08/03/2011 04:02 pm ET | Updated Oct 03, 2011

On the Culture Front: Newport Folk Festival

There's something very different about music festivals as opposed to concerts. Beyond the obvious, there's a range of factors that affect the experience. Some are tangible such as the location, number of people, sound quality, and length of beer lines, but others are harder to pin down. Even with a lineup of great bands, it's easy to feel overwhelmed and frustrated if the vibe isn't right. I've previously shied away from festivals due to the crowds and heat, reasoning that I could see all the bands just a short subway ride away in a variety of smaller, air-conditioned venues. There's an aura, though, around the Newport Folk Festival that intrigued me -- this is the place after all where Bob Dylan was booed off the stage for going electric -- so I decided to check it out this year. It didn't hurt that the Decemberists, who put on one of the best live shows around, were headlining. Their set turned out to be one of many highlights in a thoroughly enjoyable weekend.

Held every year at Fort Adams State Park just a few miles from downtown Newport, it's hard to imagine a more idyllic setting for a festival. The folk fest mainstage overlooks Newport harbor where boaters gathered to listen to Colin Meloy and co. close out the show on Saturday evening as the sun was setting. Midway through, during a particularly nautical number, Meloy asked the boaters to blow their horns if they could hear him. The response was thrilling and oddly musical. Not surprisingly, the band ended with the always-rousing "Mariner's Revenge," which requires the audience to scream like they're being eaten by a whale on command.

The Decemberists weren't the only ones to evoke the festival's unique and iconic setting. Elvis Costello remarked there's no place he'd rather be in the middle of his hour-long set late Sunday afternoon, and I kind of believed him as he played from the rootsier end of his catalogue, even throwing in a little bit of Dylan and Rick Danko's "This Wheel's on Fire." He invited a number of guests onstage, including the incomparable mandolin player, Chris Thile, who unfortunately couldn't be heard over the band due to poor miking but was appreciated nonetheless.

Thile, who played the much smaller Harbor stage with guitarist Michael Daves a few hours earlier, had one of the festival's most memorable sets. The two ran through songs from Sleep With One Eye Open, their recently released album of traditional bluegrass music, and also took requests from the audience during a section of the show they called "fiddle tune request song." The packed audience was quieter and more respectful than that of any concert I've seen, but enthusiastically shouted out suggestions when asked. Meloy also remarked on this unusual level of attentiveness at festivals. It's hard to pinpoint the reason for this, but perhaps the diverse age range played a part.

Many people over sixty were seen wandering amongst the usual throngs of teenagers and twenty and thirty-somethings. I have a small quibble, though, to pick with the many of all ages who chose to set up camp in front of the mainstage. The lawn chair mafia, as I've come to think of them, arrive very early to set up camp. One elderly couple, who looked to be in their seventies, even had their own misting machine. Other younger members would claim a spot with their stuff and disappear for hours. This particularly bothered me because, save for a small roped off standing section in the front, the lawn chair mafia took over nearly all of the lawn, even when they weren't physically there, leaving festival goers who wanted to experience all three stages with only a tiny sliver around the perimeter that was a reasonable distance from the stage. It was possible to hunt down a good place to enjoy the acts but not easy, and as I gazed into the crowd of empty lawn chairs from the perimeter, I couldn't help but think of Woody Guthrie's lyric about private property. That's when I decided to step into the fray onto a small piece of naked grass between the claimed sites.

Woody's contemporary and co-founder of the festival, Pete Seeger, made a surprise appearance on Sunday night, leading thousands in a sing-a-long of "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" and "Turn, Turn, Turn." Both are over a half-century old, speaking to not just the enduring resonance of the man (who turned 92 in May) but also the festival he helped create.