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How the Newport Folk Festival Keeps Its Vintage Format Fresh

Fest organizer Jay Sweet on Jack White, George Wein and the elusive Bob Dylan

Jay Sweet

Ryan Mastro

Jay Sweet

After more than 12 months of planning for the 2015 Newport Folk Festival, Jay Sweet just sat down in his production trailer at Rhode Island’s historic Fort Adams for the first time this year. “I feel a great overwhelming sense of anxiety!” he says with a laugh over the phone.

Sweet – who previously worked as a journalist and for filmmakers the Farrelly Brothers – has been booking Newport since 2008, when he wrote an 18-page pitch to Newport co-founder George Wein. Since then, he’s helped increase ticket sales by booking young acts like Alabama Shakes, Jack White and Father John Misty alongside Newport staples like Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and Arlo Guthrie. Tickets to this year’s fest, which starts Friday, sold out in 48 hours, before the lineup was announced.

Looking back on his favorite Newport memories, Sweet recounts glancing outside his trailer at the 2014 fest and seeing some familiar faces: Jack White, Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly, as well as Beck, who had shown up with a ticket before Sweet spotted him and gave him a backstage pass. When Reilly learned that Beck wasn’t playing, he asked the singer-songwriter why he’d come. “[Beck] was like, ‘Because it’s the Newport Folk Festival.'” 

Sweet with Zach Williams and Kanene Pipkin

White fell in love with the idyllic festival (where flags were being flown at half mast to honor the recently departed Pete Seeger) and eventually teared up while playing “Goodnight Irene” during his Newport set. White and Sweet shared a helicopter out of the venue. “[White] said, ‘I can’t believe this still exists in music. For the last 18 years, I haven’t been able to go to a music festival just because I get hassled,'” Sweet recalls. “He said, ‘I walked around here and nobody bothered me; nobody asked for my autograph; nobody took a picture of me. You don’t know what that means to me. Thank you for allowing me to fall back in love with a music festival. And I found out about the Milk Carton Kids!'”

Newport is an anomaly in many ways; acts like Hozier take a massive pay cut to play it. “They come pretty much on their own dime,” says Sweet. “We’re the oldest festival in America, and we are on basically a speck of land off on the islands of a small state in the Union. We are in our own kind of universe.” And 89-year-old George Wein, who co-founded the festival in 1959 — with help from original board member Theodore Bikel, who passed away Monday at age 91 — remains deeply involved. “He funds the whole thing. He doesn’t take a salary,” says Sweet. “He bankrolls both the folk and jazz festivals. He just says, ‘Here’s the budget where I think we might break even,’ and that’s what he puts up every year. I literally talk to the guy once a day – ‘Jay, when are we announcing Roger Waters?'”

Sweet told RS last year that his dream is to have festivalgoers learn the lineup only after they arrive. He’s getting there; Waters’ set is one mystery this year, as he won’t be backed by his normal touring band, but a crew of special guests. “He put together a band of a couple of [his favorite] artists, which is fantastic. And I’m obviously pretty excited,” says Sweet. 

Charley Bradley

 
And then there’s the Sunday night headline slot, simply called ’65 Revisited, a guest-packed tribute to the 50th anniversary of Dylan’s famous electric set. No performers have been announced for this yet either, though Sweet stresses that Dylan will not be one of them. “I’m telling you: he’s not coming,” Sweet says. “I put a call out very early on to his team 16, 17 months ago. ‘Hey, what’s the deal? Are we doing this? He’s obviously invited.’ And they said no.” Sweet has had friends speculate that Bruce Springsteen, U2 and Paul Simon could be part of the celebration (they won’t). “We can’t wow anyone with an offer. It has to be out of respect for the institution,” he says. “The best way we could represent it would be to bring the younger generation and have them interpret what happened in their own respects. The whole Dylan thing is ‘Don’t look back.'”

We asked Sweet to pick a few of the acts he’s excited to have booked this year.

Lord Huron: “One of the best bands in the country. They’re one of the bands that had [an] absolute open invitation. We just say, ‘Let us know which year you’re coming.'”

Haunt the House: “Whenever I go to change CDs in my player, I’ll leave this one in there. [When] I wanted the office to kind of take a step back and realize what we’re doing is fun, I would play one of those albums. They were on this constant loop and we all knew all the songs.”

Christopher Paul Stelling: “He did an open mic last year and has busked outside the gate! The time was right this year to book him.”

Blake Mills: “I will keep banging you over the head with Blake Mills, because people are missing out. There’s a reason why Clapton said he’s one of his favorite guitar players. He’s so friggin’ young, and he’s like a badass young Ry Cooder.”

Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats: “It’s like the Blues Brothers meet Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison. He’s a ball of energy. Within 30 seconds of listening to his new album, I knew, and we made the offer.”

Laura Marling: “I’ve been trying to get her for five years. She’s special because she isn’t the normal, standard female singer-songwriter folk player. She represents a lot of what I think the Newport Folk Festival should be representing. I would say she’s the poster child of the ‘new’ Newport Folk Festival – look at Laura Marling, look at Courtney Barnett, look at Erika from Heartless Bastards. Strong women with very strong songwriting skills.”

In This Article: Newport Folk Festival

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