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Newport Folk and Jazz Festivals

Kevin M. Mitchell • Festival FocusSeptember 2019 • September 11, 2019

At 79, the ageless Herbie Hancock put on a memorable headlining show during the Jazz Festival. Photo by Glen Zazove

Maryland Sound Supports Main Stage at Back-to-Back Weekend Events

Maryland Sound International’s Robert Jones is a longtime fan of two of music’s most historic events — The Newport Folk and Jazz Festivals, which bookend two weekends in late July/early August. Since 2012, he’s been part of both for Maryland Sound.

Today an account manager, Jones began his career as an engineer, but still gets his hands dirty working the show. “I enjoy the music and the work, so it’s four shop guys and me.” He adds that every year, the shows get a little more complicated, a little more diverse — and a little more fun. “We had more acts bringing production playing this year, which meant more infrastructure assistance from us, pre-running snakes for the guests.”

Held at the seaside Fort Adams State Park in Newport, RI, the 2019 festivals had a bit of hot weather but no rain. The two-weekend shows typically sell out in 10 minutes, with no acts announced.

The MSI audio crew truly has to be ready for anything. Just one example: About 15 minutes before Sheryl Crow was to take the stage, James Taylor texted her the idea of him sitting in with her. Taylor was on a boat at the time, so he docked, and wearing just a T-shirt and cap, walked through the crowd undetected and took the stage. This is their normal. “There’s a lot of logistical stuff going on,” Jones says, an obvious understatement.

A look at the JBL VTX A12 system

‡‡         Assembly-Line Precision

“This is a big package pair of events, and the two weekends could not be more different in terms of content and production,” Jones says. There are four stages, with MSI handling the biggest one, the Fort Stage. (Klondike Sound handles the smaller Quad, Harbor and Museum stages.) MSI also provided a couple of console/stage packages for the Fort Stage for The Highwomen and Portugal.The Man on the Quad Stage. On the Fort, FOH has two Avid Profile consoles, plus a Yamaha QL1 console for the emcees and other speakers. Regarding the Profile: “Sometimes we think maybe it’s time to change consoles, but it’s still on everyone’s rider, so as long as that’s the case that will be the one to bring.”

FOH system processing happens with JBL Performance Manager, and there’s of course multi-track recording available for artists that want to add that “extra,” as Jones says. “No artist asked for that during the Folk show, but during that, Aura-Sonic Ltd. was running multi-tracks on all stages for the Foundation’s archive. For the Jazz festival, we multi-track all of the artists for the Foundation for archival purposes using a Cubase-based system.”

The main stage P.A. has JBL products: 24 VTX A12s, eight VTX A12s for outfill SL, four VTX A12s for outfill SR, 12 VTX G28 and six JBL VRX932 for front fill. Crown I-Tech HD powers it all. Monitorworld has an Avid D-Show and an SC48, plus 16 proprietary MSI Hex 12 wedges and MSI BBSF 3-way cabinets with MSI BB21 subs for sidefills. Wireless is handled using Shure and Sennheiser gear, with the Shure system carrying most of the workload. “We used the SR2050 IEM’s for several acts over the course of two weekends. For wireless mics we used Axient Digital systems.”

The parameters are strict: Doors open exactly at 10:30 am, and that day’s show must end at 7:30 pm every night because… well, the lighting designer is the sun. “We’re in at the crack of dawn every day, because the only real access to our stage is through the audience area, which they close when the public doors open,” Jones says. For the Folk Festival, “on Friday we had to get two trucks in and out, three on Saturday morning and four on Sunday. We have to get it all in and get the trucks out in a hurry.” When Band A is on stage, they are pre-wiring Band B. “We pre-wire as much as possible to expedite the changeover, as soon as the risers roll out on stage we can connect the subsnake multi’s. While the stage is being reset, I re-patch the split and we are ready to go. Then we do it all over again.”

Kermit the Frog joined in a duet with Jim James as the 2019 Newport Folk Festival came to a close.

‡‡         The Folk Side

Rolling Stone magazine called this year’s Folk Festival “one of the most diverse in recent memory, and the most gender-balanced ever.” Jones could not agree more, and both aspects were on display for many onstage collaborations between artists. The Highwomen, featuring Brandi Carlile, did their own set on the Quad stage, then took to the main stage with a lot of friends. A highlight of that was a rendition of “9 to 5” featured Dolly Parton, Sheryl Crow, Judy Collins and many others. Other headliners/highlights include Jeff Tweedy, Kacey Musgraves, Portugal.The Man and Trey Anastasio.

