The line between rock and folk is a fuzzy one, as evident by this year’s Newport Folk Festival line up. Back in the beginning the essential difference was electricity. Folk was music for the people played on acoustic instruments with little to no backing. But this year marks the 50th anniversary of two universes colliding when Bob Dylan blew the supposedly already open minds of the 1965 festival crowd by taking the stage fully plugged in. Call it blasphemous. Cal lit genius. Either way it’s one of those events that Changed Everything. At the 2005 festival The Pixies flipped the script, swapping out their distorted wall of noise for an acoustic set, though by this point old battle lines were recognized only as the historical markers they were. In a post-electric world, crowds aren’t the sticklers they were in 1965.
Since a comeback in the mid-eighties Newport Folk Fest has become a cultural institution, an event of such musical significance that three-day passes seem to sell out at a rate that defies conventionally held beliefs as to the workings of space and time. The modern era of Newport Folk doesn’t just celebrate the founding vision of George Wein, Pete Seeger, Theodore Bikel, Oscar Brand and Albert Grossman, but the genre-jumping spirit of Dylan’s 1965 act of six-string sacrilege. This year’s line up reflects Dylan’s redefined spectrum of folk. Iron & Wine, The Decemberists, Jose Gonzalez and Sufjan Stevens are among the festival’s line up, all of them inhabiting that happy in between realm of indie rock that cozies up to folk. Rhode Island’s own Haunt the House firmly in the traditionalist definition of folk. Leon Bridges blends rhythm and blues, soul and rock in a way that sure isn’t folk but would have been right at home on a turntable in the sixties. J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr., elder statesman of fuzz, will be on hand to make it weird. Speaking of weird, in an inspired case of booking, Roger Waters will be headlining the first night of the festival. As much as the definition of folk has grown, Pink Floyd still sits pretty far outside of the orbit of even folk’s nearest neighboring planet. Not that we’re complaining. If anything it’s a testament to the festivals continuing evolution. We’ve also got our fingers crossed that he’ll bust out an unplugged version of “Echoes”.
If you’re one of the unlucky many to not have secured a ticket – or don’t know a guy who knows a guy, wink wink – you can hear selected sets streamed on Newport Folk’s Tunein station during the weekend of the festival. Ditto for NPR Music.
There are also all sorts of Newport Folk afterparties. Going on. while Deer Tick's multinight extravaganza at Newport Blues Cafe looks to be sold out (again, maybe you know a guy) Jimmy's Saloon has some great line ups for the weekend. Javelin, And The Kids, Rich Ferri & the Wealth on the Water, The Quahogs, all bands with local ties that can trace their musical lineage back to that faitful day 50 years ago.