Bill Withers Enters Folk Lexicon
From the onset, it was clear that Saturday afternoon's unannounced tribute to Bill Withers, hosted by Hiss Golden Messenger and Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, was going to be one of the most special sets of the weekend. Natalie Prass ("Lovely Day"), Alynda Segarra ("Grandma's Hands") and Patterson Hood ("I Can’t Write Left-Handed") all contributed guest vocals while Justin Vernon delivered an awe-inspiring rendition of "Ain't No Sunshine" before trading verses with Phil Cook for a sing-along on "Lean On Me," which rightfully recontextualized the ubiquitous hit as a modern folk standard. Indeed, the tribute from a group of musicians several generations removed from the 79-year-old Withers helped claim the R&B legend as a roots luminary, a political visionary and a foundational folkie. At its best, the modern incarnation of the Newport Folk Festival is constantly redefining and expanding the definition of folk music, and Saturday's canon-redefining celebration of Bill Withers served as a reminder of the possibility and power of the musical tribute.