As the sun was setting over Newport Harbor Sunday night, Levon Helm returned to the stage in front of 8,000 fans sprawled to the waterfront docks. The 70-year-old drummer invited a multi-generation group of guests onstage — everyone from Edward Sharpe bandmembers to Ritchie Havens. Helm kicked into Last Waltz singalong "I Shall Be Released" as members of Dawes and the Felice Brothers grinned like kids onstage, swaying while belting the classic refrain.
The Bob Dylan classic was the finale of the 51st Newport Folk Festival. Over two sunny days, the event featured more than 30 acts and drew 18,300 people to Fort Adams, a mossy structure that overlooks the beautiful Narragansett Bay and Newport Harbor. The mossy fort is the largest in the U.S., featuring bastions and underground tunnels and housed soldiers from 1824 to 1950. "There's something so special about this place," My Morning Jacket's Jim James told Rolling Stone. "You can really feel the spirits — the spirits are thick."
The venue featured plenty of high-energy performances from both old timers and young indie acts. There were veterans like Doc Watson, Ritchie Havens and John Prine alongside the manic O'Death and freak folk troupe Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros.
Prine, sporting a black suit, headlined Saturday with a raw set of honest poetry and darkly humorous anthems over bright fingerpicking. Prine's sparse setup included subtle electric guitar and bass, leaving space for his loose storytelling verses. He introduced "Your Flag Decal Won't Get You Into Heaven Anymore," saying he wrote it 42 years ago on his mail route. "For some reason this song won't go away." He put a rockabilly twist on Carter Family's "Bear Creek Blues" and invited Jim James onstage for "All the Best." The duo's distinct vocal styles, one delicate, one gravelly, provided one of the highlights of the festival. They ended with Prine's "Paradise," a narrative about a Kentucky town ravaged by coal mining.
Throughout the festival, the What Cheer? Brigade — a Providence, Rhode Island street band — traveled between stages playing fist-pumping fight songs. Jim James was second most frequent stage hopper. He took the stage alone mid-day Saturday, beginning with eerie Monsters of Folk number "His Masters Voice." He transformed My Morning Jacket's "Wonderful Man" from a thrashing rocker to soulful chimy pop, and invited his band up for a set that included soaring, harmony-filled sparse take on the band's "Golden."
James wasn't done there: he joined the Preservation Hall Jazz Band for the slinky funeral procession stomp of "St. James Infirmary," scowling into a vintage studio microphone. James grooved like a New Orleans balladeer, munching on an apple and waving a bandana between verses.
Dawes won over the crowd the same way they did at Bonnaroo — with Basement Tapes harmonies and masterful stage presence. Frontman Taylor Goldsmith invoked Springsteen, wincing while he bounced around the stage playing blistering guitar solos, especially on new rockers "Fire Away" and "Time Spent in Los Angeles." For the encore, Goldsmith invited his dad, Lenny Goldsmith, former frontman of Tower of Power, up for the refrain "I've got a feeling it's gonna be all right."
At 87, Doc Watson is Newport's last performer linked to the folk revival days. With support from touring buddy David Holt, Watson ran through a charming hour-plus set that included "Shady Grove" and "Freight Train Blues." Watson, thin and fragile, wore his hair carefully slicked back and performed a laid-back set that showcased his mind-blowing guitar picking on staples "Shady Grove" and "Deep River Blues." Watson's show was full of old-time humor. He told the crowd about a stove haunted by a dead child that followed him to every house he moved into. Before he launched into "Whiskey Before Breakfast," he paused to observe the audience: "Some of you seem a little young," then shrugged, "Oh well."
Backstage, Watson sat in a plastic chair and picked up a guitar to play a snippet of "Blue Ridge Mountain Blues" while recalling how he first played the festival in 1963 and 1964. "That was the folk revival," he said. "Some of it I could take or leave.'" Watson says he is in good health, but can't sing like he used to. "When you're 87, I guess something's gotta change."
Early on Sunday, Sharon Jones arrived onstage in a black-and-yellow psychedelic floral dress and howled a fierce James Brown-style soul review. The dynamic singer evoked Ruth Brown on teenage ballad "Mama Don't Like My Man." During "When I Come Home," she grabbed her ass and shook it to the punchy horns breaks, and later busted out the funky chicken, the scuba and the hitchhiker.
When the Felice Brothers played Newport in 2008, a massive thunderstorm cut the power on their stage, so they ventured barefoot into the mud for an acoustic set. This time, the band played an electrified set that included accordion-driven rocker "Run Chicken Run." During standout "Frankie's Gun," bassist Christmas leapt on the drum kit and hopped off.
Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros drew one of the most raucous crowds, who went nuts during "40 Day Dream" while the massive band created a wall of flower-power folk. Ebert jumped into the crowd several times, leading sunny singalong of "Janglin." After the show, RS caught up with Ebert as he watched Levon Helm. "Playing our show and sharing with the people — dancing with them, spinning around at them and looking into their eyes — that's been my highlight," he said. Adding that he'd slept through most of the day, Ebert said he wanted to make sure he saw Helm at the end of the night. "I didn't grow up a fan of the Band. I didn't discover them until later on, but now I'm a big appreciator."
Helm has made a remarkable recovery from throat cancer, cranking out magnificent albums Dirt Farmer and Electric Dirt. Unfortunately, his voice wasn't where he wanted it on Sunday, and he left the vocals to his Midnight Ramble band. Larry Campbell sang Bob Dylan's "Blind Willie McTell," and the rest of set was heavy on Band classics including "Ophelia," "Chest Fever" and "Makes No Difference." Havens joined Helm for "The Weight" and seemed a bit unfamiliar with the lyrics. Still, the rousing finale was worth the wait. "That's the best part of your life, right there," said Felice Brothers' James Felice afterward after stepping offstage with Helm. "It doesn't get quite as good as that."