Newport Folk Festival honors its roots while evolvingJune 11, 2012
By Craig Harris
NEWPORT, R.I. With a lineup that includes My Morning Jacket, Iron Wine, Patty Griffin, Deer Tick, Alabama Shakes, Trampled By Turtles, and Tom Morello: The Nightwatchman, the Newport Folk Festival at Fort Adams State Park on July 28 and 29 is a testament to the continuous evolution of American folk music.
But, the music's roots have not been forgotten. The Preservation Hall Jazz Band will be enlivening the sold-out crowd with traditional New Orleans jazz, while the 100th birthday of Woody Guthrie, one of America's greatest songwriters, will be celebrated by the Guthrie Family Reunion, a large aggregate that includes Arlo Guthrie, his son, Abe, daughter Sara Lee, and her husband, Johnny Irion. Jackson Browne will be showcasing his masterful songwriting.
A further link to folk music's lineage will be provided by Spirit Family Reunion, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based band that infuses the string band tradition with infectious enthusiasm. Banjos, fiddles, guitars, percussion, and vocal harmonies come together in a performance that's fun, but reverent to musical roots.
"We love old-time music and bluegrass but some of that music is stuck in the past. It's hard to strike a balance, leaning towards the future with our feet in the past," Nick Panken, lead vocalist, guitarist, and bandleader, said.
Though based in New York City, Spirit Family Reunion has maintained its homegrown approach to music. "It's honest and there are no frills. New York has just about everything, but it can get a little pretentious and exclusive. Many people are looking for something a little less offensive and that's driving them to seek deeper roots than hi-risers and expensive restaurants," Panken said.
With a recent impromptu performance for Occupy Wall Street, Spirit Family Reunion reconnected folk music with political protest. "It seemed like a natural thing to do," Panken said. "It made for a great video. We had just come home from a tour and we were interested in what was going on downtown. We play for tips on the street all of the time. We went down to play for good will. It was a real good feeling. We weren't singing songs with complicated words. When people sing together, it's so unifying."
Spirit Family Reunion's high-energy approach to traditional-sounding songs has brought them together with a growing community of similar minded, Brooklyn-based musicians. "The Jalopy Theater and School of Music in the Red Hook neighborhood has become the central base for the roots music resurgence," Panken said. "They're a venue, an instrument repair shop, and a music school that teaches classes in banjo, guitar, harmonica, and fiddle."
Attending the annual Hudson River Revival, in Croton-On-The-Hudson, N.Y., and listening intently to recordings by Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, Panken developed a deep love of folk music. "I just wanted to play music with my friends and this was the kind of music that you play when you're just sitting around and playing. It's not rehearsed and it doesn't have any kind of structure. You just play," he said.
With his fascination piqued, Panken began to explore musical roots. "I walked into the Woody Guthrie Archives in his late manager, Harold Leventhal's office," he said. "I had read in The New York Times that the place existed. I went over there and knocked on the door. They opened it halfway and peaked their heads out. I ended up doing an internship there. They've since moved to upstate New York and they're building a Woody Guthrie Center in Okemah, Okla., where he was born."
The genesis of Spirit Family Reunion traces back to a Creedence Clearwater Revival cover band that Panken put together with washboard player (and future drummer), Stephen Weinheimer, a high school friend.
"After contemplating college, we got together and decided that we just wanted to have fun and play music, not be caught up in any scene or anything," Panken recalled. "Creedence songs are simple, fun, and everybody likes them. Metal heads, folk music enthusiasts, rock 'n' rollers, motorcycle guys, everybody."
Tiring of playing other people's songs, Panken and Weinheimer began writing their own tunes. Claw-hammer banjo player and vocalist Maggie Carson soon joined them. "We did that for a little while. We still play a Creedence show, but, after a while, we got tired to playing other people's songs and decided to write our own," he said.
"I called Stephen and said, 'Do you remember that girl in high school that played banjo?'" he continued. "'Why don't you call her? We have a show booked next week. Tell her to come and play with us.' She came and played and she didn't want to leave. I figured that was a good sign."
Spirit Family Reunion continued to expand with the addition of fiddler and vocalist Mat Davidson, drummer and vocalist Peter Pezzimenti, and upright bassist and vocalist Ken Woodward. All three had previously performed together in a hot jazz band, The Scandinavian Half-Breeds.
"They're New York City transplants," Panken said. "We absorbed them one by one. First, it was their mandolin player. Then, the drummer said that he wanted to play with us. Then, it was the bass player. All of a sudden, we were six people with a whole rhythm section. Then, the mandolin player decided to learn fiddle. He was a little too accomplished on the mandolin to play with us."
Spirit Family Reunion released its debut album, No Separation, on June 15. "We've been playing shows and touring for the last few years and we've learned that we could make more money if we have something to sell people after they've seen us play," Panken said.