(Above: Nicole Atkins, Photo: Ken Abrams)
The 2018 Newport Folk Festival is in the books. There were numerous highlights – new discoveries along with some revered favorites. While there, I spoke with a several artists backstage to get their thoughts on playing the iconic festival. All were clearly soaked in the moment; they understood the unique occasion of playing Newport. Here are their words…
Blues-Folk legend Chris Smither was there for a song swap with Matt the Electrician, an artist he previously played with at a festival in Denmark. He had strong memories of playing Newport in the early years.
“The first time I played was 1967. There’s a picture of me at my first Newport Festival on a workshop stage and Taj Mahal, a very young and skinny Taj Mahal, is sitting on the end of the stage watching. It’s in a book written by Jim Rooney and Eric von Schmidt about the Cambridge folk scene. I remember being there in ‘68 or ‘69 in the audience watching Arlo Guthrie play “Alice’s Restaurant” for the first time at the Festival.”
I asked him about the evolving definition of “folk” music, one that goes way beyond the stereotypical “guy and a guitar.”
“I think it’s fine,” he answered. “I’m not one of these people that’s gonna go to a folk festival and say that it is totally misleading. It’s just music. Ray Charles said there’s only two kinds of music – good music and bad music…I prefer to think I play the good stuff.”
The War and Treaty
One of the festival highlights was The War and Treaty, the husband/wife led band who neatly fuse gospel, R&B and rock into a super high energy sound. They greeted me with a warm embrace just minutes after their set and the standing ovation that followed.
“It’s a dream come true,” exclaimed Michael Trotter Jr. and Tanya Blount-Trotter almost in unison. Blount-Trotter noted “we’ve studied videos of some of our favorites who have graced the stages of the Newport Folk and Jazz Festivals like Aretha and Ella Fitzgerald.”
“More recently The Civil Wars, John Paul White, at one time Pete Seeger had a moment with everyone on stage. I remember one moment at the Jazz Festival when they had Louis Armstrong and Mahalia Jackson. Everything just feels right here and you just don’t want to leave. You just want to be a part of Newport, period,” added Trotter.
I mentioned that The War and Treaty could easily play the Folk or the Jazz Festival, held the following weekend. “We are like a band that kind of tears down the genres, we really try to just show people what we love. If you love music, you’ll love this band. Everything we do, we do it out of love, and respect for those who have come before us, those that are with us, and those that will be here after we’re gone,” noted Trotter.
Their new album, Healing Time, produced by Buddy Miller, includes support from Newport Folk veteran Emmylou Harris, along with Sam Bush and Miller’s wife Julie. “It was recorded at Buddy’s house in Nashville where they ate some of Emmylou’s brownies, she brought Michael brownies for his birthday,” explained Blount-Trotter. “They’re from her mother’s recipe,” she added.
Nicole Atkins was returning to Newport for the second time, having played with Steelism in 2017. She was thrilled to be back.
“This is the first festival that I’ve seen where it’s all about collaboration and community. It’s the best time ever. It means community, passing down musical traditions so they don’t go away. It’s not retro or throwback, it just exists. It’s the kind of music you just got to keep going. It’s genuine.”
Atkins’ own style is most definitely not traditional folk; her approach is more along the lines of blue-eyed soul in the tradition of Dusty Springfield and Roy Orbison. She explained how she feels connected to those iconic artists.
“That’s just the way I sing, so that’s the kind of music I’ve always been drawn to cause it’s the one kind of music I can actually sing. I had to take some time to do it and make it sound like me.”
“It influences my writing a lot. In a time when rock and roll songs were what was selling, he (Orbison) made these beautiful ballads that stood the test of time. For me, it’s making things that feel beautiful to myself rather than worrying about trends.”
Warren Haynes and Nels Cline at Newport (Photo: Ken Abrams)
Former Allman Brother and current Govt. Mule leader Warren Haynes was a surprise guest at the Festival, appearing during a special set with Wilco’s Nels Cline. Haynes was certainly present and in the moment during his three-song set, which included classics from Festival icons Tom Paxton and Muddy Waters.
“Some of my favorite artists of all time are Son House, Howlin’ Wolf and Bob Dylan, people that have famously played here. I have a picture on my wall from (renowned music photographer) Dick Waterman. He gave me a picture of Son House from Newport that’s hanging on my wall at home. So much of the music that’s come through here is what inspired me to play and sing.”
Haynes continued, “When I do solo acoustic shows, it goes all over the place from Folk music to Blues to Country music – there’s a whole nother side to what I do when I’m stripped down to a solo acoustic. I really enjoy that, it allows me to express myself differently. I’m very appreciative of the fact that I’m able to do that. Its timeless music, when somebody is curious and open minded from any era, when they hear the stuff that’s really timeless like that, it has to make an impact.”
Kaia Kater is relatively new to the world of music festivals. The Montreal native traveled to the UK to play the Cambridge Folk Festival the week after Newport. She was thankful for a capacity crowd at her 11AM Newport Museum Stage show.
“I was pleasantly overwhelmed by the amount of enthusiasm for what I do and that’s kind of a buoy. I think artists and musicians spend a lot of time alone and sometimes question what we do. It was really kind of emotional and heartwarming. I’ve wanted to play Newport forever; every songwriter wants to play Newport. It’s so legendary, it’s where Joni and Leonard Cohen met, it has history.”