and other mistakes. Were people really excited? You bet they were. Hell, everyone was just pumped to be there. Not to mention the sheer beauty of the location, right on the water at Fort Adams. Sometimes, living in Rhode Island works out really, really well.
Second, Newport does a hell of a job running this thing. It’s about the perfect festival setup. Admittedly, I saw it in a weird year. The spread the festival out into two smaller festivals (I definitely won the better acts) and lowered the number of tickets sold to each festival to 5,000. There were two stages instead of three. So it wasn’t so crowded. Moreover, you had to show proof of vaccination to enter, or get a rapid test everyday. I felt safe, as if I didn’t already feel safe because I’m vaccinated, not that I particular care what happens to those who are refusing to be vaccinated. But that’s not all. It’s also a very sober festival. There are two beer tents. You cannot take your beer out of the roped off area. That means no drinking near the stage. You can’t bring in booze. The festival sells no hard alcohol and even the highest ABV beer was something like 6%. So this means that, other than a few people who clearly did find a way to sneak in some booze, there weren’t drunk people. It was miraculous and wonderful, a space for people who wanted to see good music surrounded with other people who wanted to see good music. Sure, some people were clearly there for the scene more than the music, but what can you do. The food options were excellent (did have I have 2 lobster rolls and oysters in 3 days? Yes, yes I did). It’s nice to enter into a space so well run and professional. That makes everyone’s experience better, especially the relative lack of alcohol.
But we need to focus on the music here. The reason I won the festival lottery (and it is a lottery, you don’t know the acts until just before the festival and in this case, with two different festivals, you could really strike out) is that the weekend was heavily dedicated to Black artists and the one that followed much more geared to white acts that range from the boring to the OK. I would have been happy to enough to see Beck and Sharon Van Etten and Julien Baker I suppose, but mostly, this was a far weaker and much whiter lineup, especially with the big acts. Instead, what I got was almost complete gold.
Let’s take it by day.
Got there on Friday just a touch late and missed the first acts. Wouldn’t make that mistake again. The way the festival works is that you the acts are slightly staggered, but you do have to make choices. I chose to start with Black Joe Lewis, who does a solid Texas funk-blues act in the spirit of Sonny Boy Williamson and Lightnin’ Hopkins meets James Brown. It was a good energetic initial set, not my favorite style, but good. However, I should have gone and see Celisse, who will be discussed more later. Then I saw part of Lucy Dacus’ set. I know people love her. I find her work more alright than great, though I need to listen more. It was fine. I then caught the very end of Shakey Graves’ set, the love for which continues to escape me, not to mention he came up with his stage name after he and his friends sat around drinking and coming up with “Indian” names for each other. That really bugs me. There was a brief thunderstorm that cut his set short, so maybe I would have liked it more if I heard more.
The real highlight of Friday was Margo Price, who I love. Margo can do anything–country, rock and roll (as per her last album), etc. Here, she leaned heavily into the folk thing, covering Joan Baez and Dylan (“Oh Sister) with her husband. Oh, and which happens at Newport, Andrew Bird showed up for her whole set to accompany her on fiddle. This sort of wowness was the whole weekend. She played a couple of her well-known songs, starting with a great folkie version of her initial confessional hit “Hands of Time” off Midwest Farmer’s Daughter. But what she did and what so many artists did the whole weekend was play new material. This was the perfect place to introduce the new material. I can’t remember which artist said it now, but someone noted this festival was a place with serious music fans wanting to hear serious musicians play great music. It’s a place that doesn’t want to see the greatest hits. It wants to see artists doing whatever they want. And they did. Margo would turn out to be perhaps the biggest star of the weekend, the person who was seemingly everywhere at once.
Friday ended with a bit of a dud. I don’t really know Grace Potter and I really don’t get the love of Nathaniel Rateliff, who frequently appears at Newport, but they were the closing acts for that day. So we decided to grab a beer in the tent and hear Potter from afar. Seemed OK for a couple songs before a huge thunderstorm threatened and the rest of the night was called off.
So this was the least interesting day of the festival. And to be clear, it was pretty interesting.
I was a little tired on Saturday. Not only was it a long commute too and from Newport, given I had to go to my friend’s place that is out of my way, but then we had to go the convoluted ways through Newport to avoid the worst traffic. Moreover, I had come home Friday and found out that Bill O’Reilly had spent 2 minutes on his show attacking me, which does not lend itself to easy sleep and does lend itself to a later regretted drink of whiskey. Yeah, well, you get attacked by O’Reilly and see how you respond.
