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15 Best Things We Saw at Newport Folk Festival 2014

Mavis Staples’ birthday celebration, Jeff Tweedy’s family affair and other highlights from a weekend by the shore

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Tracy Allison

55 years after its founding – and five years after its founder almost sold it off – the world's most storied folk festival returned to Rhode Island, filling the small beach town of Newport with many of the best musicians in the country. Here are the 15 best things we heard, saw and ate over the event's three days. By Jonathan Bernstein and Cady Drell

Tracy Allison

Best Folk Revival Throwback: John Reilly & Friends

It came as some surprise that the most reverent, historically minded set of the whole weekend came from movie-star-turned-folkie John C. Reilly. Playing with vocalist Becky Stark and accompanying guitarist Tom Brosseau under the moniker John Reilly & Friends, the trio ran through a finely tuned, traditionalist set comprised largely of Carter Family standards. In fact, Reilly's group provided the finest display of old fashioned three-part harmony singing at Newport, with gorgeous renditions of the Stanley Brothers' "It's Never Too Late" and "I've Just Seen the Rock of Ages" among the set's many highlights. "Singing these songs is like collecting seashells and trying to sell them," said Reilly, who repeatedly expressed how surprised and humbled he was to have landed a gig at Newport Folk Festival. "These songs are all of ours, so thanks for sharing them with us today." J.B.

Tracy Allison

Best Supergroup: Puss N Boots

Norah Jones, Catherine Popper and Sasha Dobson – together, Puss N Boots – are all extremely talented multi-instrumentalists, but together their sound is pared down, with the emphasis on harmonies. "This is one of the first songs we ever got together on," said Jones, before easing into a gorgeous version of the Rodney Crowell (and more famously, Johnny Cash) tune "Bull Rider." Most excitingly, Mavis Staples was a surprise guest, helping on an achingly gorgeous cover of the Band's "Twilight." C.D.

Tracy Allison

Best Old-Timey Revival: Hurray for the Riff Raff

Before playing Hurray for the Riff Raff original "Here It Comes," lead singer Alynda Lee Segarra switched from acoustic guitar to banjo, telling the crowd, "This is my first instrument – well, after the washboard, but the washboard is less stimulating." Banjo or washboard, the band went extra old school for their rainy Sunday set, blending bluesy instrumentals with protest-flavored lyricism and introducing songs with stories of performing on the streets of New Orleans. Later, in one of the best sing-alongs of the festival, Segarra led the packed audience through a sweetly minimalist round of "If I Had a Hammer," which she dedicated to Pete Seeger. C.D.

Tracy Allison

Best Rhode Island Eats: Del’s Frozen Lemonade and Lobster Roll

There's no excuse to attend Newport Folk but forego a lobster roll from Matunuck Oyster Bar and a slushy Del's lemonade. Seriously, when is this chain going to take over the country? C.D.

Tracy Allison

Best Backing Band: Conor Oberst and Dawes

Dawes, Oberst's current backing band, had just finished a set of their own less than an hour before joining Oberst onstage, but you wouldn't have know it from the way they played. Moving through Bright Eyes cuts like "Bowl of Oranges," solo tracks like "Danny Callahan" and new classic "Hundreds of Ways," they brought an enthusiasm that their frontman at times lacked. Oberst, meanwhile, didn't speak to his audience once, communicating instead through inventive hand gestures choreographed to his lyrics. Still, his vocals were raw, sharp and emotive, and an especially rollicking "Old Soul Song (For the New World)" was an obvious highlight even before Dawes' rock & roll breakdown. C.D.

Tracy Allison

Best Family Affair: Jeff Tweedy

"This is an ideal setting for us," Jeff Tweedy said during his set with son Spencer on an overcast Sunday. "A beautiful summer day full of clouds and rain, playing sad songs written in the dead of winter." Early on, the younger Tweedy's drumming provided an unexpected highlight, and later, pops answered with spare, acoustic versions of Wilco's "New Madrid" and "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart." On "Jesus Etc." Lucius' Jess Wolfe and Holly Laissig provided backing vocals, and Mavis Staples joined on "Wrote a Song For Everyone." "I'd like to welcome the woman I love more than anyone in the world," he said in his introduction, quickly clarifying, "Except my wife. And my kids, but they're not women." The entire band returned to wrap up with set with a gorgeous "California Stars" featuring not only Lucius and Staples but also, making its first appearance for of the day, the sun. C.D.

Tracy Allison

Best Non-Folk Set: Reignwolf

One-man wrecking ball Jordan Cook literally came out swinging, spending opening track "Electric Love" rolling on the ground, playing his guitar like a stand-up bass and even getting behind the drum kit while continuing to strum. At a different festival, there might have been a mosh pit, but as it were, people didn’t stop talking about this performance for the rest of the festival. Not bad for a dude who doesn’t even have an album out. C.D.

Tracy Allison

Best Campfire Sing-Along: Robert Hunter

One of the most magical performances of the whole weekend came early, when 73-year-old Robert Hunter played an hour-long set of his greatest hits from the 1970s on Friday afternoon. "It being a folk festival, I thought I'd sing folk songs," Hunter announced early on. "I wrote them myself, but, you know, they're folk songs." That's about right: The man who co-penned nearly every Grateful Dead track opened with a stunning medley of "Dire Wolf" and "Peggy-O" and never looked back, treating the modest-sized crowd to fragile, weary versions of Hunter-Garcia classics like "Brokedown Palace," "Scarlet Begonias" and "Friend of the Devil." After a too-good-to-be-true sing-along to "Ripple," Hunter closed his crowd-pleasing set with an a cappella take on the rare solo track "Boys in the Barroom." J.B.

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