Newport Folk Festival 2008 :: Brian Wilson

The 2008 Newport Folk Festival kicked off Friday night at the beautiful International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island. The Hall, which is part of the Newport Casino, hosted the first-ever championships of the United States Lawn Tennis Association in 1881, an event that eventually outgrew the venue and would later become the U.S. Open. The combed lawns and green shingles give the grounds an almost Victorian air; when a biplane flew overhead before the commencement of Willy Mason’s set, it could have very well been 1926.

I know, I know, none of that seems terribly important, but it does prove the point that Newport is one of the most unique festivals in the country, one that (rightfully) prides itself on its history and tradition. Blame it on the wealthy Nor’eastern audience or the town’s historic mansions, but walking through the streets here can feel like walking through an historic reenactment. In other words, it’s a somewhat magical place to see a show, and I haven’t even been to the festival grounds yet.

Martha’s Vineyard’s Willy Mason opened the night, and if the time slot or setting unnerved him, he certainly didn’t show it, confidently playing a set of slow, waltzing country-folk in a tank top and hiking boots. The twenty-three year-old Mason is seasoned enough to have already taken a short hiatus from performing music, and it appears to have done him nothing but good. Everything about him — from the strength of his voice to the crafting of his arrangements — was tighter and more focused than what he exhibited on his 2004 record, Where the Humans Eat. He even invited his parents, folk singers Michael Mason and Jemima James, to sing harmonies on a gorgeous country gospel song written years ago by the elder Mason.

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