Newport Folk Festival is something special. Founded in 1959, the festival is ridiculous steeped in tradition and you see it in how the artists and festivalgoers treat the three days at Fort Adams State Park. It’s daunting and so incredibly powerful. George Wein built the legacy of this festival and Jay Sweet continued the tradition. The 2015 Newport Folk Festival, Friday to Sunday, July 24th to 26th, had everything you want from an act. Whether it was surprises, coming out parties or a good time, there was something for everyone. Even a proposal!
Getting things out of the way, Fort Adams is a beautiful place to hold a festival. There’s not a bad seat in the field and people treat Newport like a weekend at the park. Blankets were laid, chairs were unfolded and waves of great acts washed over you across three well-placed stages. If your only experiences with festivals are mega-events like Coachella or Lollapalooza, run to Newport as fast as possible.
My Newport experience began with the New Breed Brass Band at the Fort Stage. It was the beginning of a trend for the weekend. Get a band up there that wants to make some noise and win over the audience. There was a lively swing and a nod to New Orleans that had the fans bouncing around the fields. Over at the Quad, Bahamas was bringing his take on folk to a rapt crowd. A Canadian opening his Newport Folk set with a cover of D’Angelo? I’ll allow it. Afie Jurvanen was at home on stage and easily mixed banter into his songs without missing a beat. Closing with “Into the Light” and “All the Time”, Bahamas left his mark early at Newport.
Leon Bridges followed Bahamas on the Quad Stage and the fans treated him like a mini-headliner. The tent was packed and he drew a large crowd early in the afternoon. His retro soul was right at home and he was back by a fantastic band. Dancing and energized, Bridges is slowly getting comfortable with his stardom. I was worried after the New York Times review, but none of that stiffness seemed to be present at Newport. His voice is commanding and timeless, and there’s an assured style that’s beyond his youthful age. Whether it’s “Brown Skin Girl” or “Coming Home,” Bridges never misses a beat. Bridges feels like a polished veteran and that’ll translate well when he plays bigger stages.
The Lone Bellow was a more traditional folk act with a punch that matched the blistering sun. Their songs build to memorable climaxes of love and heartbreak. The Lone Bellow continues folk’s evolution as they embrace beautiful harmonies and rock and roll. With another trend we would see throughout the weekend, Bridges joined The Lone Bellow for “Watch Over Us”. The artist collaboration continued as Lucius followed the Bridges cameo for a cover of “When Will I Be Loved”. As if that wasn’t enough, Sarah Watkins joined the band for another number.
That great feeling of camaraderie continued on the Quad Stage as Sam Beam (a.k.a. Iron & Wine) joined Calexico for two songs. Beam sang on “He Lays in the Reins” and “Bullets and Rocks”. Ben Bridwell, of Band of Horses, would also join Calexico during their set. Easing into the second-half of the day, Strand of Oaks took over the smallest stage of Newport and drew a large and rowdy crowd. There wasn’t too much folk to be found in the set as guitars drove the action, but it’s Timothy Showalter’s songwriting that is folk at heart.
The Tallest Man On Earth was not alone when he played the Fort Stage. Backed by a band, Kristian Matsson started his set with “Fields of Our Home”. Sure he has that Bob Dylan rasp, but that would be doing The Tallest Man On Earth some disservice. There’s never a dull moment as he struts, preens and belts out songs with his guitar at his hip. Battling possible thunderstorms and a murderers row of conflicts on Friday, that didn’t seem to faze Matsson.
Iron & Wine fared better under the Quad Stage tent. There was some sound bleed during the quieter moments, but Beam’s voice kept everyone’s attention. Guest Bridwell was no slouch and the two vets knew how to trade verses and use their different voices to create dramatic moments.
Their friendship is a joy to watch as they play songs that have influenced their careers. The set was filled with covers from their latest album including Talking Heads’ “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” or Spiritualized’s “Straight and Narrow”.
The Harbor Stage was the unsung champion of the festival. There’s the great grassy knoll next to the stage and a nice brick fort to amplify the guitars. Following Strand of Oaks, Heartless Bastards was another heavier act that was a nice alternative after Iron & Wine and The Tallest Man On Earth. Leon Bridges was a big fan of theirs and he took time from his busy schedule to check out their set among the fans. Heartless did what they do best during their debut Newport set and rocked out. Her distinctive voice wails and soars.
The unannounced set ahead of Roger Waters had every speculating and throwing out every name associated with Waters. A few minutes after 5:30 p.m., My Morning Jacket was announced and what a surprise. The folk superstars are big enough to headline Newport on their own and here they were playing a surprise hour set. Everyone was standing and this surprise was Newport at its finest. The artists absolutely love this festival and want to show up for the heck of it.
