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It’s ironic, considering the Newport Folk Festival’s purist reputation, that after 40 years the event is still linked more closely to rock history than to folk history. Newport will always be remembered as the site of Bob Dylan’s infamous transgression in 1965, when he did the unthinkable and plugged in his electric guitar at the fiercely acoustic gathering. That gesture changed the course of popular music, marrying the political currency of folk to rock’s commerciality. More importantly, it confronted the culture of the “folk community” with the irreverent individualism of the rock star.

The tension between rock and folk lives on. At the festival’s half-empty stop Sunday at Merriweather Post Pavilion, nothing was so clear as the fact that its organizers are trying to preserve folk traditions without folk identity—a conflict that played out on two stages. Poppier, more modern acts were on the bill to bring in new blood, but their most salient effect was to water down the folk ethos of the occasion. Whereas folk artists Nanci Griffith and Joan Baez took pains during their sets to deflect attention and praise to other songwriters, pop and rock performers like Marc Cohn, Lisa Loeb (who played with Dweezil Zappa), and Wilco mostly told stories about themselves.

Singer-songwriter Cohn wasted much of his set complaining about technical problems, which were frequent throughout the day and made worse by the acoustic competition between the main stage and the small side stage up the hill. The two platforms weren’t far enough apart; at times it sounded uncomfortably like being stuck between stations on a radio dial. Cohn was up to his neck in feedback; a deafening squeal interrupted his Grammy-winning single “Walking in Memphis.” He could have been gracious. Instead, he contemptuously demanded that someone “Come out and fix it!” and left a nasty impression that wasn’t quickly erased by his jokes about a wrathful Elvis in the PA system.

Cohn could have taken cues from Olu Dara and his band, who finished their short set with the percolating blues-jazz of “Rain Shower.” Dara was obliging, despite the cramped accommodations onstage and the sound flooding over from the main stage. He seemed genuinely pleased to get a chance to play outside.

Just as singer-songwriter/Jewel collaborator Steve Poltz persuaded a couple in the front row of the side stage to renew their wedding vows to an improvised waltz, Lucinda Williams took the main stage with her band to crank up “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road,” the title track from her new album. Williams, demure beneath her cowgirl hat, moaned, belted, and spooned her way through “Right in Time,” “Greenville,” and “Can’t Let Go.” Percussionist Carol Steel, from Joan Baez’s band, joined Williams for “Joy,” the final number, and Williams’ guitarist Kenny (“the Monster”) Vaughn let loose in all his high-pants, reading-glasses, nerd-savant glory, picking like a blues hero and jerking like a reborn Buddy Holly.

Six songs were far too few from Williams, who may not be pure folk, but who epitomizes the genre’s style, generosity, and lyrical depth. The audience was reluctant to let her go—and would have forced her to stay had it known what was coming.

Wilco drew much of its set from Mermaid Avenue, its excellent adaptation, with Billy Bragg, of Woody Guthrie lyrics. The band’s loose country-rock sound draws from the same river as folk crossovers—er, The Band—but lead singer Jeff Tweedy was all rock. His banter was clumsy if not smug: He forgot at times to credit Woody, and at one point he asked the audience, “What are you folks doing here?”

What? Waiting. We’re waiting for the genuine article….Then Joan arrived. Joan Baez, who debuted at Newport in ’59, was onstage in less than 15 minutes in a T-shirt and jeans. She sang great, mingling politics and folk history—including lots of Newport lore—between originals, standards, and new tunes by young songwriters featured on her recent record Gone Again. She treated her audience, her band, and the stagehands with the easy respect of family. And in her finale, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” when she imitated Dylan’s trademark nasal slur, she may have turned casual listeners into die-hard fans.

Baez is an idealized form of folk; Nanci Griffith is folk’s cheerleader, and she proved the perfect voice to end the night. She sang mostly from what she called “the greatest-kept secret in the record industry,” her recently released covers album Other Voices, Too, diving joyfully into song after song, describing her discovery of Richard Thompson, Sandy Denny, and Buddy Holly in anecdotes of her beatnik Texas childhood. By the end of a raucous set she was joined by Rodney Crowell and Jimmie Dale Gilmore (whom she called “the sweetest voice the Dust Bowl ever did give birth to”) for the perfect ending: Pete Seeger’s “If I Had a Hammer.” More than any other performer, Griffith brought folk context to her music. It was easy to believe her when she championed the Newport experiment: “Lest this music be forgotten, it needs to be sung by new voices, in new places, and often.” Maybe next year, the organizers will get it right and fill the bill with folk artists who live up to the Newport name. Even if not, if Nanci’s playing, it’ll be worth going again anyway. CP