Year After Year: Newport Folk Festival 2022
Photos of Paul Simon provided by Rett Rogers and the Newport Folk Festival, all other photos by Carl Beust
How does Jay Sweet, the Executive Producer of Newport Folk Festival do it? The recent musical surprises taking place at this festival have been mind boggling! Let’s start with a Roger Waters set in which My Morning Jacket and Lucius were his backing band. We can’t forget when Kris Kristofferson, who at the time was not performing live, played at the tiniest stage at the festival, and the next day played with the Texas Gentlemen and dueted with Margo Price on “Me and Bobby McGee.” Mavis Staples has had 10,000 fans celebrate her birthday but has also sung “Keep Your Eyes On The Prize” with Hozier and Rhiannon Giddens. We can’t forget John Prine and Margo Price singing “”In Spite Of Ourselves” or the unannounced James Taylor set marking fifty years since his set was interrupted due to the moon landing. Allison Russell inviting Chaka Khan on a stage filled with the festival’s female performers to belt out “I’m Every Woman” cannot be forgotten. Up until 2022 many people thought Dolly Parton’s acceptance of Brandi Carlile’s invitation to perform could never be topped. Jay Sweet was so overwhelmed by Dolly’s performance he questioned the future of the festival. Boys and girls, year after year Sweet amazes audiences with these surprise performances. Jay Sweet with some help from Nathaniel Rateliff and Brandi Carlile have done it again. But…..let’s not forget some of the weekend’s other highlights.
As has become tradition, Jay greeted the crowd before the gates opened and wished them “Happy New Year,” greeted first time attendees, and preached the gospel of the festival’s four sentence, eight worded manifesto; Be present. Be kind. Be open. Be together. These words are not simply lip service. Production, vendors, security, volunteers, fans, and every performer have learned to abide by the code.
An hour after gates opened, Sweet introduced the festival’s first performer and the recipient of the first ever John Prine Songwriting Award. Each year a young songwriter is chosen who embodies Prine’s spirit and is given the time and resources to hone their craft. Leith Ross, who was born and raised in a small town outside of Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, displayed her clever, intimate, and relatable songwriting style highlighted on “We’ll Never Have Sex.” All weekend Ross could be seen backstage soaking up the creative juices the festival had to offer.
Newport Folk continues to introduce talent that the audience may not necessarily be familiar with. Dead Tongues entrancing tunes dazzled the audience. Pakistani born, Brooklyn based, Arooj Aftab’s haunting melancholic set was a deep contrast from her lighthearted, banter between songs. Aftab introduced “Mohabbat” as their fucking happy song and admitted to getting drunk with the band the nigt before and breaking into someones boat. Arny Margret, from Iceland, played her first U.S. concert at Newport. The festival introduced us to Black Opry which is a home for Black artists and Black fans of country, blues, folk, and Americana music. Country music’s versatility and diversity in sound was presented to a very appreciative audience. Hermano Gutierrez introduced themselves with an instrumental set rooted in Western and Latin American sound.
Newport continues to explore the far reaches of folk. Even Pete Seeger wrote that all definitions change with time thus the definitions of folk songs and folk singers are liable to change and any genre of music could become folk. Three bands which broke the “folk” mold were The National, Dinosaur Jr., and The Linda Lindas. The Nationals dark lyrics and style often compared to Joy Division, Roxy Music, Depeche Mode, Leonard Cohen, and Nick Cave surprisingly fit into the festival perfectly. Dinosaur Jr. filled their space with the most Marshall stacks a Newport stage has ever seen. The Linda Lindas performed one of the funnest sets of the entire weekend. In my opinion their brand of punk rock is modern day folk music and has been sorely neglected in the folk genre.
Traditional folk/americana was well represented and Newport stalwarts were never lacking. John Moreland, Langhorne Slim, John Craigie each played solo sets. Taylor Goldsmith began solo but recruited audience members to be his backup band. Sierra Ferrell represented the modern bluegrass genre. Alynda Segarra of Hurray For The Riff Raff reminisced about her first time playing Newport and filled her set with old favorites. The Felice Brothers played a rousing version of “Frankie’s Gun”. Adia Victoria Stage-dove into the audience after performing her southern gothic style of the blues. Lucius, Maren Morris, Anais Mitchell’s sets all showcased their beautiful vocals. The beginning of Valerie June’s set was set back with technical difficulties, which is a rarity at Newport. After changing mikes and correcting the vocal reverb, June’s set continued its cosmic journey. Best of all was listening to Lucy Dacus pay tribute to a Bible Camp romance with a bad boy who loved Slayer more than Jesus.
