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Ushering in the new guard at the Newport festival

by Seth Rogovoy

[Ani DiFranco] It was the Weekend of the Women at Ben and Jerry's Folk Festival -- Newport. With Indigo Girls, Joan Armatrading, Suzanne Vega, Michelle Shocked, and Ani DiFranco on the bill, the event had a doubly alternative flavor, one reflected in the overwhelmingly young and female audience sporting nose rings and various other pierced body parts. Call it Folkapalooza, if you will. And in this summer when that better-known festival of alternative music has taken so much guff for its testosterone-heavy line-up, it was women's voices -- as well as women's guitars, basses, and other instruments -- that roared the loudest, in numbers too great to ignore, at Rhode Island's Fort Adams State Park last weekend.

Not that men weren't heard from. Friday's "On a Summer's Night" round-robin at the Hotel Viking, featuring the Traveling Wilburys of new folk -- Patty Larkin, Cheryl Wheeler, John Gorka, and Cliff Eberhardt -- was evenly split gender-wise on stage and in the audience. Saturday peaked early with the vocal pyrotechnics of Boston's Martin Sexton. The festival honored its legacy as a blues showcase on Sunday with a set by Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown. Sporting a three-piece horn section, the Texan's band kicked a mellow show -- which up until then had seen low-key performances by sensitive new-age guy David Wilcox and contemporary-folk songstress Maura O'Connell -- into high gear with some roadhouse blues, bluegrass fiddling, and a double-time version of "Take the `A' Train." Otherwise, Bruce Cockburn claimed backstage to have been named an honorary woman a few years ago by students at Smith College, and he played a typically earnest if somewhat softened political set. No "If I Had a Rocket Launcher" for this crowd, thank you. And John Hiatt's wise-ass heartland folk rock seemed lost on the crowd, even if they shared his horror at the senseless slaughter of those "Perfectly Good Guitars" by spoiled rock stars.

No, the biggest thrills came courtesy of the girls. Ani DiFranco's fiery odes to maladjustment were given a fat-bottomed boost by longtime drummer Andy Stochansky and bassist Sara Lee -- doing double duty over the weekend with DiFranco and Indigo Girls. An even bigger boost came from the hypercharged fans who responded to DiFranco with an adulation typically reserved for rock stars. "Ani, come home with me," cried out one female, moments before another crashed the stage and danced for Ani and her legions before being wrestled away by security. Pity poor Peter Rowan, the folk-bluegrass legend who was given the thankless task of following DiFranco. Neither his Crucial Country mates Jerry Douglas and Tony Rice nor the familiar strains of "Panama Red" could break DiFranco's spell.

Suzanne Vega, on the other hand, had no such problems commanding attention. Back on the circuit after a hiatus long enough for her to become a wife and mother, the one-time waif turned folk Madonna cut a particularly incongruous figure clad in black in the festival's idyllic, seaside setting. "These songs weren't meant to be sung in open air," she acknowledged from the stage about her gloomy, introspective paeans to urban angst. Not even motherhood, it seems, has lightened her grim world view; if anything, it seems to have provided Vega with more fodder for her obsessions. "World Before Columbus," a track from her upcoming album, imagined what it would feel like to lose her baby. Backed by husband/producer Mitchell Froom on keyboards and Mike Visceglia on guitar and bass, Vega offered delicate versions of old favorites, with newer songs punctuated by Froom's industrial effects. Armatrading capped Saturday's program with her signature art folk, the smooth soul of "Love and Affection" packing the biggest punch of the day next to DiFranco.

Pop-folk singer/songwriter Lisa Loeb played a solo acoustic set of her wispy, innocuous melodies in which teenage traumas take on the gravity of major political upheavals. And though it was left to Michelle Shocked to acknowledge the folk tradition with rootsy versions of "Kumbaya" and "Jambalaya," the gesture was overshadowed by the personal psychodrama she played out on stage, as she worried about lost band members, fretted over her old record label, and deferred to her guitarist brother and to "Gatemouth" Brown, whom she described as a father figure.

The absence of any major figure with a direct connection to the '60s folk revival was significant, suggesting that a full-fledged changing of the guard has finally taken place. In the end, Indigo Girls laid claim to their crowns as alternative folk's royal duo, their sincere and impassioned anthems of spiritual, artistic, and personal liberation lending a very '90s-style affirmation to this very '90s-style gathering of the alternative-folk nation.

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