Live Report: Newport Folk Festival

Pine Knob Music Theatre, Independence Township, Mich., August 22, 1998

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"I love the screaming," Loudon Wainwright III said after watching several rows full of alt-rock faithful shimmy and swirl through nearly an hour of the Violent Femmes. "It's so folky."

Of course the Newport Folk Festival -- the first-ever traveling edition of the Rhode Island musical tradition where, among other things, Bob Dylan brought his electric sound to the world in 1965 -- is about defining the parameters of what constitutes folk music as the millennium approaches. And the times they have a-changed: when Wainwright sang about sex, he referred to "the deed." The Femmes, on the other hand, were looking for "just one f---."

Though an attendance bust, the 12-date tour is perhaps the most diverse on the road this summer. Even without headliners Nanci Griffith (who bowed out the night before in Chicago due to exhaustion from a thyroid condition) and John Hiatt, the bill at this suburban Detroit amphitheater ranged from traditional troubadour fair (Wainwright, Joan Baez, Rickie Lee Jones) to Rodney Crowell's country, the Femmes' rootsy punk-pop blues, Wilco's rustic bop, a bit of Radiohead-style noisescape from the British band Arnold, and the soulful tones of Marc Cohn and the Staple Singers -- the latter of whom had every other artist from the bill stacked up at the side of the stage, frugging to "Respect Yourself'" and "I'll Take You There."

Regardless of stylistic orientation, however, most of the acts in the nine-hour-plus show acknowledged the nature of the event. Wilco offered four songs from Mermaid Avenue, its collaboration with Billy Bragg on some unrecorded Woody Guthrie songs, along with a couple of folk standards (A.P. Carter's "When the Roses Bloom Again'' and Richard "Rabbit" Brown's "James Alley Blues" and acoustified renditions of "Passenger Side," "Casino Queen" and "She's a Jar," which prompted a bit of two-stepping in the crowd -- to the obvious pleasure of frontman Jeff Tweedy.

The Femmes' set still featured spirited slacker faves such as "Blister in the Sun," "Kiss Off," "Out the Window" and "American Music" but also included a "protest medley" of "Old Mother Reagan" and "Dahmer is Dead" ("Long live the broomstick/Dahmer's dead!") as well as an allegedly traditional Japanese tune played on an indigenous flute by bassist Brian Ritchie.

The rest of the day was equally luminous, with ringing acoustic guitars, sweet harmonies and the folk tradition of "plugging" other people's songs. Jones opened her set with two John Prine songs, "Angel From Montgomery" and "Paradise," while Baez played his "Hello in There." Baez and the Staples both covered The Band, performing "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" and "The Weight," respectively. Baez closed the show with Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright."

"You're brave souls," Baez told the folks who had stayed the course. But after the day of music they heard, those souls were nothing but satisfied.