Newport Folk Festival earned its iconic status for a reason. The beloved Rhode Island music festival began in 1959 and cultivated a festival that looks beyond marquee names and trending topics to instead challenge the status quo of a specific scene. While the time and place of American folk music has shifted over the years, the festival has bent along with it, loosening up on the definition of folk to encompass everything the genre has to offer, a way to better represent what music can offer in time of political upheaval, personal struggle, cultural change, and regional pride. It manages to do all of this while remaining family friendly, too, bringing in the radical undercurrent without going rogue. It’s why DigBoston has covered the event ever since we began, returning time and time again with full hearts and happy ears.
That’s also why, in 2017, we took issue with what looked like an increasingly tone-deaf pattern in what, previously, looked like forward growth for the festival. While Newport Folk Festival had several artists of color billed, last year’s lineup felt staggeringly white—to the point where it began reflecting in the crowd. As the US Census continues to prove, New England is a predominantly white region. The biggest music festival in the area can’t be blamed for an imbalance in diversity amongst attendees. Instead, it can question how to better represent Americans at large and the folk scene our country continues to foster. As was stated in our review of Sunday’s event last year, a Chuck Berry tribute saw a swarm of musicians collaborate while covering him without noting how Berry’s efforts helped elevate the black community. Why not note that?
Newport Folk Festival’s lineup is a fascinating tradition in the world of music festivals because organizers roll it out slowly over the months before the festival. There’s no dramatic reveal or countdown to a poster appearing. Instead, they trickle out artist names, varying in size, day, and placement on the overall bill. The festival can afford to do this because presale tickets are nabbed without regards to who is performing, the result of festival management carefully creating a talent-ridden, consistently comfortable, and dependably fun event over the years. It’s why this year’s lineup sold out long ago, including individual day tickets. Newport Folk Festival is a supreme standout festival in a market that is rapidly muddling, and the decades of successful events it’s thrown only serve as concrete proof of such.
So it’s with genuine excitement we say that this year’s lineup is looking like one of their best yet and one of their most well-balanced. Over the course of this year, the festival has slowly announced that this year’s event—which goes down July 27, 28, and 29—has 53 acts scheduled to perform. Of those, 22 include one or more musician of color. That’s 42 percent, almost half of this year’s lineup—and that doesn’t even include surprise guests that will pop up. The gender balance is nearly identical, with 23 of 53 acts including one or more female or nonbinary members, clocking in at 43 percent. It’s a step forward many potential attendees have been silently pining to see.
As useful as statistics are, they strip life of its details. If nothing else, the way lineups are formed and then acted out shouldn’t be measured solely by the numbers. The diversity in this year’s group is spread evenly across genre and group size, with each act bringing something unique to the festival. Bedouine sings about her transnational upbringing growing up in Syria and Saudi Arabia. Ben Harper will trade generational blues with harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite. Alabama Shakes frontwoman Brittany Howard will bring her new band Bermuda Triangle to flex fresh music. Counterculture icons Cheech and Chong will play up their stereotypes while embracing their identities. Curtis Harding will drop his guard through vintage-tipped soul. Boston indie folk quartet Darlingside will get apocalyptic sans politics. Fantastic Negrito will play some of his freshly awarded Grammy-winning blues tracks. Gary Clark Jr. will reclaim his title as the kind of modern blues guitar. Delta Spirit’s Matthew Logan Vasquez and the rest of Glorietta will let their voices bloom simultaneously, six band leaders with personal tales to tell. Rostam of Vampire Weekend fame will show off his flair for pop through his recent collaboration with Hamilton Leithauser. Houston trio Khruangbin will blend dub, psych, and soul with southern ease. Low Cut Connie will show what Philly’s rock revival has been up to. Wunderkind Moses Sumney will silence crowds with his moving control of looming questions and even bigger looped folk tricks. Mexican-American charmer Shakey Graves will bring every last speck of magical Texan storytelling to life. Mali singer Sidi Touré will break out the songhaï blues. NPR Tiny Desk Contest winners Tank and the Bangas will bring their eclectic hooks to life on a real stage. The Sunday Groove will team up with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band to shine some light into the world. The War and Treaty will get down better than any other lovebirds around. Reggae icons Toots and the Maytals will show why they’ve earned their legendary status. Tuck & Patti will represent the soft side of jazz, and Annie Clark of St. Vincent will be there cheering on her aunt and uncle. Valerie June will break out the blues rock bluegrass with some extra Memphis twang. And in true Newport Folk Festival fashion, there’s a few special surprises, too, like when Jon Batiste and the Dap-Kings will host a special performance dubbed A Change Is Gonna Come that calls upon other on-site acts.
Reading through that list is a breath of fresh air no matter what festival you’re used to attending in the summertime. What Newport Folk Festival is doing is reminding attendees of where folk music got its roots in the first place while looking ahead at the future generations moving the baton forward. But perhaps the most important reason why Newport Folk Festival’s 2018 lineup is worth shouting from the rooftops about is because it sets a new standard for the festival booking game at large. If a genre-specific music festival can elevate the vibrant diversity that has been existing within its scene for decades, then music festivals that book rock, hip-hop, electronica, dance, ambient, and metal can certainly do better at representing what the American population, and the music population, looks like at large.
Technically, this year of Newport Folk Festival hasn’t happened yet, so we can’t say it’s the best edition of its ranks that we’ve seen. But looking at a lineup like the festival’s 2018 one has us genuinely excited to see how it unfolds. There are artists to fall in love with, new songs to discover, local acts to cherish, and beloved elder acts to cross off the bucket list. Newport Folk Festival has booked the type of lineup you feel excited to see before it happens and look back on years later in shock at the pre-fame undercard. We’re willing to bet this year is one everyone will be talking about. And to think, the festival still has a few acts left to announce, too.
NEWPORT FOLK FESTIVAL. FRI 7.27– SUN 7.29. FORT ADAMS, NEWPORT, RI. 12PM/ALL AGES/$90. NEWPORTFOLK.ORG