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