The unrelenting heat in Rhode Island was rough the entire weekend and Sunday did not make it any easier to walk around and enjoy yourself. If there is one bad thing about the Newport Folk Festival, it’s that there is very little shade. As the day wore on, I saw more people pass out from heat exhaustion than I have ever seen at a festival. There was plenty of water to be had, so it’s no fault, but their own, but it was very brutal all weekend. The music stayed wild as well, before Alabama Shakes closed the festival with a more somber affair than some would have hoped for, but it was still an absolute killer festival closer.
Ian Fitzgerald’s folk rock started Sunday off with a bang while River Whyless played some stunning indie rock that has its base in Americana. The harmonies displayed on stage were excellent and the band wore their emotions on their sleeves during the set. Over on The Fort Stage a Sunday tradition of gospel hit the stage with more energy than I would have thought it imaginable on a Sunday morning. The Berklee Gospel & Roots Choir had the large field dancing and swaying as if we were in church. Joan Shelley’s beautiful voice rang out of the Harbor Stage with perfection as she played folk songs could have come out of the 1960’s.
Easing into Sunday with those four artists was the perfect way to enter the last day of a festival because what came next were two bands that had a lot of moving parts and had enough energy for the entire crowd and then some. The Strumbellas and The Oh Hellos, both have that extra little thing that makes seeing live music a transformative experience. The Strumbellas are definitely based in folk rock, but with the addition of a couple of synthesizers and keyboards it turns into a full on rock and roll show that cannot be stopped. They were excited to be playing Newport as well saying it was a bucket list festival for them and the band absolutely owned their slot. The Oh Hellos have so many members on stage it was hard to follow all of them as they jumped and tossed their bodies around the stage. Though they have so many members, you could easily hear each and every one of them. They showed exactly what a folk-rock band could be if you harness each part perfectly. The crowd was absolutely wild for them and the band fed off their energy for the entire set. Both bands are not to be missed as they will only continue to get even better and move up on festival lists.
Kyle Craft is a new emerging artist that stormed the Museum Stage with a voice that echoed out of the confined walls with so much power. His songs are fantastic and as his set continued more people found themselves coming in to check out what he was playing. Once he gets going and really starts touring, he will be garnering audiences much larger in no time. Son Little was very reserved during his set, while his band was going absolutely nuts. It was weird to watch the front man be so calm while the rest of the band let loose, as it’s usually the other way around. Julien Baker might be small, but her musical talent is gigantic. The Quad Stage was packed for her set and the crowd sitting and listening intently was beyond focused as she played. Julien was taken back by the support she got from the crowd and thanked them endlessly for it. Her set was easily one of the highlights of the entire festival.
Villagers happily brought Newport a heavy helping of Irish Folk Rock that caused a celebration at the Harbor Stage while Preservation Hall Jazz Band were making believe it was New Orleans on the Quad Stage. It was amazing to move around the festival and hear the various styles on the stages, and have all of them work perfectly. The crowd at Newport loves music and if you can show them you know what you are doing on stage, they will shower you with love and applause. Middle Brother, playing their first show in five years, packed the Fort Stage and played their entire album. Seeing John McCauley, Taylor Goldsmith, and Matt Vasquez play together and constantly smiling at one another and having a blast up there was another Newport magical moment. It would be great if it wasn’t another five years before they find themselves on stage together again because it was an absolutely stunning set of music.
Phil Cooked played a fun rocking soulful set of music, but I only got to catch a little bit of it as Elvis Costello was starting on the Fort Stage. Elvis’ voice was in strong form and having Larkin Poe with him, pushed him I believe. Rebecca and Megan Lovell, the sisters who make up Larkin Poe, added wonderful guitar work and harmonies to the set. His set turned out to be very guest heavy with Preservation Hall Jazz Band coming out for a few numbers before Dawes and Larkin Poe came back out to play some of his more known songs like “Every Day I Write the Book” and “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love and Understanding.” Even Glen Hansard came out to help with closing number “The Scarlet Tide.” In Newport’s recent history, Sundays are for collaborations and it is usually the last set of the weekend, but since Elvis could have headlined it wound up being the second to last set. Watching all of these great artists come together and have fun on stage was a joy. Even George Wein, the founder of the Newport Folk Festival, was seen watching from the back of the stage as Elvis and company played a flawless set.
Unfortunately after that great high, Edward Sharpe And The Magnetic Zeros started their set almost 20 minutes late, an unheard of thing happening at the fest, and did not do much. Yes front man Alex Ebert went into the crowd and got everyone excited, but it was too little too late. The two songs I saw were nothing impressive and it seemed the technical issued that led to the band starting late were still happening during what I saw. With that it was time for festival closers Alabama Shakes, who again played a wonderful set, but it was a laid back affair. Of course Newport is not known really for having wild rocking sets, but I thought there would be a little more punch to Brittany Howard and company’s set. I am not knocking their set, it was everything you could want from them, Brittany wailing on guitar and vocals and the band being as tight as ever. Even parts of Dawes came out for a closing festival cover of Bob Seger’s “Night Moves,” but it just left me wanting more. If Elvis had closed it out, I think it would have been a far more celebratory affair.
Being the first time I have gone to The Newport Folk Festival, the 2016 edition left me wanting more, in the sense that I want to be there every year. The organizers and everyone who works there had every moment running as planned, except for one set. It was amazing to see something run to smooth, with what felt like little effort. I heard a few other audience members and media saying they thought other years were better, but I thought it was a great festival. Sure you want more surprises, but if you bring in the caliber of musicians that Newport did this year and still find room for Kris Kristofferson, Shovels & Rope, Jenny Lewis, and Lucius you’re doing something right. Thanks for a magical three days to Jay Sweet and his team and everyone who made the 2016 Newport Folk Festival possible. Let’s see what they plan for next year!
Article: Bryan Lasky