July 26-28, 2019
As the sun dipped to meet Naragansett Bay a few Sundays back, the 60 years since the first Newport Folk Festival seemingly came full circle. The Fort Stage crowd serenading Rambling Jack Elliott, and the dozens of singers and musicians paying tribute to the spirit and songs of Pete Seeger (who appeared at the first Newport in 1959) with one last chorus of “Goodnight, Irene”. On what would have been the troubadour’s 100th birthday, it was producer Jay Sweet who encouraged the audience to have the last word and shower the stage with the love shared by all who performed and attended over the course of the three days. That the Lead Belly lyrics so simply convey love lost and always eternal, was a fitting coda to a closing set that left me more than a little teary. In a good way. Let’s just say that there are moments as a photographer when you have to put the camera down, and take it all in, and this was one of them. Welcome to Newport Folk.
Newport 2019 was true to form. Full of collaboration, a few surprises and plenty of discoveries. But what was most different about Newport Folk 2019, is, well, that it’s 2019. We are apoplectic with worry over [pick one] and the growing intolerance and lack of humanity towards others and our gift of a planet. When I think of the roots of Newport Folk, I think of music as resistance and singing as power. And there was plenty of that to go around in real time.
This year’s edition had near perfect weather. High 70’s with the occasional soft breeze off the water. Folks came by land and sea, by water taxi (or if you were James Taylor, who dropped in at the end of Sheryl Crow’s Friday set, a speed boat), two wheels and four. With attendance always capped at 10K and only three main stages, it’s also the most personal and low impact/high gratification festival I cover (though getting out of there if you park on-site is another story).
While Seeger’s spirit loomed ever present, Jay Sweet made sure with this year’s edition that we all knew the obvious – women rule. From the mystery “The Collaboration” closing Saturday to the she-was-everywhere, Brandi Carlile, women’s voices and playing rang throughout the Fort. Friday alone featured the much lauded British singer Yola (who’s set I missed, but also popped up as a guest throughout the weekend), Kacey Musgraves, Sheryl Crow, the Amy Ray Band, I’m With Her (featuring Sara Watkins and mates) and the eagerly anticipated debut of The Highwomen with Carlile, Maren Morris, Amanda Shires and Natalie Hemby (and Yola).
Amy Ray kicked it with her band, I’m With Her filled the Quad Tent with sweet harmonies and The Highwomen opened with their eponymous gender twist of the Willie, Johnny, Waylon and Kris classic, followed by the rousing “Redesigning Women” (and if that didn’t get your ass outta your seat and plaster a smile on your face, you need a good thaw). That’s not to say that dudes were not well represented. My day started with the bare blues of Cedric Burnside, and included solo sets from Warren Haynes and Benmont Tench (who was pretty much a roving house band himself throughout the weekend). Lukas Nelson + POR hit with an intensity of 11 from the first note in the Quad Tent. Me, I was all in for Phil Lesh and the Terrapin Family Band (and a few guests) closing the Fort Stage. Tench has sat in with recent P&F iterations and Warren was in the house, so that was going to happen (that it did on a cover of “Almost Cut My Hair” was a bonus), and Sheryl Crow joined to lend some harp to a closing “Not Fade Away”. The set was generous and solid with very worthy journeys on “Eyes of the World” and “Unbroken Chain”, and a dueling musical conversation between Tench and regular Terrapin keyboardist Jason Crosby that left both smiling trying to find the end.
Got a later start Saturday (memo, don’t bring your Sunday tickets for Saturday) and missed the drums and guitar duo of Illiterate Light, the Songs for Beginners set (covering Graham Nash’s first record) and the Nude Party. The end of Jade Bird’s set was worthy of the big buzz. Exuberant and rocking. Jupiter & Okwess’s from James Brown to Congolese Rumba influenced expressions were musical eye candy. Gregory Alan Isakov moved up to the Fort Stage with his band and hauntingly beautiful songs. Rayland Baxter was a total surprise for me and y’all ought to check him out. Kevin Morby did not move my needle much. Maggie Rogers’ energy and presence was unstoppable in a swirl of red. Lucy Dacus was taken enough by her Newport moment to play photographer. Jeff Tweedy went solo before an appreciative Fort Stage audience and slid “I am Trying to Break Your Heart” early in his set. Dawes played their first record, North Hills, in its entirety with some help from Jason Isbell (who was also everywhere), and, as one of my favorite bands of the last 10 years, may they always stay together.
Which took the day to the unannounced closer, known only as “The Collaboration” and identified by ♀♀♀♀. Bringing together many of the women performers from the three days and one doozie of a guest, Brandi Carlile announced that “today, on its 60th anniversary, Newport Folk Festival is going to have its very first all-female headlining collaboration, it’s time”. Courtney Marie Andrews took the lead backed by the Highwomen and others on “Big Yellow Taxi”. Our Native Daughters (both appearing Sunday) put a strung spin on “Sisters are Doing it for Themselves”. The Highwomen reprised their opener from Friday and one of the biggest whoops came when Linda Perry worked the chorus of “What’s Up” out of the crowd before the song even started. Sheryl Crow took note of all the estrogen on stage before “If It Makes You Happy” and “Are You Strong Enough”. But, when Judy Collins emerged to sing “Both Sides Now” with Carlile, there was clearly more Newport magic at hand. Yet, all of that, and then some, was but a lead in to who was waiting in the wings, and when Dolly Parton strode on stage, the Fort went a little crazy. Parton, who hasn’t toured since 2016 (aside from a few special performances) is one of those performers that has that “thing”, that potent connection with an audience that can move mountains. “Jolene” and a tender duet with Carlile on “I Will Always Love You” made that clear and by the time the stage was brimming with Collaborators for “9 to 5”, our voices were one.
