He was there when old pal Dylan went electric. This time he has new followers.
Of all the acts he's listed under at next weekend's Newport Folk Festival -- including My Morning Jacket, Wilco, Iron & Wine and the Head and the Heart -- the only one that Spider John Koerner says he knows among the "younger names" is Jackson Browne.
The other performers might not recognize Koerner on the Newport poster, either. It's been 43 years since the Minneapolis-based folk/blues vet last played the fabled Rhode Island fest. He was also there in 1965 when he paid witness to his old running buddy Bob Dylan making music history.
"Most of us knew it was going to happen, because you could hear them warming up and everything," Koerner recalled of Dylan's debut on electric guitar -- the guitar that made news last week as the centerpiece of a "History Detectives" episode on PBS.
"I thought it sounded pretty good, but after the first song, I heard this sound I didn't recognize and said, 'What's that?' It was the booing."
At least a few of the main-stage performers headed to Newport this year are cheering Koerner's inclusion in the fest, including fellow Minnesotans Trampled by Turtles and Omaha-reared indie star Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes fame. Oberst may even have had a hand in Spider John landing the gig.
Koerner, 73, is still a regular summer visitor to New England. The Boston Globe ran a meaty profile of him last year, and he has his own Boston-based backing band, the Rag Tag Boys. Despite all that, he said, "I've wanted to go back to the festival for some time, but it took a little push from some people who know me."
The push started back in Minneapolis with the proprietors of the 400 Bar. The old West Bank music hang was a haunt of Koerner's former trio, Koerner, Ray & Glover, and their various offshoots back in the 1960s and '70s. Back then, they recorded for Elektra Records alongside the Doors and had a traceable influence on the likes of Dylan, John Lennon and future acolyte Bonnie Raitt. Today, Koerner and Tony Glover still maintain a weekly 400 gig during the winter and issued a "Live at the 400 Bar" CD in 2009 (their old mate Dave Ray passed away in 2002).
The bar's sibling operators, Bill and Tom Sullivan, started making calls to get Koerner into Newport again. They enlisted the likes of veteran booking agent Frank Riley and Oberst, who headlines the festival next Sunday (same day as Koerner's set). Bill Sullivan, who has been Oberst's tour manager since the singer was just a kid, schooled him on Koerner.
Asked what draws him to Koerner, Oberst (via e-mail) said simply: "His authenticity, his sincerity, his significance."
Festival producer Jay Sweet denied Oberst's influence in landing Koerner the gig -- "but having Conor as a fan doesn't hurt," he added.
"Having Spider John on-site will be an inspiration to several of the younger artists who are excited to hear him play," Sweet said, "and obviously to have someone who can share a bit of our past with our fans of today is a true pleasure."
About that ax
Koerner certainly has stories to share from all three of his Newport stints. The first was in 1964, as the Koerner, Ray & Glover trio. The last was in 1969, with fellow Twin Cities music vet Willie Murphy, around the time of their acclaimed album "Running, Jumping, Standing Still." That year is especially memorable -- he and Murphy almost got caught in a house fire started by their drummer.
"They would put up all the musicians in these mansions that were close to the festival, and this guy put a towel over a lamp and managed to burn up all his drum heads," Koerner recalled. "We had to find another drummer on the fly."
While Dylan got all the attention in '65, Koerner had a hand in another historic moment at that fest -- albeit somewhat dubiously. Koerner said he bought blues legend Son House a pint of liquor "not knowing that his manager was rationing his intake of the stuff." House wound up getting drunk before he was supposed to lead a music workshop, so Muddy Waters stepped in and did most of the leading.
Said Koerner, "So I guess I can take credit for Son House and Muddy Waters performing together." On a serious note, he added, "Newport is really where they first dug up all those old blues guys out of the South and brought them to the white audiences. That was a pretty big deal, I think."
Koerner watched Dylan's set from the artists' viewing area beside the stage. He denied the longstanding rumor about Pete Seeger threatening to literally cut the power to the stage. "I didn't see any ax," he said, but added, "People were going crazy, that's for sure."
Glover was watching from a different viewing area -- "where they had a few different libations," he said -- and thought the booing had as much to do with the poor sound and abbreviated length of Dylan's set as it did his use of the electric guitar: "The sound was so bad, Dylan's guitar was often just overwhelming," said the veteran harp blower, who also remembers the '65 fest being spiked with "the first waves of the Vietnam War protests."
Even more of a blues fanatic than Koerner, Glover marveled over seeing all the old bluesmen for the first time at the '64 fest, including Mississippi Fred McDowell, Mississippi John Hurt, Sleepy John Estes and especially Skip James. "They had only found Skip James like a week before, and here he was all of a sudden playing to his first white audience at like 11 in the morning or whatever. He must've just been freaking out.
"When Koerner, Ray & Glover started, nobody from our world was playing that music, and then all of a sudden here were all the original guys," Glover said. "It made us a little bit obsolete."
Fast-forward four decades, and now Koerner is the old guy getting dug up for the fest for younger audiences.
"We feel so lucky to be playing Newport the year Spider John returns," said Dave Simonett of Trampled by Turtles, which also performs at the fest next Sunday. "He's one of our favorites, and we'll be squealing like teenage girls in the front row for sure."
You'd be hard-pressed to detect anywhere near that much enthusiasm from Koerner himself. In his typical understated fashion, all he said was, "I expect it'll be a little different this time around."
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658 • Twitter: @ChrisRstrib