RI’s Newport Folk Festival Stays Current At Age 52

The folk music band The David Wax Museum entered a contest last year – along with 150 other bands – for a chance to play the . As unbelievable at it was to members of the Boston-based band, they won.

And then they rocked. The performance kick-started a wild year that saw the band tour the country and win praise from NPR and Time magazine. This weekend, the band heads back to the Newport Folk Festival – this time for the main stage.

Photo: AP Photo
Newport Folk Festival, Newport, R.I.

“Because of Newport, we were able to find a receptive audience,” David Wax said. Wax, along with fiddle- and jawbone-playing Suz Slezak, is the core of the band, which fuses Mexican and American folk traditions. “Nobody had heard of us. There were no expectations. But at Newport there were people willing to give us a chance.”

Folk music’s popularity may have ebbed and flowed since Bob Dylan famously traded in his acoustic for an electric guitar here in 1965, but the festival itself is as relevant as ever. Sold out in advance for the first time in its more than 50-year history, the festival continues to lure veteran stars like Emmylou Harris while serving as a proving ground for new bands looking for their big break.

The festival gets under way Saturday at Fort Adams State Park. Some 10,000 attendees are expected for two days of performances from Harris, The Decemberists, Gillian Welch, Elvis Costello and many more. Thanks to the flexible and ever-expanding definition of what constitutes folk music, they all fit snuggly under the folk umbrella.

Or maybe not so snuggly.

“I think of folk music as really, really bland sounding,” said Amelia Meath, member of vocal trio Mountain Man, scheduled to perform Sunday. “Folk can mean anything. All it means is music from people. I guess you could say everything is folk music.”

To George Wein, the man who created the folk festival in 1959 and continues to produce it, there’s more connecting Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and Dylan to today’s artists than the name of a music festival.

“All these young people have passed through rock, and they’re going back to hear music and traditions from before rock,” said Wein, 85. “A lot of these bands might have been called folk back then, and now they have these huge followings.”

Singer-songwriter Matthew Ward, who performs as M. Ward, has played the folk festival before and will return this year. He said he’s often asked to define folk music, but he doesn’t have a good answer.

“It’s really a very rough, loose term,” he said. “It’s a mash-up of lots of things. But it’s alive and well.”

Ward said he doesn’t enjoy playing at most festivals. Newport, he said, is a different scene. He’s spending an extra day at the festival to check out other performances.

“Most festivals … they’re crowded places with bad sound,” Ward said. “But at Newport they actually care about the music. It does have a really important history to it, but in the here and now, it’s just a really great festival.”

Newport also has a tradition of providing the big break that young musicians and new bands are looking for. A then-unknown 18-year-old Baez performed at the inaugural festival. A year later she had a record contract.

The band The Low Anthem’s first experience at Newport was picking up trash.

Band mates from the Providence-based indie folk band volunteered to gather recyclables. In between picking up cans and bottles, they did some networking.

“We brought copies of our new record, and every time we recognized someone, we’d hand them a copy,” said band member Jeff Prystowsky. It paid off: A music journalist listened to the record and gave the band one of its first big reviews.

Photo: AP Photo
Harmonize at the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island.

The band has since found success, touring overseas, appearing on David Letterman and playing at most of the big U.S. festivals (including Newport). But the folk festival will always remain something special. The band will be back in Newport this weekend.

“It’s like a homecoming for us,” Prystowsky said. “We intimately know what it feels like to be walking around out there, wanting to be backstage with these musicians.”