The times, they are a changin’. That was true in 1964 and it still rings true today, but sometimes the pace can seem glacial… as long as the tangerine menace is occupying the Oval Office, the clock hands regarding the progress of basic human rights appear to have been dialed back a few centuries. At the core of folk music, the beating heart of populism and the quest for a greater, more inclusive community have always been front and center. The 60th anniversary of the Newport Folk Festival, coinciding with what would have been Pete Seeger’s 100th birthday, did not disappoint in highlighting change. So what did Jay Sweet and the rest of the team have in store?
Well, the tip off of the overarching feel of this edition was the open-ended closing set on Saturday, mysteriously entitled The Collaboration and dotted with ♀, the female gender symbol. Though no performers were mentioned and the information tab included in the festival phone app was completely blank, it’s a common practice for people who’re booked to play sets at the festival to join in, as well as random surprise appearances to occur (hello, Roger Waters!) and rumors were flying that a certain platinum-wigged country legend was gonna step foot onto the hallowed Fort Stage. And yes, that did actually happen but let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet.
The last Newport Folk Festival that DigBoston covered had some issues regarding numbers and prominence of non-white men, and it’s safe to say that this year’s edition was a roaring success in course correction. The first hint of what was to come happened early Friday at the Harbor Stage, where Yola commanded the largest crowd I’ve ever seen at that stage, regardless of the time. Her smoky, bluesy-soul captivated anyone in earshot, and she’d pop up later at every big collaboration at a festival rife with them.
Likewise, the southern gothic-tinged, slow-burning blues of Adia Victoria showed that “folk” incorporates all kinds of Americana in today’s festival. “The South is my muse, it’s a land, a region of very charged emotions…It’s completely informed the woman that I am – I am a woman who embodies very many conflicts within herself – and I believe that art gives me a way to challenge my beliefs, and question my fears, and confront my anxieties and there’s nowhere else I would rather live to make art,” Victoria related to DigBoston offstage later that day.
Our Native Daughters struck a similar note, the quartet that Rhiannon Giddens assembled (including Allison Russell, Leyla McCala, and Amythyst Kiah) to dig deeply into the darkest part of America’s history and yet managed to find uplifting and affirmative aspects, a celebration of what came before them, and how it’s shaped both themselves and their art. Pain and suffering can ultimately yield to renewal, a theme that was powerfully underscored by these women.
North Mississippi hill country blues was represented by someone with a direct bloodline to the wellspring; Cedric Burnside is the grandson of famed bluesman RL Burnside, and his take on the blues form is respectful without being a formulaic copy. His distinctive lower string rhythms propel the upper register guitar licks, and Burnside’s earthy, authoritative vocals, anchored solely by a drummer, filled the tent with a purely American sound.
The pre-festival buzz centered around the debut of The Highwomen, a sly nod to the famed supergroup of yore. While some grumbled that it was pretty audacious for the four women (Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris, Amanda Shires, Natalie Hemby) to assume that moniker, their sheer joy in being on stage with other was palpable, and the audience cheer when they took the stage could have been heard from the inner fort all the way out to the boats in the harbor. Yola would pop up to join in on a song, Carlile’s trusty sidekicks of Tim and Phil Hanseroth were elements of the band, and Shire’s well-known husband Jason Isbell played guitar. Though they did accent their songs from next month’s release with a cover of “The Chain,” the other oft-heard rumor of a Stevie Nicks surprise appearance didn’t occur.
Back to the closing set of Saturday, Carlile’s incredibly always-on smile turned up a few notches when she sang “Islands In The Stream” with Parton, the all-star band also including Amy Ray (Indigo Girls), Sheryl Crow, Maggie Rogers and others. Sunday’s closer would also strike a similar, all-inclusive tone as musicians rotated on and off the stage. With a set starting out via “Rainbow Connection” as a duet between Jim James and Kermit The Frog, you knew this was going to be a special one. Mavis Staples evoked sheer awe and deference from noted Irish hearthrob Hozier, who set many sundress-covered hearts aflutter during his set. Decemberists guitar player Chris Funk introduced Janet Weiss as ‘drummer for hire,’ slyly referring to her surprising exit from Sleater-Kinney. Fleet Fox Robin Pecknold would take the lead mic for a few songs, culminating in the perfectly planned entry of Judy Collins during “Suite Judy Blue Eyes.” Well done, Newport. This was one for the ages.
Other highlights of the weekend:
The Quad stage usually has the rawest band of the weekend, and this year it was the Virginia duo Illiterate Light, who fused some really catchy My Morning Jacket-type songs with some out and out skronk that would make Neil Young sit up and take notice. Indeed, their mid-song meltdown on “Vampire Blues” was jaw-dropping.
Todd Snider had the unenviable position of playing the Harbor Stage sandwiched between The Highwomen on the Quad Stage, and Phil Lesh’s closing set on the Fort stage, but he was totally unfazed and spun his unique brand of songs laced with a particularly fine-tuned sense of humor to an appreciative gathering. And has anyone ever perfected the looking a hobo troubadour quite like him?
The Nude Party shows that rock music isn’t dead among the new generation. The half dozen or so musicians tapped right into the early 70s rock sound that crossed Modern Lovers with the Kinks, a potent recipe that went down just fine. Clothing stayed on, but if Deer Tick invites them to one of the after shows at some point, all bets are off.
Jeff Tweedy is no stranger to the Fort, and this time it was just him and a guitar. Which can be a challenge at times, especially when competing with a small propeller plane that dragged an advertising banner across the sky. “Can’t you see that I’m just a guy with a guitar here?” Tweedy opined to the pilot. During “Hummingbird,” a song laced with an impossible number of chord changes, he blamed a slight muff by being startled to see someone in the crowd wearing a Solid Sound shirt, the every-other-year festival that he and his band Wilco just played last month. He’s also known for his self-deprecating humor, as evidenced when he noted that after the third song when the photographers vacated the photo pit, he didn’t have to suck his gut in anymore and the songs should sound better.
Hailing from Kinshasa, Jupiter (backed by Okwess) came out with a brightly jubilant, never-flagging brand of Afrobeat that fused elements of highlife and makossa that got the entire tent out of their seats and dancing in the aisles. With an imposing, lanky frame, he moved all around the stage and beamed a million kilowatt smile in all directions.
Maggie Rogers, I’m With Her, Lucy Dacus, Nilufer Yanya, Kacey Musgraves, Mountain Men, Molly Tuttle, Courtney Marie Andrews, Jade Bird, and many others. This weekend truly was a showcase of highly talented women.
For photos of the entire weekend, click on Dolly!