So while in a normal year Chaka Khan would have ended the festival in all of it’s glory as the special guest, this is not a normal year. For the first time there would be a second full three days of music happening from Monday to Wednesday. Newport Folk, or as this year it was known Folk On, always amasses a ridiculous amount of talent. The powers that be to help let all of these artists play on the two stages and small busking stage decided to make it a six day festival.
The crowds were expected to come too, as tickets sold out in seconds like they do every year, but from Monday through Wednesday it felt pretty quiet. Not that there weren’t a lot of people there, but it never seemed to hit he 5K capacity each day from looking around Fort Adams. Those that were there though were all in and could be seen singing, dancing, crying tears of joy, and just having the time of their lives. Without knowing what is to come the rest of the year, every note of music felt special.
My favorite thing over Folk On was the Busking Stage that felt like a throwback to the original era of Newport Folk. It was a small stage off to the side of the main stage where the crowds gathered and sat in a field while the musicians came and without a lot of fanfare just played their songs. Each day started with Open Mic sets that anyone could sign up for and gave us a sense of the community that so many of us have missed. From there the artists would play during set changes on the main stage and ranged from bands that played the bigger stages like Caamp and Courtney Marie Andrews to folks making their first appearance at the festival like Andrea von Kampen and Ezra Furman. There were also a few pop ups of bands busking inside the quad before the schedule began.
The busking stage ended on Wednesday with a touching set by Langhorne Slim with Mat Davidson, aka Twain. The crowd stood for his whole set and really came in close. He spoke about the struggles he had during the past year and how this truly was a beautiful moment and things like this can’t be taken for granted ever again. There were plenty of tears in the crowd, but that didn’t stop him from giving the set the rock and roll treatment he’s known for. The previous day he had done the same at the Quad Stage and even played the last song of his set, “You Are My Sunshine,” in the middle of the tent surrounded by musicians and fans a like singing together creating one those special moments that the Fort seems to bring out from everyone. Langhorne is always a can’t miss affair at the festival as he always gives his set everything he has.
There were so many styles of “folks” over the three days. Something Newport has done, and this year more than ever, is make sure that there is diversity in the performers and the type of music we are getting. Sunny War mesmerized the crowd with a set filled with lyrics that are so vivid and colorful that you felt like you were inside of them. Katie Pruitt’s voice stretched well past the confines of the tent. Jake Blount and his band, who were playing their first show together, wowed the crowd with their fast fingers and his lyrics that draw from centuries of Black and Indigenous history that he is bringing back to life.
A big difference between the weekend and weekdays was there was a little more electricity coming from the stages, literally. Early James turned the amps up high for his opening last day set waking us up out of a slumber of being there for six days. Fruit Bats brought a full band and treated us to both new songs from The Pet Parade and old favorites, much to everyone’s delight. Middle Brother, the supergroup of Taylor Goldsmith, Matthew Logan Vasquez, and John McCauley III, celebrated their 10th anniversary with covers of The Traveling Wilburys, a guest spot from Vanessa Carlton and much of their own material from their self-titled album. Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats stuck around to make up their rained out Friday night set and Billy Strings caused an absolute ruckus on the Quad stage as he and his band played as fast as possible and had the crowd whipped up into a frenzy in their second set of the festival.
It wouldn’t be Newport without some surprise sets and the slots for Tuesday and Wednesday went to Bleachers and Black Pumas. Once Bleachers were announced the Fort was buzzing with who would play with Jack Antonoff, but it turned out it was just a fun stripped down Bleachers set. The new album lent itself to the sparse arrangements and Jack and the band had an absolute blast playing on the stage, with smiles that couldn’t be taken off of their face. The same could be said for Black Pumas, who are on a wild ride right now. Coming off the Grammys and seemingly nonstop buzz, the band delivered a hell of a set. On the second song after a few fans said they couldn’t hear him, Eric Burton jumped off the stage and sang in the crowd, something he would repeat for the closing song “Colors.” I could see them coming back a couple of albums down the line and absolutely closing a day of the festival. If you have the chance to see them now, do it while the venues are small and intimate.
