This year celebrated the 60th anniversary of the Newport Folk Festival and what a celebration it was! Jay Sweet, the current producer of the festival, says every year how he’s worried that he can never live up to what he’s done the year before. Every year I have gone has been better than the last, so I’ve never doubted that he could, but this year I think he might be right because I don’t see how he could possibly top this year’s festival. I’m going to let him try and it will always be great, but man this year just blew me away.
I always try to think of a way to frame these posts about Newport that aren’t just a list of all the artists I saw. This year I’m going to write using the theme “Only at Newport” and write about the things that happened that probably wouldn’t happen anywhere else, which is what makes this festival so special. Buckle in because it’s going to be a long one. (I won’t embed any photos or videos here because I didn’t take any because I believe in putting my phone away and being present for the experience, but there are tons of other people’s stuff up on YouTube if you want to find any of the performances I’m talking about).
Before I get to the music itself let’s talk about the people. Newport manages to briefly restore my faith in humanity every year. Usually with large crowds of people you expect everyone to be rude and out for themselves, but that is never my experience at the Newport Folk Festival. I had someone taller than me kneel down for an entire set so I could see over them. I had someone chase me down to hand me back the paper fan I dropped and made sure my backpack was zipped up tight before I moved on. Every time I accidentally bumped someone or they bumped me I felt like we were in one of those stereotypical skits about Canadians about who can apologize more profusely. It was nothing big, but just a lot of small kindnesses that I don’t normally see in crowds full of strangers. Everyone talks about the people at the festival being their folk family and it feels so true. I see the same people year after year. I don’t know them but every year I’m happy to see them set up their blankets in our same spot. The artists also seem to feel that way about the festival. They don’t just drop in, do their set and leave. They hang around. They sit in with each other. They hang out in the audience like the rest of us to see people play. I saw Anais Mitchell more than once. At one point when she was right next to me I wanted to stop and tell her how excited I am to see Hadestown in October, but I didn’t because I’ve heard artists say one of the things they love about Newport is that they can hang out and people don’t bother them. Also as an aside. the number of people I saw reading print books between sets made me extremely happy.
The musical collaborations and the way it honors the past while looking to the future are really what make this festival something special. There were some real once in a lifetime moments at this festival. The artists too always seem to know how special it is to play this festival. I watched multiple artists tear up during their sets this year from people who were playing the festival for the first time talking about how they’ve been fans in the audience and are now standing on the stage to veteran artists like Rhiannon Giddens being overwhelmed and literally sobbing her way through the song “Mama’s Cryin’ Long”.
Newport is also special because it actually makes a place for women artists. There are tons of memes about how male centric other music festivals are showing if you erase the names of the male artists from their lineups there’s almost no names left on the posters. Not so with Newport. On Friday I spent the entire day listening to nothing but female artists excepting the set put together by the Cook brothers, but they had plenty of women out to sing with them so I think it counts. I started off the festival listening to Yola, who although I don’t have the numbers, I suspect deserves the Jim James award, which is the unofficial Newport award for the artist who sits in on the most sets over the weekend. She seemed to be everywhere, and I was here for it. I ended the day with the live debut of The Highwomen, the new country supergroup composed of Amanda Shires, Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris, and Natalie Hemby. It seriously was like all my favorite people on stage together with Jason Isbell backing them on the guitar, and being at the festival allowing them to pull in other women like Yola and Sheryl Crow who sing on the album with them but who obviously won’t be there at all potential future shows they might perform. It was everything I dreamed it would be and more. It just made me even more excited for that album. Also, I know whatever tour dates they do as a group are going to be very limited and this set just made sure that I’m going to pretty much go anywhere and pay anything to see one of them.
Saturday featured a set called “Songs for Beginners”, which was a set full of different artists covering Graham Nash’s album of that name. As M.C. Taylor of Hiss Golden Messenger said this is pretty much the most Newport thing ever. What other festival would put something like this on? I’m pretty sure this is what Jay Sweet managed to pull together to replace an artist that pulled out at the last minute as I watched this set time go from unannounced to this. But that’s the kind of festival this is that he could get various configurations of artists playing the festival to collaborate together and cover this album as a set. Speaking of cover sets, that’s practically what Dawes’ set was. They were playing their first album “North Hills” and almost just acted like the backing band for other people to come out and sing their songs including of course aforementioned Yola singing “When You Call My Name” and Jason Isbell singing “If You Let Me Be Your Anchor”. If you know anything about me you know I love Jason Isbell and Dawes and this was absolutely amazing. I also got to see Dawes support J.S. Ondara for a bunch of songs during his set.
