Newport Folk Festival Spotlight: Jay Sweet


Last week I was lucky enough to chat with Jay Sweet, producer of the Newport Folk Festival, Editor of Paste Magazine and fellow North Shore resident. I talked to Jay about this year’s Newport Folk Festival as well as the devout following that the historical festival has gained over the years.

Maimed & Tamed: How does the selection process for bands work at the festival?

Jay Sweet: We don’t go after fad bands that are just one and done, we have to do this for a long-term relationship. We want to invest in bands that are going to invest in us because as they get bigger we can’t really afford them. If you take the Avett Brothers or the Felice Brothers, bands that we have had three or four years in a row, those were growth relationships. We kind of bet on them early and they were loyal and without that loyalty from the bands we don’t have a festival. The entire budget of the festival is usually equal to what one headliner costs at one of the other major festivals. To put it into perspective it would cost about three times our entire budget to get just Neil Young. There are only three ways an artist can get to play Newport; 1. You the artist want to play 2. We the festival want you to play and 3. Our fans demand that you play. Two out of those three things have to happen or you are not going to play Newport.

M&T: If you had as much money as the major festivals, who would be your dream headliners? (This is one he said he has never been asked before, but is always prepared to answer)

JS: We are upset that we have never been able to get Neil Young. We think Neil Young having never played Newport is a travesty to everybody. He was supposed to play with Buffalo Springfield in 1967, he was listed in the program, but about a week before the event their management sent a telegram to George Wein saying that due to a tonsillectomy they were going to have to cancel. We have the telegram you can see it on our Facebook page. The fact that Bruce Springsteen has never played a solo acoustic set either is really disheartening and the end all be all would have to be Joni Mitchell who doesn’t perform live anymore. Those are the three legends that are still alive that we think it would be incredibly beneficial for both them and us to show that they understand the musical heritage of the festival. Think about the musical history of this country, this festival is ten years older than Woodstock, Newport is our original festival in this country, it is the granddaddy that started them all. It is amazing how some bands still take it as another gig, but most of them realize that this festival should be on their bucket list.

Also the three artists who we have tried every year to get, but it has not happened would be Beck doing an acoustic set, Eddie Vedder, because we need people to carry on the Pete Seeger torch of musical political activism, and Jack White. With Jack we want to try to bring back the blues, I’m talking the Delta blues, not Chicago blues. I’m talking about the Robert Johnson, Skip James, Bukka White, Son House type blues. A guy with a guitar, tapping his foot, sitting on a chair, singing gut-wrenching Delta blues. Who does that? Who can make it cool for young people to dig the blues? Jack White can do that. He understands from afar what we are trying to do and we don’t think there is anybody other than Jack White who can turn people on to the Delta blues. If he sat down and just played a set of Bukka White, Skip James, Son House, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Muddy Waters, we think he could single-handedly revive that type of music and get a lot of people turned on to doing that.

M&T: Who are you looking forward to seeing the most at this year’s festival?

JS: We are really excited about Gillian Welch being back and having her and the Decemberists on the same bill. Having Freelance Whales and PS 22 on the same day is going to be fun too. We are also excited about Tegan and Sara because that was one of those instances where we have wanted them, they wanted to play and the timing just had to be right. It is awesome when you get two women that don’t make sense on the bill, but they started as just two women with acoustic guitars and Newport is something that has been on their career list. When we took over the festival I put this massive white board in my office and wrote down every artist that we love that we thought would be right for this festival at some point. When we get to cross them off it is a very good feeling and Tegan and Sara was one of those bands that we have been waiting to cross off for a few years.

Of course we are very tight with all the guys in Middle Brother and we are really excited about having them this summer. I think there is something about those guys where you can tell that they are going to be around for a while. All three bands [Dawes, Delta Spirit, Deer Tick] and all three guys [Taylor Goldsmith, Matt Vasquez, John McCauley], they’re just in it for the long-haul and they are really good at what they do. They are to me all about the future of what is going to be great in the music industry. They have their own scene, they don’t really care what is happening. Sometimes you look at a lot of bands that are trying to chase something, instead of creating something, but Middle Brother has nothing to chase and they are simply creating their own community and their own sound.

M&T: It is pretty obvious that you look at the word “folk” in a very general way, how would you describe your definition of folk music?

JS: People tend to think of folk as this weird term, but we try to keep it as general as possible, because folk is really music that will continue on. It is music that can be popular, but it is not built to be popular for that time, it is built to last. Folk music is for the people, by the people, meaning that people want other people to learn how to play these songs. We want to bridge the gap between generations, take for example having Richie Havens and Trey Anastasio back to back. Being in the front row the older school people who were there to see Richie Havens were like ‘Who is this Phish guy?’ They were almost going to leave, but then they were like ‘Oh my God he is great!’ Then you hear all these Phish-heads going, ‘Who is this black dude in the robe killing that guitar?’ That to me is the job, to show the musical lineage and bridge the gap to the younger audience so they understand that a line can be drawn from the people that they are digging musically now and the people who came before them.

Finally I asked Jay to give us a playlist of the 5 songs that he has on heavy rotation right now. Check out the playlist and see what Jay has to say about his song choices below:

Alexander- “A Million Years”

“I love that song so much, I have to play it right now.”

The Head and the Heart- “Lost in My Mind (Live at KEXP)”

“Every time I hear it, it is just so amazing. It has to be that exact live version though, I think it’s ridiculous.”

Futurebirds- “APO”

“I have been totally digging this song recently.”

Middle Brother- “Wilderness”

“I was just surfing this morning, and I probably sang that song at least 10 times in a row in my head while I was waiting between waves.”

My Morning Jacket- “Gideon”

“I listen to this song regardless of year or time at least 10 times a week minimum. It is one of the few songs that never really gets old.”

Jay also added that, “I have to give the Low Anthem a shout, not just one song, but every time I listen to them I have to go through the whole album. I think the new album is amazing and I don’t really pick a song, I have to play the entire album all the way through.”

Posted on by Eric in Newport Folk Festival Spotlight

2 Responses to Newport Folk Festival Spotlight: Jay Sweet

  1. Andy

    Thanks, very interesting!
    Just wish Newport would invite Nibs (van der Spuy).
    Check out this South African, where and with whom he has played, at

    Hopefully 3 out of “those three things” will happen. Nibs to play Newport, folk on!

  2. miss kay

    Thanks for turning me on to some new music!
    And in a perfect world at least one of those three incredible musicians (Joni,Neil,Bruce) would show up this year just to blow us all away.

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