The 2016 Newport Folk Festival, like pretty much all recent incarnations, sold out before any artist had been announced to play at Fort Adams State Park. People have come to trust that current festival producer Jay Sweet will bring in great acts. This year, at least in my book, Sweet hit it out of the ballpark. Every day offered at least one must see act. Every day, I discovered at least one new band that I intend to keep an eye out for in the future. And every day offered surprise sets and welcomed guest appearances that are to be expected at a festival that considers its alumni family.
Friday: Flight of the Conchords and Raury
My must see band Friday was the headliners, Flight of the Conchords. I hadn’t seen the comedic stylings of New Zealand’s most popular (though they may be too shy to admit it) folk duo in a long while. The climax of their set was their take on the “Outlaw Pete” story, “The Ballad of Stana” (Stana being an anagram of Satan, so you know the character will be bad). The romping western tune trailed along for over ten minutes (if not longer) as Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie stared out into the bay. But they also incorporated unique versions of classics into their set, mixing things up on “Robots”, “Bowie” and “Too Many Dicks” at least.
He might have been the first set I saw at Newport but Raury made an immediate impact — it was clear that he and his drummer captivated the crowd under the Quad stage tent. Raury was the first artist previewed on Bob Boilen’s “All Songs Considered” Newport preview and he had won over Sweet with a performance on late night tv. At Newport, his mix of guitar folk and hip-hop included songs like “Peace Prevail” off his debut All We Need and saw him running across the stage and pining for a girl he hasn’t seen in a while. The kid began his music career fresh out of high school and is definitely on an upward trajectory.
Saturday Ryan Adams and Margo Price
Saturday had an abundance of great music to offer including headliner Patti Smith. I didn’t stay for her entire set as she conveyed a similar simmering anger as she had during the Lincoln Center set I saw just a few days prior. But it was clear the audience were eager to see her — before the fest, Sweet had been chided for seemingly subjecting Smith to people’s requests that she play the fest (though he didn’t actually).
Beyond Smith, I had most been looking forward to seeing Ryan Adams with the Infamous Stringdusters featuring Nicki Bluhm. The first time I saw Adams was at the Fort two years prior, around the release of his self-titled album. I had been familiar with only a little bit of his work as he took the stage but within a few seconds of hearing “Gimme Something Good” I was smitten (that album remains a regular listen). Adams changed things up this year and jammed out with a more folksy band.
Adams however didn’t stick to folk — he opened up with “South of Heaven” by Slayer and closed with a Black Sabbath tune. Along the way he satisfied my need for something good and he drummed up a song off the cuff. After commenting on the sounds from a louder band at another stage, Adams misheard someone in the crowd shouting “Frightened Rabbits” (the name of that band) and turned it into “Frightened and Rabid” asking “did I write that one?” before going with it. That the man can be so off the cuff and gleefully self-deprecating makes every moment between songs worth paying attention to. [A stream of Adams’ set is available at NPR.]
Though I had heard of her, I hadn’t had a chance to see Margo Price before Newport. Her debut Midwest Farmer’s Daughter has gotten positive reviews and she began her “shit kicking” set with “Tennesse Song” (she’s Nashville based). The ten song Americana / hillbilly set included covers of Gram Parsons’ “Ooh Las Vegas”, Jessi Colter’s “Why You Been Gone So Long” and one she rarely played called “Hands of Time” which featured the addition of a string quartet (who had been performing with other acts throughout the weekend). She too won over the crowd under the Quad Stage tent (not even including her duet with Kris Kristofferson earlier alongside Texas Gentlemen).
Sunday Glen Hansard and Hayes Carll
If I had only seen Glen Hansard’s set the whole weekend, I would have been just as happy. It wasn’t that it was one of the best he’s ever done, I wish it had been longer and it lacked a few favorites like “Pennies in the Fountain”. But he is one of the most earnest performers, telling stories about his family he then wanted to have cut from the broadcast, and his solo set included “Didn’t He Ramble” plus the two best-known Swell Season songs (“Falling Slowly” and “When Your Mind’s Made Up”. But it wasn’t long before he welcomed out Curtis Fowlkes on trombone to accompany him. Later on, Hansard sought out someone who could play percussion, which led to an appearance by Elvis Costello to help out on “Lowly Deserter”.
Hansard’s closed out his set with an audience sing-along on for “Her Mercy” and then went into “The Auld Triangle”. During this finale, Hansard invited one very lucky Irish chap up from the crowd to join him, Costello (who had returned), Fowlkes and Jocie Adams (Arc Iris) in swapping verses.
On Saturday, I watched Hayes Carll do a few songs with his girlfriend Allison Moore at the Museum Stage during a song swap session with Shovels & Rope. Their first number was an Everly Brothers cover and their warm down-home country vibes encouraged me to catch up with him on Sunday. Carll has been making music for at least fifteen years and his latest album Lovers and Leavers is his fifth. His twelve song set included somber and sometimes tongue in cheek songs like “Drunken Poet’s Dream” and “Jesus and Elvis” with Moore joining him again.