Newport, Rhode Island is known as a sanctuary for the uber wealthy, the site where the America’s Cup races began and music. In a musical context it is probably best known as the place where Bob Dylan changed the face of music, by plugging in his guitar. At the time he was booed. Pete Seeger even pulled out the plug. But it was too late. History was changed forever. It took Dylan 37 years to return to the scene of the crime. But each year tens of thousands travel to Newport for the Newport Folk Festival and the New Port Jazz Festivals. Two of the most prestigious, festival events in the world.
The Newport Folk Festival was struggling at the beginning of the century. Attendance was down drastically and George Wein was considering cancelling the legendary event. But an influx of new blood and perspective has renewed the enthusiasm for the event and now it is more popular than ever. In recent years, the 20,000 + tickets have sold out , even before the lineup was announced.
Make no mistake about it, the draw is the EVENT, not the talent. Most of the bands on the bill are playing to the biggest audience of their careers when they step out on any one of the stages at Fort Adams. This year the event was extended to three days, which meant that there were some very obscure bands playing the event. That is the magic of the Festival. People go there to sit in the grass out on the bluff by the Narragansett Bay and listen to music. They don’t really care who is playing, they are just happy to be there.
Therein lies the problem. On Saturday for instance, the crowd was noticeably quiet, until the Avett Brothers (the last act of the day) hit the stage. That was the first sign that the audience was even alive. The same goes for Sunday. Tift Merritt delivered a set lacking in dynamics, but rich in emotion. Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, this year’s “old geezer” was delightful. His long monologues between each song made me understand why he was called “Ramblin’ Jack”. What an amazing life this guy has had. He is over 80 years old, but still delivered an entertaining hour long set. However, almost no one in the audience seemed to be paying attention.
Michael Kiwanuka, one of the industry’s best young artists, was also excellent, but the audience barely acknowledged his presence. The audience didn’t wake up until the Lumineers hit the stage.
The problem isn’t the bands. The problem is that for the most part concert attendees don’t know the music of most of the bands, or they only know a song or two. The reason is that commercial radio fails to play these artists. Sure NPR will play these acts, but their rotations are so slow (once a day at best) that the audience has little time to focus on a band. They get attached to the feel, the genre, but not the artist.
The bands on the second stage, known as the Quad Stage, inside the Fort, seem to have younger followings. The audience inside the fort were considerably larger this year. The Quad Stage also featured some of the better sets of the weekend. In this video the Brooklyn-based The Lone Bellow, rocked the audience of well over a thousand craning their necks to see this up and coming band.
I have had conversations with heads of programming at radio chains and Sirius/XM, where I try to explain to them how successful a format that played nothing but these artists would be. The demos are so strong that it would be easy to sell as well. At one time, I felt such a format would give radio and the music industry a well-needed shot in the arm. I’m not as enthusiastic as I once was. These acts have fallen into the same trap that plagued the rock bands of the 90’s and the first part of the 21st Century. They are all beginning to sound AND LOOK, the same. However, a good deal of radio exposure and other means of spreading the word would help immensely.
So many, too many. of these acts dress like they are from the 1890’s instead of products of the 1990s which they are. Most of the men wear beards and hats last seen on hobos in the 1920’s. The women all wear long skirts, or dresses last seen during the Lincoln administration and the instrumentation of the bands are not the customary line-up of rock bands. Yet they are all astonishingly similar to each other.
Again, the focus is on the look and the sound, not the songs. Eerily similar to the hard rock, “New Metal” bands of the last 15 or 20 years in the world of rock. The result is the same. They are not breaking through.
Sure the Lumineers are a big act, as are the Avett Brothers. The reason why, is that they have had huge radio hits. It is sad but true. In order to be truly successful in music today, you still need a hit single. The last year has been the year of the Lumineers. Last year featured the Mumfords and the Avetts. The one thing they have in common is that they are all talented performers and have had radio hits. Few of the other acts of this genre will be able to count on that. In some cases, such as Amos Lee, it is not for lack of quality material, but a lack of avenues of exposure. Without radio, you can only get so far playing clubs every night for a year. It is a living, but you won’t see the crowds grow unless you can get something else to happen.
If you ask a long time fan of the Avett Brothers, they will tell you the band’s earlier albums were superior to the last album that made them headliners. The initial Columbia Records release, produced by Rick Rubin, was finely crafted and with the promotional and marketing muscle of Sony, did very well commercially. It also had a couple of great songs. Time will tell us if the Avetts will have continued success or will they become a one hit wonder. Will they have another song that breaks through to the masses, or will they continue to just please their core audience. Either way, the band will be able to tour for years. The difference will be the scale of their tours. They are a great band, but will they continue to be able to deliver songs for the masses. Will they have lost some of their credibility by “crossing over”? This is doubtful, only because the whole idea of rock bands having artistic credibility has gone by the wayside, as the industry continues to self-destruct.
THE AVETT BROTHERS PERFORMING “I AND LOVE AND YOU” AT NEWPORT JULY 27, 2013
One of the great things about The Folk Festival is that the audience literally ranges from 18 to 70. Unlike most shows, I wasn’t the oldest guy there. The average age is about 30.The only place to drink is in an area called the Beer Garden. Therefore you have very little chance of being runover by a drunk, or puked on by someone who had been overserved. It is very refreshing.
The saddest thing about the Festival is that each year I have attended, the line at the merch tents has gotten smaller and smaller. Each band gets to sell two t-shirts. But more importantly, hardly anyone was buying CDs. This has long been a source of revenue for bands on the road. In the past an act could easily sell a couple of hundred copies at a show such as this. This year, the numbers were a fraction of that. It is just part of our evolving streaming culture.
If you love music and New England, definitely check out the Newport Festivals. My advise is to take advantage of many of the playlists that show up on Spotify early in the year to get familiar with all the new acts you will be seeing.