The last day at any festival is sad. Vendors pack their merch early, weather taunts no matter if it’s rain or shine, and everyone walks a little bit slower with a little less excitement in their step. At Newport Folk Festival, that’s never the case. Sure, the vendors pack their merch early, but they give away their packaged chips and bottled water for free. The weather is slightly overcast, but that shade is welcomed warmly. Most importantly, attendees show up dreary and tired, but they keep walking quickly, as eager to see the last day’s acts as they were for the first’s.
Rhode Island’s little festival that could isn’t bogged down by the exhaustion of its own festival. To them, this isn’t about checking to-dos off the list. It’s a family reunion where every choice is the right one, no matter what you passed up in favor of it, because of those you’re surrounded by — people who will never be turned away.
The Ballroom Thieves, Boston’s own folk rock trio, lit the room with the joy of grown children, putting spirit before all else. Soon after, Jon Batiste & Stay Human did the same. He jumped from one instrument to the other, often locking himself behind the keys, to lead his band through cover after cover — no doubt proper practice before they take over as the house band for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. But while songs like “If You’re Happy and You Know It” and “Blackbird” usually drone on, Batiste breathed enormous life into them, so much so that their cover of “Killing Me Softly”–performed sitting on the edge of the stage, no less–had the crowd belting out The Fugees’ “Two times, two times” inserts and soulful solo all by themselves.
Newport makes a point of letting rock artists soften up. Brian Fallon of The Gaslight Anthem led a sizable crowd through tender, stripped-down moments, sharing just as much of his heart as he did his humor. J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. stayed predictably on brand, turning up with a purple binder of sheet music, purple iPhone, purple guitar cord, and purple glasses. His set, on the other hand, diversified itself, going as deep as to include covers of The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven”, Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You”, and acoustic renditions of several Dinosaur Jr. cuts. Even Mascis and his flat-lined personality are greeted enthusiastically here.
You’re family from the moment you step onto the grounds. Laura Marling, having just flown over from her hometown of England, was left stranded without her instruments and one band member short, all of which were victims to customs. In a matter of minutes, other musicians rushed to lend her their equipment, including a gorgeous upright bass and full percussion-laden drum kit. Thank god they did. Marling’s set, which unjustly pooled a smaller crowd than Shakey Graves’ immediately after, was pure magic. Her knack for storytelling is nearly unparalleled, as is her emotive guitar playing, placing her as high up on the singer-songwriter charts. Give it a few years, and she could very well become the Joni Mitchell of this generation.
The festival’s closing set was humbly labeled “’65 Revisited,” scheduled to be a tribute to Bob Dylan’s set of that year. All day rumors floated by about who would play: Neil Young was going to sing with a guest; U2 would play since Bono’s boat was seen in the harbor; Dylan himself booked a room under a fake name. What actually happened, partly to the crowd’s surprise, was a reveal of musicians the festival holds close to its heart: Gillian Welch, Deer Tick, Dawes, Sara Watkins, Jim James, and more. Whereas earlier days saw My Morning Jacket, James Taylor, and Fiona Apple waltz onstage unannounced, Sunday’s sets were building up to a familial bond that invited everyone onstage, from Shakey Graves all the way to the entirety of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. None of these could top Taylor’s appearance, but that’s not what it was about.
What made it so special? The guitar that Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes played onstage. That Fender Stratocaster was played by Bob Dylan for that iconic set 50 years ago when he turned his usual folk sound into the rattling change of electric guitar, a moment cemented in not only the history of the festival, but the history of music as we know it. As such, that guitar–which sold for almost a million dollars at auction two years ago–was put to good use in the few hours it was on loan. First Aid Kit, Blake Mills, Béla Fleck, and Hozier gathered around microphones to coo “All I Really Wanna Do” and “Like A Rolling Stone” with the whole crowd. It was a fanfare celebrated between friends from the beginning until the very end where Welch, leaning back with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band bass drum strapped around her front, twirled in two circles, gave a final farewell wave, and exited the stage.
For being the final act of the final day, it came as a surprise that there was no oncoming disappointment or burst of the festival bubble when that stage emptied. Welch’s wave didn’t hit like a punch to the stomach. Instead, it felt warm. Like any large family can tell you, you never truly part ways, and Newport Folk Festival knows that all too well. This was goodnight and not goodbye, for 2016 is already preparing to welcome everyone back.
Read our recap of Newport Folk Festival Day 1 here.
Read our recap of Newport Folk Festival Day 2 here.