While the sold-out masses at this year’s Newport Folk Fest pack the main Fort Stage to catch the headlining likes of the Decemberists, Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, and Elvis Costello, you can find five under-the-radar acts worth taking in under the warm summer sun:
POKEY LAFARGE AND THE SOUTH CITY THREE | With his brand-new album Middle of Everywhere (Free Dirt Records), Pokey LaFarge is already St. Louis’s answer to Eli “Paperboy” Reed. But instead of riffing on ’60s soul singers à la Reed, LaFarge goes for country blues, western swing, ragtime, and early jazz. He looks the part too, with his slicked hair, high-waist trousers, and a face right off a vintage baseball card. Listen to him sing and you’ll hear it’s no shtick — along with bandmate Ryan Koenig’s crisp harmonica. LaFarge’s Midwestern wallop hits you right in the high and lonesome.
SALLIE FORD AND THE SOUND OUTSIDE | Like the great Wanda Jackson (who also plays Newport Folk for the first time this year), newcomer Sallie Ford is not one to be missed. A rising star from the Pacific Northwest’s Portland scene, Ford released Dirty Radio (Partisan Records) in May — the disc is as audacious and quirky as her horned-rimmed glasses. With a guttural swagger made for the stage, Ford is a powerfully sexy natural.
DAVID WAX MUSEUM | In the Newport spirit of expanding folk’s horizons, Boston’s own David Wax Museum show us there is more than enough room to borrow anew from Mexican music as part of the American tradition — especially given the vast influence of that country throughout the Southwest and beyond. Wax, who primarily plays five-string Mexican jarana guitar, was actually a Harvard grad doing field studies in Mexico before putting together this breathtaking band with his primary foil, the multi-talented Suz Slezak (harmony vocals/fiddle/percussion, including donkey jawbone). The resulting chemistry brings a blast of mystery and romance to Wax’s piercing singer-songwriter clarity. The Museum was a huge hit at last year’s fest, make sure you get in early enough on Sunday to catch their 11:40 am opening set on the big Fort Stage.
CAROLINA CHOCOLATE DROPS | In the “See It To Believe It” category come the Carolina Chocolate Drops, an early-American music trio that combines a knock-out dose of ethnomusicology with a presentation (including banjo, fiddles, guitar, and what-have-you percussion) that challenges classification. Bringing to the forefront many elements of the African-American tradition that have long been forgotten by contemporary music, the Chocolate Drops’ Dom Flemons makes history a visual and aural spectacle. “I think people really enjoy seeing music where you can see all the parts,” he says.
CHRIS THILE AND MICHAEL DAVES | After taking on a number of crafty projects since his bluegrass/newgrass group Nickel Creek disbanded in 2007, mandolinist Chris Thile has finally met his mettle in his new pairing with guitarist Michael Daves. The two virtuosic musicians, connected in the Brooklyn string-music scene, have just released Sleep with One Eye Open (Nonesuch). On it, Thile and Daves get raw and rugged on the standards, like a couple of rabid buskers. While each is probably more used to the driver’s seat than the average picker, Thile and Dawes balance each other well — both perfectly at home sitting back while the other deliriously tears it up.