Folk embraces new musical styles. Newport festival had everything from a cappella singing to boogie-woogie piano
Newport, R.I. — As in Arlo Guthrie's ``Alice's Restaurant,'' you could get ``anything you want,'' at the Nestl'e Folk Festival last weekend here in Newport. The two-day gathering brought together folk giants Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Arlo Guthrie, and Tom Paxton; a wide variety of solid but lesser-known craftsmen in various forms; and some wonderful new talent which proved that folk music keeps expanding its embrace to encompass whatever music wants to be included.
The least likely act to fall into the folk genre was also one of the most popular: an a cappella group from San Francisco called the Bobs. The four singers (three men, one woman) mixed doo-wop, and smooth Manhattan Transfer harmonies, with new- wave sound and machinelike rap.
There was a fair amount of impudent humor: singer-songwriter Patty Larkin lampooned ``the folkie's drug of choice, caffeine,'' and created different characters, donning wig and shades to do a monotone Valley Girl number.
Political satirist Tom Paxton aimed his darts at lawyers, yuppies, and an airline that managed to break the neck of his guitar while leaving the case intact. He also recounted the facts of South African black activist Steven Biko's death in a song whose simplicity was more searing than the media reports.
The New Grass Revival - each of whose four members possessed striking vocal and instrumental talents - started with bluegrass and extended its reach to include gospel, reggae, and rock.
The one disappointment was the Jug Band, which for this performance included Geoff Muldaur, Maria Muldaur, and John Sebastian of Lovin' Spoonful fame. Despite Maria Muldaur's fetching singing and the group's fun hoots on jugs, washboards, and kazoos, there was a sloppiness that was jarring after the crisp professionalism of other groups.
Joan Baez - that calm, faithful voice of conscience - wrapped up the Saturday show with beauty and passion. She, too, sang about Steven Biko, and surprisingly, for an acoustic traditionalist, used a tape of South African singers as backup. The voices were wonderful, but the effect was distancing.
An unknown around here until her appearance at last year's festival, Alison Krauss is one of those up-and-coming performers who jolts audiences with her originality and talent. An accomplished 16-year-old fiddler and a vocalist with a sturdy, soaring voice, she moved easily from gospel to traditional to Beatles' music. While many of the white performers made jokes about ``this being a folk concert - you have to sing along and clap,'' people pretty much sat until Katie Webster pounded out some boogie-woogie on piano and whipped us into the responsive folk audience we were supposed to be.
One of the complaints about the festival has been that it's too ``white.'' But this year, while there weren't many black performers, Katie Webster, blues guitarist Johnny Copeland, and Moses Rascoe, who learned about country blues while hopping trains during the Depression, were some of the most rousing performers.
And blues was an underlying theme in many performers' work. Bonnie Raitt brought her husky, sultry voice to songs about the ``gentle war between men and women.'' She, like the other women performers, sang the blues, but it was the strong-women, ``shape-up-or-else,'' rather than the victim variety.
While many of the performers touched on political issues, it was often in the form of gentle reminders to keep the fires of commitment burning. Billy Bragg, however, was the intensely committed politically. He assaulted our ears with punk polemics played on equipment with a raspy bargain-basement sound.
Judy Collins smoothed everything down with her cool elegance and crystalline voice, singing the most tender version yet of the Eagles' ``Desperado.'' At times, however, she seemed a bit fancy for the folk festival. Her autobiographical monologue was more appropriate for the concert halls where she usually performs.
Arlo Guthrie was both the finale and the heart of the festival. He incorporates the best of political commitment, wry social commentary, laid-back humor, and the universal love that undergirds folk music. This being the 20th anniversary of ``Alice's Restaurant,'' he presented a rare rendition of it. Because of the song's complexity and length, he says he's now doing it only every 10 years. He gave us a quickened 25-minute version. Then he said, ``If you want to end war, you've got to sing loud.'' He beamed as the audience - 6,000 strong - roared back the words.