The Newport Folk Festival is no stranger to political activism. Shaped by the likes of Seeger, Baez, and Dylan, the Festival has been a hotbed of progressive politics since its inception in 1959.
Newport Folk Presents: Speak Out is a 2018 Record Store Day release recorded live at the 2017 Newport Folk Festival. The memorable set was a highlight of last summer’s Festival, produced by a new generation of artists and activists.
July 30th, 2017
The historic moment was clear. Dreamers and shakers were already struggling under Trump. The Festival organizers understood that their audience was profoundly affected by the 2016 election results and decided to organize a musical statement.
“From it’s inception, we wanted the ‘Speak Out’ set to reflect the long tradition of artists speaking truth to power at Newport Folk,” explained Festival Executive Producer Jay Sweet.
Doubters need be reminded; the Newport Folk Festival has always been a political event. For many years, it was Pete Seeger’s playground, and his progressive views influenced everything from sponsorship to song selection.
For this set, Musical Director Chris Funk of the Decembrists put together a unique line-up. The album features Beau Bedford, the Berklee Gospel and Roots Choir, Billy Bragg, Jim James, Kevin Clark, Kyle Craft, Lucius, Margo Price, Nathaniel Rateliff, Nick Offerman, Olivia Chaney, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Rayland Baxter, Shakey Graves, Sharon Van Etten, Stephanie Hunt, Zach Williams and a house band made of Funk, Carl Broemel, Casey Neill, Jenny Conlee, John Moen, Nate Query and Patrick Hallahan.
Song by Song
After a brief introduction from Sweet, the album opens with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band on a somber “When the Saints Go Marching In.” The mournful tone then shifts, as the set quickly turns into a New Orleans style street party.
Kyle Craft dives head first into David Bowie’s “Heroes,” an early set highlight. Behind the piercing guitar of Carl Broemel, he turns it into an all-out screamer. The level of intensity rises throughout …. “Ah, ah, ah, I would be King, and you would be Queen.” The classic about a lovers’ kiss in the shadow of the Berlin Wall fit neatly into the theme of the day.
Next up, Billy Bragg covered Anais Mitchell’s “Why we Build the Wall,” written in 2015 well before the election, but more relevant than ever. The lyric “We build the wall to keep us free” pretty much encompasses the absurdity of our time.
“Working Class Hero” followed, with Margo Price bringing her trademark Joplin inspired vocal chops to the Lennon classic. The somber acoustic tune devolved into a twanged out guitar jam session. Price returned with Zach Williams for a driving version Steven Van Zandt’s protest tune “I Am a Patriot.” Made famous by Jackson Browne, it’s a fitting addition to this collection with its memorable stanza:
“And I ain’t no Communist, and I ain’t no Capitalist/And I ain’t no Socialist, and I ain’t no Imperialist
And I ain’t no Democrat, sure ain’t no Republican/I only know one party and it is freedom.”
Sing-Along with Shakey Graves
Of course, as Woody Guthrie and other greats have understood, good protest music isn’t always “in your face” preachy. Music fans want to rock, not listen to sanctimonious lectures.
“I’m Better than You,” a song written especially for the festival, had that “Fixin’ to Die” sing-along vibe, offering a little humor in an otherwise serious set. The playful lyrics “I’m better than you, I’m better than you/Scream till I’m blue, I’m better than you,” pretty much characterizes the attitude of the current occupant in the Oval Office.
Sharon Van Etten delivered the biggest surprise of the set, a stunning version of the Sinead O’Connor’s “Black Boys of Mopeds,” a song about a police killing in the 1980’s in England. It features the brilliant lyric “England’s not the mythical land of Madame George and roses/It’s the home of police who kill black boys on mopeds.” Written almost 30 years ago, the song’s relevance was not lost on those present.
The theme expanded with Jim James and Nick Offerman trading verses of Dylan’s timeless “Masters of War.” No explanation needed:
“You that hide behind walls/You that hide behind desks/I just want you to know/I can see through your masks”
An unexpected treat was the R&B classic “Ooh Child,” originally recorded by the Chicago group Five Stairsteps. The NFF version, featuring the soulful duo Lucius backed by the the Berklee Gospel and Roots Choir, was reworked nicely with full horn treatment from the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
The album closer, CCR’s “Fortunate Son,” saw festival favorite Nathaniel Rateliff in full frolic mode, leading the assembled artists in an all-out victory march complete with screaming guitars and a rollicking organ solo built to last.
It would be absurdly cliché to suggest that a new generation of protest music has arrived – as the song selection suggests, protest music never went away. However, this unique assemblage of time and place was inspiring. Pete Seeger is certainly smiling somewhere.
Speaking of Seeger, there’s no question the music business benefits enormously from events like Record Store Day. There’s also no doubt this music should see a wider audience beyond the initial run of 1400 copies. In the spirit of Pete Seeger, who believed folk music should be accessible to all, let’s hope a digital version is released sometime soon.
Beyond a few reported production defects, as a historic document, this collection is priceless. With proceeds going to support the Newport Festivals Foundations charitable work, “Speak Out” is a message for fans to maintain their vigilance in the age of Trump. The album adds to the legacy of the Newport Folk Festival, a now integral part of its heritage.
Note: A version of this review was previously posted on WhatsUpNewp.com, Newport, RI's leading news and lifestyle site.