Students Find Rainbow Connection at Newport Folk
The 2019 Newport Folk Festival featured musical acts such as Sheryl Crow, Brandi Carlile (with her new group the Highwomen), and a surprise appearance by country legend Dolly Parton. Held at Fort Adams State Park in Newport, Rhode Island, the festival was celebrating its 60th anniversary, in what would have been cofounder Pete Seeger’s 100th year.
On Friday and Sunday, this year’s lineup also included four Berklee students, who play in an ensemble aptly named the Berklee Instant Strings.
Founded by Berklee faculty member Darol Anger and now advised by Greg Liszt, the group consists of four students chosen by the String Department to provide a strong, flexible string section for touring musicians. “It’s like, just add water, and you have a string section,” joked Louisa Byron, one of the group’s two violinists, who was playing the festival for the second straight year.
Byron and her fellow students—violinist Emily Gelineau, violist Cecilia Vacanti, and cellist Emanuel Keller—took to the Quad stage Friday afternoon with the folk trio I’m With Her, a new folk supergroup consisting of Sara Watkins, Aoife O’Donovan, and Sarah Jarosz. The Instant Strings joined them on “Overland,” and Watkins also invited the audience to sing along on the chorus.
“They’re some of my favorite musicians ever,” said Vacanti, who was also playing her second Newport Folk Festival. “It was so amazing to be onstage with them.”
Gelineau said she enjoyed listening to I’m With Her before the Instant Strings came out to play on “Overland.” “It was great to get inspired by their music before we joined them onstage,” she said. “And they were lovely to work with as well.”
The students spoke about the challenges implied in their quartet's name. “Sometimes we’ll have a rehearsal,” Byron said, “and sometimes the musicians will just hand us a chart. And sometimes we don’t even get that: we just have to show up and figure it out. It’s an exciting challenge.”
"They’re some of my favorite musicians ever. It was so amazing to be onstage with them.”
—Cecilia Vacanti on performing with I'm With Her
“I think it’s an important experience for touring musicians,” added Keller. “You have to learn how to be in the moment, and handle challenges that arise.”
The Instant Strings were also part of the festival’s closing set, known as If I Had a Song, on Sunday night. Byron drafted a string arrangement for the set’s opening number: “The Rainbow Connection,” featuring Kermit the Frog on vocals and banjo. The Instant Strings played on several other numbers in that set, including the Beach Boys' tune “God Only Knows” with Trey Anastasio, Rachael Price of Lake Street Dive, and members of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band; and John Lennon’s “Instant Karma!” with Fleet Foxes frontman Robin Pecknold and the Preservation Hall members. The students—and several dozen of their fellow musicians—came back onstage to be led by Ramblin’ Jack Elliott in the festival’s final song, “Goodnight Irene.”
Watch the Berklee Instant Strings' rehearsal with I'm With Her: