REVIEW: Newport Folk Festival better than ever 59 years in
by Doug MacGunnigle, WPRO. Photos by Doug MacGunnigle and Steve Klamkin
The Newport Folk Festival, held this past weekend at Fort Adams in Newport, Rhode Island, remains one of the best run music festivals despite being one of the smallest.This year, the 3 day festival, which regularly sells out even before the lineup is announced, presented a lineup that ranged from newcomers to seasoned veterans, with special guest appearances sprinkled in for good measure.
Friday highlights included Newport regulars Lucius, whose high energy, crowd-pleasing set featured interpretive dance trio the Seaweed Sisters and special guest appearances from Brandi Carlile, Nicole Atkins and others.
Margo Price brought her infectious Nashville blend of country blues and honky tonk to the Fort stage Friday afternoon, playing songs from her two albums as well as surprise duets with legendary John Prine and Brandi Carlile. With Prine, they reprised their take from last year on his “In Spite of Ourselves.” Price and Carlile, after a call for women to headline the festival, duetted on a crowd-pleasing take on Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5.” Price also performed a moving tribute to Elvis Presley, Martin Luther King, and John Lennon called “Long Live the King.” Her set was an absolute highlight of the weekend.
St Vincent offered up possibly the most striking set of the weekend, where the pop electronic sheen of her recordings was stripped back to simply her voice with grand piano accompaniment from Thomas Bartlett. Annie Clark brought an ethereal, entirely new feeling to songs like “Masseduction” and “Los Ageless,” as well as a haunting take on Joni Mitchell’s “Court and Spark.”
Sturgill Simpson’s blistering guitar shredding was another Friday highlight, combining his own strong material with country rock classics like “You Don’t Miss Your Water” and the Freddie King blues classic “Going Down.”
Friday’s headliner, Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit, delivered a crowd-pleasing set even before the worst kept secret of the weekend, an appearance from David Crosby, kicked the evening into overdrive with takes on his (altogether appropriate) “Wooden Ships” and CSNY bandmate Neil Young’s “Ohio.”
Speaking of Neil Young, he, along with Bruce Springsteen and Paul Simon, were among the names bandied about as possible headliners in the “Unannounced” Saturday night slot. It was not to be. England’s Mumford and Sons took that honor, to the disappointment of some but the delight of others.
Mumford certainly used their Saturday headlining set to delight the crowd, featuring appearances from Brandi Carlile on Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” (yes, she was everywhere!) Other highlights were a take on Radiohead’s “All I Need” with Phoebe Bridgers, Maggie Rogers joining the band for a take on her “Alaska” and a majestic finale performance of The Band’s “The Weight” featuring the legendary Mavis Staples, Carlile, Rogers, Bridgers, and more.
Earlier Saturday, Low Cut Connie (almost literally) blasted off from the Quad stage inside the fort, featuring the high energy frontman Adam Weiner (stay tuned for his excellent interview with my colleague Steve Klamkin, coming soon) and his piano-jumping hijinks. The band’s excellent original tunes stood solidly side by side with a cover of Tom Petty’s “Free Girl Now” and an incendiary take on Prince’s “Controversy.” All of this before noon.Also Saturday, Tank and the Bangas performed a combustable set capped off with a cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” stretching the boundaries of “Folk.” Who needs boundaries anyway?
Saturday featured perhaps the strongest lineup of the weekend, boasting varied performers such as Colter Wall, Courtney Barnett (who delivered an absolutely blistering set,) Hiss Golden Messenger, Jenny Lewis, and Cheech and Chong, who delivered a somewhat bizarre appearance featuring comedy from Chong’s wife alongside the duo’s own material.
Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real continued the country-tinged feel of the weekend, bringing scorching guitar and soaring harmonies, at times accompanied by Lucius. Nelson’s voice is reminiscent of his father Willie’s, and particularly shone on “Turn off the News” and “Find Yourself,” which he wrote for Lady Gaga for the rebooted “A Star Is Born” film which Nelson and the Band appear in as Bradley Cooper’s backing group. Neil Young regularly uses Nelson and Promise of the Real as his backing group. After seeing them in their own habitat, it’s no wonder. These guys will be headlining festivals on their own soon.
Sunday brought a more mellow vibe to Fort Adams and the festival, but still featured strong sets from Alabama Shakes frontwoman Brittany Howard’s new project Bermuda Triangle, Nicole Atkins, Langhorne Slim, Passenger, and the Lone Bellow, among many others including a musically diverse set from Houston’s Khruangbin.
Once again the proceedings on the fort stage were kicked off by a rousing set from New Orleans’ Preservation Hall Jazz Band, who have quite the legacy in Newport. Frontman and bassist Ben Jaffe mentioned with pride that his father Allan once backed up Louis Armstrong on that stage.
75 year old Toots Hibbert took to the stage with his Maytals in the summer heat and led the band on a romp through the band’s stellar catalog of well known hits such as “Pressure Drop” and had the Quad Stage crowd dancing in the aisles.
Another major highlight of Sunday was Nels Cline’s “Curtis Rogers Memorial Resonator Excursion,” which featured the Wilco guitarist alongside multinstrumentalist Brandon Seabrook and a surprise appearance from Gov’t Mule/Allman Brothers axman Warren Haynes, who joined Cline for Muddy Waters’ “I Feel Like Going Home” and the Tom Paxton tune “The Last Thing on My Mind.” before finishing the set with Wilco’s “What Light.”
Bluesman Gary Clark Jr brought his exciting brand of electric blues to the Fort stage, with highlights including “Bright Lights” and “When my Train Pulls In.”
Brandi Carlile delivered one of the more moving sets of the weekend, after appearing all over the place guesting with others, her own “Raise Hell” alongside covers of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You” and Joan Baez’s “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” were absolute highlights, along with her set-closing “Hold Out Your Hand” which featured The Lone Bellow, The War & Treaty, and The Watson Twins.
Sunday’s closing “A Change is Gonna Come” set featured “Late Show” bandleader Jon Batiste and the Dap Kings along with special guests Chris Thile and Leon Bridges, as well as appearances from The Preservation Hall Jazz Band with a soaring take on “I’ll Fly Away.” The grand finale featured Mavis Staples and Brittany Howard on “Jesus is on the Mainline” and many of the weekend’s performers on the Staples Singers’ “Freedom Highway.”
Once again, Jay Sweet and the Newport Festivals Foundation delivered a smooth running, high energy, well paced, amazing weekend of music. Newport sets the standard that all festivals should strive to achieve.