“I buy the groceries, you make the meal.” Words from Jay Sweet during his Q & A session with Adia Victoria as part of her Call and Response podcast, a great analogy that underlines the community aspect of Newport Folk that makes it special, the interaction and confluence of the artists and fans that help create such a unique event. The pandemic has changed a lot of things for us, some maybe lasting and some a bit more temporary. Of the temporary changes that Newport Folk made to accommodate actually having an event this year, I hope that some stick around. Though necessary this year, let’s cross our fingers that on-site infection testing isn’t something routine going forward as I think we’ve had enough of pandemics. And can those pesky summer lightning storms take a break around the 3rd weekend of July? Changes I’d like to see stick around would be breaking the fest into two sessions, and the wide and expanding gamut of performers that took the stage this year (this is not your father’s NFF). The festival always sells out before anyone who’s playing is actually announced, so the fan base dedication is there, and the only way to increase revenue to the festival would be to raise the ticket price past the already kinda high $300 for the weekend; they can’t cram more bodies onto the compound, but what they can do is to hold two sessions like this year.
I liked it particularly from the aspect that if you pick one, it’s a bit of a gamble in that you don’t know who might be playing, at least the way it was rolled out this year. And, it gives some flexibility to performers if they want to play both sessions and change up what they are going to do; case in point Billy Strings, who started the first session with a Doc Watson set after being inspired by a photo of the bluegrass legend that was hanging in his dressing room. It would be a nice facet to the fest if there were multiple performers who could span both sessions, but that is also highly dependent on what other shows may be booked around the festival, and 2021 is certainly not business as usual.
The other part I’d like to see continue is the expanded and prominent role that African-American women played in this year’s event. I didn’t write the review that Dig published four years ago, but it pointed to some deficiencies and improvements that could be made, and damn was it ever evident this year that the times, they have a-changed. The festival’s first session started out with an all-female choir dubbed The Resistance Revival Chorus, a throng of white-clad ladies with beaming smiles, incredible voices and a loud and clear message: “I’m a woman who speaks her voice and I will be heard.” It ended with Allison Russell coordinating a special performance dubbed “Once & Future Sounds” and I’ll go into more detail on that later but author/poet Caroline Randall Williams couldn’t have been more on point with her on-stage declaration of “It is our turn.”
Downsizing the festival did bring about a more intimate experience. The Quad stage located inside the Fort had a smaller covered area that housed less seats, and the main stage was lowered a couple of feet. The beer gardens were moved to an area that was more conducive to hear and see the stages as well (as it’s a state park, rules about drinking are pretty rigid and you can’t wander around the grounds with a potent potable in hand). There was still a very fine array of food and merch on offer, with Asian, BBQ, pizza, falafels, and of course oysters and lobster rolls all available at excellent prices. Try to order a lobster roll in Newport center for $20. The other ripple effect was that entering and leaving the fest was far easier and quicker than I can recall from previous events: less cars = less traffic, it’s magic!
Day one had everyone getting used to the new layout, which in reality took little time at all. Instead of the Harbor Stage, there were tented areas for eating and the respite from the blazing sun was a nice perk. The Quad and Fort Stages remained in the same place. Highlights of the day had to include the irrepressible energy of Celisse, complete with bespoke pink sparkly amps. She had a style of ripping off blues licks like they were in the way of a winning lottery ticket, her endless smile broadcasting far and wide how happy she was to be playing. I would imagine that next year she’ll give a symposium on riffs with an extra credit course on guitar face. Another riff king was Marcus King, a high energy counterpoint to the delicate musings of Margo Price and her husband Jeremy Ivey over at Fort; both acts got a bit a later start after an imposed temporary shutdown, due to a lightning storm popping up close by. Raw blues was a main component of the day, and Ida Mae kicked up some Delta mud so high in the sky you’d be hard pressed to guess they are from England. Black Joe Lewis hails from Texas but I’d bet a giant plate of beef ribs that he’s got more than his fair share of Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy records that would place his musical heart pretty close to Chicago. “Get Yo Shit” had a groove that would make a deep dish pie proud.
