This past weekend we once again headed up to Rhode Island for the Newport Folk Festival. It is always my favorite weekend of the year, and I was especially looking forward to it this year. 2016 has been a punishing bully so far, and I was just feeling relentlessly beat down by it all. A weekend full of music with my folk family was just what I needed to restore my weary soul. As usual the festival did not disappoint at all.
Usually I wind up writing up several days worth of blog posts listing out everyone I saw, but I’m going to try something different this year. I know most people who read this blog don’t really care about all that and generally skip reading my music posts anyway, so this year I’m going to give some general thoughts on this year’s festival and then share some of the moments that were especially poignant for me. Basically buckle in because this is going to be a long post. TL;DR version is that it was an amazing weekend, and I’m already counting down the days until next year’s festival.
The Newport Folk Festival is a fairly well oiled machine at this point, so I’m always surprised that they seem to find little ways to make things better every year. This year actually had several notable improvements. The best one was creating designated lanes for two-way traffic next to the Harbor Stage that everyone traveling between stages has to walk through. In the past it’s always been a cluster of people trying to push through each other going opposite directions also not helped by people standing on the side of the stage watching whoever is playing. This year with the two-way lanes it was much easier to make it back and forth. Kleen Kanteen also came on as a sponsor of the festival this year and brought much improved water refill stations, so that was a nice bonus. Finally I might be wrong, but this is the first year I can recall seeing some signage for certain things. There was a designated area for people setting up small shade tents in the back, which it has always been unofficially anyway, but I noticed it specifically signed and roped off this year. There were also signs for where you could shelter during severe weather, which may be why for the first time at least since I’ve been going there wasn’t ever a chance of any. Every other year we’ve definitely spent significant time staring at radar on our phones wondering whether we were going to be stuck out in the open in crazy thunderstorms. This year we didn’t get rained on at all for the first time ever, which was nice. I just wish the weather had been cooler.
As with every year the festival is full of great moments big and small that bring me such joy. I just love it so much. Obviously I’m sharing it with lots of strangers who love music, but one year it would be great to have one of my music loving friends along with me to share these things with. I love my husband and appreciate that he goes with me, but he does not really care about being there and doesn’t really get my excitement about certain things. While I’m running around between stages because my Newport philosophy is to never be somewhere that music isn’t happening, this is how he spends the weekend.
He told me during the set breaks when he could hear he was listening to an audio book on the Revolutionary War as one does at a music festival. Plus I want everyone who loves music to experience the joys of this festival at least once in their lives.
Here are some of the moments from this year’s festival that were especially meaningful and joy-making for me.
Musical guests and collaboration
While there is obviously an official line-up that is never the be all and end all of who is at the festival. The museum stage which is a tiny stage inside of the Fort Adams’ museum doesn’t really have an announced line-up. Sometimes it’s artists at the festival doing another more intimate set and sometimes other unannounced artists are playing there. I’ve never actually gone in because there’s always a line since there is a limit on how many people can be inside at once and I never want to waste time standing in line and not listening to music even though there’s probably something amazing on the other end. This year some of the people that I heard showed up to play were Kris Kristofferson, Lucius, and Christopher Paul Stelling. I obviously didn’t see any of them there, but knowing that these people pop up makes me really happy. It’s just such the spirit of the festival. I love that even though they haven’t been on the official line-up for the past few years Lucius has showed up to play. I’ve also heard Jay Sweet, who organizes the festival tell a story about how the year after Beck headlined he just bought his own ticket and showed up the next year to watch. This is a music festival carefully curated by music lovers and not thrown together by some corporation to feature the biggest name bands or bands they want to promote for commercial purposes. It shows in the artists that appear and continue to come back.
In addition to there always being unannounced people who will pop up on a stage somewhere, you also have collaboration between artists playing the festival. I can’t be everywhere so I’m sure there was a lot more but things I got to see were Elvis Costello joining Glen Hansard on stage and playing tambourine for him, Kam Franklin from The Suffers and Shovels and Rope (also not playing the festival this year) joining Middle Brother for part of their set, Phil Cook’s Southland Revue featuring The Blind Boys of Alabama and Amelia Meath from Sylvan Esso, Elvis Costello having a number of people join him on stage at various points, and Dawes joining Alabama Shakes on stage to sing Bob Seger’s “Night Moves” to close out this year’s festival.
Musical History and Sing-a-longs
That leads me to the fact that there is such a sense of history at this festival. Every year I hear artists talk about how playing this festival is a dream come true or that they learned to play the guitar by watching old festival videos. Among many other comments I heard from various artists this year, Basia Bulat brought out a 115 year old zither to play saying she knew that if she ever got a chance to play Newport she knew she had to bring it and that even though it was her first time playing the festival who knows maybe the zither had been there before. That also means you get lots of nods to people who have made the festival great over the years. There’s always someone covering Woody Guthrie or Pete Seeger. Patti Smith sang “If I Had a Hammer”, which she said she hadn’t sung since she was a kid at Baptist church picnics.
