A week ago the music world could not stop talking about, sharing video of, and looking at pictures of Joni Mitchell once again on a stage playing music. For a festival that surprises every year with the likes of Dolly Parton, Kermit the Frog, David Crosby, James Taylor, and Roger Waters, to name a few, having Joni walk on to the stage and play a 13 song set might go down as the biggest one ever. What was amazing is just the day before Paul Simon made his debut at the festival as well, which also caused widespread shock and awe and shows just how special Newport Folk is.
Before the festival even started Durand Jones and the Indications, Mandy Moore, and Bonny Light Horseman had to cancel sets for various reasons. Of course Newport covered those sets with other artists and surprises. Then Japanese Breakfast went from a Friday set to a Sunday morning set to finally a Sunday Quad Stage closing set to an enraptured audience. During the weekend Trampled by Turtles had to cancel their set and were replaced by John Craige and friends doing a tribute set to Let It Be by The Beatles.
All of this is to say that Newport always finds a way to pivot. Artists play extra sets and collaborate to make sure the show goes on. Before the Clusterfolk set which replaced the Bonny Light Horseman set, Jay Sweet spoke to the audience about how in these times you just have to roll with the punches and that we’re not out of the woods yet with COVID and please take care of one another. The set that followed was impressive with Anais Mitchell, Casandra Jenkins, Johanna Samuels, Sarah Lee Guthrie, Lukas Nelson, Robert Ellis, Natalie Merchant, and Craig Finn all chipping in to help the music continue. The crowds reactions to each new special guest was tremendous. There’s no other festival where these last second changes don’t leave open time without music. Newport always finds a way to make it work.
While surprise guests are always welcomed, being surprised by bands already on the bill is where Newport Folk thrives. Leith Ross, the recipient of the John Prine songwriter fellowship, kicked off the whole festival with a stunning set of music that showed why she was given this fellowship. Her set really set the pace for the entire festival. The following morning Arny Margret made her US debut, where you could hear a pin drop the audience was so attentive. Midlake, who were without their drummer and made it work, turned in a set of psychedelia mixed with Renaissance-era folk music that was mesmerizing. The Backseat Lovers rocked out to a standing room only Quad Stage and easily made fans for life, while at literally the same time Neal Francis took over the Harbor Stage turning in a hot set the got the crowd up and out of their seats.
Things got extremely loud this year with Dinosaur Jr. bringing their full arsenal of amplifiers, blowing the crowd away. The band also brought out Courtney Barnett for a guest spot on “Feel The Pain.” Later that day Courtney also turned in her own blistering rocker of a set on the Fort Stage never letting her foot off the gas for 70 minutes. Adia Victoria’s set was a tour de force, showing why she is someone you need to see live. The exclamation to her set was crowd surfing, probably a first in Folk Fest history, to close it out as her mom watched from the side of the stage.
A set so many looked forward to was the festival debut of The Linda Lindas who brought their punk rock ethos and pure joy to the packed Quad. The foursome were very comfortable rocking out to such a big crowd but their focus was on all of the kids were brought up front to jump around near the rail in front of the rest of the audience. It was heartwarming to see all the kids having the time of the lives. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the legendary Taj Mahal came out to sit on his chair and wow the crowd with his blues that has become harder to find as more from his era stop playing or pass away. This festival always finds a way to bridge the past to the present with ease in a way no other festival does.
A new stage was brought in this year by Illiterate Light with their bike powered stage. Watching audience members volunteer to ride the bikes as musicians such as Langhorne Slim, Yasmin Williams, Daniel Ponder, and SG Goodman with help from Courtney Marie Andrews and Madi Diaz, who also did her own set, was so much fun. Festivals are always powered by the audience, but this took it to the next level. Hopefully this stage will become a yearly tradition now. The Foundation Tent also brought in some music with Celisse doing a quick two song set for Sister Rosetta Tharpe alongside some younger musicians who were given instruments by the Newport Festival Foundation.
Gospel was represented by two great acts and it feels like the festival finds a new way each year to have it there. They’ve had Preservation Hall Jazz Band and The Resistance Revival Chorus in the past, who were beloved by the crowd. This year Lee Fields, who started playing in 1969, kicked off the main stage acts on Friday and was a force, dancing up a storm and howling into the microphone. On Sunday the day began with Love Will Go All The Way, which was put together by Phil Cook and truly made it feel like the day began in a church service. Folk and Gospel are so intertwined and it’s good to see that Newport wants to make sure the younger generations knows it.