I absolutely hated to leave the Dawes set early, but there was no way I was going to miss out on the mystery set curated by Brandi Carlile titled The Collaboration (with the female symbol all over it). My Newport rule is if there’s a set with no actual artists’ names on it, be there. This absolutely was the highlight of the festival for me. It was the first all female headlining act in the 60 years of Newport. It featured an amazing lineup of women including all of the Highwomen, Judy Collins, Yola, Sheryl Crow, Linda Perry, Amy Ray, Maggie Rogers, Lucy Dacus, Rachel Price, Jade Bird and so many more I know I’m totally forgetting. They all sang various songs for the first half of the set, and then the big surprise (which by that point in the night really wasn’t that much of a surprise as rumors had been flying all day) was Dolly Parton! I never thought I would see Dolly Parton live and to see her in this amazing venue sharing the stage with so many amazing women was more than I could ever hope for. She sang “Just Because I am a Woman”, “Eagle When She Flies” and “Jolene” with all of the Highwomen, did a duet of “I Will Always Love You” with Brandi Carlile, and finished off the set with “9 to 5” with pretty much every female artist at Newport. There really are no words.
Sunday didn’t feature anything nearly as monumental as that, but there were lots of smaller moments that were just as special. That’s why I have never actually believed that the festival can’t possibly live up to what happened the year before because I don’t ever need things to be bigger to be better. It’s the small, special, only at Newport moments that make each year better than the last.
During the set changes at the main stage they have artists do short acoustic sets in the Late July Family Tent, which they don’t announce until right before they happen. Devon Gilfillian blew me away during the short part of his set I saw on Saturday, so when they announced he was playing the family tent I booked it over there to see more of him. I’m so glad I did because it was the best. He handed out all kinds of musical instruments to the kids for them to shake and be his percussion and then got down off the little stage and danced around in the crowd with them. I love falling in love with new artists at Newport and Devon Gilfillian definitely has a new fan.
Speaking of finding new artists at Newport and artists being like family, one of the great things is watching artists come back over and over again and getting to see them grow. I remember seeing Hozier play the small Harbor stage shortly after his first album came out and thinking I do like his music, but he’s not much of a performer yet. Now he’s been back to the festival multiple times and was a commanding presence on this year’s main stage. It was one of my favorite sets of the whole weekend. As soon as he released the song “Nina Cried Power” featuring Mavis Staples I told my husband this is happening at Newport. Since Newport releases their lineup one artist at a time over like 5 months I kept waiting for them to add Hozier to it. He was one of the last people announced and though Mavis didn’t have her own set at the actual festival I knew she was doing one of the after shows and she’s often there whether she’s on the official bill or not. Aside from the Highwomen knowing this song had to happen was the thing I was most looking forward to going into the festival this year. Listening to them sing that song together live was everything I dreamed it would be. Hozier also invited Brandi Carlile out to sing her song “The Joke”, which they dueted together. Also amazing.
I also love that Newport doesn’t have any real headliners. Whenever I tell people I’m going to the Newport Folk Festival each year they always ask me who’s headlining and I have to try and explain that I don’t know. In recent years the final Sunday set has become some sort of collaboration around a theme, and it is my favorite thing ever. It’s usually mostly various groupings of artists who have been at the festival over the course of the weekend, but there are always some surprises. It astounds me how every year there are artists who seemingly show up to sing one song during the entire festival during the closing set.
This year’s final set was a singalong in honor of what would have been Pete Seeger’s 100th birthday. They passed out song books for everyone to sing a long with this year. It was wonderful. When looking through the book to see what we would be singing upon seeing “Rainbow Connection” was one of the songs my husband said Kermit better be here. Well guess what? Kermit the Frog was totally there and sang it with Jim James. He even did the Kermit flail. I mean. I also cracked up a little when they were introducing the main band for the set saying who they were and what band they’re a part of, but when they announced Janet Weiss they announced her as drummer for hire, since she just quit Sleater Kinney. We also got to hear Judy Collins sing Suite: Judy Blue Eyes, which Stephen Stills wrote for her. Dancing and singing along with the crowd to the doo, doo, doo, doo breakdown at the end of this song was incredible. How is this real life? My absolute favorite part of the set was singing “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize” with Mavis Staples, Hozier, and Our Native Daughters (Rhiannon Giddens, Amythist Kyah, Leyla McCalla, Allison Russell), on vocals (their voices together are fire, seriously go look this one up), the Preservation Hall Jazz Band on brass, Jason Isbell on guitar, and Phil Cook on harmonica. We closed out the festival singing “Goodnight, Irene”. The set was a magical way to end the festival and something I hope becomes a tradition. I’m already counting down the days until next year.