There are a couple of challenges of the Folk days versus the Jazz days. For one, “the jazz musicians have less adult supervision,” Jones jokes. But the other is that the pop/rock artists often bring their own console and FOH engineer, some even their own monitor mixer, too. “It depends on the band, but there’s a lot of working things out and accommodating those who want their own people.”

The favorite night has to be Sunday, when the show becomes a house band playing with a number of artists playing the finale in combinations you’ve never seen playing songs you’d never expect. “And the acts all have a lot of guests. Very few acts go in to do their typical set.” For the audio crew, it’s always about rolling with whatever. An act shows up, and suddenly they have a choir or strings, and the crew has to instantly mic it all.

The view of the Newport Jazz Festival from FOH

‡‡         The Jazz Side

“We get through the Folk festival, cover it all up, and then have three days off to get ready for the Jazz festival,” Jones explains. They hang in a rented house in the area planning the jazz portion, which is a decidedly different animal. “Folk bands all have a plan, the jazz groups may or may not. The folk bands typically have [normal rock band instruments], but with the jazz you have horns, vibes, extra percussion — things a little out of the ordinary.”

For the 65th anniversary edition of the Jazz Festival, the big headliner was Herbie Hancock, but other big acts include Corinne Bailey Rae, The Bad Plus, Sun Ra, Terence Blanchard and Kamasi Washington with rapper Common closing it. The headliners do a typical — though shorter than usual — sound check in the morning before the doors open, and everybody else gets half a song or less — pretty much a line check — before their faders come up. “That’s another difference with the Jazz days. The Folk guys are used to a little more attention and require a little more maintenance, whereas for the jazz… well, ‘it’s close enough’ for jazz. They are used to working with what they have.”

The Folk Festival has six bands a day on the main stage, Jazz has five. “Set changes on the Jazz weekend are a little longer because of the variety,” Jones says. “You’re going from a big band to a Latin act, etc. The variation of instrumentation is really wide.” Also, most of the Jazz backline is rental gear. “There’s a 20×30-foot tent next to the stage full of backline gear, and backline guys spend the whole day shuffling it all on and off per the preference of each musician.” There was a three grand piano tribute to Erroll Garner, featuring Helen Sung, Tadataka Unno and Christian Sands.

Impressively, Jones reports there was no drama (beyond a few instances of typical artist-induced ones). “The audio equipment is all rock-solid — we had one mic fail but found out about that during a sound check, so really, it was all just about getting the musicians on and off the stage in a timely manner.”

At monitors, Keith Price (standing) and Brian Bednar (kneeling)

‡‡         Different from Anything Else

Jones throws out a few audio-nerdy tidbits: Focusrite Rednet D16Rs and A16Rs were in the toolbox. “We use them for signal distribution with a node at each speaker tower and a node at monitors. We use them for signal distribution for the system, since they are Dante and integrate with the QL1. Each node was one A16 R and one D16 R, giving us redundant analog and digital signal paths at all of the positions with redundant networks.” The often-used Steinway grand acoustic got some special attention: It is miked with a pair of DPA 4021, a pair of AKG C414 and a pair of Yamahiko pickups. “That all stays wired up all weekend.” (For that one special piano number, two more Steinways were brought out, but those were treated with a pair of 414s per piano.)

Robert Jones of MSI

“Doing these two festivals is fun from the perspective of someone who sees a lot of shows because it’s much different than anything else,” Jones says. “You get so much cooperation that you don’t always get at other festivals. And there’s a lot of spontaneity. Another entire band will show up in another’s set. One year, Roger Waters showed up backed by My Morning Jacket, SNL guitarist G.E. Smith and others sitting in.”

The Folk Festival’s sing-along finale, a tribute to the spirit of Pete Seeger, included Jim James singing a duet with Kermit the Frog (“Rainbow Connection,” of course). Apparently Kermit prefers the Shure Twinplex lavalier with an Axient Digital wireless beltpack. (At press time we could not confirm if that was an artist endorsed-situation or not.)

Both festivals are a great experience but, as Jones notes, “Folk caters to my musical taste, and I’m rarely disappointed at anything at this festival, even the stuff I’m not necessarily personally drawn to. I still enjoy it, and I really like seeing others enjoy it.” He’ll get to enjoy again next year, as MSI are already returning to do it all again in 2020.

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