“It’s gonna be hard to top that one.”
I’d say a lot of people utter that phrase as they leave the dry and dusty grounds of Fort Adams after three days, trudging towards a shuttle bus or water taxi or bike or maybe tacking on more steps for the day as they walk toward their vehicle. And somehow, each year Jay Sweet and the team manage to cook up a significantly unique yet balanced event that keeps raising the bar. Seven years ago it was the return of Dylan’s Strat when he shocked the world with his electric performance, 50 years prior, that guitar played by many guests in an all-Dylan closing set. 2015 also saw the return of James Taylor who finished his abbreviated 1969 set when it was cut early because of the historic moon landing. Two years later, 2017 saw surprise guest Roger Waters walk on to the stage to play a couple of songs with his hero John Prine. And another two years later not only did we get Jim James duetting with Kermit The Frog on “Rainbow Connection;” Dolly Parton was a bit of a shocker when she took center stage in an all-female collaborative blockbuster final set. And last year Allison Russell’s ecstatic collective of women from all walks of life hit the apex with Chaka Khan’s appearance that turned into an instant dance party.
Then this year we got Queen Joni.
Never mind that Paul Simon was the unannounced guest during Saturday’s closing set with Nathaniel Rateliff and his Night Sweats; how do you top Joni Mitchell coming to Newport once again after all these years (53 is a lot!) for her first full performance in nearly two decades? Yeah – that bar is stratosphere level. Mr. Sweet, you might have to get Bobby Zimmerman to stop by, and that dude doesn’t even swing by to pick up a Nobel Prize so good luck!
The festival hasn’t been your parents’ folk hootenanny for a while now and that’s not a bad thing. There are still reverent nods to the past. Look no further than the steel resonator guitar and solo voice of Buffalo Nichols as his ancient blues tone echoed off the outside walls of the Fort at the Harbor Stage; two days before, Taj Mahal held the main Fort Stage in rapture as he plucked his banjo and sang in deeply moving tones. Bela Fleck assembled some friends for a blistering take on blue/newgrass, his banjo leading the way with the mandolin and fiddle a half-stride behind. NFF veteran Anais Mitchell had a spanner tossed in her NFF 2022 works when Bonny Light Horseman was not able to play the Wilco/Billy Bragg Mermaid Avenue material as planned but in addition to her solo set on Sunday, she rallied like-minded compatriots into something named Clusterfolk. Fellow Harbor Stage colleague Cassandra Jenkins joined her first on the Quad Stage as other last-minute networking sessions yielded contributions from other Folk players. Fellow last minute fill-in/NFF vet Langhorne Slim started his set in the crowd, perched precariously on a folding chair and speaking plain truths about fellowship, companionship and generosity, a poignant moment that still lingers.
Rhiannon Giddens took folk music from continents that even Sarah Palin can’t see from her house and wove a tremendously rich and varied sound via The Silk Road Ensemble. The American blues traditional “O Death” sprang to life in a multi-cultural fashion and was the perfect opener for their set. John Moreland transformed solo acoustic guitar and his world-weary vocals into an intensely personal realm; “Hang Me In The Tulsa County Stars” is as good a song as Chris Stapleton could muster. Arooj Aftab summoned haunting tones from her native Pakistan and played an inspired set with harp and what looked to be Gyan Riley, drone master Terry Riley’s son, on guitar. Another really moving set from the other side of the Caspian and Black Seas came from DakhaBrakha, a Ukrainian quartet which played a mesmerizing set of intricately combined vocals and an unearthly sound; that their country is currently being raped by Putin lent even more gravity to their solemn but ultimately triumphant set.
From the other hemisphere, Hermanos Gutiérrez poked a hole inside a tiny peyote button, inserted a glowing hot welding rod and showered the Quad Stage with that sort of dusty, sun-parched desert noir trip that Calexico has been chasing their entire career. Sierra Ferrell likewise rode those pre-Columbian waves with an energetic show on the Fort Stage, and her hat deserved special recognition. Swinging hard to the mainland, Denton Texas’s Midlake played a strong set of their heartland rock (sans drummer), with “Roscoe” being a particularly moving song, one that always taps a certain part of my brain that makes me feel good in a nostalgic, times gone past way like remembering a special moment when I was a pre-teen.
Swamp blues via South Carolina/Tennessee was provided by NFF veteran Adia Victoria, and she veered pretty close to what Nick Cave was all about when he howled “Tupelo” and proclaimed the grounds as a sacred space. Over to the neo-soul portion, Lee Fields was happy to pick up the scarf that James Brown dropped and belted out a raucous and heartfelt set, with “Faithful Man” a powerful self-indictment of infidelity. The moment the audio feed sputtered and crackled was perfectly aligned with his voice, emotionally cracking at the consequences of what is to come.
