The 2022 Newport Folk Festival ended up being one for the books. Special appearances from not one but two legendary American musicians (Paul Simon on Saturday and Joni Mitchell on Sunday) left people weeping in joy. But there was much to be delighted about within a lineup that included Brandi Carlile, Lucius, the National, Japanese Breakfast, the Roots, Maren Morris, and more. So if there hadn’t been any special guests, the festival experience would still have been pretty amazing. Here are some of the highlights we witnessed.
Rhiannon Giddens Sings in Bengali
Until a few years ago, the Silkroad Ensemble was led by cellist Yo-Yo Ma. But a leadership change was made, and now MacArthur Fellowship recipient and multi-instrumentalist Rhiannon Giddens has the reins. Dubbed “Phoenix Rising”, the new program from the Silkroad Ensemble includes songs as culturally varied as the 14 members of the ensemble. When tabla player Sandeep Das introduced “Ekla Cholo Re”, he surprised the audience with the fact that Giddens would be singing the song, and she had learned to sing it in Bengali. It was delightful.
Béla Fleck’s My Bluegrass Heart
After Béla Fleck hosted an enormously talented roster of artists for his My Bluegrass Heart show at Carnegie Hall, he continued to tour the record with smaller variations of the group. So we knew the Newport Folk set would be tighter. Still, Fleck had some guests up his sleeve, including mandolinist Sam Bush who joined on a collaboration nearly 40 years old (“When the Storm is Over”) and then banjo-player Noam Pilkeny and Jerry Douglas on dobro for a jam between his dry wit and songs from Fleck’s Grammy-winning My Bluegrass Heart.
Arooj Aftab’s Spell-binding Songs
Speaking of Grammy-winners (and wit), Arooj Aftab, who had won the “Best Global Music Performance” award, was an inspired selection for the Folk festival. As she took the stage, she made a note about the color palette of the audience. Aftab’s music, primarily sung in Urdu, certainly wasn’t understood by many (the Newport Folk audience isn’t very diverse, even as the slate of performers becomes more so). But her songs, including the Grammy-winning “banger” of a finale, “Mohabbat”, from her Vulture Prince record, were enthralling.
New Renewable Energy Powered Stage
Nashville rockers and environmentally conscious duo Illiterate Light hosted about five acts daily on their unique stage in the Quad area this year. The “Bike Stage” was powered partly by five riders and partly by solar energy. As guitarist Jeff Gorman noted in an interview, “It’s a way… to just do something different and for us to start the conversation around energy use… trying out new ways of creating electricity”. Illiterate Light played a vivacious set (including their friends in Palmyra for a song) on Saturday, but some of the other acts included Madi Diaz, S.G. Goodman, and Bendigo Fletcher.
A Real Tribute to Pete Seeger
Dubbed “For Pete’s Sake”, the evening before Newport Folk held a tribute to Pete Seeger and marked the debut of a new USPS stamp depicting the legend at the Jane Pickens Theater. There were some names I was familiar with, like Fleck and Giddens. Still, there were some I hadn’t seen before, including Jake Blount and Nora Brown, both banjo players (the evening’s M.C. Chris Funk of the Decemberists made some jokes about the number of banjos that would be on stage during the tribute). Blount commented on the paradoxical nature of the event — Seeger was at one point a “card-carrying communist” and might not have supported having his face representing part of the US government.
Meanwhile, Brown, a teenager, was phenomenal as she performed a few songs, including one with Giddens and one with J.P. Harris. Anaïs Mitchell acknowledged that Seeger’s legacy is more significant than the stamp as she affirmed how deep-rooted his music is — a “song can be in the world and no one knows you wrote it”.
