Way Over Yonder, the Newport Folk Festival’s West Coast music fest, is just in its second year so it’s understandable if the concert has some growing pains. Returning to the picturesque Santa Monica Pier, the festival downsized slightly, going from a full weekend to Friday evening/Saturday affair. The musical scope, on the other hand, expanded a bit beyond the first year’s focus on NPR-friendly Americana acts although the diversity brought mixed results.
Friday featured the most eclectic lineup of Main Stage performers, swinging from avant jazz vocalist Moses Sumney to alt. country icon Lucinda Williams and then buoyant indie rockers Local Natives, who closed out the night. A talented singer, Sumney made inventive use of vocal loops but his performance was too abstract for the weekend-ready festival crowd. He even admitted onstage to not feeling fully awake.
Williams, however, definitely captured the crowd’s attention with a hard-rocking set (aided by Wallflowers guitarist Stuart Mathis’ powerhouse playing) that drew from her acclaimed song catalog (“Pineola” and “Drunken Angel”) and her new double album Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone. She capped her mostly dark-hued show with a galvanizing rendition of Neil Young’s “Keep On Rockin’ In The Free World.”
The musical mood lightened when headliner Local Natives took the stage. The popular young Southern California band was smooth and shimmery where Williams was gritty and raw. Their crisp harmonies and melodic mix of guitars and keyboards made tunes like “You & I,” “Airplanes” and “Camera Talk” easy to enjoy; however, their music seemed to drift off into the cool ocean air. While the band’s followers greatly enjoyed the performance, they didn’t fully win over the remaining Williams’ fans.
Saturday night’s headliner, the seemingly ageless Jackson Browne, more easily crossed generational lines. Like Williams, he also had a new album to spotlight and a dynamic guitarist (Val McCallum) by his side. Browne nicely balanced the new with the old (even if he stumbled over “These Days”), the personal with the political. He finished up his set, and the festival, performing two crowd-pleasing anthems: “Running On Empty” and “Take It Easy.” With the palm trees and Pacific Ocean in the background, it felt like a wonderfully quintessential Southern California moment.
Preceding Browne’s heartfelt set on the Main Stage were Texas rockers, The Heartless Bastards. Led by Erika Wennerstrom, the band cranked out a fierce blast of music that warmed up the crowd on a rather cool September night. While the Heartless Bastards went for intensity, Chris Robinson Brotherhood, who preceded them on stage, offered a far more relaxed selection of cosmic jams that fit nicely in late Saturday afternoon timeslot. The former Black Crowe frontman and his bandmates meandered at times but hit a roadhouse groove on “Clear Blue Sky & The Good Doctor” and their cover of Hank Ballard’s “Let’s Go, Let’s Go, Let’s Go (There’s A Thrill On The Hill).”
One of the festival’s strengths were the memorably enthusiastic sets delivered by the up-and-coming acts playing early on the Main Stage. Houndmouth won over Friday after-work arrivals by injecting their indie rock sound with a bit of The Band’s rootsiness. Lone Bellow aroused Saturday afternoon’s audience with a highly energetic performance, which included a couple tunes from their forthcoming album produced by The National’s Aaron Dessner. Jamestown Revival also shined on Saturday as the group, fronted by California transplants Zach Chance and Jonathan Clay, served up some sparkling country-rock.
Way Over Yonder again hosted a second stage inside the Pier’s historic Carousel building. The small stage, crammed into a corner, didn’t make for a great listening experience but each day contained an interesting collection of performers.
On Friday, the Carousel audiences could experience SoCal country rockers The Far West, the harmony-rich folk trio The Wild Reeds, rough-and-tumble troubadour Joe Fletcher and the untamed rock duo Little Hurricane. L.A.-style honky tonker Leslie Stevens and incisive singer/songwriter Nathaniel Rateliff turned out strong sets on Saturday, but the most memorable appearances came from the hilariously witty Joe Pug and 70-year-old psychedelic folkie Linda Perhacs.
At the end of the festival, Newport Folk Fest honcho Jay Sweet urged the crowd to spread the word about Way Over Yonder so they come back next year. Its return is not certainty. The festival still is struggling to find its identity and its audience The pier was half-filled a good deal of the time; however, that had its advantages for concert-goers. It was pretty easy to check out every performer at the two stages and get decent views of the musicians. There weren’t long lines to suffer through. You could find a corner where you could sit down and chill out or where parents to let their kids play. Most impressively, Way Over Yonder did succeed in being a rare big city festival that had a vibe of a small community. Where it goes from here is anyone’s guess.