But you know what makes you recover from such a thing? Live music. It’s the balm for all problems. I had two acts to choose from I didn’t know to start with, so I caught a bit of each. Demeanor is a combination of hip-hop and banjo, who is clearly very talented and also clearly doesn’t have his stage show together yet. But this is an interesting dude and I need to check out his music. Caught a few of his songs, then, needing food, decided to get lunch while overhearing Yasmin Williams, who can play a mean guitar. Good stuff to start a day. Two very solid acts to start an amazing day. The second set choice was easy–another Margo Price set! She played more Baez and Dylan, as well as some of her husband Jeremy Ivey’s tunes. They have clearly been listening to a lot of Desire, because they went back to that album to cover “One More Cup of Coffee.” Just so great.
The third set was another easy one for me because Natalie Hemby was playing. Hemby is a really neat story. She’s just a great Nashville songwriter, who has penned dozens of hits for others. Her album Puxico is a real favorite of mine too. Her good friends Brandi Carlisle and Maren Morris asked her to write songs for The Highwomen album. Then they invited her to join the groundbreaking all-female country supergroup. They played the final set of the 2019 Newport Folk Festival, which ended with Dolly Parton (!!) as the surprise guest playing with them. The success of this group, including a Grammy for Hemby and Lori McKenna, another great Nashville songwriter, took her to a new level. Evidently, this was the first show she had EVER played with a full band. A longtime veteran of Nashville clubs and acoustic gigs, she never could afford such things. As she said on stage, “I’m 44 years old, just got my first record deal, and have no idea what the hell I am doing.” Well, she sure seems to know what’s she doing, as she played most of her forthcoming album that had never been played live before, a couple of other songs, and then “Bluebird,” her song that Miranda Lambert had a huge hit with. Moreover, I am always up for some live country goddamn music. Great set. Turns out that Joy Oladokun on the other stage put on a great show as well, but you have to choose.
The need to choose got even more difficult with the fourth set of the day. See, Waxahatchee was playing on one stage and on the other was….Randy Newman! I really love Waxahatchee. But my god, when was I going to get a chance to see Randy Newman? Never. This was it. Given the 20 minute stagger, I watched about the first 35 minutes of the Waxahatchee set, which included a great cover of a Jason Molina song with her partner Kevin Morby, about whom I will discuss more in a bit. I didn’t want to leave. But then, well, Randy Newman. I’m not even a historically huge fan. I have to say this about Newman. He’s really old. He doesn’t look super great. He forgot the lyrics a few times. There was a foghorn going off somewhere over the sea that really bothered him (fair enough actually). He was hilariously cursing at it. But let me say this–Randy Newman is still a wonder to see live. His wit is still 100%. His songwriting is so historically important. And his presentation is just great, maybe even more so now that he is old and cranky. Other than an Oscars performance, this was his first live performance in just under three years. You can see the setlist here. I got there when he was playing “Marie,” so I saw 3/4 of the performance. It was just so much fun to see a legend like this, unaccompanied except by his piano, signing legendary songs in front of an incredibly appreciative audience. An indescribably cool experience.
Closing the set was an easy one for me. I’d be interested in seeing Andrew Bird live, whether he was playing with Jimbo Mathus or not, but I wanted to be right up front for Jason Isbell and indeed I was, accompanied by his wife, the great violinist Amanda Shires, and his guitar player. The damned foghorn bugged him too. He was just about to start singing “Cover Me Up” when the foghorn went off. He just started laughing about it. Newman and Isbell had noted that the foghorn was in the key of G, which was an excuse for Isbell to speak a real truth–harmonica in folk music sucks. You can’t argue with truth. His set wasn’t necessarily surprising, but it was very good. He was thrilled to just be playing again, he pulled out a lot of great songs off his last four albums, and a bit more of a rarity with “Tour of Duty.” An acoustic show overlooking the water with the sun setting was just what the doctor ordered.
OK, Saturday was awesome. Absolutely awesome. But Sunday was just kind of mind-blowing, something I will need to process for a long time. To start with, one of the surprises of the weekend was that the excellent southern blues-folk-country artist Adia Victoria was hosting her podcast, interviewing various people. I’m a big fan of her two albums that I own and know she is a very frank person as well as songwriter. Who was she interviewing? Margo Price, of course! It was actually quite good and I clearly need to check out more of her podcasts. They talked about sobriety (Margo has stopped drinking) and that’s all fine, but where it really got good was talking about the racism in Nashville that recently showed up in the Morgan Wallen incident but is always around, what it is like being Black in Nashville, which Victoria can address if not Price and the risks Price took in making her second album political (she said that Brandi Carlisle told her it would be career suicide, but then it wasn’t) and the need to keep your soul, which Nashville definitely does not encourage. So that’s a good way to start a morning.
