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
"Ten years ago I was super depressed, and now I get to play music to a bunch of sailboats in the background," said Ryan Adams midway through his 15-song performance Friday evening. In just his third appearance with his current group of musicians, Adams, who has spent the last couple of years performing solo-acoustic, seemed thrilled to be back with a band and an electric guitar. Older songs like "Let It Ride" and "Peaceful Valley" were perfect fits for this new outfit, while new material like "Gimme Something Good" and "My Wrecking Ball" felt like instant classics. Adams even introduced the latter by poking fun at the folk festival crowd, deadpanning, "You might like this one because it's a protest song, protesting the death of my grandmother." J.B.
Benjamin Booker was working against a sleepy mid-afternoon time slot and a debut album that doesn't come out until August 19th, but the 25-year-old still managed to win over the crowd within four songs. "This ain't no folk show," he warned before bursting into tracks off that that bluesy, raucous new record. Songs like "Have You Seen My Son" showed off his guitarist chops (intact even as he rolled across the stage) and his cover of Otis Redding's "Shout Bamalama" showcased a weathered growl that you wouldn't expect to hear coming from somebody only a few years past the legal drinking age. "This is the first festival we've played at where everybody's not falling down drunk," he said. "It's nice." So, you know, he's also a flatterer. C.D.
Staples, who made her Newport debut 50 years earlier, served as the festival's grand matriarch throughout the weekend, making surprise cameos when groups like Lake Street Dive, Lucius and Puss n Boots were onstage. Finally, on Sunday evening, 88-year-old George Wein, who founded the whole thing in 1959, came out to personally introduce her performance, which doubled as a 75th birthday celebration.
What a wonderful celebration it was: Queen Mavis's joyous set spanned a half century's worth of soul, gospel, country and R&B, from the first song Pops Staples ever taught his children in 1950, "Will the Circle be Unbroken," to the singer's recent comeback hit with Jeff Tweedy, "You're Not Alone." Tweedy (or "Pops Tweedy," as Mavis called him) was just one of many special guests Staples brought onstage Sunday evening – others included Norah Jones, Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes, Lucius, Trampled by Turtles and legendary Muscle Shoals session pianist Spooner Oldham. After a rousing, extended call-and-response finale of "I'll Take You There," the day's performers came out to accompany Staples on one final song of the weekend. Dedicating the tune to Pete Seeger, Mavis then led the crowd through a closing sing-along of "We Shall Overcome," blew out her cake and said goodnight, putting a close to one unforgettable birthday party. J.B.
Making their main stage debut, Deer Tick donned white yachting attire and played before a horn section dressed in precious sailor suits. Frontman John McCauley wore a captain's hat, naturally, as he lead the large crowd through favorites like "The Rock" (off of 2013's Negativity) and "Baltimore Blues No. 1" (off 2007's War Elephant). For "In Our Time," McCauley introduced his wife, Vanessa Carlton, to the stage: "I wrote a little duet about my mom and dad," McCauley explained of the track. "And when we sing it together, she plays my mom and I play my dad." During a line about "three little babies," Carlton cradled her tummy to indicate she was expecting. C.D.
White brought his full Lazaretto touring band to Newport, where he delivered a high-energy set comprised of blues covers ("John the Revelator"), White Stripes hits ("We're Going to Be Friends"), Raconteurs deep cuts ("Top Yourself") and standout recent solo material ("Blunderbuss"). White, who had been spotted checking acts like John Reilly, Shovels & Rope and Pokey LaFarge earlier in the day, told the crowd at one point that it was the first time in the last 12 years he had been able to walk around a music festival and see music without being bothered.
Clearly thrilled to be at Newport, White was in high spirits Saturday night, wishing Mavis Staples happy birthday, commenting on the picturesque setting and treating the crowd to a well intentioned, if slightly rambling mini-lecture about the pitfalls of authenticity. His only problem, it seemed, was with this publication: "Today marks the first time Rolling Stone is covering the Newport Folk Festival," he said, very incorrectly. "They don't like to rush into things." J.B.
Jenny Lewis has spoken to Rolling Stone about the "Graffiti Gram Parsons" rainbow pantsuit she rocks on the cover of her latest LP, Voyager, but she went full Lisa Frank for Newport's main stage, bringing together a purple-and-white ensemble, a rainbow guitar and little rainbow set decorations. Her set, meanwhile, had a little bit of everything, including beloved Rilo Kiley tracks like "Silver Lining," Rabbit Fur Coat songs like "Rise Up With Fists!!" and new additions like "Just One of the Guys." "This next one is produced by Ryan Adams, who is here somewhere. I can feel it," she said when introducing Voyager cut "Slippery Slopes." Her intuition was correct: He could be seen watching from the side stage. C.D.
For four years, Deer Tick have hosted a daily afterparty at the small Newport Blues Cafe, bringing along some friends for sets that are rowdier than what they can get away with at the festival itself. This year saw appearances from Robert Ellis, Kurt Vile and Trampled by Turtles, plus keynote sessions by the Rhode Island natives themselves. Highlights from Deer Tick's sets included a rendition of "Bony Maronie" sung by Walkmen frontman Hamilton Leithauser, a performance of Nirvana's "Sliver" sung by Vile and stirring covers of songs by everyone from the Police to Chuck Berry to the Replacements. C.D.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.