Some of the sets over the weekend brought tears to everyone’s eyes, whether they wanted them or not. Allison Russell’s coming out party was in full force over the weekend and she finished it with her own rousing set. Playing songs from her excellent new record Outside Child for the first time, she also narrated the set, taking us through her life story and leaving her old self behind and by set’s end becoming who she is today. Julien Baker’s lyrics are always tough to get through, but listening to them under a beating hot sun in the middle of the summer gave them a new weight. Hiss Golden Messenger’s songs are cathartic and he was really leaning in to them during his set at times speaking of the heaviness of the past year and how it has changed everything we know. Lake Street Dive, who closed the Quad stage on Wednesday, had everyone tearing up when they ended their amazing set with three songs for the late Rita Houston, who was a pillar of the music world. They brought out Chris Thile for “Starman” by David Bowie, Allison Russell for “You Are Not Alone” by Mavis Staples, and Jonathan Russell of The Head and The Heart for “Instant Karma” by John Lennon. It was an unbelievably emotional ending for everyone in attendance.
It always seems like once an artist plays Newport once, they want to come back every year and though it was a paired down version this year, alums were back. Bonny Light Horseman, who made their live debut at the festival in 2019, came back and played a fantastic set. With a couple of new songs in tow, the band wowed us again with their harmonies and musicianship. Chris Thile had an early set on the final day and was so excited to be on stage he couldn’t contain his smile for the full hour he was on stage. It was amazing to hear him go from covering The White Stripes to Bach without even blinking. Another great solo set was by Sharon Van Etten, who hadn’t been to the festival in years. She covered her entire career over the 11 song set and while she talked about being rusty and nervous on stage, I think Sharon could have played on the stage the entire day. This was a sentiment of many of the artists who were playing their first or second show in a year and a half. As the sets wore on, you could see them all become more comfortable being on stage again.
Comedy doesn’t have the greatest track record at the festival. A few years ago when Cheech and Chong were there, it didn’t go so well, but this year Fred Armisen knocked it out of the park. While he ended his set very early, while he was on stage he mixed music and comedy perfectly. Beck, who headlined Tuesday, mixed plenty of comedy into his set that seemed to come to him on a whim. He would pick songs, like a cover of Prince’s “Raspberry Beret,” out of thin air and it would work every time. He brought in guests too with Sharon Van Etten on “Asshole” and Jack Antonoff on “Everybody’s Got to Learn Sometime” and for the majority of the Smokey Hormel was in tow playing guitar and adding depth to the lone acoustic guitar Beck was playing. During “Lost Cause” Armisen was wheeled out on his drum riser and he started to soundcheck for his “1 AM set.” Eventually this bled in to a very long and hilarious “Debra” where Fred and Beck went back and forth during the chorus saying incorrect names. The whole set came to a close with a crowd sing-a-long of “Loser.”
The other headliners were Brothers of a Feather on Monday and Deer Tick on Wednesday. Chris and Rich Robinson played a beautiful10 song set as the sun set on the first Monday the festival has ever had. They were in good spirits and were clearly enjoying the break from their just started Black Crowes tour. As the opening notes of “Jealous Again” kicked the set off, the crowd screamed in joy and both brothers had smiles a mile wide. By day six everyone was exhausted, but Deer Tick made it feel like day one with an energetic set to bring it all to a proper close. About half way through the 23 song set the group covered ZZ Top’s “Cheap Sunglasses” in honor of Dusty Hill who passed away. It wouldn’t be a closing set with friends helping out and Courtney Marie Andrews, S.G. Goodman, Katie Pruitt, and Langhorne Slim helped harmonize on “Too Sensitive for This World.” A few songs later the festival came to a proper close the only way it could, with everyone backstage coming out to help sing “Goodnight, Irene.”
The six days of Folk On showed how the music world can move forward. You needed to show you were vaccinated or had tested negative. The fact that these shows were at half capacity helped with easing back in to the live music world. A few other festivals have taken place at full capacity, and although Newport had been given the green light to do that, they decided that it was best for everyone involved to keep it small. Personally I would love for this format to stay for the future, but there is already buzz that next year, with everything working out perfectly, that we’ll be back to three days at the fort with multiple stages and full capacity. Regardless of what the future brings, anyone who went to these six days of music will have memories that will last forever.
Article/Images: Bryan Lasky