This past weekend was our annual trip to Rhode Island for the Newport Folk Festival. It is by far always my favorite weekend of the year and this year was no exception. I know no one really cares to read a run down of every act I saw over the three days of the festival so I’m always trying to figure out a good way to write a review of it. This year I’ve decided to frame it around the Newport Folk Festival mantra shared by Jay Sweet, the festival’s Executive Producer, every morning before the gates opened:
It’s probably a pretty good mantra for life not just for the folk festival.
Every year I’ve tried to be more and more present at the festival. I didn’t spend hardly any time on my phone, mostly just using it to keep track of the last minute set announcements. I think I took like 3 photos the entire weekend. I’m not going to lie and say everyone was as consistently disengaged from their phones, but there was definitely a lot fewer people taking photos and videos than I usually see at concerts. It was nice not to be constantly trying to see things through someone else’s phone screen. It allowed me to really be engaged with the music and have experiences like being moved to tears of joy listening to Jenny Lewis play my favorite song of hers, “She’s Not Me”.
I also tried to be present in the sets I was at and not worry about what I was missing on some other stage. Until I can figure out how to clone myself for the festival there are always going to be known conflicts as well as hearing about special moments afterwards that I wish I had been there to witness. This year I just tried to experience and enjoy the moments I was there for and not be disappointed about the things I wasn’t.
The crowds at the Newport Folk Festival are the kindest I’ve ever experienced. Usually you get large crowds and everyone is just out for themselves, but I have never experienced that at Newport. I had people make sure that they weren’t going to block my view on more than one occasion before they moved in front of me. I watched people offer their blanket in the shade to a family with a baby when they left to go to another stage. I saw people returning things that people dropped. And there were obviously so many more examples as I saw an entire thread on Twitter of kindnesses big and small that people witnessed during the festival. There’s a reason why everyone talks about their “folk family” at Newport.
I’ve always tried to make being open something I do at Newport. I always go in with a loose idea of who I want to listen to, but things always change. I always want to be open to where the day takes me. That meant staying for Caamp’s entire set because it was so good and missing out on most of Curtis Harding’s, who I had gone in really wanting to see. It meant giving Passenger a chance even though I only knew his one hit song, which I long ago grew tired of and discovering that he is a hilarious storyteller and great songwriter. It meant abandoning St. Vincent’s set, which I was sure I wanted to see going in because I’ve always heard great things and she canceled her most recent Baltimore date that I had tickets to. I realized there was no way it was going to make me has happy as I would be singing along to Jason Isbell’s songs for the third time in a week. It means dropping everything and running over to the Late July Family Tent when you hear Hiss Golden Messenger is going to be doing a set there. It means passing by the Newport Festivals Foundation tent and discovering Valerie June singing with a bunch of kids from local schools the foundation supports. The beauty of Newport is that wherever you wander you fill find something amazing and if you’re open to experiencing new things you will be greatly rewarded. Almost every year my favorite moments of the festival have come from things I originally didn’t have on my schedule.
Togetherness is what Newport is all about. I don’t know any other festival where artists playing come together as much as they do at Newport. There is constant collaboration between artists playing the festival. There’s even an unofficial award, “the Jim James Award”, for the artist who sits in on the most sets over the weekend. This year that went to Brandi Carlile, who did have her own set on Sunday, but was there the entire weekend playing with seemingly everyone starting with singing “9 to 5” with Margo Price on Friday afternoon. Lucius who actually had their own set this year came in a close second and probably would have taken the crown again if they hadn’t had to leave for a gig on Sunday. They’ve showed up every year since their first whether they’ve had an official set or not. Hiss Golden Messenger also showed up a ton of places over the weekend. The Lone Bellow were only there on Sunday, but popped up numerous places throughout the day. I know I’m leaving out a ton of other collaborations, but this could go on forever.
And those are just the people who actually had official sets that sat in with others. There’s a whole other long list of people who just showed up to sit in on a song or two including John Prine with Margo Price, David Crosby with Jason Isbell, and all the people who came only for the closing set, “A Change is Going to Come” dedicated civil rights music including Mavis Staples, Chris Thile, and Leon Bridges all who I’m sad didn’t actually have their own sets to play during the weekend.
The Saturday headliner was unannounced. It turns out it was Mumford and Sons. People would have been a lot more excited about them a few years ago. They haven’t put out a new album in a while and the pop music fad they were riding high on has since passed them by. For several years Jay Sweet kept telling people to quit asking for Mumford and Sons because the festival is a small, non-profit and could never compete with the bigger festivals to get them. Their star has obviously fallen some such that Newport was able to get them, though to be affordable they still had to be unannounced due to radius clauses. I heard a lot of speculation about Paul Simon finally playing Newport before he retired (I was shocked to discover he never did) and a lot of people thinking it was going to be Neil Young for some reason. But Mumford and Sons truly made themselves worthy of the festival. Given all the things they have done to support musical collaboration like their Railroad Revival Tour, the Gentlemen of the Road shows they put on, and Marcus Mumford’s participation in the New Basement Tapes I always felt like they live by the Newport ethos and it was a shame they hadn’t played there. Their set was wonderful and exactly one that is the epitome of the Newport spirit. They had so many people out on stage to sing with them. They even took backstage and played back up to Maggie Rogers so she could sing her song “Alaska”. The best part of the set and my favorite part of the entire weekend was them bringing out Mavis Staples to sing “The Weight” with a whole bunch of other people including Brandi Carlile, Maggie Rogers, Phoebe Bridgers, and Hiss Golden Messenger. It may be one of my favorite Newport moments ever.
There’s also just the message of togetherness I felt like I heard throughout the weekend from many a stage. It’s a folk festival so it’s going to get political, but the overwhelming political message I heard this year was the need to bring people back together while still fighting the good fight. I left the festival feeling some hope for humanity for the first time in a long time. There were musical moments just perfectly made for bring people together. I had been waiting since the first time I heard it to sing Brandi Carlile’s “Hold Out Your Hand” with a Newport crowd and the moment did not disappoint. And the festival ended with a giant sing-a-long with a billion people on stage singing “Freedom Highway” fronted by the queen Mavis Staples. We’ll keep marching down freedom highway.