It’s no secret that Newport Folk Festival is a family-friendly ordeal. Ever since its inception in 1959, the iconic music festival has been establishing itself as one of the most reliable, welcoming, and physically comfortable festivals for parents to attend with their children in tow. The music is non-offensive, ranging from the obvious folk to the pop side of jazz. There’s four stages, three of which are shaded, and three of which allow blankets and chairs. There’s a kids stage just for children to hang out at, where big-name acts like Conor Oberst or Jeff Tweedy swing by to play a surprise set. Best of all, it kicks off around 11am and ends before 8pm even hits. How could you go wrong?
What goes under-discussed, however, is how a family-friendly atmosphere, specifically Newport Folk Festival’s family-friendly atmosphere, affects its artists. Though only one day in, Newport Folk Festival has been spending its 2017 edition treating its musical bill to a surprisingly mellow atmosphere, one that’s impacting the way in which they deliver their music. Don’t misread mellow. Newport Folk Festival may be low-key, but it’s not lacking in enthusiasm. Rather, it’s packed with respect—and nearly every artist noted it.
Ben Gibbard intentionally skewed his solo set, kicking off with an altered, acoustic version of The Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights,” segueing into “Black Sun,” and then performing “Title and Registration.” Shortly after, he moved to the piano to drop a handful of heavy hits, like “What Sarah Said” and “Passenger Seat.” It was a set of classics that prompted eager cheers from the audience when the first recognizable chords sunk in. Halfway through his set, though, Gibbard looked up from his guitar, surveyed the audience, and brought his face to the microphone. “This is nice,” he said. “Not that I was expecting it to be otherwise, but usually there’s a big field and the sun. And the sun hates me. But we’re in a tent, you’re all in chairs, and you’re all so polite.” The audience laughed and Gibbards laughed, too. The crowd knew how regular that is—their patience, their enthusiasm, their controlled tone—for the festival, but it was the Death Cab For Cutie frontman’s first time performing here, and it was a bit staggering to take in. So, of course, he changed. The mood lightened. He began laughing. The solemn, late-career indie rock mope seemed to fall in love with where he was standing. By the time Gibbard launched into “I Will Follow You Into the Dark,” he extended a half-joking threat to those clapping along when they started a second time mid-song (“That’s just cruel,” he said. “Clapping on the 1 and 3? As if it couldn’t get any whiter.”) and doubled over laughing. Respect can make a man smile, no matter how many times he’s played to an audience repeating every lyric back to him.
That general surprise—and the swift infatuation that follows—peppered every set. Big Thief’s intimate performance was met with hungry ears. The audience sat patiently, listening to every word, and roared in unison once a song ended. Over on the Fort stage, Hurray For the Riff Raff unveiled an upbeat set, deviating from the personal tones of this year’s excellent The Navigator in favor of more pop-steered material. Though the majority of the crowd watched from the comfort of their fold-out chairs and knitted blankets, they hollered at the end of the songs, often busting out a whistle or two for frontwoman Alynda Segarra’s dance moves. There was a general respect present, where paying attention to the artists took top priority, and that wasn’t restricted to the traditional definition of someone who stands directly in front of the stage and swings in time with the songs.
That type of interaction allows for collaborations, impromptu or planned, to be taken openly. There’s an attention to detail when Newport crowds watch musicians interact in a live setting. The majority of Alone & Together—a supergroup of sorts featuring Kevin Morby, Sam Cohen, Eric D. Johnson of Fruit Bats, Joe Russo, and Josh Kaufman performing one another’s material, but as a single band—was spent looking on in awe. Listeners appeared to be fans of particular members, but not the group as a whole, which meant it wasn’t only the interpretation of a track they already knew that got their attention, but also the chance to watch one of their favorite musicians step back for their work to be handled by a different, though respected, musician.
Then along comes an act like Regina Spektor. All charm and grace, the piano pop oddity worked her magic in ritualistic form, breaking out everything from “Better” to “Dance Anthem of the 80’s” with a smile. It wasn’t unusual for her to play those, nor was it unusual for a crowd to pay attention as closely as they did. But several songs into the set, she stopped and turned to the audience with a inquisitive look. “This festival has an extraordinary amount of human babies,” she said. “Really! I’ve never seen so many babies at my show, and watching them dance?” She mimicked a child bopping itself on the head. Perhaps that’s why the crowd took on a nurturing form. If you don’t think nice hecklers exist, visit Newport Folk Festival. The only time their festivalgoers call out to performers, it’s to encourage them with polite words, or to negate any self-critical comments mumbled between songs—especially during Spektor’s set. It’s a community bent on uplifting one another because the music they hear does the same for them.
Fleet Foxes were treated to the clearest example of such. The folk act headlined Friday, marking their first performance at the festival since 2009, to a sea of onlookers, the majority of whom sat comfortably on the grass. Though at first it looked like they were tuned out, the audience was engrossed, their cheers between songs robust, and many stuck around to soak up every sound. The deep, hyper-layered structure of Crack-Up—which they played nearly in its entirety—warranted it. Eventually, frontman Robin Pecknold addressed the dynamic between himself and the audience, asking those sitting if they had been perched on the grass all day. “You’re a bunch of lobsters,” he said laughing. “Or I would be a lobster if I did that.” But New Englanders are used to that, and they know how to dance in the sound, twirling in the air to “Helplessness Blues” and slipping their hands through a child’s to twirl to “Mykonos,” making the band feel heard and enjoyed without flooding the stage or singing every word with an overpowering force.
It’s only day one, but Friday is a reminder of what Newport Folk Festival does best year after year: create an atmosphere unlike any other by understating its best qualities. The family-friendly vibe offers performers a chance to give their all to people, who pay attention and respect space without dramatizing their ability to do so. It’s a deep-knit community without the cult-ish extremes. After all, that’s Newport’s most distinct trait, and there’s still two days left for musicians and festivalgoers alike to revel in its glow.
Check out more of Tim Bugbee’s photography from the festival by clicking on the picture below.
Created with flickr slideshow.