John Craigie delivered two sets, but I only caught the second one where he played Let It Be. “I’m just a guy. None of those intricate harmonies from only me. I’m covering The Beatles? Yeah, it’s like ‘check out this Van Gogh rendition I did, on pencil.’ I’m your pencil today.” There’s been a million Beatles covers since the 60s and that will continue; Craigie found a way to ingratiate his way with the crowd as he and occasional guest tackled the sacred material of the final record of the band that so many still hold so dear to their heart (with newer converts via Peter Jackson’s excellent documentary).
And how about that non-folk/blues/Americana portion? Sylvan Esso dropped their entire new record on Sunday, their infectious electro-pop ricocheting into the harbor. The Linda Lindas took full advantage of their school summer break by playing what I think is the first pop-punk set ever at Newport; as the Ramones showed years ago, all you need is three chords and a cloud of dust and off we went! Their energy level was entirely infectious and in a good, non-pandemic way. Their debut record is called Growing Up and just by entering the grounds they dipped the collective median age by 1.2 years.
In a world with diminishing meaning of the term ‘indie rock’, the decidedly non-folk band that is The National headlined the first night and started out with two brand-new songs; that’s a sign of a band who does what they want, like releasing a six LP box set comprising a performance of a single song, over and over. “Bloodbuzz Ohio” got the pulse raised and after a few guests in their set, singer Matt Berninger took advantage of the mile-long mic cord that’s part of their usual stage set up requirements and wandered out deep into the sun-baked field of the Fort, making new friends as the sunlight waned over Narragansett Bay.
The stage tucked towards the back of the inside Fort area was entirely powered by solar panels and festival volunteers pedaling bikes; I caught SG Goodman’s set and she referred to them as her power section.; She also made a sly reference to the enormously disgusting Supreme Court decision from a few weeks ago when stopping to tune her guitar, which she said had a mind of her own but appreciated a woman’s sense of independence. Madi Diaz would join her on the last song, a day after her performance at the Harbor Stage, where her heart-on-the-sleeve songs evoked a bit of Bettie Serveert crossed with Juliana Hatfield.
If that bike stage were to power the Quad Stage when Dinosaur Jr played, they’d need just a tad more than the Tour de France peloton to provide the required amperage. Before they played, bassist Lou Barlow made sure to walk over to the front row with a large container of foam earplugs for anyone who needed them and yes – most people did. To steal a thought from Buffalo Tom’s Bill Janovitz, “And they wrung their hands when Dylan went electric.” Yeah – George Wein had no idea what was coming.
The next day The Backseat Lovers would take the Dino Jr prize for rock action on that same stage, the Salt Lake City quartet hitting it with gusto-plus, tossing hair and soundwaves out to a receptive crowd. Of course Courtney Barnett is no stranger to volume dealing either; after her guest stint playing on “Feel The Pain” with Dinosaur Jr., she and her rhythm section sent their songs all the way out to Jamestown. Barnett knew what the crowd wanted, what she wanted, providing a joyful communion of the two.
The lessons of NFF favorites Preservation Jazz Hall Band were not lost on The Roots, who played an upbeat and relentlessly fun set of some excellent covers and their own material; hearing “Jungle Boogie” and “Soul Makossa” back to back was akin to digging through Questlove’s prodigious record collection and randomly pulling out gem after gem. Along with Black Thought’s endless pacing, Tuba Gooding Jr and Capt Kirk Douglas pulled disparate threads of American music to form their own multi-colored tapestry.
Speaking of communion, the closing set of Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats left Saturday’s crowd in a daze after their Paul Simon-penned set culminated in the actual guy joining them on stage for the last couple of songs before playing a mesmerizing solo take on “Sounds of Silence.”
If that was the special bit of this year’s festival no one would complain in the slightest, but the appearance of Joni Mitchell was unexpected, astonishing, and entirely fitting. Embodying the spirit of what George Wein created, Mitchell was surrounded with friends as per her Joni Jams held at her home in Bel-Air since the aneurysm that made it difficult for her to move and to use her voice – and what a circle of friends to invite. Along with prime mover Brandi Carlile, the group included Allison Russell, Wynonna Judd, Celisse, Taylor Goldsmith, Marcus Mumford, Blake Mills and others to bolster her during this unprecedented moment in a setting meant to replicate the Joni Jams that were instrumental in providing therapy and support for her. The body is weakened but the spirit shines hot; just look at how Brandi Carlile and Wynonna Judd are overcome with their own emotions as they simultaneously process what “Both Sides Now” has meant to them during their lives, and the absurdity of them actually performing it with Joni in 2022. Their minds boggle, our minds boggle. What a way to end this edition of Newport Folk Festival.
More photos from the weekend: