Under the mentorship of 85-year-old festival originator and Newport Folk/Jazz spiritual-father George Wein (Wein was holding the reins when Newport just started to go indie in 2000 with Wilco and Beth Orton), Sweet has spent the last three years searching the corners of the most commercial fringes of the folk spectrum, as well as its richest and most obscure underground reaches (the Felice Brothers, Mountain Man, and Sallie Ford come to mind). “You wouldn’t believe the arguments I get into every day,” says Sweet.
Un-snobbish and unbiased in his approach to putting together the best festival that he can on the smallest budget (the Newport Folk Festival is a nonprofit), Sweet compares himself to a twentysomething Theo Epstein being handed the keys to the Red Sox. “There aren’t two hours that go by where I don’t think about this festival,” he says with great pride. “I’ll put my line-up against anybody else’s line-up in terms of pure musical talent and dedication to craft.”
Those who think that the festival has become “too indie rock” might have a point. A more pointed criticism might address the lack of weirder, non-Paste-friendly, Terrastock-esque folk acts on the bill. But Sweet’s baseball analogy works. Popular names with the concert-going crowd will get people in the door, and the lesser-known might actually make the difference between a good line-up and a great line-up.
“The only reason Pete Seeger was called a folk artist is because we hadn’t invented ‘indie’ yet,” says Sweet. “Because quite frankly, people like Pete Seeger were the original independent musicians. They were not part of popular music, they were blacklisted, they had to DIY half the stuff they did, they had to play high school gymnasiums. A lot of this is just history repeating itself.”
FIVE MUST-SEE ACTS AT NEWPORT FOLK FEST
While the sold-out masses at this year’s Newport Folk Fest pack the main Fort Stage to catch the headlining likes of the Decemberists, Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, and Elvis Costello, you can find five under-the-radar acts worth taking in under the warm summer sun:
POKEY LAFARGE AND THE SOUTH CITY THREE | With his brand-new album Middle of Everywhere (Free Dirt Records), Pokey LaFarge is already St. Louis’s answer to Eli “Paperboy” Reed. But instead of riffing on ’60s soul singers à la Reed, LaFarge goes for country blues, western swing, ragtime, and early jazz. He looks the part too, with his slicked hair, high-waist trousers, and a face right off a vintage baseball card. Listen to him sing and you’ll hear it’s no shtick — along with bandmate Ryan Koenig’s crisp harmonica. LaFarge’s Midwestern wallop hits you right in the high and lonesome.
SALLIE FORD AND THE SOUND OUTSIDE | Like the great Wanda Jackson (who also plays Newport Folk for the first time this year), newcomer Sallie Ford is not one to be missed. A rising star from the Pacific Northwest’s Portland scene, Ford released Dirty Radio (Partisan Records) in May — the disc is as audacious and quirky as her horned-rimmed glasses. With a guttural swagger made for the stage, Ford is a powerfully sexy natural.