All these songs that have become part of our collective conscious are always great sing along moments during the festival. One of the highlights of this year for me was singing along to “I’ll Fly Away” with the Blind Boys of Alabama and Phil Cook. Of course it’s not always historical songs that create precious memories like these. Case/Lang/Viers of course played a bunch of stuff from their album, but Neko Case and k.d. Lang also sang some of their solo material. I loved singing along with everyone to “Helpless”. Though I do have to say that even though “Constant Craving” is a song I adore, it turns out it is not a great song for a crowd to sing along to.
Magic of Newport
The magic of Newport is that somehow you always get to hear the songs you want to hear. I spend all my time running around between sets to take in as much music as possible, which means it is rare for me to actually hear a single set all the way through. Despite that it somehow seems that if I only make it to a set for a couple of songs they are exactly the ones I want to hear. That worked out perfectly for me with the Violent Femmes, Elvis Costello, and Norah Jones. I was also bummed initially that I missed all but two songs of River Whyless, but no matter they played a pop up set in the children’s tent that I got to see instead. Magic I tell you. That really only left me with Julien Baker as the only person I was disappointed to not get to see. Her set overlapped almost entirely with Glen Hansard, and I wasn’t willing to give any of his set up.
Seeing New Artists
Even though there are always certain big names that I want to see, one of the best parts of Newport is finding new artists to love. Sometimes I find a new artist based on checking out people I don’t know in the line-up before hand. This year I didn’t know Ruby Amanfu until I listened to some of her stuff on Spotify after she was announced as part of the festival. I immediately decided she was someone I wanted to see, and I’m so glad I did. She was amazing, and again one of those people who was just so very happy to be at the festival. At one point she did this little happy dance at the end of one her songs like I can’t believe I’m here doing this. She was also one of the most gracious artists I have ever encountered even telling the crowd to please stop her during the rest of the festival if they saw her so that she could thank us for listening.
Then there are the people you just stumble across and don’t leave. Last year I discovered Nathaniel Ratliffe and the Night Sweats because they were playing the stage next to where I wanted to get lunch. This year I was on my way to see River Whyless and stopped by the Harbor Stage to fill up my water bottle, and by the time I was done with that I was sucked into Ian Fitzgerald and only made it to the very end of River Whyless.
Seeing Artists that You Love Again
As I’ve already said, Newport is such a joyful experience that artists want to come back and you get to see them try new things. I adore Ryan Adams and in the multiple times I’ve seen him he’s never played the same kind of show twice. This go round he was playing with the Infinite Stringdusters and Nicki Bluhm as his backup band. That meant he was playing his songs but restyled as bluegrass music. It was amazing. And he’s always such fun. At one point between songs you could hear stage bleed from Frightened Rabbit’s set and he made some comment about it. Someone from the crowd yelled at him that it was Frightened Rabbit, which he misunderstood and then proceeded to make an entire song on the spot about being frightened and rabid.
I also got to see The Oh Hellos again, who are just the most amazing, joyful band. I first found them at Newport a few years ago, and this was now my fourth time seeing them live. They were so excited and gracious to be back and playing the main stage this time. Those new artists I find at Newport do indeed become ones I love to see over and over again.
Addressing the Issues of the Day
This year more than ever I felt the folk tradition of addressing political issues through music. Sometimes I think we start to think of folk music as quaint and a specific style of music rather than it being the radical, political statement it started as. Given the state of our world today it felt like a real return to trying to change the world through music. It was so desparately what I needed to hear this year. I’m sure I’m missing things but Patti Smith, Elvis Costello, Phil Cook Revue, Glen Hansard, Raury, and Graham Nash addressed things in commentary and song about peaceful revolution, voting, Syrian refugees, and North Carolina’s HB2 law. Hopefully the music can serve as an inspiration to continue to fight on these issues.
And as I say every year I just adore the sense of folk family that exists at the festival. I’m an introvert and hate crowds of people, but I never feel irate with people at this festival. It’s the only place where I’ve ever been that tall people are always making sure to offer short, little me a place in front of them. I just love seeing all the families there too. There are so many kids, but not just the young ones. I see so many families with teenagers and twentysomethings who are there with parents and grandparents and friends all together. I can’t imagine another music festival where college kids show up with their parents. It leads to stuff like watching a teenage boy twirl dance his mom as they were walking out of the tent during Margo Price’s set. Maybe a moment they don’t even remember, but something that touched me and reminded me why the Newport Folk Festival will always be first in my heart.
May the folk flag fly forever.
Also for anyone who does care a little more about the music, I created a Spotify playlist with one song from each of the artists I saw play at the festival.