The day ended abruptly after Grace Potter played two songs, and before her third song quipped that she hoped everyone was safe from the storm that never hit. Just as she said that, a production member came on stage to whisper in her ear. She only caught something about it being red when Jay Sweet announced that people should calmly get to their cars as the day was over; another storm was due to invade the Fort. Grace, don’t tempt the weather goddesses!
She, as well as closer Nathaniel Rateliff got squeezed back into the programming on Saturday (Potter) and Sunday (Rateliff), so no harm, no foul. I’ve never heard anyone refer to a Jefferson Airplane song as “a cup of coffee and a slap in the dick” when talking about her cover of “Somebody To Love” but Grace says what she wants, dresses the way she wants, and plays like there is no tomorrow. The way it should be. The Quad stage pivoted to the disarmingly talented Yasmin Williams, who explained to the crowd that she got hooked on guitar via dominating Guitar Hero against her brothers and thought that tapping was the way to play it when her parents got her one. “Well, it wasn’t quite that simple” as she related but she adapted her technique and incorporated all kinds of rhythms and textures via knocks on the body, intricate finger tapping that recalled a harpsichord at times, and tap shoes on a wooden plank were an added component. Impressive creativity and technique.
Other random festival musings:
Billy Strings was another highlight. I didn’t see the second set which I’ve been told turned into a massive dance party at the Quad Stage but he displayed such immense and effortless talent while playing the songs of Doc Watson that I think he could play a guitar blindfolded while wearing mittens and undergoing electric shock therapy inside a swarm of bees and wouldn’t miss a note.
I could never quite suss out the popularity of Waxahatchee and Lucy Dacus, and after multiple concerts from both I haven’t budged from that feeling. They are very proficient and the heartfelt songs were convincing, but an undefinable element just doesn’t click with my brain. Crutchfield’s partner Kevin Morby has a much larger Venn Diagram overlap with my tastes, and her intimate harmonies at the start of his set added a nice blend, with opener/cover “It Ain’t Me Babe” a winner right from the opening gun. Operating as a somewhat bizarre lineup with just a drummer and sax player behind him, Morby upped the skronk factor considerably as he turned “Harlem River” into a smeared semblance of “LA Blues.” Where’s that peanut butter?
Randy Newman might have ticked the box for the “I was at Newport Folk Fest in ’73” set but his ragtime/tin pan alley collection of songs kinda floated away in the afternoon heat. On the other hand, Demeanor might be the first hip-hop act to play Newport, and he took his performance seriously, speaking of the inner struggles we all face. Joy Oladokun was another revelation, singing softly while musing deeply on her thoughts and the thoughts of others, trying to find acceptance in a world that may not be all that accepting. She also seemed like a genuinely fun person, with a constant smile and I bet she’s got a small circle of friends who feel very lucky that she’s in their lives. One to watch; she’s only released music digitally so far (under her White Boy Records label, hah!) and I’m sure there are label scouts who are now paying attention.
I’ve seen The Drive-By Truckers a bunch of times but an acoustic pairing of Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley had eluded me. They are natural storytellers, with tales alternating between the deeply singular and a much broader world view. “Heathens” is a standout track on what I think is their finest record, with Hood penning a memorable line (“It gets so hard to keep between the ditches/When the roads wind the way they do”), delivered with his Southern drawl. Never one to shy from a decidedly progressive perspective, “Thoughts and Prayers” not blinking when delivering a dead-eyed bullseye to the NRA assholes who are dead set against any sort of gun regulation despite the school carnage we’ve endured; fitting that it started raining at that point, helping to hide a tear or two I might have shed.
Tré Burt brought a simple ‘out on the plains with my cattle and I’m singing over a campfire’ vibe; Devon Gilfillian revved up the crowd with a straight reading of Marvin Gaye’s classic What’s Going On record, and Highwoman Natalie Hemby quipped that she was the only at the festival wearing spanx. If that was even minorly responsible for her beautiful singing voice, maybe stage wear is in for a revolution. Andrew Bird did triple duty, first lending his violin to Margo’s initial set, then doing a pop up performance at the Buskin tent over at the edge of the lawn and then finally again with Jimbo Mathus over at the Quad stage. Strumming the violin like a guitar, whistling, singing and of course playing the instrument like he was in the second chair of the New York Philharmonic, it was a joy to see him and Mathus breathe life into a strange mix of Southern goth, folk and chamber music. A keeper, that guy.
