Legendary Surprises, Rising Stars, and Powerful Voices: The Best Things We Saw at Newport Folk Festival 2022
Yes, Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell were this year’s big surprises — but the 2022 Newport Folk Festival contained so much more than a pair of jaw-dropping legends. The first full-capacity iteration of the fest since 2019 featured the desert instrumentals of Hermanos Gutiérrez, the soulful country-pop of Maren Morris, the sweet blues of Taj Mahal, the indie electronic of Sylvan Esso (who debuted a brand-new album), and the scaled-down arena rock of the National, who also premiered brand-new material in their headlining set. Taken in full, this year’s festival represented the full scope of Newport’s musical broadening over the past decade-plus, from Clairo and Arooj Aftab to the Silkroad Ensemble and Goose.
It was also a year of instability and chaos. That’s due to a decidedly ongoing pandemic that caused a series of last-minute cancellations and schedule changes, leading to unexpected appearances from artists like Newport veteran Natalie Merchant and an impromptu Beatles covers set from John Craigie. There was also a hard-won performance from Japanese Breakfast, who changed performance dates and time slots numerous times only to deliver one of the festival’s concluding sets, finishing just in time to get to watch Joni deliver one of the most memorable and historic performances in Newport’s modern history. Here are just 15 of the greatest things we saw this year.
Joni Mitchell Returns
But now it’s not just another show. Brandi Carlile could hardly contain herself when she announced the final surprise of this year’s Newport: 53 years after her last appearance at the festival, and 20-plus years since she had performed a full set of live music, Joni Mitchell would be returning. In a stage set meant to re-create the famous “Joni Jams” at her L.A. home in recent years, Mitchell sat in a throne surrounded by candles, flowers, wine, and couches full of musicians (Carlile, Marcus Mumford, Blake Mills, Lucius, Wynonna, Taylor Goldsmith, to name a few). Mitchell began the set tentatively, sprinkling in vocals in songs like “Carey,” “Help Me,” and “Come in From the Cold” sung by the younger generation of Mitchell disciples. But she relaxed as the set progressed, telling old stories about friends like Tim Hardin, standing up to play guitar, singing old Fifties favorites, and eventually singing lead on “Summertime,” “Both Sides Now,” and “Circle Game.” It was a tear-jerking and unexpected return for a singer many had assumed would never sing in public, at least not like that, ever again.
The Roots Throw a Folk-Fest Block Party
Better late than never: This weekend the Roots became the first hip-hop act in recent memory to play a full mainstage set at Newport Folk, a milestone both momentous and radically overdue. And what a fitting triumph it was: The band played a thrilling hour-long medley — part DJ set, part history lesson, part career retrospective — teasing everything from Kool G Rap and DJ Polo, Curtis Mayfield, and Kool & the Gang to Bob Dylan, and yes, Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill.” Their performance felt like a block-party survey course in the past half-century of Black popular music, with the band barely stopping more than once or twice throughout the entire jam-packed hit parade.
Leith Ross Carries On John Prine’s Legacy
This year’s Newport kicked off in full force with a stunning Friday-morning opening from Leith Ross, the first-ever recipient of the festival’s John Prine Songwriter Fellowship. The Ottawa-raised singer-songwriter’s set of cry-laugh originals honored the late legend’s legacy in more ways than one, as they shared moving songs about family (“Understood”), hard-to-forget flames (“I’d Have to Think About It”), and a song about the melancholy of mortality disguised as an homage to Ross’ grandfather (“Tommy”). “Oh, what a terrible burden/These decisions of mine,” they sang on the latter, just one of many gut-punch lines from a singer who seems poised for a career full of many more of those to come.
The Linda Lindas Make the Most of Their Summer Break
The loudest, most riotous hour of music of the weekend came from none other than the Linda Lindas, the upstart SoCal teenage (and preteen) punk rockers who are currently on their first-ever proper tour in support of their debut, Growing Up. The quartet, whose members range from ages 11 to 17, attacked their time slot like road-tested warriors, thrashing their way through odes to cats (“Monica”), adolescent anxiety (“Talking to Myself”), and the oddity of aging (the title track). The four bandmates traded off vocals, providing the little kids crowding the stage’s front railing as well as the typically seated audience a no-nonsense rock and roll show to remember.
