Beginning in 2010, the first year I trekked to Newport Folk Festival (for coverage on PopMatters), it started on a new course when Jay Sweet took the wheel as Executive Director of the non-profit and expanded the fest’s musical boundaries. And, for at least as long as I have been going, the fest’s motto has been “Be present. Be kind. Be open. Be together.”
But after several years where surprise artists generated massive buzz for the fest, guest appearances from Dolly Parton, Chaka Khan, Kermit the Frog, Paul Simon, and, most notably, Joni Mitchell, Sweet and fest planners wanted to do a reset and bring the temperature around the fest down a bit (more on that later). Coinciding with the clean slate, the Newport Festivals Foundation (which also runs Newport Jazz Fest) issued a new mission statement: “Their fests would “create moments of hope through the power of music and community”.
Unlike past years, the 2023 incarnation of Newport Folk Fest didn’t leave headlining slots as open calls as tributes or gatherings. Headlining each of the three nights were My Morning Jacket, Jon Batiste, and Billy Strings (respectively), and any guests they had were complementary — not scene-stealers. [The only major “surprise” came when James Taylor substituted for Noah Kahan as the latter had some health issues and the former lived in town and could take a ferry over.] The overall festival’s lineup remained an impressive showcase for promising new acts, diverse genres, including the members of the Black Opry Revue (who were highlighted here), and established acts. With that, we’ll highlight ten of our favorite sets this year (in no particular order).
Let’s Get My Morning Jacket’s Special Guest Out of the Way
My Morning Jacket, Friday’s headliner, had a guest who almost overshadowed them. As lead singer Jim James noted the many musicians the group had collaborated with at the fest over the many years, he revealed that exuberant Muppet Animal would join them to perform “One Big Holiday”, pounding away at his drums with even more ferocity than human drummer Patrick Hallahan. It was an epic conclusion to a set that was full of fan favorites like “I’m Amazed”, “Circuital”, and a cover of Carole King’s “I Feel the Earth Move” with Margo Price.
Del Water Gap Dreamed of a Newport Debut
Del Water Gap (S. Holden Jaffe) was a late addition to the festival lineup (a few bands had to bow out). His energetic set included performances of two new singles he had released throughout the summer, “Coping on Unemployment” and “All We Ever Do Is Talk”. Jaffe noted he had dreamed about playing the festival since he was a little boy. Between his set and a guest spot with Maggie Rogers (they were in a band called Del Water Gap before), Holden made an awesome Newport debut.
Nickel Creek Remain an Audience Favorite
Nickel Creek are always a favorite bluegrass outfit to catch, and the energy between Chris Thile, Sean Watkins, and Sara Watkins is palpable. The group released their first album in nine years, Celebrants, this past March and have been touring since. Their jubilant set opened with the first track from the new record (“Where the Long Line Leads”, included the LP’s title track, and mixed in many older fan favorites, like “This Side”, “Lighthouse’s Tale”, and “Somebody More Like You”.
Abraham Alexander Evokes Sorrow and Hope
Abraham Alexander may have only released his debut record SEA/SONS this year, but he’s been on the Texas music scene since at least 2017. The record is at times mournful and hopeful, and he showcased that emotional range as he played songs like “Tears Run Dry”, “Déjà Vu”, and “Knee Deep” from the record. Alexander will be touring the US again from September through December.
An Unfortunate Break Transforms Bartees Strange’s Set
Bartees Strange made a splash last year with the epic sweep of “Heavy Heart” from his 4AD record Farm to Table. Due to a broken finger, Strange wasn’t able to play guitar, but he managed to sway, saunter, and stomp across the stage as the group performed. Another packed stage meant the audience was roaring after songs like “Heavy Heart” and “Boomer”. Strange introduced two new songs during his set, the historical “Homestead” and the searching “17”.
Star Power From Danielle Ponder
Danielle Ponder has seen her star rise on the music scene only recently, having quit her job as a lawyer during the COVID pandemic to focus on music — her previous attempts to become a singer hadn’t quite come together, but she continued to do gigs on the side. With her powerful voice, Ponder stunned the Newport crowd with songs from her 2022 record, Some of Us Are Brave, like “The Only Way Out” and “Only the Lonely”. She also performed covers of Tina Turner‘s “River Deep, Mountain High” and Radiohead‘s “Creep” to the audience’s delight.
Tuareg Rock From Mdou Moctar
Mdou Moctar and his group’s desert riffs scorched the audience under the Quad Stage tent enough that they ditched their seats to dance up close. The Tuareg guitarist had one of the best sets of the weekend, performing songs from the more recent Afrique Victime and other records. Unfortunately, just days after the fest, Moctar became stuck in the US after a coup disrupted his home country of Niger (a Gofundme campaign is up to help with expenses).
Jupiter and Okwess Unleash Big Energy
Jupiter and Okwess, a band from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, offered the Quad Stage another huge energy set. Jupiter flailed and jumped his lanky frame across the stage as the group’s guitarists propelled the audience into a frenzy. Their return to Newport Folk was one of the most exciting announcements for 2023.
Hot Temps Impact the Beths
Liz Stokes felt the impact of the summer heat enough to pause New Zealand alt-rock band the Beths‘ show briefly. Fortunately, she recovered, and the band returned to perform songs from their acclaimed 2022 record, Experts in a Dying Field, like “Knees Deep” or the title track as the closer. The audience clapped and grooved along during the latter as Stokes’s poignant voice cut through the air around them.
Wit and Wisdom of Willi
One delightful surprise was the honest, witty folk songs of Willi Carlisle. Carlisle lifted the melody from a slave ship song and turned it into a Vietnam protest song, demonstrating how to make songs “work for you”. As Rolling Stone succinctly wrote, Carlisle was proving that “a folk festival could and should be about better understanding our present moment by examining our past.” He encouraged the audience to sing along and, at the same time, asked the audience to stretch their minds.
Intimate Bicycle Stage Returns
Bonus “highlight” — the renewable-energy powered Bike Stage returned for the second year. It isn’t just hosting Illiterate Light’s energetic rock that warrants a spotlight, but the wonderful intimacy of the stage is. Intimate sets on the platform (it would be hard to call it a proper stage) included Valerie June, Palmyra, and more. When the Ballroom Thieves performed, they concluded their set by singing and pedaling from the bikes. Willi Carlisle returned to stir the audience up during JP Harris’s “For Pete’s Sake” set.