One of the reasons I headed down for a day of the second session was to see what sort of acoustic guitar alchemy Steve Gunn and William Tyler could conjure. Unfortunately Tyler got infected with COVID after just one performance with Gunn, so Steve trod out to the Lawn Stage to go it on his own. Fittingly, he opened with Tyler’s “Tears and Saints” and then turned to a mix of new songs from his forthcoming record, and a few choice covers. Aside from his inspiration Michael Chapman’s “Among The Trees” (after a funny recounting of Chapman’s earliest job and yearning to get back into the woods) he played the traditional “Wild Mountain Thyme,” which as fate would have it, I first heard in the early ’90s via Robyn Hitchcock. Emma Swift and he played just before Steve, and while that cover was not played, they delved deep into all things Zimmerman. Swift has released a record of all Dylan songs, and her soaring, vulnerable yet strong voice was a perfect match to Robyn’s guitar. Masterful.
Two more quick blurbs; Vagabon came out with amps blazing, a white-knuckled grip on indie rock that pushed into a much more feral state. I liked what I heard and the festival benefits from sporadic bits of loud music like this. Also, Jack Antonoff’s Bleachers was a lot more fun than I was originally thinking, with clever stage banter and a very nice arrangement of “A Hard Day’s Night” that took way longer for me to figure out what they were playing than it should have. He came across as a more self-aware Jonathan Richman, endearing in a very non-pretentious way. (And no, collaborator and ersatz Rhode Islander Taylor Swift did not make an appearance, contrary to the rumor mill that was churning throughout the day).
Back to the closing of the first session, Allison Russell pulled out all the stops to invite performers “into the circle,” as a steady rotation of searing/soaring/seething performances were unveiled, one by one. Yasmin Williams, Caroline Williams, Joy Odalokun, Sunny War, Kam Franklin, Amythyst Kiah, Celisse, Adia Victoria, Margo Price, Brandi Carlile and Yola all coming out and playing their songs of hope, pain, but most of all determination. How do you cap it? With Chaka Khan, of course! Inclusion, celebration, joy, community – all the things that make this festival a meaningful experience rather than a cookie cutter event that’s xeroxed to pavilions across the nation. Yeah, Newport closers are always a special occasion and this became the high water mark.
If you’re still with me, I want to close with a few words on the Beck show that ended Tuesday’s performances. He was a true get but also a veteran of the festival, having played there in 2013. Like a lot of the performers he spoke of gratitude about playing in front of people again, as well as laying down a caveat or two about the rust built up in the meantime. No worries, the Newport family is an accepting one. Strolling out on stage with just a guitar, harmonica, hat and sunglasses it was a time travel back to his early days. Obviously from California, the humidity was apparent to him and he wanted some product in the next rider to deal with the hair frizz. Popping a harmonica into its holder before playing “One Foot In The Grave” he admitted it being a super dorky but necessary bit of kit, and related a story of a girl who just came from the orthodontist sporting similar head gear who was excited to seeing it. That was his first fan when he was a busker out on the LA streets. Scanning over the expanse of Narragansett Bay he spied a schooner and said that the Vikings were here, later commenting that Newport has a Folk fest and a Jazz fest but really needs to work in a Yacht Rock Festival as well. I think some (maybe most?) of the crowd was expecting a full Beck set, with a band and full production. This is still the COVID era and that shit ain’t quite ready yet, and there were few full-blown acts taking the stage (Jason Isbell, the Robinson brothers, etc followed that trend). For me, it was the perfect time to see Beck, when he was an unvarnished kid figuring out his songs on a mostly-tuned guitar, playing for whoever would pass by. He’s obviously got a guitar tech, and Smokey Hormel among others would gradually join him on the stage, but the rawness of material from Mellow Gold and One Foot In The Grave took center stage. Of the guest performances that included Jack Antonoff and Fred Armisen, my absolute favorite was when Sharon Van Etten joined him for “Asshole,” a song that would be my pick for best Beck song if a loaded gun was pointed to my head and a sole answer was needed. But unlike most families, there are no assholes in the Newport family and I am happy to report that the beat of the festival heart is loud and clear. Here’s to 2022!
For photos of the entire weekend, click on the links below!