As everyone here knows, Drive-By Truckers is favorite band and really the LGM house band (outside of The Paranoid Style of course!). Why when Hood and Cooley play together acoustically, they use the name The Dimmer Twins instead of DBT, I don’t know. Maybe they just want those in the know to see them. Anyway, they were your opening act! You think I needed to see DBT as live music reopened? You are damn right I did. They only had 45 minutes in that slot, but squeezed in 10 songs from their now voluminous catalog, ranging from old classics such as “The Living Bubba” and “Carl Perkins’ Cadillac” to newer political songs such as “Watching the Orange Clouds” and “Ramon Casiano.” Wow, that felt good, that kind of good that only seeing your favorite band after a year and a half can provide.
Next, I saw most of Kevin Morby’s set, after grabbing another lobster roll. He’s existed at the edge of consciousness for a long time, but I had never really sat down to check him out much. Patterson Hood had talked about how excited he was to see it, which also sparked my interest. Indeed it was very good, another artist I really to hear some more. He ended with this very powerful song about being together in the face of all the horrors we face. It was great.
Now, I’m not a huge fan of tribute acts or albums. So when I heard about Devon Gilfillian’s cover of the entire What’s Going On? album, I was a bit skeptical. It turns out that he did it as a fundraiser for organizations fighting for voter rights in Tennessee. So that’s cool. But still, do tributes really have power? Well, in this case it sure did. In fact, this was a powerful set. Gilfillian, who I don’t know well, has a great stage presence and he did this in the best way possible–just lean into making it as powerful as possible. A large and great band is a perfect place to start and in this case, he brought in a lot of guests, including several of the Black artists appearing over the weekend, as guests, largely to sing the female parts. He had his brother come out too, who is in a wheelchair, to help him sing, which was also a touching moment. He closed the set with a powerful song of his own about coming together. I was very pleasantly surprised. It was a wow-level set.
For the fourth set, it was two acts I didn’t know well. I started with Caamp, but I thought this was easily the worst act of the weekend. Like the Avett Brothers and other neo-folk acts that bottom out with acts such as Mumford & Sons, it just felt like rote folk-rock without any real tension or emotion in the lyrics. I was bored almost instantly, though a lot of the people in their 20s seem to love this act. So I decided to head over to the other set while having a beer before must see acts made that impossible. So I caught Billy Strings. Dumb stage name, wasn’t sure. Then he said he was going to play a bunch of “Doc Watson music.” OK, another tribute act. But damn if he doesn’t play that old time music great. Doc Watson wasn’t a songwriter. He was an interpreter of the first rate, a skill that doesn’t get enough respect (this is what made Emmlyou Harris so great). Well, Strings did a great job, launching straight into “Way Downtown,” noting Doc did a lot of contemporary tunes too, and just channeling that flatpicking style that is too uncommon today. Cracker jack band, did some of his own songs too. It was cool. Maybe not life-changing, but worthy. Another person I need to check out a bit more.
The final two acts I knew were going to be great. Yola, oh I was excited to see her. And she delivered big time. Again playing mostly songs people didn’t know off her forthcoming album, she just dominated the stage. Great band too. She’s such a powerful singer and stage presence. She brought on her friends Natalie Hemby and Brandi Carlisle too. Since Carlisle wasn’t on the schedule, this was a pleasant surprise. I know she is Newport royalty so it wasn’t shocking, but I was glad to see it. Yola is funny because she has that great soul voice that sounds like Aretha reborn, and then she speaks and not only is English but uses all the great English aphorisms. I really want to see more Yola shows. Like, I would travel to see Yola play.
The last set is always supposed to be the most special, but that means the expectations are high and perhaps it can be anticlimatic. It was given over to Allison Russell, who is not a huge name in the music world, but those in the know were excited. She was in Our Native Daughters, the Black female banjo supergroup led by Rhiannon Giddens who put out one of the most powerful albums in recent memory a couple of years ago. It was also billed as “Allison Russell’s Once and Future Sounds,” which meant no one really knew what this was going to look like.
So what happened is that Russell got up there and in her soft-spoken but poetic voice, welcomed various Black female artists to “the circle.” That started with the poet Caroline Randall Williams, who appeared from time to time with great work, starting with talking about Aretha Franklin always carried her purse on stage so no one could steal her hard-earned money while she sang. Given how many relatively little known Black female artists were on the schedule, it started to make sense as Russell called them up that she had curated a lot of the schedule. Amythyst Kiah, Kam Franklin, Adia Victoria, Celisse, Joy Oladokun, Yasmin Williams, Yola, they all got their turn, as well as others. White allies Brandi Carlisle and Margo Price got their turn too. Finally, Russell took a song herself on her banjo, usually accompanying the other artists with her clarinet. While this started perhaps a bit slow, as each artist sang a song about their hard past, the struggles they had overcome, hope for the future, it gathered momentum and became a curated performance for the ages, a conceptually brilliant set of music on the role of Black women in the world. And then, just after a big version of “I’ll Take You There,” it was time for the unexpected final guest. If you had told me, I would have guessed Mavis Staples, who makes all the sense in the world. But Russell said that Staples couldn’t make it, as she will be at Newport Jazz. So the final guest was……Chaka Khan!!!!!
