The folk and jazz festivals are the centerpieces of Newport's musical calendar. The folk festival showcased a top-notch line-up of performers. Starting with a Friday night concert at the Viking Hotel by Patty Larkin, Cheryl Wheeler, Cliff Eberhardt and John Gorka, the festivities began with a sold-out display of songwriting strength. With the four performers on stage throughout the two sets, each took turns addressing such topics as "songs that jeopardize your image as sensitive songwriters" and "songs that led to affording a nicer outfit." While song introductions were a tad too long, song choices offered a well-rounded evening of music. Highlights included Wheeler's humorous medley of "Found a Nose in the River" and "The Potato Song," as well as Larkin's emotional version of The Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want."
The festival kicked into high gear with lengthy shows on Saturday and Sunday afternoon at Ft. Adams State Park, overlooking scenic Newport Harbor. Saturday's concert ranked as one of the best musical celebrations in recent memory. After promising newcomers Leslie Smith (formerly of the duo Amy And Leslie) and Martin Sexton kicked things off with short sets, some of the best-known folk and acoustic musicians kept the energies flowing and high-pitched. While most performers were veterans of past festivals, their sets were anything but old hat. A tradition-rooted set by The Nashville Bluegrass Band that combined heartfelt harmonies with virtuosic musicianship was followed by a too-short, six song, set by Minnesota-based singer-songwriter Greg Brown that focused mostly on tunes from his forthcoming album, Further In. Joined by bassist Sara Lee and drummer Andy Stochansky, Ani DiFranco propelled things to a higher plane with a power-driven performance that included "Shameless," "Sorry I Am" and "Shy." The celebration took a temporarily grounded view with a dynamic set by Peter Rowan, joined by ace bluegrass guitarist Tony Rice, Dobro wizard Jerry Douglas and The Nashville Bluegrass Band's Alan O'Bryant (banjo) and Gene Laveche (upright bass), that included such classics as "Panama Red," "Land of the Navajo" and "Midnight Moonlight."
Suzanne Vega has been almost a constant presence at the festival. But her performance on Saturday successfully set her poetry-like lyrics to the techno-pop accompaniment of her husband and keyboardist Mitchell Froom and bassist Michael Viseglia. Accompanying himself with grunge-inspired electric guitar licks, John Hiatt offered a set that included many of his best known tunes, including "Drive South," "Let's Go to Memphis," "Have a Little Faith in Me" and "Tennessee Plates." The final set of the day was provided by West India-born and London-based songstress Joan Armatrading. Accompanied by Natalie Faingold (keyboards), Prabjote Dsaiyn (violin), Laura Fairhurst (cello) and Gary Spacey-Foote (sax), Armatrading set a calm aura with such straight-from-the-heart tunes as "The Weakness in Me," "Love and Affection," and "Drop the Pilot," her 1983 top 10 hit.
Sunday's concert started with as much energy as the previous day when Toronto-based band Moxy Fruvous offered a cartoon-like, anything-goes performance that included a fast-talking version of Dr. Seuss' "Green Eggs and Ham" and a tongue-in-jowl tribute to Newt Gingrich. That excitement, however, was short-lived when Western Massachusetts' Cordelia's Dad offered a laid-back, traditional set and David Wilcox provided an overly mellow sampling of his light jazz-folk melodies. The mood began to change with a powerful set by Irish vocalist Maura O'Connell, making her first U.S. appearance since the birth of her first son, and a fast-paced performance by guitarist/fiddler/vocalist Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown and a seven piece band that included Eric Dammer (sax), Bobby Campo (trumpet) and Peter McEachern (trombone) that fused blues with big band jazz and Louisiana-style country music. The pace was brought down again by a solo set by Lisa Loeb. Although Loeb and her band have attracted attention as the opening act on the current Lyle Lovett tour, her solo performance seemed better suited for a college coffeehouse. The afternoon's energy level began an upward climb with a politically-tinged set by Bruce Cockburn that climaxed with such tunes as "Call it Democracy" and "Lovers in a Dangerous Time."
Joined by her half brother Max Johnston on fiddle, Dobro, mandolin and guitar and Gatemouth Brown on fiddle, Michelle Shocked followed with an informal set that focused on traditional tunes like "Soldier's Joy," "Arkansas Traveler" and "Jambalaya." The afternoon closed with the return of festival stalwarts, Indigo Girls, making their sixth straight appearance at the event. Backed by Sara Lee (bass), Jerry Meretta (drums) and Michelle Malone (guitar, vocals), the Indigos (Amy Ray and Emily Saliers) pleased their enthusiastic following with 15-song set that included versions of The Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses"and Neil Young's "Down by the River."
The JVC Jazz Festival, the following week, showcased a variety of musical styles. The festival opened on Friday evening with a concert at the Tennis Hall of Fame in downtown Newport that featured Dave Brubeck's quartet and Sinatra-like vocalist Vic Damone, a last minute replacement for an ailing Mel Torme. But the most exciting moments were reserved for Saturday and Sunday afternoon concerts at Ft. Adams State Park. The state of jazz piano playing was explored during sets by Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner and Ahmad Jamal, while jazz vocals were showcased by Manhattan Transfer and Al Jarreau.
Guitarist Pat Martino offered a no-frills set that allowed his melodic picking to demonstrate that he's fully recovered from a brain aneurysm he suffered a decade ago. Tenor saxophonist and clarinet player James Carter paid tribute to the history of jazz with emotional versions of Coleman Hawkin's "Body and Soul" and Count Basie's "Lester Leaps In." Spyro Gyra fused jazz, rock and Latin music with a dance-inspiring set. The biggest surprise of the weekend, however, was a set performed by pianist Bruce Hornsby. Although best known for his work with The Grateful Dead and with his own rock band, The Front, Hornsby showed his flexibility with a Steely Dan-like, jazz-rock performance that included a jazzy version of The Dead's "Scarlet Begonias" and the interpolation of Bud Powell's "Tempus Fugit" into his own tune, "Spiderfingers."
-- Craig Harris (Watertown, MA)