Lee Fields Delivers an Old-School Soul Revue
By the time the 70-plus-year-old soulman wrapped up his hour-long set, he’d transformed the quiet Friday folk festival grounds into a sweat-drenched party. Fields’ immaculate crowd work, ceaseless energy, and high energy dancing cemented the singer as the festival’s supreme showman, winning over the crowd early on with an extended vamp on 2014’s “Talk to Somebody.” Backed by his impeccable sextet, the Expressions, the roots veteran switched between the type of Percy Sledge balladry, James Brown soul shouting, and revivalist R&B that he has synthesized to perfection in a career that has lasted more than 50 years.
Cassandra Jenkins Comes Full Circle in Her Triumphant Newport Debut
Midway through her set of ethereal, character-based indie-folk storytelling, Cassandra Jenkins shared a vulnerable confession with the crowd: She had attended Newport Folk Festival several years in the past as someone’s girlfriend, but never before this year had performed as an artist in her own right. Playing highlights from her 2021 album An Overview on Phenomenal Nature, the New York singer-songwriter and her band cycled through spoken-word samples, jazz-inflected flute fluttering, and vivid narrative details, culminating in the sublime soliloquy of “Hard Drive,” her solemn, sing-talking tale about finding hope after hardship. By the time it ended, Jenkins was stunned to witness what she said was another career first: a unanimous standing ovation.
The Felice Brothers Trust Their New Tunes
The Felice Brothers are a much different band since the last time they appeared at Newport 11 years ago. For starters, the only remaining members are brothers Ian and James Felice, who have now been making records together for the better part of two decades. The upstate New York band’s 2022 set was a touching testament to the duo’s creative partnership, which seems stronger than ever: Leaning heavily on the band’s understated tour-de-force From Dreams to Dust, they made a convincing case for their bona fides as one of the most consistently compelling roots-rock bands of the 21st century, alternating highlights from the latter half of their sturdy songbook (“Aerosol Ball,” “Cherry Licorice”) with a smattering of fan favorites (“Whiskey in My Whiskey,” “Wonderful Life”) from their 2008 self-titled classic. “You can teach yourself anything,” as James Felice sang in scrappy self-tribute on the band’s mission statement “Blow Him Apart.” “I’m the living proof.”
Lena Mae Perry, Thomas Rhyant, and the Union Shine in a Phil Cook-Curated Gospel Showcase
In lieu of the Sunday morning slot that Preservation Hall Jazz Band has typically occupied in years past, North Carolina multi-instrumentalist Phil Cook curated a righteous, joyful collection of spirituals, hymns, and standards from unheralded gospel greats billed as the Spiritual Helpline Gospel Revue. The Union (Leslie Gardner and Simone Appleby) kicked things into high gear when they offered their spirited take on the Staple Singers’ “Freedom Highway” before Thomas Rhyant stunned the crowd into jubilation with his falsetto on “Walk Around Heaven.” But the Sunday morning musical church entered a new dimension when 83-year-old Lena Mae Perry stood up from her chair to sing “If You Can’t Help Me (At the Finishing Line)” and the gospel standard “I Don’t Feel No Ways Tired.” By the time the gospel revue was joined by Natalie Merchant and Valerie June for a closing “This Little Light of Mine” sing-along, Cook’s crew had provided a firm dose of rejoiceful salvation to begin the final day of the festival.
Paul Simon Pops Up at the Paul Simon Tribute
The biggest surprise of the festival’s second day came when Paul Simon showed up toward the end of a set paying homage to his music, organized by Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats. Rateliff had hosted the reverent hour of music up until that point, serving up a tribute to the 80-year-old legend’s songbook with a slew of special guests like Lee Fields (“50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”), Marcus Mumford (“Cecilia”), and Courtney Marie Andrews (“Slip Slidin’ Away”). But the first hour of the headlining set was just a warm-up for Simon himself, who appeared genuinely touched by the occasion. “It’s an honor to be honored,” he told the crowd after kicking off his four-song run with “Graceland” (with Jerry Douglas on guitar as well as the Night Sweats and Robert Ellis). He then invited out Rhiannon Giddens, who sang a spellbinding version of “American Tune” accompanied only by Simon on guitar. After leading the crowd through a feel-good sing-along during “The Boxer,” Simon returned to sing “The Sound of Silence” by himself on guitar, waving a final goodbye as he savored the rare appearance.
