On the second day of Newport Folk Festival, I found myself sitting under the shade of a tent with three different types of sponsored water in front of me, each opened or popped or poured for respective consumption. To my right, also hiding from the heat, sat a 70-something father of another journalist. He introduced himself as Richard and talked with delight of his first Newport Folk Festival, his first Bob Dylan set, and his first run-in with his wife. Towards the end of his nostalgic ramblings, he surveyed the tent, littered with straw hat-wearing musicians and sweaty photographers, and waved his hand, ushering me closer to hear him whisper. “None of this is really folk,” he said, raising his eyebrows like he was breaking news. “You know that, right?”
I—like a handful of others, I presume—had been thinking this every time the festival unveiled another act on its bill. Five decades of folk lends itself towards reinterpretations of what that means, and before this weekend, I thought Sufjan Stevens should have been the Saturday headliner because of exactly that. Well, his folky-ness, for sure, and many other reasons. Compared to The Decemberists, Saturday night’s actual headliners, he’s been making music longer (1999 vs. 2000), has more albums (7 vs. 11), and has more listeners (according to the trivial statistics of social media). According to the numbers, Sufjan Stevens was the real headliner.
But this is music, not math. Order has nothing to do with it. Newcomer Andy Shauf took the stage with a solemn gaze and stoic guitar early in the morning, riffing through modern straight-edged folk straight from the ‘60s. Saturday’s “unannounced” surprise set came from James Taylor. He pushed through audio issues with surprisingly comical backlash during his six songs (including “Sweet Baby James”, “Fire and Rain”, and “Carolina On My Mind”, the latter of which he wrote in response to homesickness as he watched The Beatles record the White Album), a set so epic only a dozen gathered to see The Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson’s coinciding set. He’s as folk as folk gets. All three—Shauf, Taylor, Stevens—are quiet, traditional, folk singer-songwriters (ie: white men), yet they were scattered throughout the day, suggesting semi-irrelevance.
So instead, the freshly-minted 40-year-old Stevens performed just before The Decemberists. “I can’t really believe I’m playing after James Taylor,” he said, stuttering occasionally. “Everything is downhill from here.” To some extent, he was right. There’s no coming back from a legendary musician whose 1969 set was cut short because Neil Armstrong had just landed on the moon. History impeded history. But Sufjan Stevens, all on his own, performed a legendary set in the making. Only four Carrie & Lowell cuts appeared, including a heavy R&B twist on “All of Me Wants All of You”, beside some major banjo representation with gems like “In The Devil’s Territory”. It was the combination of youthful budding—self-doubt erring lyrics on “Casmir Pulaski Day”, dancing behind the piano during “Come On! Feel The Illinoise!”, and ridiculous synth solos on “Chicago” out of nowhere—and cherry-picked glee that drove his performance. Stevens rarely plays festivals. This one, with the combination of audience participation and reinterpreted material, stuck out like a sore thumb, especially amidst the gloom of his current tour, for Newport and beyond.
Amidst all of this, indie rock still had its place. The stack of amps and thundering bass its respective artists brought out may not recall the festival’s original roots, but it does emphasize storytelling. Courtney Barnett’s wry, witty language in “Avant Gardner”, “Depreston”, and general banter (“Thank you for standing… in front of your seats.”) earned her a late spot on the Quad stage, the silently acknowledged place for “elders”, suggesting she’s made it to the heightened appeal of adults and youth alike, even with the snarling solos of “Small Poppies”. The Decemberists, a lighter take on the genre, do storytelling better than anyone, honing in on a protagonist and detailing every swashbuckling step of his pirate life or crane wife mishap. For families, this is a delight. It gives the folk rock veterans room to goof around, tugging a massive cloth-laden whale onstage to gobble them up during “The Mariners Revenge Song” and playing into (and then deconstructing) the gender roles as a social construct re: crowd interaction during “16 Military Wives”. They may not be waving acoustic guitars in the air, but they’re coloring the air with enough dark stories to zone listeners in until the very end.
Newport Folk Festival sells out every year. In fact, it sells out before they unveil the majority of the lineup. People know there will be folk music they can rely on. This year that meant the back porch folk of Madisen Ward & the Mama Bear. It meant Brandi Carlile packing a stage with hollering country folk. It meant the whoop and holler of each Bela Fleck song being overwhelmingly charmed by Abigail Washburn’s coalmine chimes and barefoot tap dancing. It means supporting the loose definition of folk—stories, energy, fine acoustics, timelessness via unity—and how it’s represented today. Newport Folk Festival knows what they’re doing when they book each year’s lineup. So far, this one was no exception – though Stevens really should have headlined.
Read our recap of Newport Folk Festival Day 1 here.