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Behind the scenes at the Newport Folk Festival

August 8, 2012

Photo by Shaun Kirby

Despite the less-than-perfect weather, music lovers flock from far and wide to the sold out Newport Folk Festival.

NEWPORT—“Just hang tight, keep plugging along,” said James Maple, lead singer of the Graverobbers, to the seated and compact crowd that had gathered in the Museum space which had been converted into a music hall. “That’s why we are all here.”

The 2012 Newport Folk Festival, as is its custom, brings together a unique group of musicians who have all embarked on journeys disparate in shape and color, but similar in essence. With artists producing songs like Patty Griffin’s “Please Don’t Let Me Die In Florida,” the back roads and highways upon which musical inspiration is borne meet definitively at Fort Adams every summer.

There is another group, however, who has come to survey the foundations and lay mortar, the workers behind the scenes at the Newport Folk Festival. From soundstage managers to local radio personalities and down to the vendors, all have a hand in the fan and musician experience during a handful of days in July which bring folk music to the shores of Narragansett Bay.

“Coming here as someone who wanting to hear the music, and to see the vendors now, I love it,” said David Magnuson, part-owner of Backyard Music based out of New Haven, Connecticut. “The people here are great and the organization of Newport has been really great, as well.”

Magnuson, who has sold his instruments at the Folk Festival for the past four years, stood vigil to his wares throughout the day, as others did among the many vendor tents at the festival. He only regretted that he could not venture to hear more of the music.

“I have been coming here for 12 to 15 years to listen to the music, and I am really impressed with the bands this year,” said Magnuson. “The only bummer is that the booth is usually too busy. I am blessed, but never get to wander away.”

As a fan, one sees the musicians grasping their instruments and booming their voices out into the crowd. The architecture of the shows is constructed through a group of stage managers, sound producers, and others who spend three days in July adjusting microphones, tuning guitars and working on sound boards.

Klondike Kohler, who first worked as a stage manager at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1978, has seen the stage transform from a small stand with one musician strumming a guitar to a much grander production.

“Clearly, the expectations of the audience have grown regarding audio quality, as it has for the musicians, as well,” said Kohler. “We give our best effort to service both.”

The challenges of setting up and maintaining musical equipment during the Newport Folk Festival are numerous, largely stemming from the effects of weather. The Festival’s big ticket act, Wilco, began their set last Friday evening with the sun setting. Dark clouds, however, suddenly rolled in.

“[Friday’s] rain delay was due to a wet deck,” said Kohler. “In the interest of electrical safety, we covered the equipment and squeegeed the stage until it was safe again for music.”

Kohler, when speaking of such challenges to a successful festival campaign, used an oft quoted sports metaphor.

“As John Madden said about his football philosophy, the field is laid out in yards, but it is a game of inches,” said Kohler. “It all boils down to teamwork and flexibility in taking care of our artists.”

“The challenge is to get all of this infrastructure out of the way of the music,” he added.

Beyond the shows, radio and television personalities are transmitting Newport Folk Festival across the airwaves, and there is none bigger than National Public Radio, or NPR. Bob Boilen, current host and creator of NPR’s online show All Things Considered, has attended the event for the past five years. In 2012, NPR conveyed the Festival through a web videocast as well as through the radio.

“You try to bring the people in,” said Boilen. “We come to the Newport Folk Festival excited about the music, but we can’t assume people come to it with the same sort of energy.”

Boilen bounces throughout Fort Adams, from stage to stage, in order to listen to the tunes expressed and to relay those sounds back to the NPR audience.

“We try to be descriptive and not name drop,” he added. “I like the atmosphere, which appeals to a wide age range, so we try to give that context and paint a picture. You want to please the audience and not jerk them around. It is a balancing act.”

Producer Jay Sweet also held a firm idea of the trajectory of the Newport Folk Festival, from its beginnings up to today: the artists and their performances had to be recorded. They had to be remembered for posterity and, under Sweet’s direction, numerous artists step off the stage into the recesses and abandoned rooms of Fort Adams to record small, intimate performances and interviews, creating documentaries for the future.

“Everyone who plays the festival will pass through here, hopefully,” said Chris Knott, Sound Engineer for So Pa Productions, a documentary company charged with Sweet’s task. “We get the artists to talk about their views and about folk music in general.”

“The goal is to put out four to five performances and a fifteen-minute documentary piece about Newport Folk Festival 2012,” he added. “The directors, Adam Guindon and Ryan Mastro, have a long relationship with the festival. It is really about having archival information and Jay Sweet’s idea, so were keeping that going.”

In the evening hours of each Festival day, a summer storm threw concert-goers into a rush to leave Fort Adams, striking out for points beyond to escape the falling rain. Although they struggled physically to escape the tempestuous weather, their minds were still within the walls of Fort Adams, indelibly stamped with the sounds of the 2012 Newport Folk Festival. Those who have dedicated themselves to see the show move forward, from the outdoor merchant to the most influential producer, share a similar sentiment.

The celebration continues this weekend with the Newport Jazz Festival. Headliners include Dr. John, Pat Metheney and Tedeschi Trucks Band. For tickets and a list of performers, visit


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