Leading up to the 56th annual Newport Folk Festival, one big question on everyone’s mind was who would be on stage as the special guests for Sunday night? The final slot was dubbed “Dylan ’65 Revisited” and no acts had been announced for this 50th anniversary tribute to Bob Dylan’s infamous 1965 Newport Folk set where he plugged in his guitar (much has been made about that shocking incident and a recent book Dylan Goes Electric! revisits that night). Would there be a huge surprise? By the time the first day of the festival rolled around, thin rumors were spreading that maybe it was Neil Young. Or maybe it would be Bono or maybe Pete Townshend, both of whom were rumored to be in town. Even before all that though, there were two unannounced/special slots that had appeared on the Newport schedule, one Friday ahead of headliner Roger Waters and the other mid-afternoon Saturday.
Worrying about what was gonna happen at any secret show would have been a mistake though given that this year’s Newport Folk Festival was already graced with such a strong lineup of musicians and, fortunately, temperate weather that held out for all three days. Save for a smattering of rain during Roger Waters’ Friday set, the Festival luckily avoided precipitation, including the forecasted thunderstorm on Sunday. That’s the luck of the draw festival-goers had this year, as they purchased up all the tickets well in advance of any known performers.
What festival-goers do know when they buy tickets is that Newport has a strong foundation. They can expect Fort Adams State Park, a beautiful location on the ocean, plenty of food options and most of all, a community bound together with their commitment to the festival. Groups of friends or family members commit to annually attending Newport. Once you attend you are hooked. The next year, an already intimate 10,000 attendees will be turned into a sea of familiar faces.
On top of this fan-community, there is a musical community as well. Musicians will step in to guest on each other’s set and most Sundays, if not every day, end with some sort of rousing finale where a lot of artists get on stage. This year, Lucius (Holly Laessig and Jess Wolfe) stopped in to help out The Lone Bellow and Roger Waters (amongst others). They hadn’t even been slated to play this year and just joined the Newport artist family last year. Another artist from last year, Hozier, returned in a big way. He went from playing the museum stage and a larger tent stage last year to nearly headlining the Fort (main) stage on Sunday. But again, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me back up to Friday.
Arriving at Fort Adams on the 24th of July, I found myself content watching portions of sets from Bahamas, Hiss Golden Messenger and Calexico. One of the first artist to stir me was rising throwback-soul star Leon Bridges, whose album Coming Home came out earlier this year. Bridges blends soul and gospel and his set was sharp as he made his way swiftly through songs like lovelorn “Pull Away” and the dancey “Twistin & Groovin”. His was a performance I want to see again.
Tallest Man on Earth
A little while later, I went to check out Kristian Matsson, aka The Tallest Man on Earth. I hadn’t seen him before but I was left very impressed. Matsson’s music has an unexpected vibrancy to it, particularly on tracks like “Sagres” which featured additional horns. He is supported his new album Dark Bird Is Home, a bittersweet album he wrote after the dissolution of his marriage. Normally a solo performed, Matsson utilized his band well though for a few songs in the middle of his set, like “Love is All”, he kept the large crowd’s attention solo.
Jim James of My Morning Jacket
Granted, some of that crowd had jostled their way over to the Fort stage to get a spot for the first unannounced act, My Morning Jacket, in a slot that allowed them to perform an hour’s worth of their own tunes before Roger Waters (of Pink Floyd), took the stage leading them. MMJ performed a strong rock set that included “Golden” and “Circuital”. They were quite the welcome surprise. When it was Waters turn, he opened with a new song called “Crystal Clear” performing on a piano for the first time or so he said. Beyond MMJ, Waters was also joined on stage by his friend and guitarist G.E. Smith plus welcomed out Sara Watkins (at Newport with Watkins Family Hour and not Nickel Creek like last year) and Amy Helm (daughter of the late Levon Helm) for the classic Pink Floyd epic “Wish You Were Here” and Levon’s song “Wide River”. Waters also performed another more standard folk song, John Prine’s “Hello in There” and wrapped up his set with a tribute for Dylan, “Forever Young”.
Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn
Saturday, I returned to Fort Adams in time to see Canadian singer-songwriter Andy Shauf, whose 2012 album, The Bearer of Bad News was only released in the US this year. The audience in the Harbor Tent was quite receptive to him even though most of his performance was rather dark. When I made my way over to the Fort Stage for The Barr Brothers, I found that technical issues had delayed their start. Those difficulties continued to plague the main stage throughout the day including Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn’s set (or maybe they just had too many banjos to tune?) but they opened strong with a classic Fleck track “New South Africa”.
Soon after, I found myself at the Quad stage for Courtney Barnett‘s performance. She joked she had flown in from her home country of Australia just for this show and otherwise had a lot of fun. Her new album, Sometimes I Sit and Think… is one of my favorites in 2015 and she demonstrated the same lyrical edge on stage as she does in her music. Her introduction to “Avant Gardener” was almost ruined by a fan so she called him out on it, and “Pedestrian at Best” was as amazing as I had expected (admittedly I’d already seen her twice this year).
