Newport Folk Festival is the original hippie festival. Its roots are so deep in peace and social change that there’s no need for tie dye shirts or flowers tucked behind ears. The spirit of positivity comes from every crevice of Fort Adams’ grounds here in Rhode Island. Founded in 1959 by George Wein, it’s the premiere festival for folk, snatching up board members like Pete Seeger and Albert Grossman within its first year and going on to host the 1960s blues revival, the 1980s surge of reggae rock, and Johnny Cash’s famous introduction of Kris Kristofferson.
More specifically, this weekend marks the 50th anniversary of when Bob Dylan infamously went electric. In 1965, Dylan took the stage with Mike Bloomfield and others backing him on guitar, jutting electric blues and rock and roll into his set. The crowd, utterly shocked at the change, booed. Yeah; classy. Just two years earlier, Dylan had fans smitten as a whole with his acoustic sets, but bailing on the folk orthodoxy in favor of “poor sound” was the biggest slap he could’ve given them. Turns out that set was his first live “plugged-in” set of his professional career. To this day, that change marked not only a shift in his own artistic direction, but the direction of folk rock as a whole.
Friday, a day previously marked by two or three performances, has now been expanded into a full-day lineup – and fans are eager to eat it up. They’re adapting because they want to adapt. Sure, that openness may be 50 years too late, but Newport knows how to compensate. The newfound breadth in artistry and genre has allowed the festival to encompass the sound, attitudes, and social impact of folk across the board.
Vintage folk is alive and well with new ‘tude. Angel Olsen, the most bizarrely charming performer of the day, emptied out a solo set of older gems and influential covers, nodding to her Roy Orbison similarities with a cover of “Hurts to Be Around You” and stripping Bruce Springsteen’s “Tougher Than the Rest” down to a heart-shattering ballad. As a unit of one, she illuminated the power of acoustic guitar when laced with bitter words. After “Safe In the Womb” and Burn Your Fire For No Witness bonus cut “May As Well”, she laughed to herself, seemingly at nothing, and tilted her head in a polite nod to the crowd’s generous cheers. The ‘60s were alive again. Then, as if on cue, that 21st century heart returned with the most delightfully juvenile line of the day: “My road has come to an end. I’m gonna play ‘May As Well’ and then y’all can go fart somewhere else.”
Other acts nodded to Dylan’s move to electrics. North Carolina native Hiss Golden Messenger brought his band onstage for Americana songwriting with an electric blues filter. The slower “Saturday’s Song” and “Lucia” got, the groovier their jams became, drawing applause from the audience over every steel guitar solo and chugging bass line until they flew out of their seats, eager to reward him with a standing ovation.
The Tallest Man on Earth chose full band fillers over his original acoustics, too, but his charisma on solo tracks “The Gardner” and “Love Is All” dominated whatever musical flair he hoped to wow with otherwise. Then again, the weather played just as big of a part. After festival staff took to the stage to explain emergency evacuation procedures in the face of lightening, the announcer pleaded we emit positive energy to change the weather. Even Kristian Matsson paraded to the edge of the stage before his set, shook a finger at the black skies, and told them to go away. Maybe that’s it: the importance of good will, good vibes, and good people takes precedence over safety breaking the invisible seal of reality. For Newport Folk Festival, the focus is on change brought about by the community to preserve music, not letting outside forces determine what will, what can, and what should happen.
By the time Roger Waters was set to appear, there marked an expectance of something surprising. Guest appearances had been happening all day, from Leon Bridges to the Lone Bellow, and his was stuffed. A blank spot on the schedule listed as “unannounced” became a surprise My Morning Jacket set, bringing stuffed bears and Lucius onstage for a brief hour of guttural guitar during “Spring (Among the Living)” and “Circuital” that shook the lapping water with reverb.
Then came Waters, a toothy grin spread across his face before he performed his first live set since his 2013 Wall tour. He worked his way through a new song (“Crystal Clear”), solo material (“Amused to Death”, “The Bravery of Being Out of Range”), and covers (Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young”, Buddy Guy’s “Hello In There”, Levon Helm’s “Wide River to Cross”), calling out the past greats of the festival in between. Pink Floyd material garnered the loudest applause from “Mother” to “Brain Damage” where fans continued to shout praise his way. “Obviously I love you, too, otherwise I wouldn’t be here,” he responded, spreading a contagious laugh across the crowd.
Towards the end of his set, Waters performed “Wish You Were Here” with My Morning Jacket, Lucius, Sara Watkins, and Levon Helm’s daughter, Amy, at his side. Rain was pouring, dripping down the faces of those who turned their heads to the sky, arms in the air, to scream the chorus in unison. Minutes later, the sun cleared the air and set during his final chords. It was a beautiful moment, one that Newport and Newport alone can deliver free of stifled irony and forced amusement where fan and musician became one. This was, and is, an appreciation of past and present, with no naysayers in sight to argue with the ever-changing route of folk – or those destined to fill footsteps left decades ago.