As we’ve done for the past 6 years we headed up to Rhode Island the last weekend of July for the Newport Folk Festival. It’s always my favorite weekend of the year. As always it was a magical experience from the weather to the music. Heading into the weekend it looked like we were going to get rained on a lot. I literally took up half my suitcase with rain boots in preparation for being soaking wet. Instead it wound up being one of the best weather weekends we’ve had at Newport. It was chilly, grey, and super windy on Saturday from the nor’easter that came through the mid-Atlantic over the weekend, but somehow was kept just south of the Rhode Island coast. Unlike a lot of people who apparently don’t know how to check a weather forecast, I came prepared and was appropriately clothed so it wasn’t too bad. Sunday was perfect.
I know no one cares, so I won’t bore you with a play by play of who I saw play, but I’ll just share some of the best moments from the weekend. I always enjoy when artists have what I like to think of as a “Newport moment” where they just become overwhelmed by the fact that they’re playing this historic festival. That happened to Big Thief on Friday. The lead singer stopped partway through her set and said I’m shaking. It just doesn’t seem right to keep playing through my set like this is a normal show. I don’t know what to play right now, at which point people in the crowd started shouting out song suggestions. She was completely overwhelmed saying I can’t believe you guys know the name of my songs. She finally settled on a song, but asked to start it over and put down her guitar and just let the rest of the band back her while she picked up the microphone and sang and danced. The crowd gave them a standing ovation at the end of the song. Newport, man.
Nancy and Beth featuring Nick Offerman, which is the sort of vaudeville show put on by Megan Mullally and Stephanie Hunt. It was just ridiculous amounts of fun, and I appreciate that they stuck around the rest of the weekend and popped up in various places.
Grandma’s Hands Band was a special treat. I knew it was a tribute to the songs of Bill Withers (Lean on Me, Ain’t No Sunshine, Lovely Day to name a few), but there wasn’t any information released ahead of time about who would be participating in it. This was just one of the many moments of the festival when you trust producer Jay Sweet and show up for something amazing. I’m constantly stage hopping so I very rarely make it in time for the pre-set announcement of who is playing. Assuming they actually did say from the top who was on stage I missed it, so I was incredibly delighted to realize that the distinctive sounds of M. C. Taylor (aka Hiss Golden Messenger) were coming from the stage. He played together with Justin Vernon (aka Bon Iver) and Phil Cook plus a number of other guest singers. The whole thing was a real treat and again something just so signature Newport. What other music festival creates multiple tribute sets (there was also one for the songs of Chuck Berry).
As I mentioned in a previous post after seeing Joseph perform in Annapolis a few weeks ago, they definitely earned themselves a spot in my Newport lineup. They did not disappoint. They were equally as amazing and blew the crowd away. And they participated in another venerable Newport tradition in which an artist who is not on the bill for the weekend at all shows up and joins in other people’s sets. In this instance it was Zach Williams from The Lone Bellow who joined them to sing Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me”. Definitely one of my highlights of the weekend.
Starting off my Sunday with Choir! Choir! Choir! was a wonderful experience. If you’re not familiar Choir! Choir! Choir! was started by two guys from Toronto just inviting people to get together and sing via a Facebook event. In the years since it has taken over their lives. For 40 minutes they amused the crowd with their humor and eventually turned us into a choir teaching us to sing in two part harmony Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”. Nothing better than joining my folk family in a beautiful sing-a-long.
Rhiannon Giddons was one of my favorite sets of the weekend. Again you could just feel her excitement and awe at getting to perform on the Newport stage. One of her band mates told a wonderful story about how his father-in-law played the first Cajun two-step set back in the 60s. Prior to arriving they were panned in the Newport paper and worried they were going to show up and get booed off the stage. Instead the crowd went wild for them and he wrote a song about the experience that Rhiannon Giddons and her band played. The whole set was fantastic.
Speak Out was another random set I didn’t really know what I was getting into going in. I heard Jay Sweet talk about it on the All Songs Considered podcast. He basically said that after the election he had many artists contact him about wanting to come to Newport this year to be a part of it even if only for a song because of what Newport is and the meaning of folk music. Last year’s festival seemed very political to me. A lot of artists spoke out against Trump and things that were happening at this time last year, so I sort of expected it to be even more so like that this year. Instead it wasn’t at all, and ultimately I was glad for it. I’m so inundated with politics every other second of my life these days, it actually felt really great to disconnect from it all and celebrate through song for a change. Even during a set entitled Speak Out, no one actually spoke in just words. The entire thing was songs. It was artists both again on this year’s bill and those who showed up just to sing a song bringing back old protest songs to help fight another day. Zach Williams showed up again as did Sharon Van Etten and Margo Price who I had not seen around the rest of the weekend. I of course should not have been surprised the Jess and Holly from Lucius showed up during this one too. They have come back to Newport every year since the first time they performed whether they were on the bill or not. I was jokingly making up a Newport bingo card for the weekend and my husband said I needed to put a Jess and Holly sighting on there. He’s not wrong. Listening to them sing O-o-o-h Child backed by the Berklee Gospel Choir and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band was another highlight of my weekend.
This year’s closing headliner for the festival was the legendary John Prine. I have heard so many artists cover his song “Angel from Montgomery”, it was a real treat to finally get to hear him sing it. In that same All Songs Considered interview I mentioned, Jay Sweet said that he could not give time to everyone who had asked him to sing with John Prine during his set. A lot of people came out and sang with him including Margo Price, Jim James, Nathaniel Rateliffe, and Jess and Holly. The biggest surprise of all was Roger Waters. He headlined last year and sang a John Prine song during his set. This year he came back to sing a song with John Prine because what even is this festival. How does someone like Roger Waters just stop in to a sing a single song. That’s how special this is. There really aren’t words to convey it even though I try every year.
It was another amazing weekend that helped to restore my weary soul.