Newport revival strikes a less political note

In the 1960s the Newport Folk Festival was the place where Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie, and Gordon Lightfoot made their names, where political anthems like ``Alice's Restaurant'' were unveiled, and where Bob Dylan picked up an electric guitar and changed the course of American musical history. This weekend, after a 16-year absence, many of the same performers and audience members returned to Newport for two 6-hour days of folk music at the bayside Fort Adams State Park. If the 1985 Newport Folk Festival lacked the excitement of some of its earlier editions, it was also missing the rioting and disorder that put the original festival out of business.

The return of the festival, with a combined attendance of 11,000 over the two days, is additional evidence for the growing belief that America is in the midst of a folk revival. Festival director Robert L. Jones says he and producer George Wein began discussing the possibility of reviving Newport last December. They were impressed at learning Tom Rush had produced three sold-out folk music concerts in Boston's Symphony Hall. Others see signs of a folk music renaissance in the popularity of National Pub lic Radio's ``A Prairie Home Companion,'' the rebirth of the folk magazine ``Sing Out!'' and the recent release of folk singer Suzanne Vega's first album on A&M Records, a major commercial label.

Folk performers say the people who are buying their records and attending their concerts are the same people who bought folk records and attended the folk festivals in the 1960s. This was true of many festivalgoers last weekend. A favorite sport of these veterans was to compare the latest Newport Folk Festival with its predecessors.

``In the old days, a lot of performers would come who were not scheduled. That's not happening as often this weekend,'' said Michael Bates of Brockton, Mass. ``Also, the main concerts were at night, and people got a lot more geared up for them. Sometimes too much. This is a lot quieter, a lot more mellow,'' he said, waving his hand at some 6,000 fellow beach-chair and cooler owners.

Saturday's event was particularly low key. It began authentically, as Ramblin' Jack Elliott -- a friend and traveling companion of the late Woody Guthrie -- appeared on stage and announced that he had just driven in from Alaska. Elliott's set, like Doc & Merle Watson's, was highly competent, rather conventional, and a great deal of fun.

In between Elliott and the Watsons came Jim Rooney, Bill Keith, Roy Huskey, and Mark O'Connor, playing a bluegrass version of Duke Ellington's ``Caravan.'' They were followed by Joan Baez's sister, Mimi Farina, who tested some new material for her first album in 13 years.

While the fans were politely appreciative of all of this, they didn't look as if they were really excited by the music until blues singer Taj Mahal came along. ``I'm not going to stop playing until you stand up, all of you,'' he threatened. Before long, not only were they standing, they were also stomping, singing, and clapping in time to the music.

Unlike previous festivals, Saturday's concert was devoid of political commentary, at least until Joan Baez performed her closing set. It included ``Warriors of the Sun,'' a tribute to today's political activists; ``Children of the '80s,'' a confused portrait of today's youth; and a five-minute excerpt from Baez's autobiography, which offered her thoughts on United States involvement in Nicaragua, hostage-taking, and President Reagan's ``star wars'' plan.

Social consciousness was more in evidence on Sunday, when the bill included Tom Paxton and Arlo Guthrie. Paxton delighted the crowd with songs about Yuppies, the ``tragic'' loss of the America's Cup, and the shortcomings of budget airlines. Guthrie proved to be the most popular act of the festival. The sight of him in aviator sunglasses and green beret, and the sound of the first few chords of his antidraft anthem, ``Alice's Restaurant,'' brought the entire audience to its feet, cheering wildly. After ` `Alice'' and some discussion of President Reagan's sleeping habits (``I know that some people have been worried that the President sleeps too much. I don't understand that. Hey, the more he sleeps, the better off we're all going to be.''), Guthrie paid tribute to the late Steve Goodman by singing ``City of New Orleans.'' Halfway through, Baez came on stage to harmonize, and the crowd screamed again.

Dave Van Ronk was the unlucky man assigned to follow Arlo's act. Still in a state of excitement, the crowd was in no mood to sit still for Van Ronk's low-key delivery of traditional blues. Paul Jeremiah, a Newport folk singer who slipped in at the end of Van Ronk's set to play a few tunes, had a similar fate.

Fortunately Bonnie Raitt followed, and projection is not one of her problems. Her voice was stylish and earthy, her electric guitar loud, and her song selections catchy enough to engage even this large and diverse crowd. Judy Collins delivered a strong, if predictable, closing set, lavishing tender loving care on signature tunes such as ``Both Sides Now,'' ``Send in the Clowns,'' and ``Suzanne.'' Collins held the audience spellbound on that last tune with only her piano accompaniment and her superbly ex pressive voice.

Part of the excitement of the old Newport Folk Festival was the unveiling of new talent, and the new Newport Folk Festival did that, too. Fiddler Mark O'Connor was so impressive in his set with Jim Rooney, Bill Keith, and Roy Huskey that he was invited back to play with the Watsons.

A New York-based singer and songwriter, David Massengill, scored with ``Sightseer,'' a funny tune about a tourist. Greg Brown of ``A Prairie Home Companion'' probed the heart of childhood with a song called ``Walking Down to Casey's.''

Was this festival a success? Producer George Wein thinks so. ``From what I gather,'' he said Wednesday, ``the festival was a triumph.''

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