Festival Heartstrings

A Walk in the (Fort Adams State) Park: Newport Folk Festival 2016

Written by: Bill Scorzari, Heartstrings Magazine

So, Newport Folk Festival 2016? Um, just wow. Need I say more?

I can’t imagine the amount of planning, preparation and just plain hard work that goes into presenting a festival of this caliber, magnitude and historical significance even just once, let alone year after year, and with such amazing results every time. The folks at NFF however, make the gargantuan task seem effortless time and again, as if it were simply, well, a walk in the park (Fort Adams State Park, that is). Every NFF that I’ve attended has presented me with a seemingly endless 3-day stream of pure elation, excitement, and profoundly memorable moments that will last forever. There is a sense of joy, benevolence, community and shared purpose that is palpable even as opening day simply draws near … two weeks to go … one week more … just two more days … tomorrow we pack the car and go … and then, there’s the bridge, the harbor, the boats, the sunshine, the crowd …We’ve made it! The heartwarming sights of the familiar, magical city of Newport, merged with the excited expectation of the 3 days about to follow, brings a happily focused state of mind that is entirely unique to this place, and to this annual festival. The true magic is that everyone is so obviously undergoing and sharing that same affirming and unifying experience—an annual rejuvenation for old and new friends. The lines form for the water taxis, we climb on board anticipating and knowing from past experience that it will be an awesome day at the Fort. Happy conversations about “Which artists are you going to see today?” and recalling memories from prior years, bring total strangers instantly together as if they’d been lifelong friends before they’d even met. There is an instant sharing of joy and a shared expectation of more joy, that is more that just in passing.  In fact, in the morning on Day 2, while waiting in line for the water taxi, we met a young couple who had traveled from Chicago for the festival. They said their goal is to attend a new festival each year, and this year they chose NFF. We ended up spending most of the day with them, meeting at an after show that night, and finding them the next day as well. NFF brings people happily together, literally and figuratively. And so, what I’ve often wondered is, if it’s that amazing for us in the crowd, and it is, how does it feel to experience Newport Folk Festival from the perspective of those who actually make it happen for all of us?

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First, there are the artists who inspire and bring us here. At NFF, the artists arrive as fans of the music, just as the audience does and there is a feeling that we’re all one family, with no distinction between us. I am fortunate enough to have seen friends give their first NFF performance, and to share in their joy at having earned that milestone and true badge of honor to be counted among those who have taken to the hallowed stages of NFF before them. Last year it was Christopher Paul Stelling who outdid even his amazing musical performance on the Harbor stage by ending his set with a down-on-one-knee proposal. Dan Blakeslee, also performed that year and again this year, and established himself as quite possibly the happiest man alive, as he shared his exuberance and wonderment in some of the best storytelling music you could wish to hear. There were also two unscheduled, crowd-stopping, busking performances by the amazing Julie Rhodes and friends, in the quad and outside the museum — which were swarmed by videographers and photographers alike. This year, it was Ian Fitzgerald, a true wordsmith and musical master, who delivered a perfect performance to an early Sunday morning crowd with resulting standing ovation when it was all said and done. I don’t doubt that the festival audience realizes how truly grateful and humbly honored all of the artists are to be able to perform for them. I believe that’s part of the magic — the sharing of that reverence and knowledge that this is a festival where numerous historic and socially significant moments have not only occurred, but where they continue to resonate and cause new and profoundly personal history to occur, both for everyone that follows them and for all who come to hear and see it continue to unfold. This folks, is the Holy Grail of festivals, and it invites us to connect with it and with each other on a personal and communal level.

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Dan Blakeslee, Family Tent, Newport Folk Festival, 2016.

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Ian Fitzgerald, Harbor Stage, Newport Folk Festival, 2016.

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Kris Kristofferson, Museum Stage, Newport Folk Festival, 2016.

For those who keep this torch lit by performing the colossal tasks that make this festival happen, the tasks that keep its spirit and tradition alive and well for new generations to know and enjoy, I am sure that the experience from their perspective can be nothing short of surreal. The curation and collaborative performances arranged from one stage to the next in such a way that no matter where you are in the park, at any time, you will most certainly see and hear something that will amaze you and which you will never forget. This year, for me, it was a surprise performance by Kris Kristofferson on the Museum Stage. There wasn’t a person present who didn’t feel the love in the room wash over them and bring joyful tears to their eyes. It was simply indescribable, as words alone can’t convey the enormity of that moment. Kris commented that he wanted to take the audience on the road with him, just confirming that the artists are as grateful for the people in the crowd, as the people in the crowd are grateful for the artists they’ve come to see (or are happily surprised to see).

I could write pages about the number of incredible musical performances that filled Fort Adams this year, and there are many others who will, of course, write about that, because that’s why we all meet in Newport each year, for the music and the experience it presents. But, I’ve chosen instead to write about the people of the festival. Those who unload the sound equipment from the trucks and rearrange it constantly for three days, as one artist after another takes the stage, the vendors who keep us fed and hydrated as we travel back and forth from stage to stage, and from merchant to merchant, the writers, photographers and videographers who preserve our memories for us to share over and over again, the staff that constantly took to the microphones to remind us all to stay hydrated in the heat, and who provided free bandanas soaked in cold water to help us stay cool, the friendly security staff who greeted everyone with a smile and a high five as the gates opened and the crowd poured in, and who kept it going even as the crowd lined up to leave the park at the end of each day. I’m sure that I haven’t even scratched the surface of the inner workings of this festival, but I think I speak for every NFF-goer when I express my appreciation for all of the people who pull together and make NFF the amazing event that it is each year. Most of us have seen Jay Sweet make an appearance at the Quad stage, the Harbor Stage, in the Museum or on the Main stage, listening to one artist or another perform, interacting with festival staff, or just simply enjoying the same festival that we, “the fans,” are also enjoying.  To his credit, despite the enormity of this event, he still always appears as if he’s simply taking “a walk in the park,” and is always smiling a well-deserved and hard-earned smile. As we’re all looking forward to next July, I just wanted to write to say, thanks for another memorable year at NFF 2016.

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