all photos by Carl Beust for Americana Highways
In the early to mid-2010s, Newport Folk Festival was in transition. The pioneering festival has always gone through changes, including several periods of hiatus, since its start in 1959. In the early 2010s, it had a new booker and was looked to bring an infusion of younger talent and a younger audience but share that with festival stalwarts and scene elders. By 2019 that transition is complete. This year, tickets sold out in under an hour and the audience buzzed with anticipation at finding new favorites.
But what happens to the torch-passers after the torch has been passed? The old-timers trusted to play are those of big-ticket status (mostly on Friday, interestingly), or a few on the museum stage, tucked indoors and out of sight of most festival-goers. Certainly, regional, vernacular, learned-orally, community music is largely off the menu at this point.
Newport still has a few surprises up its sleeves that unite the disparate constituencies of folk music (or folk-influenced music, which can mean almost anything). Namely, the Saturday night extravaganza of women hosted and produced by Brandi Carlile was a revelation of continual delights, featuring, to start, Amy Ray, Molly Tuttle, Yola, and Courtney Marie Andrews. Andrews sang Joni Mitchell (the latter doing “Big Yellow Taxi” including the falsetto and baritone sections at the close). Linda Perry led the crowd in a fierce sing along of her Four Non-Blondes hit “What’s Up.” Judy Collins exhorted us to resist and did “Both Sides,” sounding vital. The Highwomen (Brandi, Maren Morris, Natalie Hemby, and Amanda Shires) performed to elation. The crowd (including those on the sailboats in the water surround the peninsula) positively erupted when Dolly Parton strode out. She sang five songs, including “9 To 5,” “I Will Always Love You” (eliciting tears from many), and “Jolene,” and spoke about how her experiences as a woman informed her writing on these songs. Sheryl Crow (who seemingly has become cool overnight after years of being in the VH1 set) sang several of her hits and the kinship she and the others of different generations sharing the stage with her was palpable. The confluence of women on stage was a revelation because it touched both heart and head, both a response to the political moment and a prime musical revue of the kind that isn’t seen outside of Newport.
There were plenty of other enjoyable moments at the fest. Lucy Dacus debuted a stunning new song played solo on her Custom Telecaster before her band joined her juxtaposing relationship trouble with the backdrop of dealing with the news on a day to day basis. Much of her work was hymn-like at first, skillfully increasing the intensity and heaviness as she went on.
Our Native Daughters (Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla, Allison Russell) stunned, backing each other on original works songs, ballads, and folk songs circling the loose theme of slavery’s effect. Kiah is a rising star and she exalted in her first time at Newport. Leyla McCalla dedicated her song “I Knew I Could Fly” to those who didn’t have agency in the past generally, but also a musical inspiration Etta Baker, who was famously forbidden by her husband from playing Newport.
Gregory Alan Isakov scaled up for the big stage, adding electric guitar (there were so many semi-hollow body guitars that it seemed they were issued to each act), cello, and toms, though he did play an acoustic mini-set, saying, “Well, this is a folk festival.” “Buried in the Waves” was a particular highlight with its refrain of “Steady As We Go.” The Appalachian trio Mountain Man (who thankfully sounded like they could have fit into a Newport of the early ‘60s) gave their audience shivers. Lightning-fingered bluegrass wizard Molly Tuttle dazzled her audience on guitar and harmonies.
Appearing in a ballcap and aviator sunglasses, Phosphorescent betrayed a strong Wilco influence, sounding a touch hoarse, which came across as charming in this context. He sang effectively through a harmony pedal as he and his band leaned on the sort of ‘80s classic rock sound that’s become the stock in trade of The War on Drugs.
Pop singer Maggie Rogers stormed and darting around the main stage with an energy and presence that portends a long career on AAA and maybe pop radio.
The appearance of Kermit the Frog dueting with Jim James pulled on the nostalgia strings.
Unlike the early Newport Fests until early in this decade, there were no workshops designed for folk players among the audience, though there was an open mic area.
The food at the fest (part of the overall fan experience) is all over the map from small-town fair fried offerings to fresh seafood and vegan soft-serve ice cream.
Intimate performances were regularly held all weekend in the kids tent, by the water.
All over the fest, there were signs referencing Newport co-founder and elder Pete Seeger, on the entry-way and on the recycle bins (why is the fest still allowing the sale of single-use plastic in the first place?). Signs all around just said FOLK. One couldn’t help but wonder if a non-famous Pete Seeger-like act came along today, where he might fit in the fest. Would he be consigned to the Museum Stage, out of the way? (The line was out the door for Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Lonnie Holley, and The Down Hill Strugglers with John Cohen on the Museum Stage, so some were in the know, but this reviewer couldn’t get in to see either of those all-time greats.)
So, now that the transition of Newport Folk Fest is complete, what is its mission in 2019? Is it to serve as a spot where early adopters and media tastemakers can see new favorite acts before they blow up? Is it a family reunion? Is it to build its own mythology and brand? A call to action? Is it a series of acts designed to surround us with warm and fuzzy feelings? A chance to show off new tattoos and hats (not to mention Instagram everything in sight)? A reminder to live in the moment with one another?
What would Pete say? Impossible to know for sure but certainly most Newport Folk Fest goers were utterly enthralled. See more photos of the event, here: Show Review: Newport Folk Fest 2019, Day by Day, a Photographer’s View