Adia Victoria’s Blistering Blues Testimony
“The blues is church to me,” Adia Victoria announced early on during her main stage debut. The Nashville singer-songwriter demonstrated exactly that during her surging set, which highlighted the spooky, solemn songs from her 2021 opus A Southern Gothic. Victoria invited Jake Blount out to play banjo on “My Oh My,” conjured the ghost of Skip James on her 2016 blues garage-rocker “Head Rot,” invited her mother (alongside Lizzie No, Blount, Leon Timbo, and Kam Franklin) to sing on the blues standard “You Was Born to Die,” and even crowd-surfed towards the end of her set. Her hour-long show was both a thrilling victory lap and an always-needed reminder for any folk or roots festival: “What we’re doing today, what we’re experiencing,” as Victoria put it herself, “comes from Black people.”
Izzy Heltai Introduces Himself
Nestled in a far-flung acoustic stage, the up-and-coming singer-songwriter Izzy Heltai delivered a gorgeous batch of self-probing indie-folk to a small crowd who knew they were lucky to be seeing what was surely the first of many larger Newport sets in years to come. The New England songwriter relished the hometown gig, saying hello to everyone from his mother to old high school acquaintances in the crowd. But it was the songs themselves that stuck: “Dayplan,” about playacting adulthood; “My Old Friends,” about daydreaming about an easier, pastoral life, and finally, “25,” a stirring number that began as a remembrance of high-school hijinks before transforming into a powerful reflection on trans survival and resilience.
Hurray For The Riff Raff Goes Back to Basics
After spending the past half-dozen years gesturing towards full-band rock and synth arrangements on their past two albums, Alynda Segarra offered sparse, stripped-down renditions of the richly-arranged tunes from their latest LP, Life on Earth. It was a return to the singer’s folk busking roots, origins that Segarra chronicled in rich detail on the stunning, as-yet-unreleased tune “Snakeplant (The Past Is Still Alive).” That song was just one chilling moment out of many: Segarra covered their songwriting hero Aimee Mann (“Save Me”), delivered a much-needed speech about bodily autonomy before their tale of abuse and survival “Saga,” and brought back the “The Body Electric,” their murder ballad intervention that sounded even more pressing and pertinent than it did when Segarra released it nearly a decade ago.
Blake Mills Quietly Announces a New Album
Blake Mills has had a busy few years, starting his own record label, producing records by everyone from Marcus Mumford to Pino Palladino, and playing on Bob Dylan’s most recent album. But on Sunday, the Los Angeles singer-guitarist did something he hadn’t done since 2019: sing a set of his own songs. Playing as part of a stripped-down trio, Mills offered up highlights from his 2010 solo debut (“It’ll All Work Out”) and recent meditative originals (“Never Forever”) before eventually announcing that he’s recently recorded a new album of original songs co-written with songwriter Chris Weisman. Mills then previewed several new, never-before-played songs like “Press My Luck,” before, just an hour or so later, joining Joni Mitchell on-stage. For all of the acclaim Mills has received as of late as producer, collaborator, and instrumentalist, his Newport set was a reminder that he’s every bit an inventive singer-songwriter in his own right.
DakhaBrakha Offer Ukrainian Remembrance and Resilience
From the moment miniature Ukrainian flags were handed out at the beginning of DakhaBrakha’s performance, it was clear this Sunday afternoon set was not going to be typical Newport fare. The Ukrainian folk quartet performed their innovative blend of global styles and genres (polyphonic vocal approaches, rapped incantations) to an absolutely packed Sunday afternoon side-stage eager and curious to check out an all-too-rare act from outside North America playing the festival. “Six million people left our country,” as the band explained in between their songs of pride and homesickness. “Most of the Ukrainian people dream about home.”
The Black Opry Revue
“I never thought I would see this at Newport,” singer-songwriter Lizzie No announced before launching into a scorching version of her own “Deep Well Song.” “I play a lot of folk festivals, and normally it’s like one or two Black people. Maybe that’s an accident, but more likely it’s because we’re extremely dangerous when we’re all together.” The Black Opry Revue was a joyful corrective as well as a varied display of the collective’s disparate stylings and songwriting prowess, from the fingerpicking of Buffalo Nichols to the acoustic blues of Chris Pierce to the sensitive storytelling of Leon Timbo to the beautiful balladry of Julia Cannon to the Nashville radio fodder of the Kentucky Gentlemen to the uplifting testimony of Autumn Nicholas, before culminating in a two-song delivery from festival returnee Joy Oladokun. As Lizzie No put it herself: “The Black Opry is coming for everything.”