“Pete Seeger,” vaunted promoter George Wein said on Saturday, “is the Newport Folk Festival.” It’s hard to argue the point. Fifty years ago, Seeger co-founded the legendary event with Wein while headlining a bill featuring artists like Odetta, Memphis Slim and the Stanley Brothers. Saturday, the 90-year-old Seeger was back onstage leading a 50th anniversary sing-along that included the Decemberists, Gillian Welch, Fleet Foxes and his grandson, Tao. He even played a few solos. Times have changed. Seeger hasn’t.
One of Seeger’s clearest musical descendants, Billy Bragg began a Saturday set by dedicating two songs from his Wilco collaboration Mermaid Avenue to the late Jay Bennett, spinning an appropriate Woody Guthrie homage into a memorial. Characteristically, he fleshed the rest of the performance out with demagogic pleas for universal heath care, political oxymorons (“military intelligence,” “democratic capitalism”) and a promise to “chase all the neo-conservatives out of this country.” Not that the absurdity of the context was lost on him. “Now I want to play a song for all the people who couldn’t buy a ticket today,” Bragg said, gazing out from the ramparts of Fort Adams over a busy Newport Harbor. “For all the people who could only afford to pull their yachts up to hear us for free. It must be awful.”
At 50, Newport Folk isn’t without those kinds of ironies. Fittingly, then, the festival’s standout performance came from the Avett Brothers, a band whose sound — a mix of traditional bluegrass/folk signifiers, baby-faced sentiment, and punk abandon — so aptly represents those tensions. Judging by tunes like “Kick Drum Heart” and “A Perfect Space” the quartet refined the formula nicely for their forthcoming major-label debut. Call it “folk-punk” or “grunge-grass,” the Avetts have stumbled upon one of the last untapped youth demographics in American music. Predictably, they also incited the most heated sit-stand conflicts with Newport’s lawn-chaired elite.
The fact that Newport Folk is an ostensibly “anti-establishment” festival with latently “establishment” pathology was clear enough from the infamous moment Bob Dylan went electric in 1965 — a watershed event that even managed to memorialize Seeger (the classic anti-establishment hero) as a glowering, “axe-wielding” traditionalist. The Decemberists spiced up their typically vaudevillian set with a theatrical re-enactment of the controversy. Narrated by frontman Colin Meloy, the sketch cast guitarist Chris Funk as Seeger, drummer John Moen as producer Joe Boyd and special guest Shara Worden (of My Brightest Diamond) as a Cate Blanchett-styled Dylan. “This was back in the day when the PA system was fueled entirely by burning wood,” Meloy deadpanned. “Pete was back there cutting the wood, and he became so overwhelmed with emotion that his hatchet almost slipped and severed the power cables. Fortunately Joe Boyd dove in and stopped him.”
While artists like Bragg and Tom Morello took up the mantle of Seeger’s activism, others eschewed politics for the simpler folk tradition of character acting. “He’s actually a local Rhode Island boy,” Gillian Welch confessed about her fully denim-clad partner David Rawlings. “You can tell by the way he dresses.” To be fair, of course, Welch is the more glaring contradiction: an L.A.-born photography major who’s styled herself, a la Dylan, into one of the hard-luck prairie girls she writes about in her songs. On Saturday, she laid out her haunting tales of hope and heart-wreck in the full on glare of a summer sun. “Guaranteed to bring you down,” she laughed. Welch and Rawlings have been sitting on a collection of great unreleased songs (like “Throw Me a Rope”) for years, but they managed to mix up their heavily road-worn material with a surprise, reverb-soaked take on Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit.” “Anyone out there in the boats like banjo?” Welch asked. Moments later, two resounding horn blasts blew in from off the water.
Meanwhile, indie fans got their fix on Saturday with a stellar performance from Seattle’s Fleet Foxes, whose diaphanous arrangements and rippling four-part harmonies nimbly ran the gamut from Beach Boys bliss to Appalachian folk. “I’m getting a sailboat tattooed on my chest to commemorate this occasion,” Robin Pecknold quipped after acknowledging Welch as one of the band’s “big heroes.” “I want to live in your beard!” a woman shouted. Later that afternoon, the likewise hirsute Sam Beam debuted a number of fine new songs. On Sunday, a semi-dreadlocked Neko Case transfixed the main-stage crowd with a collection of knifepoint lyrics and a moan just as beautifully hollow as the man-eating murder ballads on her new album Middle Cyclone.
The final hours of the weekend began with a nod to Wein, who came out of retirement to bankroll this year’s event after the festival lost its longtime sponsor. “This festival doesn’t belong to me,” Wein deferred. “It belongs to Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie and Judy Collins.”
Appropriately, then, Newport’s 50th ended with those legends playing consecutive sets. “Hello 50 years later,” Baez said in disbelief. She was just 18 when she performed at the inaugural Newport Folk, and after invoking Gandhi, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Woody Guthrie, the 68-year-old closed her Sunday show with an affectionately churlish cover of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” She sang the last verse in a spot-on Dylan impression.
Guthrie, for his own part, mused on the continuing relevance of his father’s songs (“The collapse of Wall Street. Trying to tell businessmen apart from ordinary criminals. It’s amazing — seems like a lot of them would fit it right into today’s world”), while Judy Collins, thanks to a bit of reverb, sounded like she did 50 years ago. Finally, Seeger led his old friends in one last sing-along. “Well may the world go when I’m far away,” he sang. Unlikely, of course. But the odds are he’ll probably leave it a bit better than how he found it.