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Newport Folk Festival: A Marvelous Musical Retreat

Photos: Sachyn Mital

The 2019 Newport Folk Festival delivered on all fronts with Dolly Parton, Kermit the Frog, the Highwomen and Yola as this year's MVP.

The 2019 Newport Folk Festival took place over the final weekend in July, a gorgeous weekend weather-wise, avoiding burdensome heat while offering enough of a breeze. It was also impossible to complain about the music, other than there were too many great performers and not enough time to catch them all. I missed a number of collaborations that went down, including Jason Isbell joining Warren Haynes, James Taylor docking his boat at the fest to join Sheryl Crow for "Everyday Is a Winding Road" and even Brandi Carlile rocking out during Hozier's set for her song "The Joke".

But I did manage to catch a lot of what I had set out to do during the 60 year-old festival, including the two huge finales and the debut of supergroup the Highwomen (which includes Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, Amanda Shires and Maren Morris). And while I made it to Aaron Lee Tasjan's pre-party at the Newport Blues Cafe on the eve of the fest, I failed to attend any other after-show (though I had a ticket for Mavis Staples). I was just so overwhelmed from days of great music.

Tasjan's show included short sets from Liz Cooper and the Stampede, Erin Rae, and Parker Millsap before Tasjan took the stage with a full band. The group performed a cover of Tom Petty's "Breakdown", "Heart Slows Down", and invited some of the guests back on stage for his finale, Deer Tick's "The Bump".

Friday

The Harbor stage kicked off Friday with a set by the powerhouse vocalist Yola. Yola's star has been rising all-year, and she was very in demand. The rapt crowd stretched out well beyond the tent's canopy to listen to her set that included songs from her debut Walk Through Fire and a cover of Elton John's "Yellow Brick Road". Yola takes the title of fest MVP this year as she performed with Brandi Carlile's supergroup the Highwomen (she's practically a member) and made appearances elsewhere throughout the fest including the Saturday headlining slot dubbed "♀♀♀♀: The Collaboration". That collaboration was curated by Carlile (who I considered last year's MVP) after fest organizer Jay Sweet asked her to do so after the 2018 fest.

A little later on, I caught up to Parker Millsap on the main stage. He's a favorite of writers here at PopMatters though I hadn't seen him before the Thursday pre-show. But instead of that small stage, Millsap was on the main stage commanding the audience to get their hands up in the air. His music was more dance-friendly than other performers but clearly rooted in Americana and strong rock riffs.

The Quad stage was where I wanted to be though on Friday. I expected the greatness of I'm With Her's beautiful harmonies and the powerful guitar rock from Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real (who covered Neil Young's "Rockin' in the Free World") before the Highwomen made their debut. The Highwomen derived their name from the Jimmy Webb country classic "Highwayman" and hewed more toward country than the members' own projects. It was the place to be as the crowd was rapturous for their arrival. Shires's husband Jason Isbell was part of the band, alongside the Hanseroth twins, and he helped pen the "first gay country song", "If She Ever Leaves Me" which he knew Carlile had to sing. The group (including a drop in from Sheryl Crow at one point) performed their entire debut record, which includes a cover of Fleetwood Mac's "The Chain", and played "Redesigning Women" a second time as their encore.

Saturday

Saturday really belonged to one person. Dolly Parton. But even though rumors that she would be a special guest swirled early in the afternoon, there were a couple of notable acts that offered a bit of diversity to the folk fest.

First up was Massachussett's Awaaz Do, a band made up of South Asians united to give voice to their and other communities whose latest record Beyond Borders came out in June. The group played a set at the Museum stage that began with a baraat -- a short procession of audience members led into the room by the march and beat of the dhol. Then the group kicked into a set that mixed English language songs with Bollywood classics all with punk flair and a social justice bent. This was the "For Pete's Sake" section of the program after all.

I quickly wound my way back up to the Quad stage to catch Jupiter & Okwess, a Congolese band that quickly got a wild party started. I didn't know their music at all before Newport, but the memorable group was so fun. The first record I listened to after the fest was their record Kin Sonic. I didn't get to see them when they played Brooklyn a few nights later, but I hope to catch them soon.

Finally, it was time for Carlile's "♀♀♀♀: The Collaboration". And sure enough, Parton closed out the set with a slew of hits sharing the stage with starstruck Highwomen for most of them -- "Eagle When She Flies", "Just Because I'm a Woman", and "Jolene" -- while "I Will Always Love You" was sung with Carlile alone and "9 to 5" closed the stage out with just about everyone returning to the stage. Before Parton though came numerous other female artists, including Molly Tuttle, Sheryl Crow, Amy Ray, Linda Perry (welcoming everyone to sing "What's Up") and Judy Collins.

Sunday

I thought I would ease into Sunday but there was a lot of powerful music to catch before the headlining jam, like J.S. Ondara (backed by Dawes), Hozier (joined by Mavis Staples and Carlile), and Bonny Light Horseman (a supergroup featuring Anaïs Mitchell, the Fruit Bats' Eric D. Johnson, and Josh Kaufman). Our Native Daughters (also a supergroup but featuring Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, Allison Russell, and Leyla McCalla) were a must as Newport marked the last date of their brief tour. As Rolling Stone noted, "the quartet traded off on an all-embracing array of old-time songs — equal parts gut-wrenching and galvanizing — that told a 400-odd-year story of black womanhood in America." The group wrought strong emotions from the audience with their music.

But again it was the finale that made an awesome day incredible. As a tribute to Pete Seeger, the day would have been the late folk singer's 100th birthday, the "If I Had a Song" set drew from Seeger's hits and other classics. A songbook was passed out ahead of the set so attendees could sing along. And what happened next will forever remain in Newport history books.

With stagehands setting up a little stool center stage, Jay Sweet revealed the first guest, Kermit the Frog. Kermit had an ace band that included Benmont Tench and former Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss. And as Kermit sang "Rainbow Connection", Jim James joined in mid-song. The audience was so moved tears were shed.

Guests and performances that followed included Mavis Staples fittingly joined by Our Native Daughters, Hozier and more for the civil-rights tune, "Eyes on the Prize". Hurray for the Riff Raff's Alynda Segarra took the stage with Carlile and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band for "If I Had a Hammer". Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes, James Mercer of the Shins and Eric Johnson began "Judy Blue Eyes" but let Judy Collins, the song's inspiration, take it home. Lastly, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, who had played at early incarnations of Newport, made a main stage appearance for the finale, "Goodnight, Irene" alongside many of the aforementioned artists (plus Colin Meloy) -- musicians of a younger generation that he and his peers inspired.

Sixty years on, Newport Folk Festival continues to unite a variety of voices both on and off stage. It is a mecca for family and friends. It is a sanctum for promising, new artists and established veterans to try new things and connect. And for a few days every year, Newport offers a marvelous musical retreat.

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