Newport Folk On 2021 Part One
This Is A Very Special Festival
“This is a very special festival,” “There’s nothing really like this anywhere else in America,” – Beck performing at the Lawn stage on Tuesday, July 27, 2021
I would guess the majority of attendees of the Newport Folk Festival, dubbed “Folk On” for this year, were in agreement. One of the oldest and longest-running music festivals in the world once again sold out without announcing a single performer. Due to COVID-19 this year’s festival capacity was reduced to 5000 and was split into two three day mini fests. Every attendee and performer were required to be vaccinated or have a negative COVID-19 test performed within the last seventy two hours. Fort Adams was most likely one of the safest places in Rhode Island, if not the whole United States to walk unmasked.
Like everything else over the past eighteen months, the festival’s setup inside Fort Adams was rearranged due to COVID. This year the festival included only two main stages. The Lawn and Quad stages were both smaller and stripped, compared to years past. The beer garden was placed inside the Quad, seating for the quad stage was decreased, and a tent, tables and food trucks replaced the Harbor stage.
Jay Sweet, Newport Folk Festival’s executive producer, continued the tradition of welcoming the crowd on the first day with a resounding “Happy New Year!” To many, myself included, it is the beginning of the year, our highlight, one of the things that makes life worth living when you are dealt a stocking full of coal. The canceling of last year’s festival and our collective experiences of the past eighteen months only made this year’s festival sweeter.
Resistance Revival Chorus, a collective of more than sixty women, and nonbianary singers kicked off the festival. At the request of Jay Sweet the group performed spiritually uplifting material including Dionne Warwick’s ‘What The World Needs Now.” British duo Ida Mae made up of the husband and wife team, Chris Turpin and Stephanie Jean performed selections off their release Click Click Domino. The blues were well represented on Friday by performances by Black Joe Louis and Marcus King. Shakey Graves and Margo Price both asked the audience to forgive them for the rustiness of their performances due to not playing live since March 2020. Price was joined by Jeremy Ivey, Shakey Graves, Andrew Bird, Adia Victoria, and the Resistance Revival Chorus during her memorable set. The breakout performance of the entire festival occurred on Friday. Celisse performed a blistering early afternoon set. It was difficult to determine who was having more fun; the audience or the performer! Later in the afternoon a solo Grace Potter had just begun to rock the Quad stage when Jay Sweet interrupted her set announcing the immediate end to the day due to an incoming storm. Well, the storm never materialized but no harm was really done. Grace Potter asked organizers if she could play her set the following morning and the highly anticipated Friday closer Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats were rescheduled.
On Saturday morning Grace Potter resumed her solo performance and even took audience requests. North Carolina based Justin “Demeanor” Harrington merged hip-hop and unorthodox folk elements to the stage. The performance was warmly received but computer glitches hampered the performance. Yasmin Williams shared how her dominance of the video game Guitar Hero influenced her decision to pick up the guitar. Margo Price performed one again. This time she played exclusively with her husband Jeremy Ivey. Later, Phosphorescent played for the first time exclusively solo acoustic. Natalie Hemby proved she can perform her own songs as well as write for other country music stars. “Pins and Needles” and “Heroes” were eclipsed by her performance of the Highwomen song “Crowded Table.”
Former Squirrel Nut Zippers bandmates Jimbo Mathus and Andrew Bird’s old time sound soothed the soul. Joy Oladokun songs shared experiences growing up as queer Black woman in a conservative household.
Along with his wife Amanda Shires and bandmate Sadler Vaden, festival favorite Jason Isbell closed Day 2. The seventeen song ninety minute set covered Jason’s entire catalog. The hypnotic performance kept the audience in awe. Highlights included “Last Of My Kind,” “Stockholm,” “Elephant,” “Dreamsicle,” “Tour Of Duty,” and finally the haunting “If We Were Vampires” concluded the set.
The first half of Sunday was dominated by acoustic performances. Tre Burt’s “Devil’s Knee” gave light to the disparities of police brutality. Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley of the raucous Drive-By Truckers appeared as The Dimmer Twins and treated the crowd to a moving performance. Kevin Morby was accompanied by his girlfriend, Katie Crutchfield of Waxahatchee, during his acoustic performance. The pair opened up their set sharing the mike with Bob Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me Babe.” The two voices blended seamlessly. Erin Rae’s set was highlighted by a number of friends including Langhorne Slim.
By no means was Sunday filled entirely with stripped acoustic performances. Devon Gilfillian performed a gospel inspired set dedicated to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. Gilfillian was accompanied on the title track with Nathaniel Rateliff, Maggie Rose, Courtney Marie Andrews, Erin Rae, Langhorn Slim, and Jess Wolfe of Lucius. Later in the day Yola brought her own brand of soul to the table. The British born singer who debuted at the festival in 2019 introduced fans to her new material that was being released the following week. Highlights included “Stand For Myself” with Celisse Henderson, “Dancing Away In Tears” with Natalie Hemby, and her cover of Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” At the last minute Billy Strings changed his setlist and decided to perform selections by the bluegrass legend Doc Watson. Caamp and Nathaniel Ratcliff also both performed impressive sets.
The Sunday finale was billed as Once and Future Sounds: Roots and Revolution which was curated by Allison Russell. The performance was inspired by singer/songwriter, and civil right activist Odetta and celebrated the history of African American women in popular music The fourteen song set showcased the black women who have come to represent Americana music. Poet Caroline Randall Williams, Kam Franklin, Yola, Amythyst Kiah, Celisse, Joy Oladokun, Adia Victoria, Kyshonna Armstrong, Yasmin Williams, and Sunny War were each given turns on stage. The performance picked up speed as the ensemble covered Mavis Staples’ ‘I’ll Take You There.” The finale became a euphoric dance party when surprise guest Chaka Khan was introduced. “Ain’t Nobody” was followed by “I’m Every Woman.” At least fifty musicians, the majority women, sang and danced backup to Ms. Khan. The excitement of the musicians was infectious. The entire crowd was singing and dancing not wanting the night to end. As the song ended every performer bowed to the disco/soul queen giving her all the praise she deserved. Hugs on and offstage ended “Part One” of Folk On.