Each year, the purveyors of folk and their fans descend upon Rhode Island for a weekend that celebrates everything distinct and powerful about the genre. And this year’s Newport Folk Festival was no exception. Touting uproarious performances from the likes of Patti Smith, Lady Lamb and Ray Lamontagne, the event also boasted more subdued but beautiful renditions from Ryan Adams, Father John Misty and others.
We started Newport Folk a little late thanks to the summer escape traffic coming out of NYC. With a normal festival, arriving at 3pm is coming in early, but with Newport and its strict 7:30pm curfew, you’ve already missed several sure-to-be-memorable sets of the day. We got to the fort just in time for The Violent Femmes, whose acoustic punk rock has been captivating fans since the 90s. You have no idea how much 90s alternative radio you’ve listened to in your life until you realize you can scream along to almost every Femmes song. Next up, it was time for the perfect harmonies of case/lang/veirs. The trio are all incredibly gifted and captivating in their own right, and together they create something close to magic. The highlight came midway through the set when the three broke into a surprise rendition of Neil Young’s classic “Helpless” — a song so beautiful it moved the crowd to completely awe-inspired silence.
It would normally be hard to top such an exceptional set, but The Arcs were up for the challenge. Bringing the blistering energy of his main gig, The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach set the Quad stage on fire. It was loud, wild and a total blast. We left the set a little early to catch one of the acts we were all most excited for — the triumphant return of the folk-comedy duo Flight of the Conchords. The New Zealand band put on a perfect set, and one that showed that their musical talent was in no way secondary to their humor. Effortlessly jumping between instruments, Jemaine and Brett played their hits along with plenty of new songs, including an amazing number that was a 10 minute set up for one, perfect punchline. The highlight came when the band changed up “Too Many Dicks (On The Dance Floor)” to fit the festival – doing the song in a pitch perfect Bob Dylan. The crowd left the fort stilly, giggling and ready for the two hour traffic jam that greets them on their way out.
With record heat hitting, we headed to the fort with as much sunscreen as humanly possible. It was already nearly 90 by the time we made it to the festival, and while the breeze from the bay went a long way towards making it a bit more bearable, the sun was relentless from the moment we walked into the grounds. We got to the Quad stage just in time for the last two songs from The Texas Gentlemen, who surprised the crowd with legendary Kris Kristofferson, who was joined by Margo Price for a searing rendition of “Me and Bobby McGee.” It’s the kind of wild collaboration and history nodding that makes Newport the incredible experience that it is. From there, we waited in what little shade was available for Margo Price’s solo set. She’s a country icon in the making, with the kind of shit-kicking attitude and emotional rawness that makes for a star.
The day continued to be dominated by ladies, with Lady Lamb leaving everything on the Harbor stage. From there, we ran to see long time favorite Ryan Adams, who was joined by The Infamous String Dusters for bluegrass renditions of his hits and some Slayer and Black Sabbath covers along the way. Adams is known for his humor and ease on stage, and he continued the tradition of his half stand-up, half musical set this year — even going so far as to improv a song based on hearing “Frightened and Rabbit” instead of Frightened Rabbit when he asked who was playing on the other stage. The String Dusters were incredible accompaniment, effortlessly adding an extra element to songs that have been around for ages. Like the last time Adams graced the main stage at Newport, it was a highlight of the festival.
From one indie-icon, we moved to another, with Father John Misty taking the Quad stage solo just one day after his “meltdown” at Xponetial festival. It was a topic that was on everyone’s mind, especially Tillman himself, as he serenaded the audience. He spoke about his rage at the Republican Nominee (our idiot king, as he put it), his fear and loss of hope during this terrible year and even took some time to fire shots back at Ryan Adams, who during his own set had made some jokes about Tillman “out on a boat having a breakdown somewhere.” It was the kind of set that perfectly encapsulated the unease and fear of the times at a place where liberal expression has always been par for the course.
The final act of the day was easily the most incendiary, Patti Smith. The punk legend threw her everything into a performance that blew the entire festival away. It was, like so many at the festival this year, laced with politics and rage at the state of things, but Smith took the opposite view as Tillman, choosing to focus on hope for better. She ended her set with a blistering rendition of The Who’s “My Generation” after holding up an electric guitar telling the audience to “behold, my generation’s greatest weapon.” Smith preached revolution to a crowd that was with her every single step of the way.
After the incredible day two, the final day of Newport was tame by comparison. Getting to the festival in time for an early set by Son Little, an artist who’s incredible take on American music is absolutely worthy of the Newport stage. His mix of blues, rock and folk combines into something captivating and unique. From there, we saw perhaps the most heartwarming and lovely set of the festival, 2015 breakout Julien Baker at a packed Quad stage. Baker looked shocked every time the audience rapturously received her songs as she began them, which was often. Baker was greeted with a much deserved standing ovation midway through her set, and by the end was completely taken with emotion, telling the audience that she was about to cry from the reception. It was a perfect Newport debut from an artist who will surely grace that stage many more times in her career.
Glen Hansard was perhaps the surprise of the day. His solo set turned into something of a thesis performance for the festival — it was charming, beautiful and turned into a collaborative hootenanny by the end. With the statement “when you sing from your heart, you’re always in tune,” Hansard invited an Irish fan on stage to sing with him and the surprise guest Elvis Costello (who even joined Hansard with a tambourine when the signer noted that a song needed some percussion) to sing “Auld Triangle.” It was a spontaneous burst of joy and beautifully encapsulated the spirit of Newport Folk.
Southern Revue continued the surprise guest theme, with Amelia Mead of Sylvan Esso and Mountain Man joining the band on vocals and a guest stint from the legendary Blind Boys of Alabama proving that they are the most talented and incredible group of singers in the business. Even Elvis Costello’s set, which was billed as solo, was a rotating roster of guests – with Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Dawes joining as a backing band for the ages.
Finally, the once and future emo crush of our youths Brian Fallon ended our time at the fort, proving that he’s more than Gaslight Anthem. It was the perfect, emotional end to a perfectly lovely weekend. Sure, it was hot but it’s still one of the best of the summer.
While this year didn’t seem to contain quite as many collaborations (emphasis on “quite,” since there were still many beautiful combinations to be had), the overall sentiment was the same — overtly friendly, incredibly grateful and overwhelmingly relaxed. Newport Folk is where you go to escape the annoyances of many other festivals — the crowds, the drunk idiots, the hula hoops (mostly) and the self-important. Newport is stellar year after year as much for the fans as for the lineups.
Father John Misty
Flight of the Conchords
The Oh Hellos