Music festivals are great places to get a sample of a ton of different music in a short period of time. Get a taste of this band, then that, and on and on without much rhyme or reason. At the Newport Folk Festival, each set felt less like a singular unrelated moment and more like a continuum of a story that was unraveling in real time. Over three days, on a small parcel of land jutting into Narragansett Bay, each artist added their piece to the story, culminating in a grand climax during the final act of the weekend. It was choose-your-own-adventure style, to be read however one wanted. Across four different stages and multiple pop-up opportunities, there were plenty of twists and turns to take, but never a wrong way or false ending. There were no bad choices, just hard ones. To stay at the Fort Stage and continue listening to Brandi Carlile turn to page 59. To walk to the Harbor Stage to hear what Langhorn Slim is playing flip to page 18.
It played out chronologically, but the memories are a blur of highlights that transcend space and time.
Champion of the festival, member of the inaugural 1959 lineup and subject of a now yearly programming tribute, Pete Seeger is an important figure for the festival. He inscribed his banjo with: “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.” These words emerged as a theme over the weekend, as they have in other tumultuous times. As Bob Dylan famously did way back when, and many other since, artists more often than not, opted for the strength of electricity in their “machines” at this year’s festival.
Sturgill Simpson abandoned any semblance of country and played a full-throttle set of heavy rocking jams with his four piece that was more Zeppelin and Hendrix than Jennings or Nelson. Twain, played an electrified acoustic guitar, which helped push his soft speaking voice into an exuberant howl, bursting with emotion when used in song. He and his trio played meandering songs that were mellow but moving, groovy and captivating. Moses Sumney, with just his voice and guitar, used layers of loops and effects to create vast sound tapestries that blanketed the crowd at the Harbor Stage.
Don’t fret (pun intended), others took the more traditional route, using just voice and acoustic instruments to convey their messages. Charlie Parr played acoustic guitars, along with a percussionist, on songs, both autobiographical and otherwise, that felt both fresh and timeless. Supergroup Bermuda Triangle, Brittany Howard, Becca Mancari and Jesse Lafser, had a bit of a song circle vibe, passing each others songs around, playing guitars, banjos and an upright bass. They also worked in some new group originals, including a self-titled theme song that centered on their stunning three-part harmonies.
Some took unexpected turns toward stripped down acoustic music. Nels Cline, known best as the off-kilter guitarist of Wilco and for his avant-garde jazz outings, performed classic country, blues and even a raga-esque instrumental on a resonator guitar with Brandon Seabrook joining on mandolin and guitar. St. Vincent, dressed in a stunning red dress, and joined only by Thomas Barton on piano, managed an even bigger left turn. Her rhythmic electro-pop songs like “Prince Johnny” and “Masseduction” were stripped down to their bare bones and performed as jazzy lounge vocal workouts. The songs showed their inner strength, holding up to their massive reinterpretations.
Others found strength in numbers. Hiss Golden Messenger boasted three guitars for a big energy set that begged the crowd to boogie along. The nine members of Tank and the Bangas held an on-stage party, pushing the envelope of the festival’s history with a mix of rap, funk, metal-style shredding. Twerking and Outkast weren’t off-limits for this “folk” set. Low Cut Connie matched the Bangas energy in a set of high-octane bar boogie that had lead singer Adam Weiner jumping atop his piano every chance he could get. Nicole Atkins “had the best afternoon of her life,” leading a ten-piece through her soulful catalog and beyond, including a wonderful cover of Carole King’s “Road to Nowhere.” Hamilton Leithauser and Rostamg led a ten piece that included a string quartet, on songs from both their collaborations and their solo careers. This is the Kit also played with a string quartet to close their set, topping off lead woman Kate Stables’ quintet. They split the difference between folk jazz and rock with intricate and multilayered compositions like “Bulletproof” and “Moonshine Freeze.” Glorietta, a band formed by festival alums, yo-yo’d from up to nine members down to two, playing sounds ranging from country ballads to raging party rockers.
Guest artists are the norm at Newport, whether they were already playing at the festival or not. Nels Cline invited up Warren Haynes for takes on “Walking Blues,” “The Last Thing On My Mind,” and lastly, with apologies to Jeff Tweedy, Cline took the mic for Wilco’s “White Light.” Margo Price called up John Prine for a duet of “In Spite of Ourselves” and then Brandi Carlile to help her rip through Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5,” a song deemed “very important to the times.” The incredible talent at the festival was used by artists like a toolkit. Female voices were especially in high demand. Carlile, Lucius, Maggie Rogers and the Watson Twins showed up more times than we can count. Eric D. Johnson led a special set entitled Beneath the Sacred Mountain that was built with special guests in mind. The Shin’s James Mercer came out to sing a few including “Helpless” with the Watson Twins, Laura Veirs and Matthew White joined together on “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” and Johnson led the house band on “Deal.”