As for the actual set, it’s My Morning Jacket and delivered on everything you heard about their live set. Pulling from their latest, The Waterfall, and their extensive catalogue, it was set tailored to maximize festival fun.
Rather than leave the stage, Roger Waters joined the band to start his own set with a new song. “Crystal Clear” saw the legendary Pink Floyd co-founder behind the piano for the first time ever in public. Waters’ superstar band was rounded out by Lucius and guitarist G.E. Smith (of Saturday Night Live). There was some rain, but no one seemed to mind. After the new song, Waters sang “Mother” and songs from his reissued Amused to Death. Waters was all smiles on stage, and the backing band & he paid tribute to the folk history with covers by John Prine and the set closing cover of Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young” that featured riffs and shared turns in the spotlight. There was a Levon Helm cover and “Wish You Were Here” thrown in for good measure. Day One of Newport Folk Festival was in the books and there were plenty of surprises still in store for fest goers.
The Suffers started the day at the Fort Stage and the Houston act was holding court with their soulful tunes. Belting out big songs was a nice introduction to the band and was perfect music to sway, dance or just settle in and find your friends. Like Friday’s opening acts before them and Sunday’s acts to come, The Suffers made a point to be noticed. They took the opportunity to perform in front of a crowd of music lovers and seized every minute of it.
The Barr Brothers had harmonies and a harp – what’s not to love? The band took a little time to set up, but quickly made up for the minor delay. Their voices were smooth and soared over the eclectic arrangements. The band was yet another example of the diversity of folk. Watching them use instruments in unexpected ways or switch styles on the fly, there was as much joy watching them as it was hearing them perform. There was even a lovely story of the Barr Brothers’ parents sneaking into Newport to see Arlo Guthrie on their first date.
There was a huge crowd early for Madisen Ward & The Mama Bear. It was great watching mother and son strumming guitars and trading verses. The unassuming duo had a stripped down performance of classic sounding songs that crossed generations.
Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn was a master class of a set. The two superstars are banjo legends and you’ll gain a new appreciation for the instrument after listening to them. The husband and wife are perfectly in sync. Their new album was long overdue and the first time they ever worked together. The set had detours through the Appalachians and even the mountains of China, the latter song saw Washburn singing in fluent Mandarin. The husband-and-wife duo could also have a career as comedians with the fun “dad humor” and awkward hilarity that could only come from two people who share lives.
Langhorne Slim’s punk folk set at the Quad Stage was filled with heartfelt and earnest lyrics. Never afraid to mix things up, Slim set is spirited fun and the large afternoon crowd was bouncing and stomping along to his songs.
Even an Australian can be right at home at Newport. Courtney Barnett’s punky charm won over the crowd and the folk was hard to find in her set. It’s more about the spirit of her lyrics, her storytelling and easily characterized a place in time or location that makes her a good fit for Newport.
Saturday’s surprise was less of a mystery. The Boston Globe had the scoop on Wednesday, but that didn’t dampen the excitement. Where else but Newport could James Taylor play a surprise set? Taylor was invited back after the moon landing cut his set short in 1969 (!). There were some technical issues that delayed the set and led to some massive feedback on three different occasions. Backed with a new #1 album, the set included classics like “Carolina on My Mind” and “Fire and Rain” and wonderful tales of meeting The Beatles and Carole King.
The technical problems that plagued Taylor’s performance also delayed the start of Sufjan Stevens’ Fort Stage set. Each song was beautiful and dramatic. The big concepts and heady songs were a huge hit as Stevens breathed life into lyrical tales of sadness, woe and joy. The songs were lush, huge and incredibly powerful. The arrangements made songs about death sound heavenly.
Brandi Carlile closed out the Quad Stage and her set was just raw and emotional. Her ragged voice isn’t afraid to crack or buckle under the weight of what she’s feeling. Those emotional moments are punctuated by more rollicking numbers that you can dance to.
The Decemberists and their world-building skill closed out Saturday at the Fort Stage. The band is no stranger to headlining the festival and the four years has served the band well. They took a bit of break after their last proper tour in 2011, but The Decemberists were back swinging with a global tour during the first half of 2015.
For any listener who loves a great narrative to their music, look no further. Each of the songs is poetic and live in their own rich, diverse words. You can imagine the different areas songs like “Cavalry Captain” or “16 Military Wives” inhabit. They are big, bold chapters in a large, wonderful tome.
While it may seem like the heady world of The Decemberists would be a bit too serious, you would be way wrong. The fans were wildly in love with the clever wordplay and hidden meanings to the songs while Colin Meloy had fun singing “Hank eat your oatmeal” as an intro.
Despite being the headliner, The Decemberists had to compete with a surprise set from James Taylor, a great seat from Sufjan Stevens, the surprise of My Morning Jacket and that Roger Waters set. It was daunting, but they did their best and had fun acting out “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” complete with cardboard whale. As a proper send off, The Decemberists had a bunch of acts, including Lucius – the hardest working musicians at Newport – and Brandi Carlile for a cover of “This Land Is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie.
