My Morning Jacket, Tallest Man on Earth & more played Newport Folk Fest day 1 (pics/review)
My Morning Jacket / Tallest Man on Earth @ Newport Folk Fest 7/24/2015
The 2015 Newport Folk Festival once again took over Fort Adams State Park in Newport, RI from Friday July 24 through Sunday July 26 and delivered tens of thousands of concert-goers an ecclectic line-up of acts presented upon four stages scattered across the sprawling 216 year old former US Army complex. Your man Klaus was (inexplicably) handed a coupla tickets and a photopass to the Friday July 24 installment of the fest. So I grabbed my crappy camera (and my comparatively questionable photography skills), packed a backpack, met up with Brother Klaus, drove up to Jamestown, RI, hopped on an early AM ferry, and spent the next 12 hours on Fort Adams taking in what is one of the most famous music festivals in the world.
As a person prone to depression, anxiety, claustrophobia, fear of crowds, an unpredictable temper, a disdain for heat, and a generally erratic mood spectrum that most people find repellant and troubling, any summer festival scenario is a potential perfect storm for lunacy and meltdown for me. But from the second I stepped onto that AM ferry bound for Fort Adams to the second I stepped off the ferry back in Jamestown that evening, I experienced a sustained sense of happiness, contentment, and wonder that I probably haven’t felt since some Christmas day way back in my early childhood a million years ago. First off, for almost the entire day, the weather was absolutely stunning. The thermometer barely broke the 78 degree mark and there was zero humidity in the air which made any shady areas feel like springtime and a welcome respite from the direct sunlight. The air was so crisp and dry that the generally cloudless sky was a smurfy blue and everything around me looked high-definition. And being on a sort of peninsula, Fort Adams enjoys sea breezes from three different directions that always seemed to keep the heat at bay. In addition to that, the festival grounds are so sprawling and so rife with attractions that there is plenty of room for everyone and plenty of places off the beaten path to explore. The only bummer weather moment came towards the tail end of My Morning Jacket‘s set when it started to drizzle. The drizzle turned into a downpour of thick, shotglass sized raindrops that lasted well into Roger Waters‘ set. However, by the close of Roger’s set the storm had broken and sunlight began streaming through the clouds in way that evoked High Renaissance paintings. The sky then morphed into the pinkest/purplest, most beautiful sunset your man Klaus has ever seen.
Although the “Fort Stage” is the main and largest venue of the festival, I tended to spend most of my time wandering around the perimeter of the superbly curated and constantly jam-packed “Quad Stage.” The Quad Stage is the second largest performance venue of the festival and is located in the expansive, walled-in grounds in the heart of the fort that I believe were historically regarded as the parade grounds. The Goodbye Girls and Bahamas were the first two bands booked at the Quad Stage, but I spent most of their time slots simply exploring Fort Adams. However, I made sure I was at the Quad Stage in time for the retro-R&B stylings of the great Leon Bridges. Hitting the stage at 1:35 PM on the nose, Leon and company tore through an immaculate 50-minute set of vintage Motown-esque soul numbers that the crowd could not get enough of. If you filmed his set in black and white, added some grain, and told me that I was watching footage from the 60s, I’d believe you. He and his bandmates use instruments and wear clothing reminiscent of the classic R&B era, but they pull it off so expertly that it never feels corny or vaudeville. This is earnest, well executed, vintage R&B, and though it isn’t my thing, I thought it was fantastic.
After pouring a few beers and some water down my throat it was back to the Quad Stage to check out Calexico. Calexico is a band I have very mixed feelings about; their recorded material puts me to sleep. People tell me “But you gotta see them live” which is a cop-out that I despise. But there they were, and there I was, and you know what? It was flippin great! This is Newport Folk Festival, and Calexico are definitely folky, but they employ dashes of rock and country so well that, live, it really floated my boat. Maybe it’s my younger years as a ska aficionado rearing its ugly head, but I really loved the horn arrangements. Among the tunes they played, “Falling From The Sky”, “Fortune Teller”, and “He Lays in the Reins” (performed with Iron & Wine) really brought it. If it wasn’t for this fest, I probably would have died never seeing Calexico live, but I am really glad I caught them.
After Calexico, I headed out to the main “Fort Stage,” where I planned to set up shop for the rest of the evening’s performances. At 4 PM sharp, The Tallest Man on Earth took the stage for a fantastic hour-long full-band set. I’ve only seen The Tallest Man on Earth, aka Kristian Matsson, once before a few years back and at the time time he was performing solo (like he did at the 2012 Newport Folk Festival). This time around, backed by a full-band, he brought a sound that had no problem filling the expansive main stage area while still maintaining a major sense of intimacy with the space. Matsson is a phenomenal lyricist and guitar player, but he’s also an extremely funny and animated performer. NPR has the entire performance and you can stream it below.
There was about a 30-minute intermission between The Tallest Man on Earth and My Morning Jacket, so as Tallest Man was wrapping up I waddled back over to the Quad Stage to have some beverages and to catch up with a friend. At that time, Iron & Wine and Ben Bridwell were in the middle of their set. As my friend and I were talking, I noticed that Iron & Wine and Ben Bridwell were playing a song called “There’s No Way Out of Here” that not only appeared on Unicorn’s David Gilmour-produced 1976 album “Too Many Crooks” but which David Gilmour also performed on his 1978 solo effort “David Gilmour” and which basically clammed in Europe but became sort of a radio hit here in the states. Ironic, considering David Gilmour’s former bandmate Roger Waters was headlining this very festival.
The 5:30 PM main stage slot remained unannounced by festival organizers, so when My Morning Jacket took the stage at 5:30 PM, the crowd went absolutely batshit (especially ones who don’t read this website). People were even more batshit surprised eight MMJ songs later when they remained on stage and were joined Roger Waters, Amy Helm (daughter of the late Levon Helm), G.E. Smith as well as Lucius and Sara Watkins who all served as Roger’s back-up band. More on that later though. I honestly haven’t seen or paid much attention to My Morning Jacket since I saw them at Webster Hall 10 years ago; a show I left feeling bored and uninspired. But whoa jeez their set at the Newport Folk Fest absolutely crushed. Nobody told me they got good. For me, “Believe (Nobody Knows),” “Compound Fracture,” “Tropics,” and “In Its Infancy (The Waterfall)” from their album The Waterfall absolutely blazed. Their sound was epic and they elevated the energy level to a fever pitch, just in time for Roger Waters’ highly anticipated 2015 Newport Folk Festival debut.
More photos from Tallest Man on Earth and MMJ at Newport Folk Fest day 1, below…
Tallest Man on Earth
My Morning Jacket