Newport Report #1: Colvin, Nelson And Echoes Of Dylan

Eclectic folk festival remembers Bob Dylan's electric surprise, but low-wattage lineup keeps crowds below capacity.

NEWPORT, R.I. — Thirty-five years after Bob Dylan shocked folk fans by going electric at the Newport Folk Festival, a 60 percent-capacity crowd heard echoes of the anniversary from Shawn Colvin, the String Cheese Incident and wannabes who warbled through a tribute karaoke contest.

While Colvin only mentioned the 1965 Dylan brouhaha before sweetly singing his "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go," String Cheese Incident acoustic guitarist Bill Nershi himself went electric for the first time in public during the jam-band's Saturday set.

"As the philosopher said, the first time around, history is played as tragedy and the next time as farce," quipped Dave Diamond, 43, of New York.

The issue of electric versus acoustic simply isn't relevant at Newport anymore. Folk-purists have avoided this folk-crossover festival for years. And as the fest proved on Saturday, you don't have to keep to a cohesive definition of folk to create a great day of music.

Saturday was all over the map, from Colvin's quiet solo set to Bela Fleck and the Flecktones' flamboyant, electronic jazz-fusion and Willie Nelson's soulful array of American roots music.

With the absence of frequent festival headliners the Indigo Girls or recent fave Ani DiFranco, this year's Newport had a harder-than-usual time attracting patrons. About 6,000 fans soaked up sun and songs on Saturday — 4,000 less than capacity at oceanfront Fort Adams State Park.

A Taste Of Texas

Texans dominated the day, including Slaid Cleaves, the stylish singer/songwriter. Backed by a quartet as fun as it was expert, Cleaves sang catchy, beautifully melodic country-folk. He even made "Broke Down," a gorgeous, twangy tale of woe, somehow seem cheerful.

In tribute to cowboy singer Don Walser, Cleaves sang "My Ride With Jimmie" replete with some athletic, warm-toned yodeling. "Bring It On" was a pithy little mover. And he even sang a "real" folk song, "Breakfast in Hell" (RealAudio excerpt).

"You know it's a folk song 'cause it's six minutes long, it tells a story, it happens in Canada in the 1890s, there's audience participation and a guy dies in it," Cleaves said.

On the big Fort stage, quiet balladry just couldn't compete with the sun, the ocean and the spread-out crowd. Texan songwriter Guy Clark was in lovely form, but — except for "Desperadoes Waiting for a Train" and "Homegrown Tomatoes" — the set was too subtle to grab the crowd.

Texan Stacey Earle proved she has grown enormously as a performer in the past two years. Terri Hendrix, yet another Texan, put out a fun, playful sound, but her set was mostly memorable for the guitar feats of the great Lloyd Maines.

Austin resident Colvin was returning to her Newport stamping grounds after a long absence. Singing solo and acoustic, she charmed with a few early songs — including 1989's "Shotgun Down the Avalanche" and "Steady On" (RealAudio excerpt) — and tried out a new one, "Nothing Like You."

History Repeats Itself

"It was at Newport that I first sang 'Steady On,' " Colvin said. "It's nice to introduce a new song at Newport and get all nervous all over again."

Though her set lacked the intensity she has often brought to her solo performances, Colvin delivered pleasing versions of well-known songs ("Sunny Came Home," "Polaroids") and dove into idiosyncratic covers of Police and Paul Westerberg tunes.

While the Flecktones and String Cheese Incident, both in fine sets, strained the folk concept of this festival, Willie Nelson fit right in with his quiet mastery of American music.

Nelson's band is still a jaunty roots-music joy, able to ace everything from honky-tonk to blues. Willie's pianist sister, Bobbie, joined in on "Sweet Georgia Brown."

For all the merry anthems such as "On the Road Again" (RealAudio excerpt) and "Mountain Dew," Nelson was best on a few plaintive numbers, with a sparse, lonesome "Always on My Mind" and "Poncho and Lefty" among the most affecting. "To All the Girls I've Loved Before" was typically cheesy, and "City of New Orleans" possessed high sentiment.

When one fan threw a rose onstage, Nelson removed his headband and tossed it to the lucky lass. The gesture drew a huge round of applause.

A "Bob Dylan Goes Electric" contest Saturday night drew boisterous wannabes to the Viking Hotel, but their high spirits were somewhat dampened by a strict panel of judges.

The contest featured a middle-aged man in a black Dylan fright wig and one fellow who rewrote "Just Like a Woman" from an overtly Jewish perspective. Many contestants were gonged off the stage before they could finish. The winner was singer/songwriter Lisa Bastoni, 24, of Boston, who sang "Isis" with passion.

"A Dylan contest like this is what I've dreamed of for many years. It's like being called to the mother ship," Bastoni said.