Newport Folk Festival: The Cinderella Story (Band) for 2014?
There is something about Newport Folk that is significantly different than most big summer music festivals. Something special, something more powerful, something that shines a light very brightly on bands that may not have otherwise received that great exposure. Maybe they would have, but from my eye there is always a standout act (or perhaps a few) at Fort Adams that I am sure many people had not heard before, and they go home anxious to hear more. In past years I have referred to this as the “Cinderella Story” of late July in Newport. The band that a large quantity of people didn’t expect to go and see, but passed by and couldn’t take their attention away.
Typically this happens on a smaller stage. It could happen in the museum or on the Harbor stage. Often times this performance launches folks to play the Fort stage the following year and also includes a whirlwind of touring and getting to know people outside of the Newport family as a result.
One thing is for certain, one of the things I most look forward to each summer is not the already established act that I know I love, but that smaller act that I am going to fall head over heels for, from the first breath to the last note of their Newport Folk performance.
Back in 2011, a fairly well known regional (but not quite yet nationally acclaimed) duo by the name of Brown Bird won over the hearts and minds of the Newport crowd. With their percussive, haunting, and poetic songs, they stole the heartbeat of many a listener and established themselves as a staple in the festival, and the Rhode Island community that NFF is so supportive of. The next year saw David and Morgan Eve on the big Fort stage. Seeing them up there brought me to tears of joy and pride. Although I hadn’t gotten very close to the group personally, I had been a fan of theirs both musically and how they presented themselves as musicians, as part of this greater family of folk musicians. I was able to introduce myself briefly after their set and they were some of the most kind and inviting souls I have ever met, considering we had never met officially before. Though we lost a great man and performer in David this past year, I know his spirit and life will be celebrated by the masses at this year’s festival. He and Morgan Eve, with their music and their strength, have left a lasting mark on the foundation of this festival and on the greater community of musicians and fans associated with it.
2012 introduced me to a group of folks I had known some of from their previously musical endeavors, others I had not known of, and this band I had not yet heard of. That band was Spirit Family Reunion. The emotions that they evoked with their performance on the Harbor Stage that year ran the gamut from ravenous dancing and flailing of appendages to heartfelt tears and ear-to-ear smiles accompanying them. For me to see people I could associate with on a real level, through sharing gigs, to perform and be accepted so freely and wonderfully at Newport, made it all real for me. One of the core values of the festival was to pull that spotlight to acts that people may not have heard of, but they NEED to hear. If there is such a thing as leaving your heart on the stage and putting it all out there, this was it in its purest form. The crowd called for an almost unheard-of encore (especially for a midday set). It was a magical and wonderful moment, and of course they were back again in 2013.
Last year’s festival was a tough one for me to pull a “Cinderella story” from. Jason Isbell singing “Elephant” made my knees weak and produced a little extra salt on my face that didn’t come from the breeze off of Newport harbor. But he was a fairly well-known performer and already pretty established. For me the sweetheart of 2013 was someone I didn’t actually get to catch live, but have listened to their set streaming over and over again over the past year. (I am still kicking myself for missing this set.) That performer is Rayland Baxter. For me, Baxter has the perfect blend of dry-humored wit mixed with a cool confidence in his songs and playing. Sitting on a stool, just playing his songs in a very collected way, because they are his songs and he owns the shit out of them, is what really speaks to me about him. His voice has that warm, but sepia-tinged tone to it. He isn’t afraid to play solo with effects pedals and it sounds damn good. He is just a monster as a solo act and, when he adds friends to the mix, it is even more wonderful. Listening to his set feels like just hanging with a friend, having them run new songs by you — those songs just happen to be much better than you could ever had hoped for. I love this guy and his music. He is a special one.
So who do you think stood out over the past few years at Newport? Who is going to be this year’s folk festival sweethearts? I, personally, am putting all my chips on the Deslondes.