Thanks to COVID-19 the 2020 Newport Folk Festival was canceled. Anyone who knows me or who has been reading this blog for any length of time should know that Newport is my favorite weekend of every year. It is a completely soul restoring event that has been sorely needed in the last few years and ironically was unable to happen this year for some of the reasons that it was needed more than ever.
In lieu of an in-person festival, this year they put together a series of online events to celebrate the history of the festival and use it as a fundraiser for the Newport Festivals Foundation, which supports music education and this year has extended their work to support artists who are out of work due to COVID-19.
They dug into their 60 year archive and put together a radio festival that mimicked the actual festival as much as it could. It ran for the same hours that the festival happens every year. It included broadcasts of some complete sets from previous years as well as themed compilation sets full of songs from the full history of the festival. That mirrors what the actual festival does as there are always compilation sets full of a number of artists who will come out and sing together around a common theme whether it be a tribute set to an artist like the Grandma’s Hands Band set, which was a tribute to the music of Bill Withers that they replayed as part of this or something like civil rights songs. They even had a surprise set on the setlist for the weekend. Jay Sweet who organizes the festival has long said that he would love to not even let people know who is playing until they show up to the festival that day, so he always sprinkles in some sets over the weekend that are listed just as a surprise set. The surprise set for this was a Joni Mitchell set from the early years of the festival.
It was actually really great to listen to festival for the most part. I spent a lot of time texting back and forth with a friend who is also part of the Newport Folk Family. It was nice to relive some of the things from the festival that I really loved. I could picture being at the festival and seeing them. There were also a couple of sets that I was happy to get to hear because I missed parts of them the first time around because there are three stages and you can never be everywhere at once. It was cool to listen to some of the music from long before my time as well. There were a couple of things like the set from Jack White that I skipped the first time around and this made me know that I made the right decision about. I’m also not sorry that I skipped out on the Beck set because it was raining and I don’t care that much about Beck, though I will say that now having listened to it he definitely gets the festival and did not get up and do a “Beck set”. He really made it a set for Newport. I always love when artists realize the importance of where they are playing and don’t just get up and do what they do everywhere.
In addition to the radio festival they did special after hours events as well just as there are during the actual festival. I never go to those because I am done with crowds by the time the festival proper is over for the day. On Friday night you could pay for an airing of one of the three concerts they did for Mavis Staples’ 80th birthday last year. I had really wanted to go to one of them, but they were in New York, Nashville, and L.A. and based on timing I just couldn’t make it happen. So one of the few good things about this pandemic has been able to see some things like this that were just hidden away in a vault somewhere and which probably would never have seen the public light of day otherwise. It was wonderful and I’m really glad I got to experience it even in this limited way. As I’ve said many times before Mavis Staples is a national treasure and it was so delightful to see so many artists I love celebrate her.
Saturday night was another paid show. This one involved an actual concert at Fort Adams where the festival is held every year. Deer Tick who are a local Rhode Island band who have a huge connection to the festival did an in-person socially distanced (for the band, no audience) concert that they recorded with special guests who appeared from their respective homes. As many online concerts as I’ve watched since this all began it was really nice to see an actual band performing together rather than connected in their little boxes via Zoom or whatever even if I still had to watch it through a screen.
Sunday night there was a free film called Our Voices Together. Looking back now they never said it was going to be a documentary about the festival, but that is somehow what I got in my head it was going to be and is sort of what I wish it had been. I was looking forward to seeing footage of previous festivals and hearing people talk about the history of the festival. There was a little bit of that, but mostly it was favorite Newport artists playing songs either alone or in the little Zoom box style with their bands that I was just saying feels a little soulless compared to people actually playing together. I mean I love all the music and the artists that were in the film, but it wasn’t really what I was expecting or necessarily hoping for. I will say that the cover they did of “What the World Needs Now is Love” featuring a metric ton of artists from festivals past was amazing and I wish they would at least make that one song available to rewatch again since the entire film is only available for 24 hours from it’s premiere.
I’m really glad they pulled all this together. I definitely ran through the gamut of emotions listening and watching everything all weekend. Sunday I did hit an emotional low point of sadness thinking about there not being an actual festival this year. There were a lot of tears, but there were also lots of moments of joy. I sincerely hope we can get our act together so that there will actually be a Newport Folk Festival in 2021 because it cannot come soon enough.