Ryan Adams skips formality in keeping the Newport spirit alive
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
“We’re gonna continue the onslaught of hits right now.”
With that casual warning, Ryan Adams tore off on another unreleased song, “Catherine,” that bore all the hallmarks of his current musical direction: lyrically and melodically heavy with a firm beat and spacey guitars. It’s a sound that owes as much to the Smiths or Replacements as anything and doesn’t necessarily have much to do with folk.
That he was headlining the first day of the Newport Folk Festival at Fort Adams State Park was incidental. Yes, there were sailboats in the backdrop and a more laid-back crowd than might typically show up to see him, but Adams was here to play what he wanted, and that in itself was a mild protest that was in keeping with the event’s history.
For so many, the festival is forever mired in the memory of its own backlash towards Bob Dylan and his 1965 act of electrical heresy. That’s an antiquated take on the event now and has been for some time; the festival certainly celebrates folk music and offers booth space to local artisans, but it pays the bills by having bankable headliners every year and offering just as many vendor slots to big-name companies. Instead of an oligarchy instilling a strict definition of what it means to play American folk music as defined from 1955 to 1964, there are nods to tradition and a more welcoming attitude to music of all walks. It makes for a better festival and it helps pay the bills.
With that in mind, the flag flew at half mast for patriarch Pete Seeger, who passed away earlier this year at the age of 94, while many of the bands took in the seaside view and played rootsy sets to the masses spread out on beach chairs and towels. The Devil Makes Three spun their own brand of country and roots and provided the perfect jumpy set for mid-afternoon. Jenny Lewis, ahead of a new album The Voyager, didn’t have to change her sound at all to match the sunny setting, and her set was warmly received.
Band of Horses took an approach that both honored the festival and remained in line with their latest work, opening with a mini-acoustic set that mirrored their recent Acoustic at the Ryman live record and the tour that followed it, before plugging in and playing the last three quarters of the set with a full onslaught of sound. They clearly enjoyed themselves and relished the chance to cut loose on “The Great Salt Lake” and “Ode to LRC” before bringing the crowd to its feet for “The Funeral.”
Then the headliner came on stage, plugged in, chatted up a swear-strewn storm, covered a punk icon and was utterly himself throughout a 90-minute set. It was incredible.
Opening with the first single, “Gimme Something Good,” from his upcoming Ryan Adams LP, Adams put his new band — the first he’s played with since disbanding the Cardinals in 2009 — through the paces and showed off a heavy power that is covered with an ethereal coating even as it keeps its rough edges. But Adams is not a taskmaster or perfectionist as much as he is a manic wizard, and the jokes and quips came flying in quickly between the songs.
The songs themselves were a test of a casual audience. A number of them were unreleased and some aren’t even slotted for the new album. Meanwhile, some older songs were radically reworked — “Peaceful Valley” had a darker, bluesier edge while “Dirty Rain” and “Do I Wait” took on a latter-day Grateful Dead vibe when played with the full arrangement of the new band. Adams gave everyone in the group a moment at some point, but paid special attention to bassist Charlie Stavish, a session player and engineer who is on his first major tour.
“You guys, this is like Charlie’s fuckin’ third show ever,” Adams told the crowd. “Yeah, Charlie! Later he’s gonna be stoned and thinking, ‘oh my god, did that really fuckin’ happen?”
“I’m just playing, he’s been like a session guy for like 40 years. He was on like a Howlin’ Wolf record.”
It was obvious that Adams was in a good mood and he was quick to undercut his songs with jokes or even jokey improvs — he asked the crowd what were the “hot chances that Michael McDonald is on one of those boats?” before playing a made-up song about the Doobie Brothers frontman asking for weed in a dead-on impression of McDonald’s own distinct low-but-high-somehow voice.
But the gags and chatter are just an extension of an artist at work, and while he was quick to undercut his own “Oh My Sweet Carolina” with the disclaimer that, “everything in this song is super fucking bullshit and never happened,” he still played with crackling energy and palpable excitement. Many of the new songs, especially “Shadows” and “Catherine,” showed Adams stretching himself and still finding the power in the music. And on the older songs, like “Everybody Knows” and “Let it Ride,” he explored new eaves and possibilities in songs he’s played hundreds of times.
But at the moment, he’s into making a racket, and the most memorable parts of the set came when he completely let loose and got the crowd dancing. The Cold Roses track “Beautiful Sorta” was likely the loudest song anyone played at the fort all day, and his decision to cover Danzig’s “Mother” on this crowd came with a wink and an acknowledgement of the music world outside an acoustic guitar.
So what it if didn’t match what the Newport Folk Festival is supposed to be about? The greatest moments in this event's history were only possible when the artist threw out the playbook and did whatever came naturally. Ryan Adams has always been at his best when he follows his instinct.
Email Nick Tavares at email@example.com