Nothing like starting a Sunday morning with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, a spot they’ve held down at Folk for some years. Over at the Quad Stage, Bonny Light Horseman were playing one of their first gigs. Yeah, I didn’t know them either, but totally dug the small sample size I heard from this band that includes Eric Johnson of the Fruit Bats (a Newport regular), Anais Mitchell and Josh Kaufman (known for his work with The National and Hiss Golden Messenger). Stephen Marley brought feel good reggae to the Fort Stage, before I landed on another new to me discover at the Harbor Stage. J.S. Ondara grew up in Nairobi and found his way to Minneapolis. While his early years were musically shaped by the likes of Nirvana and Radiohead, discovering Dylan blew his mind and led him to the cold. The best I can say is his was one of those pin drop hush sets from a man with a stunning voice and a guitar, and I have never seen a Harbor Stage overflow extend as far and as deep. Remember the name.
Loved me some Stringdusters back at the Quad, and while I had to bolt after a few, I heard the closing refrain of “Lady With a Fan” towards the end and they are always at the top of my jamgrass list. Lake Street Dive at the Fort Stage struck me with a more muscular sound during their opening tunes than the last time I heard them at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival a few years back. Our Native Daughters with former Carolina Chocolate Drops Rhiannon Giddens and Leyla McCalla (both of whom move me often with their own work) have come together again and played the Quad Stage, but I couldn’t stay long so I could get back to the Fort Stage for a solo set by Trey Anastasio. Unlike many of my brethren, I’m an admirer, not a follower, of the guy’s main gig, and even I appreciated the way back “Sample in a Jar” opener. That I came away with a nice series of more personal shots of Trey in this solo setting was a bonus.
My guitar geek pals are nuts about Billy Strings and the kid lives up to his name, especially pickin’ it out with Molly Tuttle at the Harbor Stage. Hozier returned to Newport Folk for the first time since 2015 and amped up the energy quickly when Mavis Staples joined him two songs in. The harmonies and strings of the Milk Carton Kids closed out the Harbor Stage, and after some minor sound issues Portugal. The Man closed the Quad Stage. The band hails from Wasila, Alaska (yes, Sarah Palin’s home town) and with strong ties to the Inuit community, often share their public profile with local indigenous cultures. At Newport Folk, the granddaughter of the Narangansett Tribe’s medicine woman graciously held the stage before the music began.
Newport Folk traditionally assembles an all hands themed closer. In 2015, it was “Dylan ’65 Revisited” honoring 50 years since that tectonic plug in (no, Dylan didn’t show, but Gillian Welch and David Rawlings and company did justice). In 2017, a tribute to Chuck Berry missed my mark, and in 2018, “A Change is Gonna Come” was stirring and powerful, with Jon Batiste leading Mavis Staples, Chris Thile, Leon Bridges, Valerie June and many others through a civil rights era soundtrack. I had no expectations for “If I Had a Song” marking a century of Pete Seeger. The Jim James–Kermit the Frog “Rainbow Connection” duet to open was kinda cute (slight eye roll), but what followed was a little magical. This was a tribute to Seeger’s spirit of resistance and inclusion, not just songs that he made part of our vernacular. With a revolving house band that included the Fleet Foxes Robin Pecknold, the Fruit Bats Eric Johnson, The Decemberists Chris Funk, Wilco’s John Stirratt and Jason Isbell, among others, and with song books for the crowd to sing along, the closing set was bursting with some soul stirring moments. Benmont Tench led us through Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”. Trey and Rachael Price spun gold with “God Only Knows”. Pres Hall and all that brass turned “We Shall Overcome” second line buoyant (as they do). Hooray’s Alynda Segarra told us how a song can change the world with a joyful Brandi Carlile joining in on “If I Had a Hammer”. Our Native Daughters embraced the Seeger cover of Charles Neblett’s “If You Miss Me at the Back of the Bus”. And then it got really good. Lake Street Dive and Hozier came together for Sly’s “Everyday People”. Portugal. The Man took on the Kinks “Strangers”. But when Mavis Staples belted the chorus of “Eyes on the Prize” alongside Hozier and Our Native Daughters, something shook, because, y’all, we got to keep our eyes on the prize of democracy and social justice. Pecknold then took on “Instant Karma” before joining Johnson and The Shins’ James Mercer for a stunning “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” that brought out Judy Collins for the later choruses (Collins to Stills…”it’s a good tune, but you’re not getting me back”, she recounted).
Collins stuck around for Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn!”. And, with the familiar G strums of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” (which should be our national anthem, IMHO) from the Decemberists’ Colin Meloy and the Milk Carton Kids, I turned around to a sea of young faces singing to words pre-dating many by well over half a century. I saw a deep well of caring and compassion in their eyes brought together by song. And in that, I knew, hey, we’re going to be alright. Pete would be proud, and Jay Sweet and all those who made Newport Folk 2019 happen, should be, too. I sure as hell am. #Folkyeah.