Remember music festivals? It’s been a hot minute, hasn’t it? Two consecutive years of Boston Calling being called off is the biggest hole in the regional festival scene, and its Memorial Day weekend slot meant that the timing wasn’t conducive to try to hold it this year. Artists, bookers, promoters – they all struggled with piecing together what would be a logical and safe start to full-scale music events, and even now with a pretty strong vaccination rate in New England, the booking calendar isn’t exactly full, but at least it looks to be in mostly full swing by the time the college students descend back on the city. Let’s hope the Delta variant doesn’t have other plans. Psst. If you already haven’t, get vaxxed, ok?
Given all the uncertainty, trying to plan and execute an event that typically takes most of the year and compressing that into a few months is a challenge that most promoters would dread, but Jay Sweet and company have come up with a very clever and viable work-around from the usual festival. Emblazoned as Folk On, the festival will be held in two, three day segments and with roughly half of the usual capacity for each one. The configuration will different as well, to accommodate public safety. In addition to requiring either proof of vaccination or a negative test result no earlier than three days of the festival, the grounds will only feature two stages and will move the Fort Stage from its usual position abutting the wall of the fort, instead being on the grounds with Narragansett Bay behind it and dubbed the Lawn Stage. This change facilitates unidirectional personnel flow from the interior of the Fort; the tunnel where the Harbor Stage typically sits will be the other entry. Overall this looks to be the best solution to have an event with the typical reach and feel of the festival while still being sensible.
Every year the event sells out shortly after tickets go on sale, with eager fans not knowing who will grace the hallowed stages of Fort Adams. I’ve heard that Sweet would prefer to have the festival lineup a complete surprise each year until it actually happens, and this year edges closer to that wish. Artists were given the choice of whether to announce if they were playing, what day they were playing, or not to say anything at all. As a result, this preview will certainly have some holes, but from the roster that’s been divulged so far, there will be no lack of talent. My crystal ball is currently in the shop so I can’t portend the entire roster that will perform over the six days, but here are some artists to pencil in on your schedule if you’re a lucky ticket holder for either session.
The shadow of John Fahey looms large over the subsequent disciples of solo acoustic guitar exploration, but the scene is gradually changing from an unending stream of white dudes. Earlier this year, Williams was part of an excellent focused piece in the New York Times on the new faces in this realm, and her extremely fluid and beautiful style is one that should resonate far and wide.
As fate (or at least his birth certificate) would have it, Billy’s actual surname is Apostol but a prescient aunt bestowed his well-earned moniker when he was just a kid, and his prowess on all things stringed is something to marvel at. If you can’t see him down at the Fort (and he’s playing both sessions), he’s playing Levitate in August and will hit the Wang Center in November. Mark it!
The Dimmer Twins/Jason Isbell
Maybe it’s a bit lazy to lump two acts into one mention but the history of Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley and Jason Isbell cannot be denied. Famously ousted from Drive-By Truckers, Isbell took a moment for a hard look at himself, made some stark adjustments and became a major player in the alt.country/Americana realm. (And if you don’t follow Isbell on Twitter, he’s one of the best things in that social media cesspool.) Hood and Cooley (aka the Dimmer Twins, a tongue-in-cheek send up of Mick and Keef’s Glimmer Twins) continue to steer the wheel of the Truckers, with their sharp-penned observational musings on life.
Katie’s not the only one who has a few Fleetwood Mac records in her collection (Stevie/Lindsay era, natch) and has made a beautiful pile of songs that have the faint flick of the Rumours fire that lick around her songs. Check out “Expectations” and tell me I’m wrong. She’ll be playing and telling her stories during the second session, so don’t miss it!
Of the 2019 event artists to make their first appearance at the Fort, few could top Yola, who put on a spellbinding show and later showed up to lend her incredible voice to The Highwomen, and then later on the main stage with the First Ladies of Bluegrass along with Brandi Carlile. She’ll not have the cover of being a relatively unknown artist this time around but I have no doubt that she’ll put on a powerhouse performance once again.
Steve Gunn/William Tyler
Steve Gunn has been a bit of glaring omission to join the Newport Folk alumni roll for some time now so it’s nice to see him onboard for this year. Hot on the heels of the smoking record w/ longtime pal John Truscinski, Gunn recently announced that another record will be coming out via Matador on August 27th with a passel of special guests. Paired with the intricate picking style of William Tyler, it’s kinda hard to know what sort of alchemy they are gonna throw down as a tandem but I can assure you it will be worthy of getting a sling for your jaw that’s bound to drop to the grassy lawn of Fort Adams. Do not miss this duo.
Lurking under the nom de stage of Vagabon, Laetitia Tamko is a supremely gifted musician who came late to that particular calling. After she got her first guitar at the age of 17, the Cameroon via NYC native decided to ditch her engineering career to focus full-time on playing the sort of intimately crafted songwriting that can look eye to eye with Suzanne Vega or Cat Power. Don’t miss her third-ever New England performance.
Newport Folk Festival’s Folk On Session 1: FRI 7-23 to SUN 7-25; Session 2: MON 7-26 to WED 7-28 FORT ADAMS STATE PARK, NEWPORT RI – ALL AGES/SOLD OUT – NEWPORTFOLK.ORG