The National closed out day one of the festival with a set that was tailored to their more folky side while still finding stretches to let loose. Multiple guests helped out during the set including Courtney Marie Andrews, Adia Victoria, Anais Mitchell, Casandra Jenkins, and Hannah Georgas. Matt Berninger even went into the crowd and seemed to literally go everywhere while still singing with one of the longest mic wires ever seen. The Roots, the first major hip hop act to play Folk, took over the Fort Stage on Sunday and proceeded to burn it to the ground. Watching these guys so far into their career not stop moving, playing, and engaging the crowd for an hour straight in the blazing July heat was impressive. They haven’t lost a step and have only gotten better at what they do and there isn’t another band out there who can do what these legends can do.
There were plenty of regular Newport Folk bands at the festival this year including The Ballroom Thieves, Lucy Dacus, Valerie June, Lucius and Taylor Goldsmith, who all put on fantastic sets. Goose made their first appearance and quickly sat in all over the weekend, showing that they “got” what Newport is all about. Maren Morris finally made her solo debut, after playing with The Highwomen in 2019, and I doubt it will be her last performance as she truly loves Newport. Amelia Meath was busy all weekend sitting in with bands as well as having her new band The A’s make their live debut, Sylvan Esso premiering a brand new album in full, and putting together an all-star set for her record label Psychic Hotline. Another big debut was the Black Opry Revue closing out the Harbor stage on Saturday to a packed audience and included Joy Oladokun, Buffalo Nichols, The Kentucky Gentlemen, and more. Newport Folk has tried to become far more inclusive in recent years, and giving the Black Opry Revue their own set showed that they are still on that mission.
DakhaBrahka and Hermanos Gutierrez brought the outside world to the festival. DakhaBrahka are a Ukrainian folk quartet that really had the crowd in the palm of their hands the entire set with an absolutely mesmerizing display of musicianship and vocal abilities. With everything going on in that part of the world, having these four musicians be embraced with nothing but love by a giant crowd at a festival where artists have always called for freedoms for all people felt important. Hermanos Gutierrez brought a mixture of South American traditional music, psychedelia, and plenty of guitar wizardry to the delight of the Quad Stage. Their jaw dropping set was a major highlight of the weekend where what they were playing sounded like nothing else that has ever been played at the festival. Silkroad Ensemble along with the great Rhiannon Giddens also brought a non-traditional set to the stage with instruments from all over the world being represented. Hopefully Newport can bring in more acts like this that aren’t what is considered folk music as we know it but fits right in with everyone else.
The first major surprise was Saturday’s aforementioned Paul Simon appearance. The set was titled American Tune Revue presented by Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats. What it was though was a tribute to Paul Simon that had a slew of guests come out and help give tribute to the legend. What no one knew though was that to end the set, the last four songs of the set would actually have Paul Simon on stage. It’s wild that he has never been at the festival before as his music fits right in to the aesthetic of Newport Folk. Considering he retired a few years ago, you’d never think he would actually be coming out, but magic happens here every year. He sounded great and during the last song “Sound of Silence” he played all on his own as the sunset beautifully on the festival.
Magic and miracles are all part of the Newport Folk lore at this point and before the Joni Jam started, a fog rolled into the festival encasing everyone in to the outside world to what was about to happen. With one of the most heartfelt speeches given at the festival Brandi introduced the set and then there she was, Joni Mitchell, smiling, walking, and dancing to her seat. To watch the joy of 10,000 concert goers, all of the artists in the wings, including Questlove who was actually in the photo pit, the workers, the photographers, and everyone on stage was electrifying. Joni got stronger as the set went on with her voicing echoing over the grounds. The fact that she was there singing was enough, but then she got up to play guitar and didn’t just strum, but attacked and it was amazing.
Every emotion could be felt from the set from pure happiness with folks dancing around (“Big Yellow Taxi” and the closing “Circle Game”) to full on sobbing (“Both Sides Now”) to having your jaw drop in utter amazement (“Summertime”). I’m not saying Newport can’t top this moment, but it’s going to be extremely hard. The fact that Joni by all accounts before the festival couldn’t do this anymore because of a brain aneurism and the history she has at the Fort, it’s a singular moment for the festival that has has so many special moments. Newport Folk always wins and it seems like there’s nothing anyone or anything can do about it. The universe just wills it into reality.
Article/Images: Bryan Lasky