With three days of perfect weather, plentiful unannounced guest appearances and a shrewdly well-rounded lineup, 2016's Newport Folk Festival marked another unforgettable weekend of music at one of the country's most historic fests. With Patti Smith, Alabama Shakes and Flight of the Conchords headlining each of the festival's three days, this year's Newport once again expanded the definition of folk music in the 21st century. At all hours, smaller stages featured everything from Brian Fallon's Jersey folk-punk to Hayes Carll's Texas country, from the Irish-tinged folk of Aoife O'Donovan to the Preservation Hall Jazz Band's celebratory New Orleans fusion. These are the 15 best things we saw.
The 20-year-old Atlanta singer-rapper-guitarist took the stage to a moving standing ovation before launching into an energetic nine-song performance that drew on styles ranging from folk to hip-hop, gospel, arena rock and R&B. Throughout it all, Raury scampered and hopped his way around the stage, imbuing his early afternoon set with the type of ecstatic charisma normally reserved for a main-stage spectacle. He switched between playing guitar, rapping in free verse and jumping around for effect, conjuring moments of intense connection throughout, whether on the laid-back acoustic cover of A$AP Rocky's "L$D" or on the frenetic, gospel-influenced folk-rap of "Peace Prevail." If his Newport set was any indication, this major-label upstart will soon be headlining all sorts of bigger festival stages in years to come.
Word had been getting around that Kris Kristofferson might show up unannounced to the festival's smallest stage (capacity approx. 200) on Friday afternoon, so the indoor venue was packed to the brim when the 80-year-old singer-songwriter took the stage after a brief opening set from his daughter Kelly Kristofferson and Andrew Hagar. Kristofferson then ran through an unforgettable collection of classics such "Help Me Make It Through the Night," "The Pilgrim, Chapter 33" and "Sunday Mornin' Coming Down" to a hushed crowd. Although in recent years his voice has become brittle and his guitar playing occasionally shaky, Kristofferson infused his set with humor, grace and emotion, appearing to choke up several times throughout the set. By the end of his 19-song performance, it was clear that Kristofferson had delivered perhaps the most awe-inspiring performance of the whole weekend.
"You ready to hear some shit-kicking country music?" Margo Price asked the crowd at the beginning of her rousing set Saturday afternoon. Performing with her four-piece backing band the Price Tags, Nashville's 2016 breakout singer delivered an inspired set that drew on highlights from her solo debut, Midwest Farmer's Daughter. A string section helped reproduce the rich pop orchestration of album highlights like "Hands of Time" and "How the Mighty Have Fallen." Elsewhere, Price ran through leaner, Bakersfield-inspired traditional country on "This Town Gets Around" and the set-closing sing-along "Hurtin' on the Bottle." In between, she found time to highlight her band on the showstopper "Paper Cowboy" and offered an inspired take on Gram Parsons' "Ooh Las Vegas," rounding out the weekend's purest dose of unvarnished country.
"I'm the only newbie up here," announced Ruby Amanfu, performing with members of Deer Tick alongside guitarist Jeremy Fetzer early in her Saturday afternoon performance. But Amanfu, the Ghanaian singer who appeared on Beyoncé's Lemonade, came off like a Newport veteran in one of the weekend's most well-received sets, showing off her remarkable vocal range on a mix of new originals from her upcoming Ryan Adams-produced album as well as a collection of covers from Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Brandi Carlile. By the time Amanfu finished belting a scorching version of Irma Thomas' "Anyone Who Knows What Love Is," the singer was in tears as she received a thunderous standing ovation.
There weren't any other artists at this year's Newport that could say, "I was here 50 years ago," but that's exactly what David Grisman, performing with 77-year-old bluegrass legend Del McCoury, told the huge audience at one of the festival's smaller stages on Saturday afternoon. Performing as Del & Dawg, Grisman and McCoury's offered a survey course on bluegrass history, as the duo told stories about genre pioneers like Bill Monroe, namechecked famous bluegrass instrumentalists like Jimmy Martin and Lester Flatt, and paid tribute to late artists like Bill Keith and Ralph Stanley. For a festival as dedicated to its own roots as Newport Folk, Del & Dawg's performance provided this year's key link to the gathering's Sixties heyday.
One of the weekend's most exciting sets was Saturday afternoon's hour-long Texas takeover from the Dallas-based upstart collective the Texas Gentlemen, who brought out legends like Joe Ely and Terry Allen to sing West Texas standards like "She Never Spoke Spanish to Me' and "Amarillo Highway." Kristofferson, who had performed a surprise set the previous day, capped off the performance with a showstopping duet on "Me and Bobby McGee" with Margo Price. Price pulled off her best Janis Joplin impression during the song's outro, reanimating the late legend's spirit more than 45 years after her iconic original recording.
A day after Flight of the Conchords closed out the festival's opening day by urging the crowd not to eat whales during their protest-song send-up "Think About It," Graham Nash was onstage singing sincerely about whales in "Wind on the Water." Nash, who was accompanied only by guitarist Shayne Fontayne, provided this year's Newport with the most unadulterated dose of Sixties-style optimism, telling stories about traveling with David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Neil Young and treating the crowd to CSN hits like "Marrakesh Express" and "Teach Your Children." Nash was also one of countless artists throughout the weekend to denounce Donald Trump, changing the lyric to "Military Madness" to reference the Republican Presidential nominee: "I hope Donald Trump discovers," he sang, "what's driving the people wild."
