NEWPORT, R.I. -- The lineup at the 45th annual Newport Folk Festival was one of the strongest in memory, and the performances matched the promise of names as diverse and respected as guitar legend Doc Watson and the avant-bluegrass collective Olabelle.
But this year's festival will go down in the history books as the first time seminal folk-rockers Crosby, Stills & Nash appeared on the Newport stage.
"I can't believe we've never played this festival," marveled Stephen Stills backstage. "It's an honor to be here at any time, and this year is an especially important one. I'm happy I remember `For What It's Worth.' "
The upcoming presidential election was on the minds of many performers, and as a result this year's event conjured some of the '60s-era activism so closely associated with the early years of the folk scene. CS&N dedicated "Military Madness" to President Bush -- the song closed with a 7,000-strong chorus of voices chanting "no more war" -- and while the rest of CS&N's set was less overtly political, it was no less incendiary.
Saturday's set list included some of the group's most beloved tunes: "Carry On," "Marrakesh Express," "Helplessly Hoping," "Déjà Vu," "Wooden Ships," and "Teach Your Children." And the gray, grizzled trio not only put its signature harmonies in the pocket (which 35 years out would have been impressive in itself) but sounded absolutely invigorated.
Anchored by Stills's phenomenal and perennially underrated electric guitar, CS&N burrowed into generous, stretched-out arrangements of classics and a handful of new tunes -- David Crosby and Graham Nash have an album out this week and Stills's solo disc is due early next year -- that held their own next to the CS&N standards.
Political commentary ran the gamut from country rebel Steve Earle's thigh-slapping rendition of "(Expletive) the FCC" -- it inspired one audience member to stand and wave a giant American flag -- to Rufus Wainwright's rendition (with mom Kate McGarrigle on piano) of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" with a revised lyric: "far from Bush and Cheney" replaced "that's where you'll find me." Wainwright's set yesterday was full of humor and eclecticism and proved a lush tonic in this comparatively serious musical setting.
Earle answered festival promoters' dreams by joining fellow maverick Lucinda Williams for a pair of tunes during her loose-limbed and mostly languid set, which included a slinky cover of Skip James's "Hard Time Killing Floor Blues" and slow, juicy versions of gems from her recent album, "World Without Tears."
"This is what the Newport Folk Festival is all about," proclaimed announcer and New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival producer Quint Davis following Earle's nuts-and-bolts set. But the festival is also about pushing forward, not to mention sideways, and Jim White brilliantly plumbed the fringes of what might be called folk with a deeply weird and beautifully constructed fusion of music, religion, poetry, and a toy store tape recorder.
One of the great, and perhaps unique, pleasures of Newport is the range of ages it draws -- both as audience and performers. Gospel vocal group the Dixie Hummingbirds, formed 75 years ago, and 81-year-old singer and flat-pick guitarist Doc Watson -- whose fingers were as nimble and whose voice was as strikingly clear as a young man's -- were among the most vibrant artists to perform all weekend. And so was the Old Crow Medicine Show. The members appear to be barely out of their teens and they play their mess of banjos and guitars like old-timers weaned on punk rock. Holding down the middle ground was Joan Osborne, who chose the Newport festival to announce her pregnancy and rocked the crowd with a soul-saturated voice that could've blown a small boat across the bay.
Yesterday's crowd of 5,000 had dwindled considerably before the headliners took the stage, introduced by a Saddam Hussein impersonator. And it was their loss, because Wilco masterfully bridged the traditional and the contemporary with a set of songs that were at once earthy, noisy, elegant, and endlessly inventive.
"All of the songs I write are folk songs to being with," Jeff Tweedy said earlier, but he and Wilco dared to veer from their roots on nearly every outing, cracking sweet folk songs open to spill out the ugly insides and turning country tunes to fuzz. When the Band's Garth Hudson -- an elder statesmen of folk-rock keyboards who had accompanied the Dixie Hummingbirds earlier in the day -- joined Wilco for wildly spirited takes on "California Stars" and "Late Greats," time stood still for a few musical moments, precisely as it should at this festival.
Joan Anderman can be reached at email@example.com