The throat is a peculiar thing. For most, it’s the section of the body that allows them to connect with others, even if there’s no language to do so. It’s a guttural mechanism, a sound-based scope, where emotions can be summed up through pitch, tone can explain a line of thought, and a large narrative can be dictated through facial expression. When we’re given the opportunity to use our voices, we wind up telling stories, and sometimes, depending on who you’re around, they connect with a powerful impact.
It could be argued that voice is what distinguishes one folk act from another, particularly in the stories they tell and how they tell them. In that, Newport Folk Festival builds itself on rich foundation, from its early days with luminaries Bob Dylan and Joan Baez up to today’s bills with acts ranging from Jackson Browne to Beck. The festival rolls out a lineup that, no matter the subgenre or delivery, captures audiences and holds them for the duration of their set because of their ability to warp their voice into a lure that leaves a mark.
Saturday felt like a hearty sampling of how folk ranges in depth. Chicano Batman was all shouts and smiles, delivering high-powered funk jams through the cultural lens of Los Angeles’ Latinx scene. The Decemberists’ side-project Offa Rex kneaded old English, Irish, and Scottish folklore into ’70s-styled folk with Olivia Chaney handling lead vocals. Drive-By Truckers sung the work song of midwestern workers who had been tricked by the false promise of the new government. Elsewhere, it was the signifier of a voice fading into the background so others could rise up, like Justin Vernon performing as a guitarist in Grandmas Hands Band and staying clear from the mic, save for a moving rendition of “Ain’t No Sunshine.”
Storytelling broke down into three categories. The first, new school, was led by rising singer-songwriter Jalen N’Gonda. The England-via-Maryland soul performer manned the stage by himself. On record, he’s backed by a band, but the solo setup allowed his voice—the star of his songwriting—to shine. N’Gonda worked through a chunk of currently unreleased material and singles “Why I Try” and “I Need You.” Though the Newport Folk Festival set marked his first performance in the US, N’Gonda held himself with the confidence of someone who’s not only played the US before, but someone who’s played Newport already, his thin body giving birth to a massive voice—one too loud for the microphone, which, for better or for worse, resulted in some crackling because the equipment couldn’t handle it. N’Gonda represented the musicians of Newport who’s story is bursting at the seams, rocketing out of them and commanding passerbys to stop and stay still for the remainder of their set.
A sizable chunk of the bill falls under the old school category. New Zealand musician Marlon Williams wrapped the Quad stage around his finger with his ability to capture that representation. Williams reps a voice, cantor, and delivery akin to Elvis Presley, but, on occasion, explores the emotional fragility of Anohni’s voice. With a backing band in top shape next to him, Williams waltzed through his material, leaning into pop and falling back into old-timey ballads. It’s the type of mood-setting material that reminds viewers why Newport’s been around for so long, and why the music of its early years is still being rewritten today. When Williams sat down for a solo song, his voice soared, and come the end of the song the entire crowd gave him a standing ovation, even if he had another chunk of his set to get through.
Finally, there’s the harmonizing category, where a group of voices merge in a way that speaks to a story larger than a single one of them. Angel Olsen worked her vintage delivery into a late ’60s rattle with help from her backing vocalist. While Olsen’s voice is impressive on her own, and not a single person could honestly argue otherwise, it’s the way it stacked on top of her vocalist’s that raised goosebumps, the two soaring in tandem during tracks like “Sister” and “Woman.” It created the type of mirrored experience that happens when you watch a movie or read a book, where the character’s exploration ever so similarly matches your own, where your narratives overlap and, in the process, a chilling sensation of familiarity and support come into play. Now several arms deep into her tour behind My Woman, Angel Olsen’s ability to further deepen her songs through harmonies steals the show—even compared to the brief cameo from My Morning Jacket’s Jim James on guitar for two songs.
Then came Saturday’s most anticipated acts: The Avett Brothers and Wilco. The sub-headliner was a rush of everything at once, both in regards to their instrumentation and the band’s use of vocals. Whereas the previous Avett Brothers’ set at Newport Folk Festival felt slightly disconnected, this year’s performance was full of energy, with the band tweaking even their slowest material to come out with extra grit. During particularly bluegrass-driven songs like “Satan Pulls the Strings” or “Slight Figure of Speech,” the group pushed their voices to the max, where the lyrics scratched Scott Avett’s through when exiting at full force — a harsh contrast to Wilco, who didn’t want to use their voice at all. Jeff Tweedy barely spoke during the set, allowing the band to jam their set full with material, but noted at several points that he wasn’t looking to talk. Instead, they did what they did best: overlapping sanded guitar solos and roaming, soft vocals for a relaxing headlining set.
The differences in approach detail what makes Newport Folk Festival diverse. Often times, it feels like the festival lacks a certain type of diversity, several forms more obvious than others, but sonically, their ability to book and schedule artists who tell opposing narratives is what gives the festival depth. Folk is ultimately about telling a story. Saturday’s lineup got to work writing a book that not only held your attention, but did so in style, creating a web of stories you eagerly queue up through speakers later that night in a desperate attempt to relive what can only be experienced once.
Read our recap of day 1 at Newport Folk Festival here.
Check out more of Tim Bugbee’s photography from the festival by clicking on the picture below.
Created with flickr slideshow.