Each of our political parties will claim to be a big tent this summer, but if you want to experience a truly enormous cultural tent, spend a weekend at the Newport Folk Festival.
This festival included octogenarian Doc Watson, the legendary flat-picking guitarist from Deep Gap, N. C., and young Rufus Wainwright, the openly gay, opera-inspired songwriter from Manhattan. No, they didn't jam together, but just sharing a stage is strange enough.
Watson dueted with grandson Richard Watson, and then with his longtime guitar cohort, the masterful Jack Lawrence. Watson didn't play many leads, but his voice was lovely. Watson talked of his 58 years of marriage.
Wainwright, meanwhile, sang flamboyantly melodic material reflecting on his former profligate and druggy lifestyle. He began his set singing in Latin, then French, "to tease" us, and later, exhibiting his own family values, dueted with his mom, Kate McGarrigle, on "Mendocino" and "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."
This fest, attracting 5,000, was even theologically varied. With Garth Hudson on organ, those great elders of gospel, The Dixie Hummingbirds, sang that "Jesus Will Answer Your Prayers" and "My Redeemer Lives." Making pop music with roots awareness, Joan Osborne wondered what if God was "just a slob like one of us."
Earlier in the fest, the likeably subversive Jim White sang, "Jesus must've been drunk when he made me, but I forgive him."
Laura Cantrell was ordinary, and Chip Taylor & Carrie Rodriguez were vivid, sassy fun. The Waterfront Stage, devoted to strong-bands, was a blast all weekend, with the fabulous Mammals, Adrienne Young, Crooked Still, and Laura Cortese among the rip-snorting winners.
Old Crow Medicine Show brought folks a riot of string-band fun on the Borders stage, while big city gospel-roots band Ollabelle inspired tears as well as dancing feet. This eclectic fest surely did not define the folk genre, but those two young bands are defining a new folk spirit.
Was Wilco folk? They aren't even a roots band anymore, but they were sensational nonetheless: They've matured and grown enormously since their 1999 visit here. Whether in melodic, alt-country mode or electronic, distortion-loving excess, they made music that both entertained and mattered.