A grey fog had descended and it had started to drizzle on My Morning Jacket's set at the Newport Folk Festival Saturday night, when frontman Jim James invited Alabama Shakes frontwoman Brittany Howard onstage. "This one's for Levon," James said, kicking into the Band's "Makes No Difference" and gorgeously replicating Rick Danko's tearful delivery, while Howard belted her verses eyes-closed, threw her up her arms and twirled furiously as the band jammed.
Minutes later, there was a flash of lightning and an aggressive storm arrived, flooding the roads and sending festivalgoers sprinting to the lengthy line for the ferry back into town, as officials cut My Morning Jacket's set short. "Thanks so much for sticking by us in the rain," James said. "It's an absolute honor for us to be playing on this holy ground."
Their set was just one moving moment at the 53rd Newport Folk Festival, which drew a sold-out crowd of 10,000 to the centuries-old Fort Adams over two foggy days for more than 50 acts, including Wilco, Jackson Browne, Tom Morello and Conor Oberst. My Morning Jacket's tribute to Helm brought to mind when the late drummer played "Makes No Difference" on the same stage in 2010. Ghosts loomed large everywhere this year; Iron & Wine's Sam Beam covered "Long Black Veil," Spirit Family Reunion paid tribute to Karen Dalton with "Green Rocky Road" and the recently departed Doc Watson, who played Newport several times over the decades, was projected on a giant screen above the main stage between sets. Woody Guthrie received the biggest tribute; Morello, Jim James and the Guthrie Family Reunion, a collection of Woody's extended family, sang his songs in separate sets to mark his centennial.
But the festival also veered far from roots. My Morning Jacket showed their gentler side early in their set with cuts like "Wonderful (The Way I Feel)," but were blazing by the time Jim James donned a cape for the heavily psychedelic "Victory Dance" and "Dodante," which grew into a violent jam as the singer unleashed dark, distorted roars from his hollow-body electric, banging it on his knee for feedback. Iron & Wine's Sam Beam surprised fans by bringing along a band, including mandolin, violin and clarinet, and performing a frantically percussive and hypnotic set. And the crowd spilled out of the Quad tent for Austin's Gary Clark Jr., who ripped dark, raunchy blues riffs drenched in fuzz. He paid tribute to his heroes by covering Muddy Waters, Albert and B.B. King, perfectly mimicking King's golden-note vibrato in a haze of distortion. "[The festival] has always had electric music," Jackson Browne said backstage while eating lunch on Saturday. "The blues went electric in the late Fifties, so you've always had like Muddy Waters and Newport, so it's totally appropriate."
The Head and the Heart's Josiah Johnson offered his own definition of folk music in 2012: "It's a loose generalization, but I think it's people that are in it for the songwriting or the artistry of it moreso than strictly commercial reasons."
Several veteran acts found a new audience; on the small Alex and Ani Harbor stage, San Diego folk singer Joel Rafael stunned on Sunday with a set of gravelly, road-worn vocals and delightful fingerpicking. "I've spent my life trying to come here," he said. "My dreams have come true." At the same time on the tiny new Museum stage, Rodriguez played for a small but captivated audience. The Detroit cult favorite released two LPs in the early Seventies but was largely forgotten before becoming the subject of the new Sundance hit documentary, Searching for Sugar Man. "I'm a solid 70," he said with a grin. "But I still consider myself a contemporary." Charles Bradley, a 60-something who spent years impersonating James Brown and only cut his first LP in 2002 for Daptone, brought a dose of old-school showbiz. In a purple sparkly suit, he shrieked, vamped, dropped to his knees and split on the main stage backed by a tight R&B band. "I want to have a funky good time!" he howled.
Headliner Jackson Browne was a constant festival presence, wandering between stages all weekend and sitting in on sets by friends including Sara Watkins, Tom Morello and Jonathan Wilson. "He has such a good grasp of melody and words," said the Head and the Heart's Johnson. "You see his fingerprints all over music that a lot of bands play." His influence could especially be heard in the laid-back L.A. folk of Dawes and Wilson, whose sets Browne watched like a proud teacher. "I'd be hard pressed to name a young man that's written anything near as good some of Taylor [Goldsmith] or Jonathan's Wilson's songs," Browne said. "These guys are killer songwriters." He invited both onstage during his Sunday headlining set, tearing through classics like "The Late Show" and "Take it Easy." Watkins and Tom Morello joined in to close the festival out with "Lawyers, Guns and Money," a song written by Browne's old friend Warren Zevon. The folk tradition was strong as ever.
Additional reporting by Izzy Evans and Will Hermes