What does it mean to play the Newport Folk Festival? How does a musician approach such a career defining moment?
This festival season, WhatsUpNewp is covering “first time” Folk and Jazz Festival performers. We asked a couple of “first-timers” how they felt about playing the legendary festival, and to no one’s surprise, shock and awe seemed to rule the day. In the process we learned a little about a couple enormously talented acts who have a lot to share with the Newport audience.
Boston-based Darlingside is a well-tuned harmony machine. The quartet formed at Williams College almost a decade ago and has since built a huge following in the region and beyond. Their brand of four-part harmony and mainly acoustic instruments is quite unique, a contemporary “baroque bluegrass” blend, with all four voices leaning into one microphone.
No question, the band is looking forward to their first appearance at the Festival. We spoke to Darlingside guitarist/vocalist Harris Palseltiner, who shared his thoughts on the moment.
“We’re thrilled! We have always looked forward to visiting the Fort and have heard magical things about it, especially how awesome the community is there – both the people that come to listen and the artists that come to play. We understand there is a lot of cross pollinating between the acts with people jumping in on each other’s sets, a sort of communal music thing, and that same community is reflected in the people who are there attending the festival. We’re excited to see what it means to be part of the family.”
Friday 11AM – Opening Act
At most festivals, playing an 11AM set is generally not considered ideal for the musicians. At Newport however, that’s never been the case. Folks line up hours before the gates open and the tents are always over-flowing with fans.
“I like the early in the day performances because there’s a relaxed morning feel about it where everybody’s sort of open to splashing around in the sounds. The pacing of a morning set I really like, the energy of it is very relaxed. We’ll have to wake up really early so that our voices are up and running by that hour of the day,” noted Palseltiner.
The band members met while students at Williams College about ten years ago.
“We sang together in school at Williams. When we graduated we moved into a house on the Connecticut River in Hadley, MA, near Northampton. We were all living together, and we had a little floating raft that we’d go out and write on. It was great.
“We moved from an indie rock band to clumping around one microphone and removed percussion from the setup. That way we could focus more on the vocals and the vocal harmonies and really make more transparency in the sound, create a more tactile experience. With less production, we’d just clump around the microphone and sing together, bluegrass style, sort of a return to roots. We did that about five years ago around the same time we moved to Boston and we’ve been doing it ever since.”
A new partnership between the Newport Folk Festival and the Cambridge, UK Folk Festival this year has Darlingside playing both events within a one-week period.
“They refer to us as one of the acts that is “twinning,” explained Palseltiner. “I like that verb, it’s kind of cool,” he noted. Many past performers at Newport are appearing at Cambridge, including Rhiannon Giddens, First Aid Kit, Patti Smith and John Prine, among others. Meanwhile, check out Darlingside at Newport Folk on Friday at 11AM on the Harbor Stage.
Contemporary blues singer-songwriter Charlie Parr is a true folk throw-back, touring the country and living out of his minivan.
“It’s just a minivan, which is actually really nice because it’s pretty stealthy, doesn’t look like anything more than a minivan,” he noted in our phone chat. Its got a regular bed in it, it can store all my stuff, I make my own food, just kind of exist in the margins a little bit, and save some money.”
The Minnesota native is still getting used to the idea of being asked to play Newport.
“It’s almost hard to really put into words. Those recordings I heard when I was younger, Newport ’65, I had my favorites. I listened to them over and over and looked at the pictures and read the stories. I honestly wasn’t sure I’d even get to attend the Festival, but getting to play it is another thing all together and I don’t think it’s really sunk in. It’s a big deal to me and I don’t want to take it too lightly. It’s hard to put into words.”
Like many festival fans, Parr is looking forward to hearing some new music at the Festival.
“The fun thing about festivals is getting to see people you’ve never heard of, just by walking around and looking at everybody play. I do really want to see Nels Cline because I haven’t seen him play in bands outside of Wilco. I’m looking forward to Hiss Golden Messenger, Valerie June. I’m hoping generally to be inspired by another artist or just by the event.”
As mentioned, Parr is a road warrior, playing over 200 shows a year. Does life on the road get monotonous, we wondered?
“It’s really something to be grateful for and cherished. I’m seeing these kinds of things. I been to a lot of great places and I don’t want to take that for granted. My mother for example spent a lot of her life never leaving the county. The last run I did included both Raleigh, NC and Berkely, CA so I drove across the country and that extra time and vantage point definitely effects my music and me personally.”
Parr’s recent release Dog has gained critical praise.
“It was a really good experience recording Dog. We did it in one afternoon live in a studio, with the microphones set up and running and me and some friends sat in a big circle and played the songs. We didn’t really rehearse but I had these notes on huge pieces of butcher paper. It’s hard for me to make my musical ideas clear to someone else because I’m not a person versed in music very well. Everybody took to the songs quickly and started playing and I just threw those pieces on paper away and I thought the record turned out very well.
Parr has been upfront about his mental health challenges, especially his lifelong battle with clinical depression. We wondered how that impacted his as an artist.
“I think depression is terrible for songwriting. Depression is not helpful for guitar playing or songwriting or much of anything. I think the misconception comes from confusing depression with melancholy. Melancholy is a dear thing because your looking after something. You’re looking after grief or a certain kind of sadness. Depression is not sadness, depression is the absence of that. Depression is indifference. When you’re apathetic you can’t write good songs, you just don’t care enough to. My best songs come in the times when the depression is not active.
Parr will be joined onstage by his percussionist Mikkel Beckmen. “He’s excited like me,” Parr explained. He’s been a fan of the festival and the artists his whole life. He’s spending his own money and flying out.”
Don’t miss Charlie Parr on the Harbor stage at 3:40 on Sunday.
(Above: Darlingside, Photo: Cameron Gee)