The 59th edition of the historic Newport Folk Festival took place over the final weekend of July. Once again an impeccable lineup was assembled consisting of music legends and relative newcomers. Three full days of music on four stages, consisting of over 60 performances enabled a bevy of collaborations and surprise performances.
This festival is unique in an oversaturated summer concert season. Recently the festival, which is capped at an attendance of 10,000, has begun selling tickets before a single performer is announced. Fans have such confidence in Jay Sweet, the Newport Festivals Network Executive Producer, tickets for all three nights sell out in minutes.
This intimacy of the concert experience and confidence in the festival’s team has brought about a sense of family amongst festival goers and organizers. As concert goers walked into the festival they were greeted by a welcome banner with a quote by Pete Seeger “We’re Stronger When We Sing Together.” The first thousand or so attendees that lineup early are also addressed by Sweet each day. After some general housekeeping announcements, Sweet repeats the mantra for this year’s festival; Be present. Be kind. Be open. Be together. This mantra, which represents the philosophy of the festival allows attendees to turn off the 24 hour news cycle, find intergenerational connections, and allows room for spontaneity in an environment in which people are present and engaged.
A certain alchemy is created each year. Here’s a brief rundown of some of the otherworldly performance I experienced.
Margo Price’s early afternoon set was the first of three performances by Nashville based artists. After the iconic John Prine introduced the Friday crowd to the singer songwriter Price performed an hours’ worth of her roadhouse, honky tonk, country rock. The was highlighted by the addition of John Prine on his quirky love song “In Spite Of Ourselves” and a duet with Brandi Carlile for a cover of Dolly Parton’s classic “9 to 5”. Price confidently sang, played tambourine, guitar, piano, and even stepped behind the drums during “Cocaine Cowboy” with her six piece knife edged band. Before “9 to 5” Price pointed out that maybe one day they would let a woman headline the festival. Price proved that SHE is that woman.
I exited Sturgill Simpson’s screaming guitar expecting the same. To my surprise a lone microphone was placed in the middle of the stage and a piano was placed stage right. Clarke emerged in a knee length conservative red dress accompanied by Thomas “Doveman” Bartlett on piano. At first I was disappointed but like a chameleon, St Vincent transformed her electro pop songs into a stripped down jazz lounge act. The thirteen song acoustic set left the audience in complete astonishment. The stripped down versions of “Slow Disco”, “Masseducation”, “Fear The Future”, and “Los Ageless” were mind blowing. This stripped down set will go down in festival lore.
Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit closed the main stage on day one. It was a family affair with Isbell’s wife Amanda Shires sitting in throughout the entire set. Flawless performances of “If We Were Vampires”, “Elephant”, “White Man’s World”, and “Stockholm” highlighted the set. Throughout the 15 song set Isbell emphasized the importance of connecting with the past. This emphasis was realized when David Crosby was invited on stage to perform stirring renditions of “Wooden Ships” and “Ohio”. It was evident from the smiles on the band’s faces that they were enjoying themselves as much as the audience.
Low Cut Connie
Low Cut Connie had the fortune of opening up the Saturday morning time slot. This would be considered a throwaway set at most festivals but at Newport the tent was at full capacity to hear this Philadelphia rock and roll band. Adam Weiner, the piano pounding front man, dressed in a gold sequined jacket, tank top t-shirt and tight black pants, captivated everyone’s attention from the start. The band’s energy electrified the crowd. By the end of the performance Weiner had ripped off his shirt, danced and gyrated on the piano and succeeded in getting the entire tent on their feet.
Tank and The Bangas
The New Orleans based band drove 19 straight hours to Newport from their home base. It took a while, but, all nine members and their equipment were squeezed on stage. As soon as the band hit the stage the crowd were immediately on their feet. The band bombarded the audience from start to finish with their brand of hip hop, soul, funk, and spoken word. By the time they covered Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit’ it was evident this was not your father’s (or grandfather’s) folk festival. The energy of Tarriona “Tank” Ball and the entire band made them one of the most impressive bands of the weekend.
Valerie June plays what she calls “organic moonshine roots music”. At this performance June was accompanied by an entire horn section keyboards, rhythm section, and pedal steel guitar. The Tennessee singer songwriter contributed a modern day set of cosmic American roots music. June swapped between banjo and electric guitar treating the crowd to a mix of blues, R&B, and old time country. June’s seven song set featured six songs from her latest album The Order Of Time concluding with a planetary version of “Astral Plane”. June introduced the song by explaining to the audience how the world was filled with lights that were just waiting to encounter a life form to occupy. By the conclusion of the song it all made perfect sense.
On the final day of the festival I was most intrigued by Nels Cline’s “Curtis Rogers Memorial Resonator Experience” in which Cline demonstrated his skills on a 1937 National Douolian steel six string guitar. I knew the guitarist was more than capable but I had only experienced Cline’s sonic blasts with the band Wilco and various New York “noise rock” ensembles. Cline was joined onstage by Brandon Seabrook whom accompanies Cline on Banjo, guitar, and mandolin. The duo mastery of their instruments was demonstrated playing a batch of blues, folk, country, and even an Indian raga based composition. Cline even sang vocals on George Jones’ “If Drinking Don’t Kill Me”. Seabrook exited the stage and Warren Haynes (Allman Brothers, Gov’t Mule) grabbed a guitar, saddled up and performed interpretations of Mississippi Fred McDowell’s “Brooks Run Into The Ocean”, “The Last Thing On My Mind” by Tom Paxton, and Feel Like Going Home by Muddy Waters. The set concluded with Seabrook returning for Wilco’s “White Light” in which Cline once again sang vocals.
A Change Is Gonna Come
Jon Batiste was set to lead the festivals finale with The Dap Kings as his backing band. An assortment of patriotic, protest and gospel songs reflecting the present political and social mood concluded the festival. Highlights included Leon Bridges and Gary Clark Junior’s stripped down version of Neil Young’s “Ohio”, Valerie June’s emotional “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around, and Rachel Price’s soaring “A Change Is Gonna Come. The set concluded with the Stape Singers’ “Freedom Highway”. By this time Mavis Staples, Chris Thile, and the majority of performers had flooded the stage. By the end of the performance the entire crowd was dancing and clapping, feeling empowered to carry this energy for the rest of the year.
Once again this year’s Newport Folk Festival delivered memorable performances that will be added to the festival’s lore. We can only dream what next year will bring!
Change Gonna Come
Gary Clark Jr
Hiss Golden Messenger
JD McPherson and Shakey Graves
Low Cut Connie
Mumford and Sons
Preservation Hall Jazz Band