The Black Opry Revue
Of the artists participating in the Black Opry revue, I was only familiar with the blues of Buffalo Nichols. I saw him opening for Valerie June earlier this year, and I’ve often heard his tunes when streaming satellite radio. Nichols and other artists, Autumn Nicholas, Julia Cannon, Chris Pierce, the Kentucky Gentlemen, Lizzie No, Leon Timbo, and returning folk family player Joy Oladokun (who had her slot later in the fest), took turns performing before coming together for a powerful finale. No one commented that it’s usually “like one or two Black people [at a folk fest]. Maybe that’s an accident, but more likely, it’s because we’re extremely dangerous when we’re all together.” A similar statement echoed in the final set.
A Spiritual Helpline Gospel Revue Brightens Up Sunday
Newport Folk has hosted some gospel sessions in prior years, but Phil Cook’s curated slot in 2022 felt especially bright. Cook enlisted fellow North Carolinians 83-year-old Lena Mae Perry, Thomas Rhyant, and the Union (Leslie Gardner and Simone Appleby) for a joyful morning. The group’s set radiated with spirituality as they sang “Freedom Highway”, “You’ve Got a Friend/Precious Lord”, and “Walk Around Heaven”. For the finale, they invited anyone behind the scenes to join them. Soon Natalie Merchant and Valerie June were on stage to sing along to “This Little Light of Mine”, and the audience cheered as Perry stood up to dance along. A recent documentary, Stay Prayed Up, offers a behind-the-scenes look at Perry and the Branchettes recording a new album.
The Linda Lindas Let the Kids Run Amok
The members of punk outfit the Linda Lindas range in age from 11 to 17 and were among the more raucous bands at the fest. During their set, kids of all ages got up close to the stage to rock out to songs off the band’s album Growing Up. Though Newport Folk has a family tent where artists perform, it was great to see kids’ glee in the uncontrolled space.
Sylvan Esso Let the Adults Run Amok
Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn comprise the electronic duo Sylvan Esso, not a genre one would typically expect at a Folk Festival. But the duo’s effervescent synths had a surprising number of folks bopping. Even more unexpectedly, the duo surprise-premiered their whole new album, No Rules Sandy, which comes out August 12th.
Anaïs Mitchell’s Star Burns Bright
Hadestown playwright and songwriter Anaïs Mitchell had two official sets lined up at Newport Folk, one with the group Bonny Light Horseman (Mitchell, Eric D. Johnson, and Josh Kaufman), and a solo one (she released a well-received, self-titled record earlier this year). When the Bonny Light Horseman set was unfortunately canceled, Mitchell leaned on her musical relationships. She turned that timeslot into a collective jam dubbed “Clusterfolk”, which saw special guests like Cassandra Jenkins, Natalie Merchant, and more. At that point, Mitchell was two days deep into Newport, having performed on the eve before at the Pete Seeger tribute and with the National for “Rylan” (for the appearances I witnessed). She had her band set on Sunday, performing simple, evocative songs like “Brooklyn Bridge” and “Bright Star”.
American Tune Revue with Paul Simon
Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats’ set was dubbed “American Tune Revue” and was meant to be a tribute to Paul Simon. But after Rateliff had done an hour of covers alongside notable guests like Lukas Nelson, Adia Victoria, and Marcus Mumford, he brought out the legend himself. Paul Simon was honored to be on stage as part of the tribute and played four of his songs, including “The Boxer” with Jerry Douglas and “American Tune” with Rhiannon Giddens. His finale was a solo “The Sound of Silence”, after which the crowd roared. It was the 80-year-old Simon’s festival debut.
Joni Jam with Joni Mitchell
If you haven’t heard already, Joni Mitchell returned to the stage at Newport nearly 20 years since her last live show and 53 years after she first played Newport. Brandi Carlile introduced her hero for the living room-style “Joni Jam”; a tribute that included Marcus Mumford, Celisse, Blake Mills, Lucius, and more. But before that, Carlile spoke to the power of the gathered and of folk music — “to power structures, folk music is and always has been utterly fucking destructive. It destroys it. It’s a truth-teller. It’s a power-killer.” When Mitchell’s confidence was apparent, she rose to play guitar for the first time live since an aneurysm several years back, she devastated the audience as she sang for “Both Sides Now”, “Summertime”, and “Circle Game”.