Newport Folk Festival back as strong as ever

NEWPORT, R.I. (AP) — Despite a drizzling rain thousands of music fans proved Friday that the Newport Folk Festival is as popular as ever, 54 years after the iconic music fest was first held.

Ticket-holders huddled under umbrellas as gray clouds rolled in across Narragansett Bay, but the rain did little to dampen the spirit as the weekend-long festival got underway. Friday's lineup included performances from Feist, Old Crow Medicine Show and 10 other acts playing on four stages at historic Fort Adams.

"We're definitely still having fun. Everyone was out dancing in the rain," said Ally Miller of Middletown, Conn., who shared an umbrella with friend Madison Marone during a break in the music.

Tickets for the Saturday and Sunday shows sold out five months ago — the earliest tickets for the main two days of the festival have sold out in its history. Nearly 50 bands are set to perform, including big names like Beck, the Lumineers, Jim James of My Morning Jacket, New Orleans musician Trombone Shorty and Colin Meloy of the Decemberists. Attendance for each day is capped at 10,000.

"Every concert has its own mystique, but Newport is somehow really special," said John McCauley, a Rhode Island native playing Newport this year. McCauley, who also plays in the band Deer Tick, first came to the festival as a child. "It's a really carefully selected lineup each year, and it just seems to get bigger and bigger."

The festival has boasted a who's-who of musical stars since it was first held in 1959, attracting performers from a variety of genres including folk, jazz, rock, blues and country. The festival is arguably enjoying its best years since the 1960s, when Joan Baez, Bob Seeger and Johnny Cash all played Newport and Bob Dylan angered folk fans and changed American music forever by going electric in 1965.

The festival nearly died out in the 1970s but returned in the 1980s with a broader collection of acts from different genres.

Look for next year's festival to continue to expand. While the festival had held Friday night kick-off concerts before, this year's music began at 2 p.m. Friday. Next year, festival producer Jay Sweet said he hopes to start even earlier in the day, making the festival a true three-day event.

Sweet said the festival has survived and flourished by attracting a loyal fan base willing to purchase tickets before the lineup is even announced — something that happened this year. He said he gets emails from fans furious to find that two or three of their favorite artists are scheduled to play at the same time on different stages.

"Those are the hate mails that, deep down, I like," he said with a laugh.