Photo credits: Sachyn Mital

Newport Folk Festival 2017 Hit All the Right Notes

A great weekend at Newport includes watching talented, diverse performers, participating in a protest song sing-along and maybe a lobster roll.

For the 2017 Newport Folk Festival, producer Jay Sweet and the rest of his team once again brought an excellent lineup to Fort Adams State Park. The numerous performances and the venue itself, along the water, were stunning. With this being my fifth fest since 2010, I can say this year was my favorite lineup of the fests I’ve attended (that may have to go to last year) but it was perhaps the one which made me prove I was tireless. No matter what the hour, there was at least one performance I wanted to catch happening. I missed countless special appearances at the Fort and I only made the first half of Deer Tick’s ClusterFolk after-show (stay tuned for a separate piece)

As I had done last year, I thought I would recap Newport Folk Festival by highlighting some of the most delectable morsels. Specifically, one act I had seen before and one act new to me (at least in a live setting). The beauty (or perhaps the ire of some) of Newport is that the fest doesn’t announce any performers at the time tickets go on sale (and promptly sell out). They roll out the lineup over a few months ahead of the fest giving people time to explore acts new to them. Check out our three day coverage below and head over to PopMatters’ Facebook page to see a large gallery of photos.


Friday: Hurray for the Riff Raff and the Wild Reeds

Alynda Lee Segarra’s project, Hurray for the Riff Raff, took quite a musical turn this year with the release of her second album on ATO Records, The Navigator. Segarra ditched her Americana-folk sound (which earned her a spot at the Fort in 2013) and imbued the music with the spirit of her Puerto Rican heritage. The Navigator is one of the strongest records of the year and its political current is powerful. Segarra brings this smouldering fire to her performance through songs like “Lake of Fire” and “Pa’lante”. For her finale, Hurray for the Riff Raff reconnected to the folk roots with a rousing cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” proclaiming “Sing it with us now. I want them to hear this down in Mar-a-Lago.” (Stream this set at NPR.)

The Wild Reeds were one of the new bands I was most looking forward to at Newport. The band’s sound reminds me of Houndmouth’s rock with Lucius’s gift for blended harmonies. Mackenzie Howe expressed genuine shock at the profound opportunity the band had to play Newport. Their 2017 album The World We Built was featured prominently in their set as the ladies sang through gems like “Capable” and “Only Songs”. A lovely set led to Relix inviting the gals to perform a couple of songs for a taping the next day. (Stream this set at NPR).

Bonus Points:

* Aaron Lee Tasjan was a remarkable musician to have kick-off the main stage. His robust set jolted the audience into the weekend of music. An artist to watch.

Nancy and Beth

* Nancy and Beth. Nancy and Beth. Stephanie Hunt and Megan Mullaly’s vaudeville inspired act offered some hilariously odd tunes along with choreographed dance moves.

* Fortunately, Regina Spektor’s tour bus arrived at the fort in the nick of time — she made it to the stage a little late and apologized. Of course, no one could stay angry at a performer with a heart as big as hers.

* Fleet Foxes were just beginning the summer run of shows in support of their latest Crack-Up so it felt extraordinary to be some of the first people to hear those songs live.


Saturday: Offa Rex and Grandma’s Hands Band (Bill Withers Tribute)

Offa Rex is a traditional British folk group made up of Olivia Chaney and the Decemberists. The latter is possibly the only band that could veer into freak-folk, ’70s nostalgia and get away with it. Chaney is just steeped in it. The group only had a few tour dates scheduled to support their album Queen of Hearts which means I caught mainly half of them (the other was in NYC). Chaney and Colin Meloy alternated vocal duties throughout the set. For example, he sang “Blackleg Miner”, a mid-1800s song about coal miners and strikebreakers, while she sang the dazzling title song, that whirls by on an electric harpsichord. One may have thought Fairport Convention was in attendance save for when a “cover” of the Decemberists was thrown in for good measure.

Grandma’s Hands Band was slotted early in the day, and little was announced other than it would be a Bill Withers tribute. As it turned out, the group included Hiss Golden Messenger and Justin Vernon (of Bon Iver) who took turns singing Withers’s classics, along with special guests like Natalie Prass, Alynda Segarra ( on”Grandma’s Hands”) and Patterson Hood. But it was Vernon who stole the set during “Ain’t No Sunshine”. It may not be fair to claim this set as a band as it may be a Newport-only type of moment but this was perhaps my favorite set of the whole weekend.

Bonus Points:

* That Avett Brothers’ cover of Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” was pretty incredible.

* Joseph’s introduction included mention of so many of the accolades they have earned. They had one of the largest crowds at the harbor stage in recent memory.


Sunday: John Prine and Pinegrove

John Prine’s low key, warm country was a lovely embrace for Newport. And, as the final set of the weekend, it was a way to embrace many of the performers and a genuinely solid set of country-folk tunes with some jokes to boot. a steady string of guests, from Jim James to Margo Price to Nathaniel Rateliff to, the audience’s total surprise, Roger Waters joined in on tracks like “Angel from Montgomery”. That man traveled a long way just to perform on “Hello in There” but he looked like he wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else. For Prine’s finale, “Paradise”, practically any musician still backstage came up to participate as is the tradition at Newport. (Stream his set at NPR.)

Pinegrove is a young band from New Jersey, still working on their debut album. But the group has been earning a lot of buzz. They opened with a song called “Old Friends” and by the end of the set, when their sound was really firm and powerful, closed with “New Friends”. The bandmembers were extremely friendly folks and are ones to watch out for as they’ve got some tour dates later this year.

Bonus Points:

* Author Rick Massimo had an informative session at the Museum stage regarding his recent book I Got a Song: A History of the Newport Folk Festival which has insight into the fest’s history.

Zach Williams

* ‘Speak Out’ was another special set with unannounced artists. It turned out to be various members of the Decemberists or the Texas Gentlemen or Preservation Hall Jazz Band backing a variety of performers doing protest songs. Zach Williams (of the Lone Bellow) joined Margo Price for a song while My Morning Jacket’s Jim James joined Megan Mullaly’s husband Nick Offerman to sing “Masters of War”, Kyle Craft had a lovely cover of Bowie’s “Heroes” and Sharon Van Etten did a great take on Sinead O’Connor’s “Black Boys on Mopeds”.

Pinegrove with Margaret Glaspy