NEWPORT, R.I.--It's been almost 50 years since Bob Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival, but his rebellious spirit was alive and well at the sold-out 2012 edition over the weekend, featuring electrifying sets from folk bands both new and traditional--and plenty of indie rock, too.
My Morning Jacket, which headlined the festival on Saturday, took the stage dressed in seersucker suits--a nod to Newport's yacht-fearing style.
"It is a transcendental, beautiful experience that goes way beyond playing a festival," My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James, who also performed as a member of the Woody Guthrie tribute New Multitudes, said on the eve of the fest. "There's just something so special about Newport, playing on the main stage and looking out to see the boats on the water. You don't [usually] get a chance to play for a bunch of sailboats."
But their reliably rocking set--which featured James on acoustic and electric guitars--was shortened when a storm blew in off the coast.
The Spirit Family Reunion, a six-piece from Brooklyn, conjured up plenty during a pair of stomping sets on Saturday and Sunday, including one performed inside the "ruins" of Fort Adams. Sharon Van Etten, also from Brooklyn, played refreshingly moody, cerebral rock on Saturday afternoon.
Suzanne Santo, of Los Angeles' Honeyhoney, was a revelation, performing three sets of more or less traditional folk music over two days. Santo also modeled the typical Newport Folk Fest female attire: a billowing dress and cowboy boots. (She played a mean violin, too.)
The Alabama Shakes, led by frontwoman Brittany Howard, played blistering Southern rock and soulful Americana on the main stage for their Newport debut. (The stage you are selected to play has become part of the festival's modern folklore. The Head and the Heart, from Seattle, played a small side stage in 2011; they were promoted to the main stage this year.)
[Also read: The Best of the 2011 Newport Folk Festival]
First Aid Kit, a Swedish folk duo comprised of two angelic sisters--Klara and Johanna Soderberg (who up close resembled the actress Amanda Seyfried)--ran through a beautiful mid-afternoon set on Saturday. And as it often goes for relative unknowns at the Newport Folk Festival, the performance turned the pair into quasi-celebrities on Sunday as they milled about the festival grounds, posing for pictures with new fans.
And tUnE-yArDs, a band that gives copyeditors fits, delivered their idea of folk, driven by drum loops, electric ukulele and a horn-section. Merrill Garbus, the face-painted leader tUnE-yArDs, opened the set with a looping yodel.
"Being a performer is the easiest job," Garbus told the overflow crowd. "People think you're cool, but you're really a huge dork. It is very freeing for me."