Two of the most entertaining sets Saturday afternoon came from Ryan Adams, who performed bluegrass-inspired, all-acoustic renditions of his greatest hits with the Infamous Stringdusters and Nicki Bluhm, and Father John Misty, who, performing in the wake of a bizarre, speech-heavy Philly appearance that had made headlines the night before, delivered a deeply felt solo set of highlights from Fear Fun and I Love You, Honeybear. Halfway through his set, the banter-friendly Adams cracked a joke about Father John Misty having a meltdown somewhere off on one of the many boats docked near the harbor of the festival. A couple hours later, Father John Misty joked for his part that he had stolen the fabric from his shirt "from the sail of a boat of a rich person watching Ryan Adams." The duo's seemingly not-so-friendly rivalry, which may date back to their competing set of Taylor Swift covers last year, added some unexpected sass to Saturday's packed day of music.
As soon as Patti Smith took the stage and launched into a cover of Bob Dylan's "Boots of Spanish Leather," accompanied only by Lenny Kaye on acoustic guitar, it was clear that her Saturday evening headlining performance was going to be custom-built for Newport. After she sang Dylan and recited an Allen Ginsberg poem, Smith's longtime backing band joined the 69-year-old singer for an hour-long set that redefined folk music in her own image. During her electric set, Smith preached revolution, sarcastically dedicated "People Have the Power" to Ted Cruz, covered the Stones, honored Prince with "When Doves Cry," paid tribute to Amy Winehouse on "This Is the Girl" and celebrated Pete Seeger by leading a sing-along version of "If I Had a Hammer," a song Smith said she had not performed since she was 14. As Smith held up her electric guitar at the end of her set, she reminded the crowd once more of the power of music: "Behold," she shouted, "the greatest fucking weapon of my generation."
"I haven't even played yet!" exclaimed 20-year-old singer-songwriter Julien Baker upon taking the stage to rapturous applause Sunday afternoon. By the end of her performance, which included nearly every song from her 2015 debut Sprained Ankle, Baker had more than earned that reception. Any questions as to how Baker's intensely intimate recordings would translate to an outdoor festival stage were erased the minute she played her first note to a hushed audience hanging on her every word. Apart from being joined on several songs by her longtime percussionist Matthew Gilliam, Baker played, as she typically does, by herself, proving that the most powerful performances at Newport can still come from a solitary artist.
"Sometimes you just have to take a minute and appreciate all the amazing songs that have already been written," declared Ruby Amanfu onstage during the festival. Indeed, one of the biggest thrills and most unique aspects of Newport Folk Festival is the sheer quantity of cover songs performed throughout the weekend each and every year, a sign of the festival's committed sense of tradition, collaboration and surprise. While this year featured plenty of renditions of songs by predictable stalwarts like Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, tracks by everyone from the Flaming Lips to Slayer, Jimmy Cliff, the Replacements and Bob Seger could be heard as well throughout the weekend. Another common choice this year: Prince, who was honored by both Patti Smith ("When Doves Cry") and by a combination of Deer Tick, Jenny Lewis and Lucius, who performed "1999" at an after-party show Friday evening.
"When you're singing from the heart, you're always in tune," announced Glen Hansard Sunday afternoon. For his main-stage appearance, Hansard conjured Newport's Sixties spirit in full with an inspired set of spontaneous collaboration and deeply felt folk, leading the crowd through repeated sing-alongs during his hour-long performance. After opening with a few hits with his former band the Swell Season, Hansard mixed songs from his 2015 solo record with Van Morrison and Woody Guthrie covers. At one point, the 46-year-old singer recalled seeing Richie Havens at Newport before teasing a snippet of Richie Havens' "Freedom." But the set's highlight came during the finale, when Hansard summoned Elvis Costello, trombonist Curtis Fowlkes, singer Jocie Adams, a guitar tech named Simon and a random Irish fan in the crowd to trade verses on Irish traditional song "The Auld Triangle."
Although his performance Sunday afternoon was billed as a solo set, Elvis Costello performed with a dynamic cast of special guests during his main-stage performance. He opened the show with inspired renditions of old classics like "Blame It on Cain" alongside roots duo Larkin Poe, performed his recent "Sulphur to Sugarcane" as well as the Twenties standard "Side by Side" with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and, finally, offered up solo hits like "King of America," "Everyday I Write the Book" and, of course, "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," backed by Dawes as well as Larkin Poe. In between, Costello found time to debut two new songs on the piano, rounding out what was one of the most eventful, highlight-filled sets of the weekend.
For their festival-closing performance Sunday evening, Alabama Shakes delivered a no-nonsense collection of highlights from their two records. While Patti Smith had used her headlining slot the night before largely to shine the spotlight on the music of her contemporaries and influences, the Shakes used the occasion to illustrate how far the band has progressed since their last appearance at the festival four years earlier. This year's performance felt like a triumphant victory lap, as the group ran through Sound & Color hits like "Gimme All Your Love" and "Don't Wanna Fight" as well as "Joe," a Shakes B side soul ballad that provided a mid-set highlight, with Brittany Howard expounding on love, fame and lost opportunities. During their electrifying closing set, complete with a festival finale of Bob Seger's "Night Moves" featuring members of Dawes, the Shakes proved yet why they're one of the country's biggest, and best, mainstream rock bands.
Deer Tick, Dawes and Delta Spirit have proven to be three of the most popular bands at Newport during the past half-decade, so the one-time reprisal of Middle Brother, the short-lived 2011 supergroup featuring those band's lead singers – John McCauley, Taylor Goldsmith and Matthew Vasquez, respectively – was one of the most highly anticipated, and well-attended, sets of the weekend. Backed by the rest of Dawes, Middle Brother ran through the entirety of their sole album in order, inviting up both Kam Franklin of the Suffers and Shovels & Rope for backup vocals and honorary Middle Brother member Jonny Fritz to help sing the album's title track. "We decided to play you guys our entire catalog today," joked McCauley towards the end of the set, which left the crowd hoping that one day their catalog just might expand.