Stronger Together: The Newport Folk Festival

Ben Harper looks like he is about to cry. Harper is a blues/rock/indie guitarist who has been making music since the early-1990s. Tall, lean, and with chiseled features that make him look like he is clipped from the pages of a superhero comic book, Harper is an imposing figure. From where I’m sitting underneath the Quad Stage tent at the Newport Folk Festival, I can see thick ropes of ink vining up and around his, equally cut, forearms. He is at Newport this year with the legendary blues harmonica player, Charlie Musselwhite performing tunes off their new disc No Mercy In This Land. Musselwhite, a spry, white-haired man in his 70s, could readily pass for anyone’s gnatty grandfather. Harper introduces him to a standing ovation that feels like it clocks in over the two-minute mark.

During their blistering 45-minute set, the duo leave nothing on the field. They close with a staggering version of Zeppelin’s “When The Levee Breaks” that, weeks later, I can still feel vibrating in my marrow. Still on our feet, screams and applause spilling out from under the tent, Harper dispenses with a requisite round of thanks—the crowd, the band, the festival staff, crew, and organizers. He pauses and that’s when I see his jaw, this square piece of granite, start to quiver. This intimidating man who, just moments before, held total command of the stage, ripping through song after song without so much as a pause to take a breath, begins to speak again in short, halting sentences.

Ben Harper ©SheilaMoeschenPhotos

Harper was raised by his mother and her parents in California who owned a music store called The Folk Music Center and Museum, frequented by people such as Leonard Cohen, Taj Mahal, and John Darnielle. It was in this kind of incubator of art and music and intellectual curiosity where Harper’s earliest interest in making music was forged. Harper’s voice splinters with emotion as he speaks about what it means for him to be on this stage at this historic festival. He flinches a little as he talks about it would mean for his grandparents to see him here, adding his energy to this event that has endured for more than fifty years, season after season raising up the same kinds of artists that passed through his grandparents’ store. Our roar surges back at Harper. Tears mix with sweat as they track down my cheeks and I think, “Jesus Christ! It’s only 1:30 and I’ve cried twice today already! Is this how it’s gonna be, Newport?”

What is, “Yes,” Alex. I’ll take Stupidly Obvious Questions for $600.

You can’t live in New England and be into the indie-ish music scene without at least having heard of the Newport Folk Festival. For years, that’s exactly what I did—I heard second and third hand about Newport and what an unparalleled experience it offers. Many times I had toyed with going, but felt daunted by logistics, by securing tickets (passes for the three days sell out in a half hour, give or take, on the day they go on sale), and by festival suspicion itself. Coachella, SXSW, Levitation, enjoy your endless lines for janky portos and views of stages glimpsed only with the aid of the Hubble telescope. Hard pass. But enough people assured me that Newport was leagues apart from any other festival event. “Unique” was a word repeatedly passed along, as was “nice” (usually with an apologetic smile as if to say, “I know how lame that sounds, but we’re over 30 and damnit ‘nice’ is a huge selling point!”), and “surprisingly chill.” When a photographer friend of mine and longtime Newport veteran offered to sell me her extra passes for this year’s fest, I heeded the Universe’s kick in the ass and handed her my money.

Newport takes place in Rhode Island on Fort Adams or “the Fort,” as everyone calls it. Fort Adams is a former U.S. army post built in the late-1700s. It sits on a peninsula at the mouth of the Narragansett Bay just across from the scenic seaside down of Newport where, once upon a time, egregiously rich families like the Rockefellers and the Astors spent summer holidays in their sprawling seaside mansions. Newport is no slouch.

In the same way that New York City felt like a fifth character on the show, Sex and the City, the Fort itself is very much another member of the Newport family. At 80 acres large, the Fort feels intimate and roomy; you often have to remind yourself that you’re hanging out with 10,000 new friends. There’s also a welcome sense of insulation, the notion that you’re in the Fort’s embrace, cradled by sky and ocean. The real world exists at arm’s length, for a little while at least. In essence, the Fort is as special as the festival itself, which is a word that usually makes my eyes roll so far back in my head that I could perform my own brain surgery. But here we are—a believer and convert, crying on the first day before the first set was barely under way. Special. You win, Newport.

