Newport Folk Festival Pays Tribute, With a Jolt, to Dylan

"This guitar that I’m holding has been on this stage before,” Taylor Goldsmith said at Fort Adams State Park during “ ’65 Revisited,” the grand finale of the Newport Folk Festival here on Sunday night. He was referring to the Fender Stratocaster played by Bob Dylan in a brief but rattling festival set 50 years ago, which delivered an electric jolt to the acoustic folk faithful, and one of the most fabled and contested moments in rock history.

65 revisitedNow as then, the instrument was put to use on “Maggie’s Farm,” an electric blues tune that signaled Mr. Dylan’s repudiation of the early-1960s folk revival, which had claimed him as its own. He was booed by some in the crowd — a topic of endless debate ever since — and a rift was torn in the folk continuum, leaving turbulence and ambiguity behind, and an uncertain road ahead.

Standing compact and tousle-headed half a century later almost to the day, Mr. Goldsmith had every reason to make the song feel plainly exultant: He and his band, Dawes, were among the official celebrants in a cultural rite, joined by Al Kooper, who backed Mr. Dylan on Hammond organ during the original coup. And then of course there was that guitar, on loan for the occasion; it sold at auction two years ago for almost a million dollars.

The rest of “ ’65 Revisited,” one of several mystery slots in this year’s Newport Folk Festival schedule, featured a rotating cast of musicians luxuriating in Mr. Dylan’s songs. Leading up to the tribute, dozens of famous names had been rumored to show, including Mr. Dylan himself — though given all that we know about him, it’s hard to imagine a more unlikely surprise. Maybe Skrillex? Miley Cyrus? Hologram Chief Keef?

In his rigorous new book, “Dylan Goes Electric!” (Dey St.), Elijah Wald illuminates the context of an idyllic folk scene that some came to recall, after 1965, as a sort of Paradise Lost. “The problem was not simply electricity,” he writes. “It was a broader confluence of conflicts: pop music versus roots music; commercial confections versus communal creations; escapism versus social involvement.”

Those dichotomies have dissolved, or at least partly reconciled, so that the legacy of the Folk Festival celebrates Seeger and Mr. Dylan alike, often in loose dialogue. The event still attracts striving young troubadours like Christopher Paul Stelling, who ended his set with a marriage proposal to his singing partner, Julia Christgau. It also draws major headliners who see Newport as something special — like Hozier, who paused during an impressively committed performance to note that if it hadn’t been for the Newport Folk Festival and its record on film, “I probably wouldn’t have become a musician.”

He was mainly talking about footage of Mr. Dylan, notably from 1965. Fittingly, he had a part to play in “ ’65 Revisited,” taking a verse on “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” with Dawes and others.

There was no youthful topical song in “ ’65 Revisited” — no “Blowin’ in the Wind,” no “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ” — but that was true to the time frame. Ms. Welch and David Rawlings sang an exquisitely focused “Tambourine Man” and a liltingly rugged “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” seeming to put subtle emphasis on the line “Forget the dead you’ve left, they will not follow you.”

Dawes joined them for “Like a Rolling Stone,” with Mr. Kooper’s organ part prominent in the mix. Robyn Hitchcock entered the picture with a sharply enunciated “Visions of Johanna,” introducing it as “possibly the greatest song ever written, that’s all.” And the finale had all hands on deck — including Deer Tick, Willie Watson, and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band — for a triumphant, shambolic “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35.”

The lyrics transmit from a post-folkie haze — “They’ll stone you when you’re playing your guitar,” goes one line, meaningfully — but here the crowd sang and shouted in a single, motley, ragtag voice. It was Mr. Dylan’s hour, but a distinctly Seegeresque moment, with no reason at all to pick sides.
Correction: July 29, 2015

A Critic’s Notebook article on Tuesday about the Newport Folk Festival, which paid tribute to Bob Dylan’s famous performance with an electric guitar there 50 years ago, misstated part of the title of a Dylan song that was played. It is “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” not “#12 and 25.” The article also misstated part of a lyric from the Dylan song “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” which was also performed. It is, “Forget the dead you’ve left, they will not follow you,” not “Forget the debt you left, they will not follow you.” The article also misstated the title of a song James Taylor sang. It is “Carolina in My Mind,” not “Carolina on My Mind.”

Setlist

  1. Mr. Tambourine Man(with Gillian Welch & David Rawlings)
  2. All I Really Want to Do(with Willie Watson)
  3. Love Minus Zero(Willie Watson,Gillian Welch & David Rawlings)
  4. It's All Over Now, Baby Blue(with Gillian Welch & David Rawlings)
  5. Maggie's Farm(with Dawes)
  6. It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry(Preservation Hall Jazz Band,… more )
  7. Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues(Pres Hall, Welch, Dawes,… more )
  8. Outlaw Blues(Deer Tick, Dawes, Al Kooper)
  9. Just Like a Woman(Welch, Rawlings, Dawes,… more )
  10. Visions of Johanna(Welch, Rawlings, Dawes, Al… more )
  11. One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)(Welch, Rawlings, Dawes, Al Kooper)
  12. Like a Rolling Stone(Welch, Rawlings, Dawes, Kooper)
  13. Rainy Day Women #12 & 35(Everybody)

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