Perhaps the biggest surprise guest appeared late on Friday when Jason Isbell invited David Crosby to the stage for powerful renditions of “Wooden Ships” and “Ohio.” According to Isbell, “these are the songs we need to be listening to right now.” Becca Mancari echoed that sentiment in her set at the intimate Museum Stage with Jesse Lafser. They played a more bare version of “Ohio,” but the words carried the same weight. “It’s so important at this time to have hope,” she said, and Neil Young’s words, though specific to a time and place, resonate strongly still.
Surprises weren’t limited to special guests. Unplanned stripped-down sets occurred throughout the weekend at the Kids Tent with everyone from Spirit Family Reunion to Hiss Golden Messenger to This is the Kit. Passenger followed up his Fort Stage set with a up-from-nowhere set on a small stage thrown together in the back of the Quad inside the fort walls where he graced a gathering crowd with Springsteen’s “Dancer in the Dark” and a first-time performance of an original still in the works. One artist remained completely unannounced on the schedule. Saturday’s final act remained a mystery up until the very moment they took the stage. The crowd gathered in anticipation for waiting for the reveal. Excitement erupted when Mumford and Sons finally took the stage, immediately joined by guests Jerry Douglas, Brandi Carlile and Maggie Rogers for “Awake My Soul.” The guests would continue throughout, with Phoebe Bridgers singing on a cover of Radiohead’s “All I Need,” Douglas and Carlile returned for SImon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer,” and Mavis Staples came out to finish with “The Weight.”
Despite being held around the walls of a fort, the festival eliminated borders. The themes were universal and the lineup international. All were welcome to join in on the story being told. Khruangbin imported Thai-inspired funk for a slinky soul-soothing set that wordlessly dissolved borders. Sidi Toure brought their ngoni-led Malian fare for more East meets West infectious grooves. Sweden’s Daniel Norgren wowed with slow-burn folk rockers featuring crunchy guitar wails. Courtney Barnett slashed and burned with her grungy guitar style in both her own set and as a member of fellow Melbournian Jen Cloher’s band, who played her first-ever American festival. Toots and the Maytals brought Jamaican’s folk traditions and Glen Hansard a heavy dose of Ireland’s.
Shakey Graves concentrated on his just-released material, songs of reassurance in troubling times. He spoke of the bubble that is created at Newport. It’s a bubble of inclusion and love that exemplifies the idea that all who play and attend are a part of the folk family. Many others echoed this sentiment throughout the weekend, Lucius expressing “Newport enables a sharing of love, and we need to help it spread.”
There was also plenty of actual family love spread throughout the festival. Amanda Shires invited husband Jason Isbell for a few tunes and also joined him for his entire set. Margo Price had her husband, Jeremy Ivey, playing guitar and harmonica in her band, including a moving duet on “All American Made.” Valerie June, playing her “irridescent, sparkly” music dedicated a song to her mom who was in the audience. Husband and wife band War and Treaty urged the audience to hug each other amidst an uplifting gospel revue that celebrated “the greatest race ever… the human race.” Brandi Carlile brought her four-year-old Evangeline onto the stage for the song she inspired, “A Mother”. “There’s not just one kind of family, this is about Evangeline but really it’s about everyone’s Evangeline,” Carlile explained. Langhorne Slim brought his mother on stage to sing along on her first favorite song of his, “Diamonds and Gold.”
All chapters of the story, regardless of how the pages turned, told the same tale. And they all concluded at the Fort Stage early Sunday evening for a set listed as “A Change is Gonna Come.” Jon Batiste, backed by the Dap Kings, hosted a superstar blowout finale centered on the great American songbook. Patriotic songs, protest songs and gospels. A solo piano Star Spangled Banner contrasted immediately with the Dap Kings interpretation of “This Land Is Your Land.” Leon Bridges and Gary Clarke Jr. came up for yet another take on “Ohio,” this one slow and oozing, searingly powerful. Valerie June and Ben Jaffe joined for “Ain’t Nobody Gonna Turn Me Around.” The remainder of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band entered the stage with Chis Thile and Leon Bridges for “I’ll Fly Away.” Thile remained on the stage for a duet with Batiste on the Punch Brothers’ “My Oh My,” that meandered around classical and jazz themes in a delicately intricate dance of sound. Brandi Carlile and Maggie Rogers got up for “Times They Are A Changin'”, Rachel Price on “A Change is Gonna Come,” and finally Mavis Staples returned once again for “Jesus on the Mainline.” Any musician still on the grounds got on stage for a huge playing of “Freedom’s Highway” that no one ever wanted to end.
The magical weekend was coming to an end, but the change will only come if everyone keeps the spirit alive beyond the Fort. Artists continually included the crowd with sing-alongs, clap-alongs, dance-offs, scream-offs and more. More than any rally or march, the Newport Folk Festival provided a platform to inspire a path forward from the darkness. The festival welcomed at its entrance with another Seeger quote, “We’re stronger when we sing together.” Though it might just be this story’s moral to walk away with.