Newport Folk Festival 2021 Adapts to Pandemic Times with an Upbeat Tempo (Photo Essay)

Joie de vivre defined 2021’s Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island this July and its good vibrations resonate. Photo essay.

Newport Folk Festival 2021
Jay Sweet
23-28 July 2021 (US)

In between Newport Folk Festival events, the festival community remains connected via Facebook groups and other social media to track alumni and discuss plans or possible artists for the next year. Every year tickets sell out well before performers are announced. Festival producer Jay Sweet continues to treasure that community and greets those gathered for the gates to open with a greeting every year.

This year, Sweet emphasized the festival’s motto (“be present, be kind, be open and be together”) as he showed appreciation for the people coming to Newport. People kept that dictum close to the heart, and kept phones in pockets instead of filming overhead, throughout the gorgeous weekend of music. 

Sweet acknowledges how tough the COVID-19 pandemic has been on everyone and the value of the community. He has spoken about the charitable efforts of the Newport Festivals Foundation. When performers couldn’t tour to support themselves, the foundation set up a relief fund to provide artists grants even as it continued to support music education. 

The “Folk On” festival was stretched from three days to six days, the ticketed capacity was reduced by about 40%, and one of the indoor stages was discontinued. These steps offered people more space to spread blankets and have a socially distanced buffer. (Others of some means simply anchored their boat just outside Fort Adams State Park). But the guidance didn’t require that masks be worn outdoors, even if the festival had signs recommending usage, so many people chose to gather maskless in front of the stages. (Masks were few and far between in general.) 

Lack of diversity is a known festival problem, but Sweet must have made a conscious effort to be more inclusive this year as more Black and LGBTQ musicians attended this year, including Joy Oladokun, Black Joe Lewis, Yasmin Williams, and a number of guests during Allison Russell’s set including Kyshona, Sunny War and Amythyst Kiah. Most attendees (and photographers) were white, but perhaps if Newport announced artists before tickets were sold, it could attract a more diverse audience. 

The Resistance Revival Chorus kicked off Friday’s opening. The all-female group performed a joyous, exhilarating set helping people mentally escape the pandemic at least for a while.

Resistance Revival Chorus (Newport Folk Festival 2021) | Photo: ©Sachyn Mital

Ida Mae, Chris Turpin. and Stephanie Jean (whom PopMatters recently interviewed), performed two sets, one on the main stage and one on the busking stage, showcasing songs from their new release Click Click Domino.

Stephanie Jean and Chris Turpin (Newport Folk Festival 2021) | Photo: ©Sachyn Mital

Phenomenal guitarist Celisse shredded the audience with a set on Friday and made guest appearances during Yola’s set and in the finalé.

Celisse Henderson (Newport Folk Festival 2021) | Photo: ©Sachyn Mital

Lucy Dacus performed reflective tracks from her latest release, Home Video, and invited friends Adia Victoria, Tré Burt, and Haley Heynderickx for “Going Gone Gone” to close her set. 

Adia Victoria, Lucy Dacus, Tré Burt, and Haley Heynderickx (Newport Folk Festival 2021) | Photo: ©Sachyn Mital

Grace Potter, unfortunately, had to end her set early due to an impending storm but was invited to perform again Saturday morning. 

Grace Potter (Newport Folk Festival 2021) | Photo: ©Sachyn Mital

Yasmin Williams cried after earning a standing ovation for a solo set that included songs like “High Five” and a new tune she started writing the night before.

Yasmin Williams (Newport Folk Festival 2021) | Photo: ©Sachyn Mital

Marcus King and his band brought undeniably funky energy to the first day.

Marcus King (Newport Folk Festival 2021) | Photo: ©Sachyn Mital

Joy Oladokun‘s in defense of my own happiness has earned critical acclaim following its release earlier this summer. 

Joy Oladokun (Newport Folk Festival 2021) | Photo: ©Sachyn Mital

Previously debuting at Newport in 2019 with her group the Highwomen, Natalie Hemby performed songs from her forthcoming release Pins and Needles, including “New Madrid” and “Radio Silence”. (She talked with PopMatters about this record in her 2019 interview.) Later, she dedicated “This Town Still Talks About You”, from the underrated Puxico, to the late John Prine. 

Natalie Hemby (Newport Folk Festival 2021) | Photo: ©Sachyn Mital

As a favorite of many attendees, Randy Newman was showered with love throughout his solo piano set even as he suffered through an irritating fog horn sound coming from the crowd and flubbed some lyrics. 

Randy Newman (Newport Folk Festival 2021) | Photo: ©Sachyn Mital

Jason Isbell performed alongside a reduced group (he wasn’t aware he could bring his band the 400 Unit). But he, Amanda Shires, and Sadler Vaden put on a great solo-career spanning set that was probably the biggest draw of the weekend. 

Sadler Vaden, Jason Isbell, and Amanda Shires (Newport Folk Festival 2021) | Photo: ©Sachyn Mital

Nashville-based artist Emma Swift, who released Blonde on the Tracks in 2020, was expected to perform Sunday afternoon alongside Robyn Hitchcock. However, some poor festival planning resulted in another act (with “three guys”) taking her slot. Sweet was quick to apologize and take the blame and Swift appeared on the main stage on Tuesday. 

Emma Swift (Newport Folk Festival 2021) | Photo: ©Sachyn Mital

The set billed as ‘Gentle Times w/ Erin Rae and Friends’ was a collaborative sing-along that was a highlight of the weekend. Langhorne Slim, M.C. Taylor of Hiss Golden Messenger, Aoife O’Donovan, and more joined Rae to perform recognizable folk classics and civil rights songs like “People Get Ready”. 

Erin Rae (Newport Folk Festival 2021) | Photo: ©Sachyn Mital

Brooklyn’s Elijah Wolf performed the inviting tracks from Brighter Lighting, the new record produced by Sam Cohen, during a solo set at the smaller busking stage.

Elijah Wolf (Newport Folk Festival 2021) | Photo: ©Sachyn Mital

Devon Gilfillian and special guests covered the entirety of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On for a 50th-anniversary tribute. He later performed a pop-up set with a group of students to recognize the charitable efforts of the Newport Festivals Foundation.

Devon Gilfillian (Newport Folk Festival 2021) | Photo: ©Sachyn Mital

Yola. Yola. Yola. The weekend needed more Yola. She introduced the crowd to her sophomore record, Stand for Myself (which was released the weekend after the fest) and she brought out guests like Celisse (on “Stand for Myself”) and co-songwriter Hemby. 

Celisse and Yola (Newport Folk Festival 2021) | Photo: ©Sachyn Mital

Allison Russell curated a weekend finalé entitled “Once and Future Sounds”, ceremoniously inviting numerous Black and female artists, like poet Caroline Randall Williams, Sunny War, Kam Franklin, Margo Price, Amythyst Kiah, and Brandi Carlile, into her circle. But Russell managed to have an even bigger surprise guest at the end: soul legend Chaka Khan set the festival ablaze as she and everyone else sang “Ain’t Nobody” and “I’m Every Woman”.

Allison Russell (Newport Folk Festival 2021) | Photo: ©Sachyn Mital
“Once and Future Sounds” event, Newport Folk Festival 2021 | Photo: ©Sachyn Mital