All this alone would have made a memorable festival but Jay Sweet, Nathaniel Rateliff, and Brandi Carlile had surprises hidden up their sleeves. Nathaniel Rateliff and The Night Sweats were awarded Saturday’s closing slot which was titled “American Tune Revue.” In the beginning I speculated a set covering classic American songs. That morning, the buzz at the festival was that an allstar Paul Simon tribute would be taking place.The list of potential guests piqued my curiosity. Not for a moment did I think Paul Simon would appear. Late in the afternoon, while walking between stages I was stopped dead in my tracks to allow a Cadillac SUV access to the backstage of the Fort. Inside you could see the silhouette, it WAS Paul Simon. Rarely has Simon performed since announcing his retirement in 2018. Rateliff and his band dedicated their entire set to Simon, playing a suite of his songs including “Mother and Child Reunion,” “Kodachrome,” “Me and Julio Down By The Schoolyard,” “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover,” “Slip Sliding Away,” “Homeward Bound” and “Cecelia.” Special guests included Lucius, Lee Fields, Midlake, Natalie Merchant, Lucas Nelson, and Marcus Mumford. This alone was worth the price of admission. Halfway through the set Rateliff announced what a joy and honor it was to perform these songs and play tribute to Paul Simon and that he’d like to invite Paul Simon to the stage. Simon’s appearance was a complete surprise to many in the audience. The songwriter entered the stage, acoustic guitar in hand, and bowed to the cheering crowd. Jerry Douglas accompanied the band as Simon kicked off his performance with “The Boxer.” Simon then handed the microphone to Rhiannon Giddens for an updated version of “American Tune.” The entire Revue returned to the stage for “The Boxer” with the audience singing along to the melody as the setting sun painted the stage in beautiful hues of yellow and orange. Simon thanked the Revue, bowed to the audience, and concluded the set with a solo rendition of ‘Sound of Silence.” Rateliff seemed to speak for everyone in a statement after the performance “It’s hard to put into words the joy we felt bringing the great American songwriter Paul Simon to the Newport Folk stage,” and added “Thank you, Paul, for your songs, your voice and your presence.”
After Saturday’s historic set, the Sunday morning crowd was abuzz by the change in schedule. The Brandi Carlie and Friends set was now followed by a set titled Coyote Jam. Pieces of the puzzle quickly came together; “Coyote” was the lead song off of Joni Mitchell’s album Hejira, Brandi is friends with Joni, obviously a Joni tribute set, well if Paul Simon was here why can’t Joni be in attendance. At 5:45, Carlile, noticeably nervous, performed a short set which included “Broken Horses,” “You and Me On The Rock,” “The Joke,” and “Somewhere Over The Rainbow.” After walking off, stagehands began carting in sofas, tables, bookcases, plants, candles, and vases with flowers. Most notable were two matching Victorian chairs placed center stage. Carlile returned to the stage, christened the set “Joni Jam,” and introduced her friends, significantly: Taylor Goldsmith, Celisse, Marcus Mumford, Lucius, Allison Rusell, Shooter Jennings, Blake Mills, and Wynonna Judd.
Finally, Carlile announced that a Joni Jam would not be complete without the Queen herself and introduced Joni Mitchell. The crowd went CRAZY as Ms. Mitchell took her seat within the semi circle of friends. The set began as a group singalong with “Carey,” with Mitchell taking only a few solo lines. Mitchell, Carlie, and friends performed some of her most iconic songs, including “Help Me,” “A Case Of You,” and “Big Yellow Taxi.” Joni Mitchell gained confidence as the set progressed adding more vocals and shared life stories between selections. Finally, Mitchell sang solo to a captivated audience with Gershwin’s classic “Summertime.” The set concluded with “Both Sides Now” and “The Circle Game.” The performance capped off a historic Newport Folk Festival. Once again this festival pulled off the seemingly impossible. It will be difficult to ever replicate this year’s performances but I’m confident Jay Sweet will have surprises up his sleeve for next year.
Paul Simon Video
Newport Folk Festival 2022