In a recent podcast, producer Jay Sweet reflected on Newport Folk this way “if this festival for you is about the headliners, I don’t think this is your festival”. Not that the headliners were too shabby. Jason Isbell (with a David Crosby sit-in), Unannounced (aka., Mumford & Sons) and the closing Change is Gonna Come set, more than held down the Fort. But Newport Folk (and Jazz) is about discovery, collaboration and experimentation. It’s The War & Treaty, The Weather Station, This is the Kit, Charlie Parr, Phoebe Bridgers, and Glorietta, to name a few that stuck out. It can be “a bunch of people from a bunch of bands playing a bunch of songs” as Eric Johnson said from the Quad Stage, during Saturday’s Beneath the Sacred Mountain set. If not for Newport, The Lone Bellow (Sunday) and Hiss Golden Messenger (Saturday) would not have worked their way into my world years ago. Not to mention all the goodness my ears and heart enjoyed in between the new and familiar.
The Fort’s four stages are close, but not tight, and stage times rarely compete like so many other festivals where you can’t tear yourself in half. Bonus points for half the steps of any other major festival I cover as a photographer.
The DNA of Newport is as deep as it gets, a festival that dates to 1959 and rooted in collaboration and activism. It is personal and small (sales are capped at 10,000 every year and it sells out before any artists are announced), the Fort Adams setting a backdrop like no other. And, with a new extension, Newport Folk will remain at the Fort for another 40 years. Few things in this crazy world are as rock solid as that.
Some moments that mattered to me with assorted visuals along the way…
The buzz of Low Cut Connie’s set that I missed. The new to me This is The Kit at the Harbor Stage, playful and heartfelt. The also new to me, Glorietta, in all their get on your feet glory. Sturgill Simpson “protégé” Tyler Childers in the Quad Tent, before Simpson shredded up the Fort Stage later in the day. Margo Price in between. Lucius in full regalia. The “No Mercy in This Land” blues of Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite. St Vincent laid bare to voice and piano at the Quad Stage. And, of course, Jason Isbell at the Fort Stage. A set I caught most of, but having just seen the (what I thought) same set at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, we left before the end, when the Croz joined for a Isbell and the 400 Unit for a searing “Ohio” and “Wooden Ships”. Newport Folk memo to self – never, ever, ever, leave a closing set before the last note.
The end of Hiss Golden Messenger’s set and the driving “Southern Grammar” closer (man, MC Taylor and the band keep ringing my bell). Enjoying Lukas Nelson and POR’s set more than I usually do. The WTF smiles for Tank and the Bangas on a Newport Folk stage. The earthy etherealness of Valerie June. A bit of Joni in Phoebe Bridgers (soon to be touring with The National). Beneath the Sacred Mountain, the “cosmic American revue” reviving Laurel Canyon with Eric Johnson, MC Taylor and friends. The more roar than whisper of Austin’s Shakey Graves (again). Echoes of Johnny Cash from the young Colter Wall. Jenny Lewis (Quad Stage) before Courtney Barnett (Fort Stage), who I finally caught up with live. Cheech and Chong, the one clunker of the Fest, who’s bit seemed every bit as dated as you’d expect and was rather tonally deaf to this moment.
The Unannounced Saturday headliner had the usual fantasies attached for days leading up to the weekend (Neil, Bruce, Paul, as in, Simon), but by Saturday, the word was out. Mumford was joined by Brandi Carlile and Maggie Rogers on vocals, and Jerry Douglas, on dobro (any of whom, on their own, can do me in with the right line, note or lick) for the “Awake My Soul” opener from 2009’s Sigh No More. Three songs in, “The Cave” had the crowd in full Mumford mode, in a set that covered many hits and a few surprises.
Slow moving AM had me missing The War and Treaty (bummer) and Preservation Hall’s Sunday Groove, but managed to hear Jen Cloher joined by Courtney Barnett (that turnaround in “Forgot Myself” is still stuck in my head) and a bit of the loose spacey funk of Khruangbin. Michael David Rosenberg is Passenger, and he held the Fort crowd’s attention in true Newport Folk fashion with just a guitar, some wonderful songs and good stories. The Weather Station was a find and “Thirty” is now one of my favorite new tunes. Nels Cline excursed in Resonator fashion with fellow stringer Brandon Seabrook on the Quad stage, I could have listened to that all afternoon (and I missed the Warren Haynes drop in, to boot). Then the day really started to pick up with The Lone Bellow followed by Gary Clark, Jr. on the Fort Stage (yeah, that’s a pretty good day, right there). And if you dig Leo Kottke, you’d really dig Charlie Parr’s 12 strings at the Harbor Stage. Brittany Howard shook softer with the acoustic Bermuda Triangle trio at the Quad Stage, Brandi Carlile, with the Hanseroth twins at her back, owned the Fort Stage (Carlile seemed to be everywhere throughout the weekend). “The Story” gets me every time, and the bracingly honest ode to motherhood, “The Mother”, from one of my favorite albums of the year so far, “By the Way, I Forgive You” was not far behind. Glen Hansard poured it all out and captivated the Quad Stage, especially the gal holding the “my dream: to sing with Glen” sign (I didn’t stay long enough to know if her dream came true).
The much anticipated “A Change is Gonna Come” closing set was hosted by Jon Batiste and the Dap-Kings, but that’s just where it started. Leon Bridges and Gary Clark, Jr. joined for a hauntingly bluesy take of “Ohio”, Valerie June for “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around” and The Punch Brothers’ Chris Thile for “I’ll Fly Away” (with Leon Bridges). Thile and Baptiste’s call and response in a brief duet, was a stunner. Brandi Carlile and Maggie Rogers joined for an all hands “Times They Are A-Changin’” that hit my verklempt button pretty good, as did Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” that followed. Anyone and everyone filled the stage when Mavis Staples led the Fort through a soul rousing ”Jesus on the Mainline” and the “Freedom Highway” finale. Now that’s my kind of church.
Perhaps it’s these messed up times, but Newport lingers more and more each year. Yup, these are moments that matter, and have been, for more than my lifetime. Keeps me coming back and lucky to be there.