The Newport Folk Festival was never strictly limited to folk music, but the 2008 festival expanded the musical diversity more than ever before. Perhaps taking a cue from the massive success of younger festivals like Bonnaroo, the 2008 roster included bigger ticket artists like The Black Crowes (presented here), Jimmy Buffett, The Levon Helm Band, Trey Anastasio and The Cowboy Junkies, right along with the folk, bluegrass and blues troubadours that once topped the bill. Despite some weather issues, this approach turned out to be a resounding success and all of the headlining acts turned in memorable performances that often conveyed the influence of the traditional styles that originally launched the festival.
One of the most surprising and highly anticipated groups to appear was The Black Crowes, who closed out the Saturday schedule, following a torrential downpour that significantly reduced the size of the festival audience. When they hit the main Fort Stage shortly after 5:00 PM, those that remained were treated to what many considered the highlight set of the festival. The performance was tempered in a way that paid tribute to the festival and its history, while still featuring plenty of the group's trademark guitar driven rock, heavily influenced by groups like The Stones, The Faces and The Allman Brothers Band, which the Robinson brothers had grown up on.
At this time The Black Crowes were 18-year veterans of the road with thousands of concerts behind them, and a true force in modern rock music. The band had weathered internal struggles in the preceding years and had just completed their seventh album, Warpaint, their strongest in over a decade. Just prior to the sessions, two personnel changes had taken place, with the addition of keyboard player Adam MacDougall and former North Mississippi Allstars guitarist Luther Dickinson being brought on board. The Warpaint album revealed a more seasoned band with a newfound sense of solidarity. Without changing their basic sound and dynamics, Warpaint conveyed a more original and distinctive band, while still drawing on the influences that initially drew listeners in.
The Black Crowes' set began during a vibrant sunset, just as the storm had cleared. Well aware that much of their music would easily plow over most acoustic troubadours, the Robinson brothers initially hit the stage alone, armed with acoustic guitars. Paying tribute to the stripped down folk music that initially launched the festival, they begin with a rendition of Bob Dylan's "Girl From The North Country." Following this, Luther Dickinson joins the brothers on stage, adding mandolin embellishments to "He Was A Friend Of Mine," the 1960s anthem that conveyed the sense of loss following the assassination of President Kennedy. Both of these numbers are extremely well received and convey a sense of respect for the festival and its history.
With MacDougall (whose birthday it was) and the rhythm section joining the other members onstage, the first number off the new album, "Whoa Mule," is next. A bluesy number that begins a capella and then builds its intensity gradually, this song has a thrust that cannot be denied. With Dickinson contributing slide and a striking vocal from Robinson, this conveys a band more comfortable and confident than ever before. Two well-chosen covers surface next, first in the form of "Polly," a country flavored obscurity written by ex-Byrd Gene Clark, recorded for the second (and more obscure) Dillard & Clark album in 1969. However, it is the medley of Delaney & Bonnie songs that follows that is one of the true highlights of this performance. Rich Robinson starts it out with some strident acoustic rhythm as they kick into a wonderful rendition of "Poor Elijah." This cooks from the get-go and quickly builds into a soulful romp with Dickinson seemingly channeling Duane Allman (who played on the original). Like the Delaney & Bonnie recording, it then gets even bluesier, with Robinson belting out the "Tribute To Johnson" section, but rather than concluding there, they toss in a bit of "Things Get Better" before wrapping it up. This is a superb performance that rivals the originals.
With MacDougall organ swells serving as a segue, they next ease into a confident reading of "Wiser Time," the single from the 1994 album, Amorica. Dickinson's slide work and MacDougall's electric piano underpinnings are both notable here. As this progresses over twelve minutes, longtime listeners will recognize a newfound chemistry emerging between these musicians. The Crowes could always jam, but here there are no aimless improvisations. Instead, there is focused soloing and a collective sound that can only occur when musicians are carefully listening to each other. Two fine new songs from Warpaint, "Movin' On Down The Line" and "Goodbye Daughters Of The Revolution," are prime examples of this chemistry. Even on "Jealous Again," the hit that first brought the band recognition, Dickinson and MacDougall's contributions add freshness, while losing none of the Faces-influenced flavor that made it so fun in the first place.
The final 25 minutes of the set is a two-song tour de force beginning with the Warpaint ballad "Oh Josephine," which gradually ratchets up the intensity level over the course of 8 minutes. One of the band's most compelling songs, this is a slow-rolling burn that builds to a blazing close. A spacey organ interlude from MacDougall follows, before the band segues into the opening of "Thorn In My Pride." Expanded well beyond its original incarnation, this is engaging from the start and doesn't let go for its 15-minute duration. Within a few minutes, the band is deeply engaged with Rich Robinson's overdriven guitar cutting through like a knife. Just when they've reached a major crescendo (at exactly the six-minute mark), everyone drops out, leaving Chris Robinson to begin a blues harp solo. With Robinson leading the way, the band builds into a menacing jam that is quite inspired. At times this bears a striking resemblance to the snaky grooves of "Midnight Rambler" and is every bit as intense as The Stones in their 1969 prime. Under tight time restrictions as the final act of the day, no encore was possible, but by the time "Thorn In My Pride" winds to its soulful conclusion, the audience erupts with applause having witnessed one of the hardest hitting Newport Folk Festival performances ever.
-Written by Alan Bershaw