One of my favorite stories about the founding of Newport Folk Festival is that someone asked George Wein what was going to play at the festival and his response was that he knew what jazz was. It’s easy to identify jazz. So anything that wasn’t jazz could go to the folk festival. Most years, Newport Folk Festival doesn’t much exemplify this based on how the modern person thinks about folk music. People still talk about Bob Dylan going electric in 1965 as one of the most controversial things to happen at the festival. I’ve only been to the festival three times and I’ve heard jokes about it at least five times, but I digress.
As has been the case for most of this year, Folk On was very different. From the name to the content, Folk On was every example of ‘not jazz’ you could want at a music festival. I mean, I don’t generally associate live looped beats with folk music but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Jay Sweet came out on Friday morning to open the festival with a history lesson and an introduction to the week as a whole. He stated how he never requests songs, but he had to this one. With that the day started with the Resistance Revival Chorus and it set the tone for the whole weekend. They came out singing that request, “What the World Needs Now is Love,” and if there was a dry eye in the audience, I can assure you they were at the wrong festival.
Friday was full of favorites old and new. Ida Mae opened the Lawn stage, coming off of Peach Fest a few weeks earlier, to a warm Folk welcome and wowed us with their harmonies. Other highlights from the Lawn stage were fiery sets from Black Joe Lewis and Shakey Graves, but they couldn’t hold a candle to what was going on in the Quad. Celisse all, but lit the stage on fire with her set, ripping through song after song with a powerful command of the stage. Lucy Dacus followed and showed why she is one of the greatest lyricists out there today, playing a lot of material from her latest album Home Video.
Margo Price, who played twice at the festival, had special surprises each time. For her Lawn Stage set she brought out Allison Russell, Adia Victoria, Kam Franklin, and the Resistance Revival Chorus to end her set and on the Quad stage the following day she played her entire set with her husband Jeremy Ivey and Andrew Bird. For the second set, the husband and wife also played some of Jeremy’s music from his release last year Waiting Out The Storm. Grace Potter also played twice, but she wasn’t meant to. With lightning storms heading towards the Fort on Friday, her set was cut short after two songs. She began the next morning, picking up where she left off, and put on one hell of a performance. Jason Isbell only played once, but it was a heck of a headlining set alongside Amanda Shires and Sadler Vaden. The three of them really didn’t want to leave the stage and the 17 song set really felt like it could have gone on all night.
Every stage, every performance was clearly the culmination of the last sixteen months with few exceptions. The energy couldn’t be matched by anyone except the crowd. You could feel the family feeling that is so commonly commented on about the Newport Folk Festival. There were any number of musicians at the festival that were there for the first time. Everyone was welcomed and cheered. A true highlight of the festival was the set opening the Lawn Stage on Saturday by Demeanor. The music was unique, yes, but the energy brought by Demeanor to the stage immediately endeared him to the crowd. Particularly the story about the real hero of his set, Phil who was stranded at the airport after flying in to help with the set of music because Demeanor was asleep after his own sojourn to Newport. Phil made an appearance to help with vocals and met with a yell of welcome to the family.
Another performance that brought different energy to the festival was Yasmin Williams, who plays the guitar like no one else ever has. She hits the guitar almost like a video game controller, where she got the idea from, and makes it sound like a brand new instrument. Randy Newman also brought some energy, but not in the way you thought he might. He had plenty of jokes and wonderful sing-a-longs, but some cursing during “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” as he fought his way through the song, never stopping to re-center himself, was just that beautiful energy you only find at Newport. Kevin Morby meanwhile brought a band with him and played one of the more high energy sets of the weekend, covering all parts of his career and included multiple guest spots from Waxahatchee, who was returning the favor from him sitting in during her excellent set the previous day where she highlighted her album Saint Cloud from last year.
For the most part the Quad stage seemed to have the calmer sets of music. Natalie Hemby, who had performed in 2019 with the Highwomen, played a set of most of her upcoming album, her first after writing so many hits for bigger artists. Billy Strings gave the crowd a history lesson by playing a complete set of Doc Watson songs while Andrew Bird & Jimbo Mathus dueled their violin and guitar respectively. What wasn’t calm, was the Devon Gilfillian set covering Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On from front to back. He brought out plenty of guests and the entire set had crowd dancing and singing with Devon and all of the guests.
With family being brought up, it feels important to bring up one of the ghosts that showed up at the festival this year. John Prine who passed last year had such a great legacy at the festival, especially the last few years. His songs were covered throughout the weekend, but not by his son, Tommy Prine. Tommy Prine did a set on Sunday at the busking stage. He played music from his newly recorded album that doesn’t have a release date yet. While Tommy Prine didn’t play any of his father’s songs, you could hear the echoes continuing in the next generation and the crowd couldn’t have given him a warmer reception.
Allison Russell shut Sunday down with a set dubbed Once & Future Sounds that highlighted many of the artists of color that had just played over the weekend. One after another continued to be welcomed into what Allison called the circle. We were treated to spoken word pieces (“Reckon”), all out rockers (“Eyes on the Prize”), a harmonized Beatles song (“Help”), and a song for Mavis Staples (“I’ll Take You There”), as she couldn’t come in early for the Folk Festival. A poorly kept surprise of Brandi Carlile showed up on stage for the set but the real surprise was the appearance by the legendary, the inimitable, Chaka Khan. As we all sang “I’m Every Woman” as we walked to the parking lot, you could feel the shift. There was definitely no jazz at Folk On, and I know I’m excited to see where it leads.
Article: Lauren Byrnes
Photos: Bryan Lasky