Live Review

Bloodshot at Newport: Newport Folk Rocks early with Freakwater and Banditos

Freakwater on July 29, 2016

The Banditos at the Newport Folk Festival (Photo: Rick Farrell, Mojo Photography)

Last weekend (July 22-24), the Newport Folk Festival featured a couple of leading Americana bands from the Chicago based Bloodshot Records label. Freakwater and The Banditos might be a generation apart, however, both played impressive sets at the historic festival at Ft. Adams State Park in Newport, RI. A week after these artists performed, I’ve got both on heavy rotation on Spotify and new vinyl has been ordered.

Both bands played an early slot at Newport, to a few bloodshot eyes as the three day folk weekend progressed. Freakwater played at Noon on Friday and The Banditos at 11:15 AM on Saturday. I spoke with each band after their sets. In animated conversations, there was one common theme – the continually changing identity of folk music.

Freakwater

It was the first time to Newport for the alt-country band with a cult-like following. Co-founders Janet Beveridge Bean and Catherine Irwin lead the group, founded in 1988, that has regularly been a choice of critics, but has never sold a ton of records. They’re known for sweet off-centered harmonies, heavily influenced by the traditional sounds of the Carter Family. Their music comes from that “old, weird America,” a term coined by music critic Greil Marcus who was writing about the often unnerving country, blues and folk featured on the Anthology of American Folk Music, a well known collection from a 1930’s.

Playing the Newport Folk Festival was a career highlight for the band from Lexington, KY/Chicago. Their set was heavy on songs from their acclaimed recent album Scheherazade. That album “took a long time to come together, ten years since the last record. We decided to do it exactly how we wanted to do it and then contact the record label,” recalled Bean.

Highlights at Newport included the eerie show opener “What the People Want,” “The Asp and the Albatross,” and the unlikely “Number One with a Bullet.” It’s haunting stuff with just the right amount of gallows humor characteristic of the southern gothic vibe the band gently dances around.

“I always imagined that if George Jones was alive, he’d say, I’d love to do that song. So I think we’re sort of delusional.” Together since 1988, they keep on plugging along. “If we had a plan, we wouldn’t be playing anymore. We’re not easy individuals, there’s a lot that goes into figuring out how to move forward emotionally,” noted Irwin.

The female led band faces unique lyrical challenges. Bean and Irwin complained that whenever they use the word “baby” in a song, it’s assumed they’re writing about young children, unlike say when Robert Plante and other male artists use the term. They joked “we’ve broken the code of popular music” as they described “singing a song about a women being raped and thrown down a well (“What the People Want”).”

When asked about the meaning of “folk” music, Bean responded “Is is all coming from the tradition, “speaking to the folks … or does it just mean music that’s not very popular, like alternative country vs. country that people really like?”

The Banditos

As they slowly walked across the historic fort looking a bit like a motorcycle gang (note: they are not affiliated with the “Bandidos,” an actual gang), fans were overheard yelling “Hey Banditos, great set, love you!”

Opening the Festival at 11:15 is an honor at Newport Folk. Although some might think less of an early time slot, it’s become a badge of honor at Newport. In fact, guitarist Jeffrey Salter noted “Kris Kristofferson came on right after us, what could be better than that.”

The band from Birmingham, AL seemed a bit awestruck playing the Festival and admitted “we all had a bit of nerves before getting on stage, nobody got any sleep the night before. We ended up running over some songs in this house we’re staying in, and a bottle of whiskey helped pull it together,” noted guitarist Corey Parsons.

Behind the commanding lead vocals of Mary Beth Richardson, the band kicked some rock and roll ass opening with “Waitin’” followed by “Still Sober (After All These Beers).” Things slowed down a bit with “Old Ways,” a slow blues that made everyone at the fort pay attention. The remainder of their set consisted of hard driving rock and roll, including several from their recent self-titled album.

Their folk roots were evident throughout their set. “There’s a lot of different ways to get to and from folk. Our music is pretty derivative from folk music, we’re all folk fans, I think folk songs are just songs of the working man … just played a little louder.”

Indeed, they’re a working man’s band, on the road for the last four years – touring in US and recently Scandinavia. Their admirers are “working class fans, we’re not really a college band, I guess ‘seasoned music fans’ is the way to describe it.” noted banjo player Steven Pierce.

The Newport Festival is known to bring together music legends and new artists, just starting out their careers. Once again this year, these bands and other brought new ideas to the Folk Festival that continues to evolve. See you in 2017!

Ken Abrams writes about music for GoLocalProv, a news and arts site based in Rhode Island.