NEWPORT - After years of tinkering, quibbling about what exactly does or should constitute appropriate music at the Newport Folk Festival is a little like arguing about fusion cuisine. At a certain point you just have to trust the chef, sit back, and enjoy the flavors offered.
This year, new programmers Festival Networks cooked up a terrific variety of tastes by inviting a diverse group of pop, rock, and jam bands of varying vintage to the party while keeping the door open to those with ties to the festival's storied 49-year history. That meant plenty of acoustic guitar but also mandolins, accordions, steel drums, and at least one band using a cookie sheet as a percussion instrument.
Over three days, 34 artists, untroubled by genre strictures, performed for some of the biggest crowds in recent fest history - 8,000 on Saturday and 7,500 yesterday. Those audiences appeared to be a mix of the fresh faces the new bosses hoped to attract and repeat visitors who didn't allow themselves to be alienated by the unfamiliar. It was heartening to see folks of all ages, hippies and hipsters, breaking bread over the musical ties that bind and, on Saturday, singing in the rain.
The fest got off to an auspiciously celebratory start Friday night at the International Tennis Hall of Fame with Brian Wilson, mad genius of the Beach Boys, giving a jubilant performance that included pristine renditions of tunes like "Good Vibrations" and "I Get Around."
Of the weekend days at Fort Adams State Park, yesterday boasted superior weather but Saturday was the real musical throwdown, forcing breathless dashes between all three stages, and plenty of raindrops.
Those parked for the duration in front of the main stage were treated to the cool of the Cowboy Junkies, folk legend Richie Havens - who favored the crowd with his version of Joni Mitchell's "Woodstock" - and Phish frontman Trey Anastasio, performing a jovial, laid-back mix of band and solo tunes performed acoustically.
Employing a generator, Stephen and Damian Marley were delayed but undeterred by the downpour - which knocked out power in parts of Newport - playing a mix of their own spirited reggae and a few of their famous dad's tunes.
Chris and Rich Robinson began their set as an acoustic duo but the rest of the Black Crowes brought Saturday to a thunderous close with generous workouts on songs like "Wiser Time" and the acid-rocking "Goodbye Daughters of the Revolution."
The biggest buzz surrounded the medium-size Harbor Stage. The raucous oldsters in the Young@Heart chorus drew hearty cheers with their classic rock interpretations. Steve Earle called on Woody Guthrie in his stirring set, in which he was joined by his wife, country singer Allison Moorer. Jim James of My Morning Jacket wowed in solo troubadour mode with his keening vocals and evocative storytelling. She & Him charmed a huge spillover crowd - many getting soaked outside the tent - with a mix of vintage country and pop sounds and a guest spot from James on "Magic Trick." Cat Power's sultry croon on noir-ish reimaginings of songs like Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Fortunate Son" and her own clattering "Metal Heart" perfectly suited the humidity. Jakob Dylan offered up a set of terrifically melodic roots pop in his husky rasp and, slyly referencing his dad's most infamous Newport moment, got off the best line of the day. Referring to his guitar he quipped, "For those who were wondering, it is acoustic but it does plug in."
Over at Waterside Stage, Sydney Wayser impressed with impassioned piano pop and Jesca Hoop floored the small tent crowd with a set of her quirky pop, thanks in part to a pair of spirited harmony vocalists.
Yesterday had a slower pace but its own share of superlative performances including ukulele maestro Jake Shimabukuro gently coaxing out wonderful renditions of the Beatles' "In My Life" and Led Zeppelin's "Going to California," and Kate Taylor getting her rock and soul on at the Waterside stage.
At the Harbor stage the cookie-sheet whacking roots rockers Over the Rhine drew appreciative hoots and hollers, Son Volt cranked up the volume, and guitar ace Kaki King impressed with fleet fretwork.
On the main stage singer-songwriter Willy Mason took the fest's name literally, bringing his folks on stage to sing harmony. Brandi Carlile had Newport eating out of her hand thanks to her flinty vocals - including a bit of high lonesome yodeling - and snazzy covers of Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" and Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah."
Gillian Welch and David Rawlings's close harmonies and mountain sound proudly honored Newport's legacy, and Levon Helm simply smoked with his huge, rollicking band playing rock, soul, blues, roots, and everything in between - closing with the Band classic "The Weight."
While festival headliner Jimmy Buffett opined about how long it took him to get to the festival he passed on the opportunity to doff his cruise director hat for a night and delve into his rich, more introspective history. Instead, he went with a perfectly pleasant and generous greatest hits affair - "Cheeseburger in Paradise," "Margaritaville," et. al. - with his Coral Reefer Band that thrilled the assembled Parrotheads on land and sea; the yacht rockers in Narragansett Bay blasted their airhorns in approval.
He magnanimously invited former bandmate Shimabukuro up for a dazzling ukulele and steel drum version of the Beatles' "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." Welch and Rawlings got the nod to offer harmony vocals for their rambunctious "Elvis Presley Blues," which Buffett has covered. The party ended with a nod to history as Buffett closed with a solo acoustic cover of "Blowin' in the Wind."