I spent the past three days in Rhode Island (sadly I’m still there as I type this waiting to get a tire replaced instead of on the road home) for this year’s modified version of the Newport Folk Festival, which they were calling Newport Presents Folk On. It’s somehow both a smaller and bigger affair. Smaller in that each day was only 50% of normal capacity, it started later in the day, and they eliminated one of the stages so there were fewer performances than usual. With 5,000 people in the audience it was still the most people I’ve been around since before the pandemic. I found out that back in June when things were looking really good instead of trending in the wrong direction Rhode Island told them they could lift the capacity restriction. I appreciate that they stuck with it and honored that they sold the tickets promising 50% capacity. No other festival would have done that, but that is the Newport way. They did require proof of vaccine or a negative COVID test for entry. None of that is foolproof, but it helps. Space at the main stage didn’t feel much different to me because of the fact that they pushed the stage out presumably for more room “back stage”. I still didn’t feel that close to other people most of the time and if anyone was within a couple feet of me I had my mask on. There was plenty of room at the other stage to be far, far away from people if you wanted, which I did. The changes they made also helped free up some of the bottlenecks in the travel lanes between stages so that there wasn’t a lot of crowding like there is most years. Hopefully between that and the fact the festival is all outside with a nice breeze off the bay it was reasonably safe.
Aside from the set up of the festival itself being different this year was different for me because I actually had friends there with me instead of just my begrudging husband who would never do this if I didn’t force him to. One of my friends has also been coming to Newport for years, but we didn’t really know each other before. She was friends with some of my friends and I knew who she was but we never really talked ourselves. We had just started to hang out a little before the last festival and said we’d look for each other, but not even enough to have each other’s phone numbers at that point, and we never did run into each other. Now it’s funny because we’ve become good friends since then and text pretty much every day. She convinced one of our other friends to come for the first time as well as one of her other friends who I had never met before. So the four of us ran around the festival all day and left my husband with our blankets at the main stage where he always just stays. My friend and I are both of the same mind that you should never be somewhere music isn’t playing and since the others were new to the festival they were happy to just follow our lead.
I was a little bummed going into the festival this year because due to the capacity restrictions they extended the festival to six days instead of three so they could still sell the same number of tickets over all. You could buy tickets for Friday, Saturday, Sunday or Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday or both. We just stuck with our normal weekend tickets, but when they started announcing some of the artists who were playing it seemed like everyone I wanted to see was going to be playing one of the weekdays. I would still love to see Allison Russell, Hiss Golden Messenger, Lake Street Dive, Christopher Paul Stelling, Katie Pruitt, and Julien Baker, but in retrospect I’m also glad to have had the experience I did. My advice to people going to Newport has always been go see the people you don’t know and always go to the themed curated sets where you never know who will pop up. I feel like being there on the days I was forced me to do that a little bit more and of course it meant I got to see some wonderful things I would not have otherwise.
I felt like there were mostly (though this is not 100% true) two major things going on during the weekend sets. You had the theme of really trying to give the stage to Black artists (even more so than usual because I don’t feel like the artists are ever all that white even though the audience for sure is) and then sort of doing the opposite of when Bob Dylan shocked everyone by going electric at Newport and having a lot of artists do acoustic stuff. You had Pattersoon Hood and Mike Cooley of the Drive By Truckers billed as the Dimmer Twins doing acoustic DBT songs, Phosphorescent played acoustic for what they said was the first time ever, and although Jason Isbell switches back and forth he did an all acoustic set with just Amanda Shires and Sadler Vaden instead of his full band. It’s funny because he got way more into the electric rock than he has been on his newest album Reunions and now that he finally got to play some of it live for an audience he took all those songs and made them acoustic.
Although I did love Friday and Saturday, Sunday is what really felt like the festival to me. One of the things I love the most about Newport is all the collaborations and people popping into other people’s sets including people not even on the bill and who are just there for the love. That didn’t happen much during the first couple days. I was honestly shocked that Amanda Shires didn’t join Natalie Hemby during her set to sing a Highwomen song since they were both there. All the themed sets where they were inviting artist after artist to the stage happened Sunday. It makes sense because that way some of the Newport die hards like Brandi Carlile, Jess from Lucius, M.C. Taylor from Hiss Golden Messenger, and Taylor Goldsmith from Dawes could be there and overlap both parts of the festival because I’m guessing they’re all going to pop again today aside from the ones that have actual sets to play.
The most Newport set of the weekend of course was the final set on Sunday called Allison Russell’s Once and Future Sound. Instead of having big named band X close the festival, Newport does these curated collaborative sets. And in this case they handed the reins to Allison Russell. I’m not sure how this all came about, but it seems crazy and so very Newport that someone who has been in the folk scene for awhile, but who literally just released her first solo album and is not someone who has been well known up until this point was not only given an open door herself but invited to bring as many other Black women as she could along with her. I thought there might be a little more torch passing and was 100% expecting Mavis Staples to be part of it. They paid homage to her, but she’s playing the Newport Jazz Festival next weekend and was saving herself for that. The final surprise guest of the night though was Chaka Khan because why not having Chaka Khan come out and sing two songs to close out the festival. It was just pure joy. If you could have seen my face behind my mask you would have seen the biggest grin on it. It was the best way to close out the night watching all these wonderful artists having so much fun on stage and the audience totally living it up to. I’m so glad that I got to be back and experience the joy that is Newport again.