Mixing the Newport Folk Festival

By benkrumholz

In 1965, Bob Dylan famously took the stage at the Newport Folk Festival and played an amplified act with guitarist Mike Bloomfield and organist Al Kooper. Dylan’s choice to use an electric guitar at a traditional folk festival was met with mixed reactions, with many of the guests booing Dylan off the stage by the end of his set.


Newport Folk

Virgina-based The Last Bison plays an energetic set on the Harbor Stage at the Newport Folk Festival.
In 1965, Bob Dylan famously took the stage at the Newport Folk Festival and played an amplified act with guitarist Mike Bloomfield and organist Al Kooper. Dylan’s choice to use an electric guitar at a traditional folk festival was met with mixed reactions, with many of the guests booing Dylan off the stage by the end of his set.

While mixed reviews either cite the audience’s distaste for the electric guitar accompanying Dylan’s songs or poor sound quality as the reason for the booing, today the performance is considered a significant moment in American music history.

Since its founding in 1959, the Newport Folk Festival has witnessed the evolution of the Americana folk scene from the early performances by icon Pete Seeger, to Dylan’s legendary electric controversy, into the indie-folk artists that are gracing the Top 40 playlists of today. 2013’s Newport Folk Festival continued on the tradition of bringing folk music fans together for three days of guitars, banjos and local Rhode Island flair, all against the backdrop of Newport’s historic Fort Adams.

The 2013 Newport Folk Festival featured acts including Beck, The Allman Brothers, The Milk Carton Kids, Langhorne Slim and the Law, and The Lumineers to the festival’s four stages. New this year was the addition of a third day of performances to the schedule, with bands including Feist and Old Crow Medicine Show closing out the main stage.

Maryland Sound of Baltimore, MD provided the gear for the Fort Stage (the main stage at the festival), setting up 12 JBL VTX25s and VerTec C4888s for outfills. Inside the fort, Greenfield, MA-based Klondike Sound provided a L-Acoustics dV-Dosc line array system over dV-Subs, along with three L-Acoustics Arcs per side as outfills for the Quad Stage inside Fort Adams.

“Until three years ago, no music was played inside the fort,” explained Klondike Koehler, owner of Klondike Sound. “We had the main stage, of course, and the two stages outside the east gate. They had always wanted to add a stage in the fort, but couldn’t mostly for security and historic preservation reasons. There were worries about people wandering into these old buildings.”

But once the State Park secured the interior to prevent people from wandering into the fort’s ruins, they were able to provide the Folk Festival with the perfect location for a fourth stage, right in the center of the stone fortress.

“There’s no trouble with interference from the main stage,” said Koehler, pointing out that the fort’s stone walls are 20 feet thick and 20 feet tall, creating a virtually soundproof space for the stage. “That’s the wonder of the fort. We don’t even know when the main stage is up and running.”

Many concertgoers drove their boats up to the edge of Fort Adams State Park in Newport to catch the performances on the Fort Stage at the Newport Folk Festival.
However, thick stone walls also mean echoes, and Koehler said he carefully arranges the speakers to minimize that. “We have ways to arrange the loudspeakers so the energy goes where the people are instead of going straight out,” he said.

At the Fort Stage, which is located outside of the fort at the end of the state park’s peninsula, the performers and the gear are at the mercy of the elements. On the Friday of the festival, strong winds and rain made it more difficult for the performers and the crew.

“It had been windy (on Friday),” explained Robert Jones, account manager at Maryland Sound and the crew chief for the Folk Festival. “We ended up having to set up the acts farther upstage so they weren’t standing in the rain. The other thing we ran into was that the scrims in front of the speakers would get filled with water and became less transparent. We had a lot of reflection come off the scrim.”

Luckily, the other two days of the festival had sunny skies and warm temperatures, allowing the tens of thousands of guests to fully enjoy the festival.

For both Maryland Sound as a first-time sound company working at the festival, and for Klondike Sound, a festival regular for the past 33 years, one of the biggest challenges of the festival was meeting the short set changes between each act. “We have to make sure we meet our 25-minute set changes,” Jones said.

Newport Folk

To help meet these short set change times, both Jones and Koehler said they set up the next act ahead of time. “The closing act of the day usually loads in early in the morning, soundchecks, and then its equipment is placed on rolling risers. At the end of the day, we roll that forward and they can just plug and play,” explained Koehler.

Besides the soundcheck for the closing act each day, Koelher said he doesn’t have time to offer the other acts a soundcheck. “You run out of time pretty quickly,” he said. “Really, it’s the first act of the day that sets the tone for a good strategy all day long.”

Ultimately, the main job of the sound crews was to make sure each artist had everything he or she needed, and was happy with the performances. At the Fort Stage, Jones said he didn’t have too many special requests from the artists, but provided eight channels of Sennheiser wireless mics, including XSW 52 Series headset mics, as well as “a huge slew of hardwired Sennheiser mics.”

Klondike Koehler of Klondike Sound Co. manned the FOH board for the Quad stage this year. He has provided sound services for the Newport Folk Festival for the past 33 years.
At FOH, each artists’ engineer mixed on an Avid Venue Profile and Yamaha DM2000 console, provided by Maryland Sound. Maryland Sound and Klondike Sound both provided engineers for their tents; however, some artists brought along their own engineers to do the mixing during their sets. “I’d say about half of the acts brought a monitor guy, and almost all of them brought FOH guys,” Jones said. “We have two desks at each end, one is the show desk and the other is a warm-up desk.”

As engineers came in, they could upload their Avid files to the warm-up desk and get everything ready for the next act, Jones explained. “Avid consoles are not all that rare,” he said, so most engineers were already familiar with the desk.

On the Friday, Music Festival Business spoke to the up-and-coming chamber folk band, The Last Bison, which performed a set that afternoon on the Harbor Stage in front of a full crowd trying to pack under the tent while the rain poured outside. The band, made up of family members and friends, had been touring for two-and-a-half years, steadily growing its reputation in the folk scene. For lead singer Ben Hardesty, playing at the festival was an honor.

“We get a lot of audience that we wouldn’t get at a regular club,” Hardesty said. “This festival draws such a large number of people that may not know your name, but will see you play. The exposure is just great.”

Pennsylvania-native Langhorne Slim, who with his band The Law, toured with The Lumineers this past year, said performing at the festival again was like seeing his family. “This particular festival has a lot of our friends that we don’t see that often,” he said. “It’s got a great energy and feels like family.”

And for Koehler, the community that the Newport Folk Festival builds is what brings him back each year. “I think it has the most pleasant and professional crew in the business,” he said. “We provide an experience for the audience that’s unique, and that’s a factor of the location, the weather, diligent use of technology and, of course, the music.”

Newport Folk Festival