Love was in the air for the final day of the 2015 Newport Folk Festival. Two great days of music and surprises led up to a Sunday that included a headlining set for the 50th anniversary of Dylan going electric. Who would be on stage for the performance and how would the festival honor such a pivotal moment in music history? Let’s find out.
Christopher Paul Stelling stole the show and it wasn’t even noon by the time he ended his set. He was overwhelmed by the history and legacy of Newport, but that didn’t stop him from stomping and wailing to create a joyous ruckus. Mix in some politics and jokes about Bob and he easily won the crowd. He had quite the audience watching at the Harbor Stage and even pulled off a nice trick of intricately picking his guitar behind his back while singing to wrap up a song. The songs were great, but the encore was something special: Stelling got on his knee and proposed to his girlfriend and singer Julia Christgau.
Much like the other two days, Newport kept it lively to start Sunday. Gospel reigned supreme at the Harbor Stage as the five women of the Jones Family Singers – later joined by a reverend – had everyone feeling something. The lead singer had instant command of the crowd as they rocked, roll, clapped and made everyone feel good from their head to their toes. Brian Fallon brought his solo act to the Quad Stage. The Gaslight Anthem frontman was having fun while delivering some earnest songs. Fallon’s rasp lends itself perfectly to his blue-collar music and storytelling.
Jon Batiste & Stay Human will soon become a late night fixture on Late Show with Stephen Colbert, but it’s great seeing them at their best. Batiste is just so wildly inventive and creative that the arrangements are full of wonderful surprises. Batiste is a whirling music making machine. There was a simple rendition of “Blackbird”, while other highlights included “Home On the Range” and an incredible version of “If You’re Happy And You Know It” that had everyone clapping and participating.
Nathaniel Rateliff & The Nightsweats was another soulful act getting Newport worked up. The Sunday set was lively and full of dance circles popping up and strangers getting to know one another for a song. There was a bit of a soul invasion and it’s the best way to close out the last day of the festival with spirit, shouts and cutting loose.
Lord Huron on the Fort Stage brought some of the folk back to the forefront and their massive songs were perfect fit for the big crowd. While more of a traditional folk group, it’s great to hear a bit of surf influence in a few of their songs along with those sci-fi intros played between songs.
The Felice Brothers at the Quad Stage continued the trend of energetic acts working up a sweat. The rollicking barroom folk was perfect for shout-a-longs.
I wouldn’t call First Aid Kit’s set on the Fort Stage a disappointment, but it was easy to see that something was missing. Joanna Söderberg lost her voice and that meant a lack of beautiful harmonies between her and her sister Klara. The Swedish siblings make sad sound so beautiful, and show how folk can be translated and interpreted across the globe. They even have a great cover of “War Machine” by Black Sabbath in their arsenal, so what’s not to love?
Laura Marling was another example of folk transformed. She’s a singer songwriter, but her style breaks tradition because full of fire, passionate and fiercely strong. Marling refuses to give an inch or yield any ground she’s won. It’s surprising that it took so long to get her to Newport, but she’s here and heralding a new era in folk
Hozier has gained a bit of popularity since he played an early afternoon set at the Harbor Stage last year. Backed by female singers, it was a spiritual experience before he took anyone to church. His voice just soars across the bay and the touring time and spotlight has also made him a more confident performer and he can rip on the guitar. Hozier is one of those acts that are better in the wild, as the studio can be too mixed and too perfect, whereas live he can dictate the emotion and reach those heights with his voice
Shakey Graves closed out the Harbor Stage on Sunday. With a full band, his songs have even more impact and the added musicians let him experiment and explore new frontiers in his music. Each song had extended intros that were expansive and it was a bit of an unexpected set as the recorded songs were more of a suggestion that were open to his interpretation.
After two days of surprises, what would Newport pull out for ’65 Revisited? Despite all the rumors of maybe Neil Young or Eric Clapton or some other massive name, it turned out to be a smaller, but still impressive affair. Bob Dylan’s guitar used in 1965, Gillian Welch, David Rawlings, Dawes, Deer Tick, The Preservation Jazz Hall Band, Al Cooper, Hozier, Klara Söderberg from First Aid Kit, Blake Mills, Robyn Hitchcock and pretty much everyone else playing Sunday by the time the set was over appeared on stage. There were covers of “Tambourine Man”, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” and “Like a Rolling Stone” during the celebratory set. The stage was packed to the brim with musicians for the boisterous and amazing “Rainy Day Women # 12 & 35”. Some may be more disappointed that there were no huge surprises, but Newport has earned our trust and we’ll be eagerly anticipating more unannounced sets in the future.
-words: Charles Poladian
-photos: Monica Simoes