Unfortunately somewhere in the mix, I missed out on surprise sets from Colin Meloy of The Decemberists and from Hozier in the small Museum stage room. Perhaps it was because I was too busy devouring delicious lobster heaped upon a roll and some Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. C’est la vie.
I did get back to the main stage in time for the second major announced performance though, one from the legend, James Taylor. Taylor was welcomed back for his first Newport show since his set in 1969 was cut short due to the moon landing news (and some weather too maybe). He too started a bit late due to technical issues but people didn’t complain. Many were left in tears after he performed songs like “Carolina on my Mind” and “You’ve Got a Friend”.
The final two acts on the main stage were Sufjan Stevens and The Decemberists, both of which also released albums this year that rank amongst my favorites. I didn’t want to miss any of Sufjan that’s for sure since he couldn’t do his regular gloomy Carrie and Lowell set on a nice evening right? Well the most gloomy stuff probably left an impression on people as he started with “Should Have Known Better”, a song about abandonment, and later on repeated “we’re all gonna die” in “Fourth of July”. But his finale was a wilder version of his soaring “Chicago” that renewed people’s faith in him. And I did catch some of José González‘s lovely set under the Harbor tent at the same time.
On Sunday, with the forecast threatening thunderstorms, I approached Newport with caution, but I was overly cautious and ended up missing one of the coolest moments this year. Brooklyn musician Christopher Paul Stelling finished up his set on the Harbor Stage to a standing ovation and then dropped to one knee to propose to his girlfriend! An amazing moment to have missed but it also was probably an interesting too — Stelling’s album Labor Against Waste has received very positive reviews.
So the first must see act I caught was Jon Batiste & Stay Human. The future Late Show with Stephen Colbert bandleader was a tremendous entertainer, alternating between familiar songs, like The Beatles’ “Blackbird”, children’s call and response songs like “If You’re Happy and You Know it Clap your Hands” (which the audience readily got involved in) and more traditional folk numbers like “St. James Infirmary”. Best of all was Batiste’s finale. Like so many times before at Newport, he led his band into the crowd while playing his melodica.
Ironing Board Sam
Batiste wasn’t the only artist to dive into the crowd that day. When I ducked into the Museum stage room around 4 pm, I caught a set from Sammie Moore, aka Ironing Board Sam, a wild soul from the South. He’s got an album Super Spirit coming out in October but he’s got tons of music already to his name — he is 75 after all. As Sam wrapped up his set, with other musicians in the Music Maker Relief Foundation showcase on stage with him like the Coma Mamas, he strode into the standing crowd and gave high fives to anyone within reach. His colorful attire and lively presence made for great showmanship and his music was fun too.
First Aid Kit
After that, a lot of running around between sets to see parts of Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, Blake Mills, Laura Marling, and The Felice Brothers (and to eat another lobster roll), I returned to the main stage for First Aid Kit. The Swedish sisters’ album Stay Gold was one of my favorites from 2014 and I was looking forward to hearing their harmonies but sadly, Klara Söderberg was singing alone, Johanna had lost her voice. I still enjoyed what I heard but it wasn’t the same.
I saw news that CP Stelling would be making an appearance in a sponsor’s tent so I went to check him out, having missed an encore set from José González there earlier in the day. The crowd didn’t even fit inside the room so I got a few photos and watched for a bit before returning to the main stage for Hozier.
Hozier. The man who played a few small sets on the Museum stage and one larger one under a tent at Newport in 2014, had returned in a big way as mentioned. I’ve seen him at least three times since then and I, just like a large portion of the crowd, knew all the words to the songs off his debut and sole album. There was the sweet “Cherry Wine”, the tough “Angel of Small Death”, the children’s tune “Arsonist’s Lullaby” and of course his monster, “Take Me to Church”. It was a powerful set and Hozier was humbled to be on the stage as he admitted to having learned guitar by watching many of the early Folk Fest performances at home. It doesn’t seem like Hozier will cease touring anytime soon but perhaps Newport provided him a bit of respite.
Daivd Rawlings, Gillian Welch and Willie Watson
Finally, Dylan ’65 Revisited. Gillian Welch and David Rawlings took the stage to open with “Mr. Tambourine Man” before really setting things off with more musicians joining them. There wasn’t any super huge name making an apperance but artists like Dawes, Al Kooper (who played with Dylan), Willie Watson, Hozier, and more took the stage to perform Dylan. It was an exciting tribute and incredible to see Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes play Dylan’s original Fender guitar from ’65 (I didn’t notice it got passed around). The final song, for which almost everybody came on stage, was an outstanding “Rainy Day Woman” that left a lingering desire for more. It hadn’t been an epic set but it was an admirable mess. And when it was over, I had already begun to long for music at Fort Adams again.
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The Newport Festivals Foundation, a non-profit organization formed in 2010 by George Wein, runs and maintains the Newport Folk Festival and the Newport Jazz Festival. To find out more about the Foundation and to support its mission, head over to their website.