If Chaka Khan folk music? Who cares. “Folk music” is a silly category anyway. The question is whether it is good music. And it is! Did I like to see Khan play “I’m Every Woman” in front of two dozen adoring musicians and a few thousands thrilled crowd members? You bet! Goddamn. It was amazing. So cool. So. Very. Cool.
The legitimate criticism of this festival is that there was a huge tribute to Black women in front of a lily white audience. Frankly, Newport needs to do a better job with this. There’s a reason tickets are $250. I get that. There’s a great song by the contemporary folk singer Raye Zaragoza called “They Say,” which is about how they say that folk music is now for the elite and she doesn’t know where that leaves her since she sure isn’t an elite. Newport needs to reckon with this a little more. Whether that means giving away tickets to high school music students of color and then busing them out there or whatever else, it’s too white in that audience by a lot.
Anyway, this was a life-changing weekend.
Finally, check out the Consequence of Sound piece on this great festival.
I am saving all other music news until next week, but I did want to at least mention the death of ZZ Top bassist Dusty Hill. ZZ Top is if anything an underrated band today, too confined to classic rock radio to get anyone to actually listen to them anymore. Not to mention the loss to the beard community.
Wet Ink Ensemble, Glossolalia/Lines on Black
To say this is difficult music is an understatement. But the playing is incredible. Back in 2018, the Times called them the year’s best classical music ensemble and one can easily see why upon listening to this. “Glossolalia” is the first cut, by the saxophonist Alex Mincek and “Lines on Black” comes from the group’s electronics master Sam Pluta. The former is written for electronic voice, which mashed and cut up as per modern music, certainly adds to the overall tenor of dissonance. There’s more flow on the second track and more improvisation too. I prefer the latter, but the former is nothing if not thought provoking work.
Sault, Untitled (Black Is)
Sault released a couple of albums last year specifically about the Black experience. This is the first I’ve heard. It’s really a great release. It’s notable as well that this is a British band and just how much of the best commentary about the reality of life for the African diaspora is now coming out of Britain (Blood Orange, Dave, Slowthai). Even more interesting is that the members of Sault refuse to do any media and people aren’t even sure of their names. They just want to make music about protest and redemption. Released on Juneteenth of 2020, this combines Afro pop, modern R&B, and dance. Basically, this is highly politicized music that will get you on the dance floor. NPR named this its best album of 2020. So did BBC 6 Music. That’s some weighty recommendations. You need to hear this.
Juliana Hatfield, Blood
Another solid recent release from Hatfield, who has had a really strong run in the last five years. She still really hates Trump and still really hates sexism and still really hates Republicans and this drives her excellent songwriting. With lines such as “I’m living in a nightmare and I can’t wake up / The whole world is controlled by fascist, bloodsucking thugs,” she’s not happy. And yet, she’s not screaming. She’s singing. She’s producing fun guitar rock around themes of fury and righteous anger. She’s not at the point in life where she’s going to break new musical ground. Oh, there’s a slight sound experiment here and there, but she knows what she sounds like. That’s a winning formula and this is a winning album.
Blood Orange, Angel’s Pulse
Another pretty good mediation of global Blackness from Dev Hynes as Blood Orange. He hasn’t reached the heights of his epic 2016 release Freetown Sound since, but he continues to make solid music. This one can be a bit disjointed, between bits on the 1963 Birmingham church bombing and then a song about self-esteem or something. Some of this is material that didn’t make it onto his 2018 release Negro Swan and it kind of feels that way. But even a slightly disjointed album is a worthy addition to his catalog.
Ches Smith/We All Break, Path of Seven Colors
Fascinating combination of modern jazz and Haitian music from this pathbreaking drummer and his latest band. As a drummer, working in Haitian voudou makes a ton of musical sense. What Smith is doing in part here is making the case that jazz is heavily influenced not only by the Caribbean music that we today would call “Latin Jazz” but also by Haitian music and the heavily beat-laden music of that part of the African diaspora. That point would be interesting enough even if the music wasn’t this captivating. I suppose there is some variation between tracks, with some having a lot more of the Haitian influence than others, and running that line more sharply might make it even better, but this is a very good album nonetheless.
The band is Smith on drums, percussion, and vocals; Miguel Zenón on alto sax, Matt Mitchell on piano, Nick Dunston on bass, Daniel Brevil on tanbou and vocals, Sirene Dantor Rene on vocals, Fanfan Jean-Guy Rene on tanbou and vocals, and Markus Schwartz on tanbou and vocals. Really worth your time.
As always, this is an open thread for all things music and art and most definitely none things politics or especially disease.