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.'”
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.