Stage set for resurgent Newport Folk Festival

Associated Press
FILE - In this Aug. 2, 2009 file photo, Arlo Guthrie performs at George Wein's Newport Folk Festival in Newport, R.I.  Guthrie is scheduled to play again at the 2012 Newport Folk Festival. (AP Photo/Joe Giblin, File)
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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — The Newport Folk Festival has sold out before, but never as early as it did this year, with tickets for the two-day event disappearing a full three months in advance.

The seminal music festival returns to Rhode Island's Fort Adams State Park on July 28 with a lineup featuring veteran stars like Arlo Guthrie as well as up-and-comers hoping to turn an appearance at Newport into their big break. Fifty-three years after music impresario George Wein created the festival, and 30 years after it appeared all but dead, its draw is as strong as ever.

"I'm old enough I know that these things go in cycles," Wein, 86, told The Associated Press during an interview in his hotel room the day before his band, the Newport All-Stars, played a date in Boston. "I want people to go to the festival knowing they're going to hear great music. And these bands — they're hugely popular."

Some 10,000 attendees are expected each day for performances by Guthrie, My Morning Jacket, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Jackson Browne, Patty Griffin and more than 40 other bands. Tickets remain available for a kick-off concert on Friday headlined by Wilco.

Folk music and its place in American music have shifted mightily since Bob Dylan famously traded in his acoustic for an electric guitar here in 1965, but the festival continues to grow. Last year, tickets sold out a few weeks before the event for the first time; this year, it sold out in April.

Jim James, vocalist and guitarist for My Morning Jacket, said he's not surprised by the festival's staying power. He said the venue, the organizers, the performers and the fans set Newport apart from other festivals.

"It is a transcendental, beautiful experience that goes way beyond playing a festival," he said. "There's just something so special about Newport, playing on the main stage and looking out to see the boats on the water. You don't ever get a chance to play for a bunch of sailboats."

Organizers and artists interviewed by the AP credit the lineup's diversity and renewed interest in roots music, an umbrella term that can cover alt-country, bluegrass, Americana, Cajun and several other genres.

"There's something magical about folk music; it has this mechanism built in that means it will never die," said Nick Panken, guitarist and vocalist for the Spirit Family Reunion, a New York-based band making its Newport debut Saturday. "It feels so fresh and relevant and exciting. This is a festival that's been revitalized."

While other festivals may be larger, or boast bigger acts, the folk festival is known as a musician's festival, where artists often show up early or stay late to check out another act. The festival has also enjoyed a reputation as a proving ground for young artists ever since a then-unknown 18-year-old Joan Baez performed at the inaugural festival.

The festival's striking setting overlooking the blue waters of Narragansett Bay helps too, according to Dave Simonett, guitarist with the band Trampled by Turtles, which is returning to the festival for its second time.

He said he thinks the festival's continued strength also reflects a response to the mainstream recording industry and the electronically manipulated music heard on pop radio stations.

"Pop music is so filled with computer-generated stuff anymore — and don't get me wrong, I like a lot of it — that I think this kind of music is a natural reaction," he said. He said he thinks the folk music of the '50s and '60s represented a similar response to mainstream American culture.

The festival almost died out during a long hiatus in the 1970s but returned with new vigor in the 1980s. Wein sold the festival and its older sibling, the Newport Jazz Festival, in 2007 but returned to run them in 2009 after the company that bought them ran into financial trouble.

In 2011, Wein created the Newport Festivals Foundation to oversee the folk festival and the jazz festival — which gets under way Aug. 3 — saying he wanted to ensure the festivals' longevity. The festivals combined cost about $3 million to produce, Wein said. Last year, they ended with a surplus of several hundred thousand dollars.

Wein said he'd like to find a big sponsor to underwrite both events and establish an endowment to ensure they "go on forever." He said he has no plans to stop producing them. "What else am I going to do?" he said.

James, of My Morning Jacket, liked the folk festival so much he volunteered to serve on as an adviser to Wein and the foundation board.

"There is no reason the festival shouldn't be around as long as humans are around," James said. "It would be a crime if it's not."

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