Music happens continuously throughout the day on three outdoor stages and in one indoor space. You can study the roster and even chart out your day to catch sets from any of your favorite artists, but it becomes clear early on that it doesn’t matter what you see: every artist, every ensemble, every band is operating at the top of their game, swinging for the fences, pouring their musical DNA into every note, every chord, every verse. How is it that you people aren’t all Grammy winners? I found myself marveling along with the follow-up thought: where have you all been this whole time? How, for instance, have I completed a single week without the dirty, gritty, sweaty Philly bar band licks of Low Cut Connie whose lead singer, Adam Weiner, resembles the love child of Jerry Lee Lewis and Peter Wolf? Why haven’t I been letting the rolling baritone of country singer Tyler Childress break my heart for ages? Courtney Barnett and Margo Price, can I trouble you to come over after school and start a feminist revolution with me? I have snacks!

connie
Low Cut Connie ©SheilaMoeschenPhotos

All the artists in the first set of the first day were unknowns to me, though I heard rumblings about the Americana quartet Darlingside as not-to-be-missed. When the gates opened, I threaded my way through the stampede of people racing with their quilts and chairs to claim valuable territory out by the massive Fort Stage area and decamped to the Harbor Stage for Darlingside’s set.

Their four-part harmonies are unparalleled, earning them appropriate comparisons to  Crosby, Stills, and Nash, though they certainly do have their own unique sound and style. Darlingside’s set was masterful and too short, but it was what happened before they had played a single note that set the tone for my festival experience. Darlingside’s notoriety is emerging; they might not have the same name recognition (yet) as someone like Josh Ritter or a group like Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats. The foursome came out from the back of the Harbor Stage and were met with a thundering sound of applause, cheers, shouts, and whistles that quickly became a wall of noise. The guitar player standing closest to where I was sitting, grabbed his guitar out of the stand and looked out at the crowd with a genuinely shocked expression on his face. His eyebrows rocketed, he glanced over at his band mates who were also tuning and smiling and trying to play it casual as we screamed like we were in a barn on fire. I saw a joyful grin spread across his face as he shook his heads, mouthing the words “thank you” and “wow.” Cue my eye water, the first of many that day.

darling
Darlingside ©SheilaMoeschenPhotos

In that instant, I could feel what it must have meant for a, perhaps, lesser known group than say, for example, a band like Mumford and Sons (the surprise guest Saturday night), to be so instantly and warmly embraced and welcomed. I noticed this kind of dynamic throughout the weekend working like a feedback loop of energy that is so palpable it almost becomes a kind of blissful undertow. Artists give their all musically and emotionally—their gratitude and humility is on full display, they are often spied standing at the edges of other stages watching other artists perform—and festival goers return it all in kind. And it’s not just reserved for the music and its makers. Newport made me want to be a better person.

Immediate and galvanizing fellowship between festival attendees takes hold while you’re simply waiting around for the gates to open. Clustered up against the metal barricades, people trade conversation and hugs, sunscreen, water, and extra space on tarps or blankets. As the festival unfolded, I found myself becoming more attentive to everyone. Before leaving sets, I’d look around for anyone searching for a front row/prime real estate type seat and make sure they knew mine was open. I’d glance around at people standing behind me and ask if they needed me to move or duck so they could get a good shot. One morning as the gates fell back and the sun was already reaching nuclear status, making my way to one of the stages, I stopped by one of the staff members keeping an eye on the foot traffic. I said good morning and, spontaneously, asked him if he needed water, a snack, or more sunscreen. Outside of this experience, especially in New England, this kind of interaction would be greeted with extreme prejudice and a lot of loud profanity.

But this festival is special (said through slightly clenched teeth). Its founding members devised the event as one striving toward inclusivity, diversity, and, above all, fellowship, connection, and community. That these ideas not only remain, but reanimate in real time, year after year, is proof that music can become the conduit for urging us to be our best selves, for reminding us that we’re all here for one another, and for breaking down what divides us to show us what’s possible when we gather united.

There’s a large green banner tacked to the main entrance point where staff members nose around your backpack and scan your ticket. It bears the Newport Festival logo—a bird making off with a guitar surrounded by a circle of stars—and the words of one of the festival’s original members and iconic folk and social activists, Pete Seeger: “We’re stronger when we sing together.”

It’s a massive marquis, but it was only on the second day of the festival that I noticed the banner. I couldn’t believe I had missed it on the opening day, but maybe I just wasn’t able to see it. Maybe I had to feel it first.

 

 

 

 

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Sheila C. Moeschen I am a writer from Boston. Visit sheilamoeschen.com for more.

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