Newport's staying power The Folk Festival keeps up with the changing times

August 4, 1995

by Steve Morse


With Joan Baez, Indigo Girls, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Bill

Morrissey, Keb'Mo, Mary Black and others

At: Fort Adams State Park, Newport, R.I., tomorrow and


When Joan Baez first played the Newport Folk Festival, she says, "I was so scared I was shaking in my sandals." That was way back in 1959 at "the beginning of time, before they made guitars," she says with a laugh. Still, like artists from the Indigo Girls to BillMorrissey, Baez keeps coming back, not for old times' sake but because Newport remains among the most respected festivals in the acoustic universe.

"It still has the mystique. It's a great crossroad for older groups and up-and-comers," says Baez, who performs Sunday at Newport's seaside Fort Adams State Park with the Indigos, Mary Black, Luka Bloom, the subdudes, Ferron, Keb'Mo, Ani DiFranco, Catie Curtis and Kevin Connolly. That follows tomorrow's bill starring Mary Chapin Carpenter, John Hiatt, Bob Weir & Rob Wasserman, the Jayhawks, Patty Larkin, Victoria Williams, Terrance Simien, Laura Smith and Laura Love.

"Looking out at all the faces, and the water behind them, it's just a beautiful environment," says Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls. "It's truly a festival environment. We look forward to it. We wanted to do something different this time, so we're bringing our band. We've played the festival four or five years, but it's the first time our band will be with us.

"We also admire the sponsors, Ben & Jerry's," Saliers adds in a recent phone interview. "We like their politics and the way they take care of people." (Sunday will be the last Indigos show "for a long time," she adds, noting that they're preparing a live album for fall release, entitled "1,200 Curfews" for the number of shows they've done in their decade together, then will take a year off.)

For singer Morrissey, who plays a special Rounder Records show tonight at the Newport Casino as part of the festival, the whole experience is like "the Holy Grail." Morrissey was in high school in Acton when he first attended the festival in 1967 and saw Judy Collins, Leonard Cohen, Arlo Guthrie, Gordon Lightfoot and the Incredible String Band on the same bill. "I had to go. I swiped my mother's Plymouth Fury to get there," he says.

In 1969, Morrissey went back and recalled a workshop "with James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Kris Kristofferson and Van Morrison with just a guitar player. And I still remember the yellow and red miniskirt that Joni Mitchell wore. . . . At the time, I never dreamed that I'd ever play Newport. It was like, `Yeah, right, I'm going to play Newport and I'm also going to hit 61 home runs.' "

Then there's new artist Keb'Mo, a highly touted successor to the blues tradition of Taj Mahal. The Los Angeles-based Keb'Mo is among many acts playing the festival for the first time. "I'm in road hell at the moment," he says in a phone call from a tour stop in Munich, Germany. "But I'm really excited about Newport. I know all about its legacy." (Keb'Mo will also open for Santana and Jeff Beck at Great Woods Aug. 13.)

No one knows more about the Newport legacy than festival producer Bob Jones, who produced it in the '60s and has seen many glory days since the event was revived in 1985. He and colleague George Wein (who also produces the Jazz & Heritage Festival in New Orleans and the Boston Globe Jazz Festival) struggle each year "to create an event worthy of the name Newport Folk Festival. It's not easy, because we have a lot of conflicts with European-based festivals. This year, there's a huge festival in Belgium the week of our event. In fact, Mary Black is coming directly from there."

This summer, Jones aimed high. He first made offers to James Taylor, who opted to tour with the Pittsburgh Symphony Pops Orchestra; Joni Mitchell, who chose to play European festivals; and Bob Dylan, who declined because of a stadium tour with the Grateful Dead, as well as his own tent shows.

Unfazed, Jones recruited bona fide headliners in the Indigo Girls and Carpenter, as well as strong draws in Baez, Hiatt and Weir & Wasserman. The latter is among many first-time acts this year. "I'm fascinated to see how the Saturday lineup will go, because other than Hiatt and Mary Chapin and Patty Larkin, the entire Saturday lineup is new," Jones says from the festival office. "I don't think I've ever put anything together quite like it. I know how the Sunday show will go down, but not Saturday."

In comparing early Newport festivals with today's, Jones says one obvious change is that there are no longer workshops. He hopes to reinstate them in the future, though not every performer will relish them. Says Baez: "I don't miss the workshops. Maybe I've been at it too long, but I like to spend the time in the hotel writing poetry or bicycle riding."

Given her experience, Baez is also in a unique position to compare Newport then and now. "I think folk music has gone through a massive transition. Contemporary folk music is just different. People like the Indigo Girls, Dar Williams and Mary Chapin don't sound like musicians of years ago. Back then you had Mimi and Dick Farina singing the blues and you had foot-stomping, original stuff. You had folks like the Rev. Gary Davis and Son House, many of whom aren't here anymore. There was no eye toward commercialism."

Baez, who has a new album due shortly (with vocals from Carpenter, the Indigos, McGarrigles, Tish Hinojosa and others), also vividly recalls the famed Newport fest in 1965 when Dylan went electric. "Pete Seeger was appalled and the audience booed Bob, but I had admiration for him. He just changed so fast in those days. Just when people would settle in with something he wrote, he would change. He didn't care what the audience would think. That was just the opposite of me. I was so concerned with what the audience thought."

She has another less historic, but no less colorful, Dylan tale from that Newport era. "I remember Dylan diving into the pool in the hotel where I was staying. Nobody could believe he could do anything athletic, but he was an excellent diver."

In recent times, one of the prime Newport memories is of the thunderstorm three years ago that wiped out a joint set by the Indigos, Baez and Carpenter (singing as "The Four Voices," which may happen again this year but with Black replacing Carpenter). Says Baez: "I have pictures of me and the Indigos slogging through ankle-deep mud to get to the stage. We played until the power was knocked out." Adds Saliers: "The thunder and lightning were unbelievable."

But, says Saliers, who just finished a concert tour of Native American reservations with partner Amy Ray: "Rain or shine, we'll be at Newport again this year. I'm psyched."