Newport Folk Festival proves year after year to be one of the most consistently exciting music festivals in the country, one that’s become just as invested, as of late, in amplifying and establishing new and young voices as it is in preserving and honoring old ones. This year’s festival once again presented an ever-expanding definition of folk music, from the Crescent City fusion of Preservation Hall Jazz Band, to the riotous blues-funk of Seratones, to the London soul-poetry of British singer-songwriters L.A. Salami and Michael Kiwanuka. Beyond the handful of thrilling, fan favorite sets from Newport mainstays like Wilco, Fleet Foxes and the Avett Brothers, here are the 10 best things we saw.
Over the past several years, traditional-leaning country music has increasingly found a home at Newport Folk, and this year’s lineup proved to be no exception, with performances from artists like Nikki Lane, Robert Ellis, Shovels & Rope and Brent Cobb. Perhaps no single performer delivered so pure a dose of unadulterated classic country as Joshua Hedley, the longtime fiddle player/sideman who recently signed a solo record deal with Jack White’s Third Man Records. Hedley’s Friday morning kick off set was a deeply promising debut for the songwriter, whose rich crooning evoked everyone from George Jones to Roy Orbison. He sang a spellbinding cover of Mickey Newbury’s “She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye” by himself and offered up tales of salvaged romance (“Let’s Take a Vacation”) and eternal rambling (“Weird Thought Thinker”), while backed by the ace Nashville retro-stylists Steelism. By the time Hedley closed with a jazz-inflected “When You Wish Upon a Star,” the singer, who is yet to even release his first full-length album, could hardly believe the crowd’s rapturous standing ovation.
At least ever since Dylan went electric in 1965, the Newport Folk Festival has had an intimate, and at times complicated, relationship with rock music. Recent years, however, have erased such boundaries entirely, and a Sunday afternoon tribute to Chuck Berry, led by veteran guitarist Charlie Sexton, made a convincing argument for Berry’s legacy – as a pioneering guitarist, singular vocalist, and above all else, a foundational songwriter – as an essential ingredient in the American folk tradition. With the upstart collective the Texas Gentlemen serving as the house band (and emphasizing Berry’s country-blues roots bona fides along the way), artists like Jim James (“Promised Land”), Shakey Graves (“Brown Eyed Handsome Man”) Nathaniel Rateliff (“You Never Can Tell”) sang reverent, loose renditions from Berry’s extensive catalog. High points came early, with Kam Franklin’ stirring take on “Roll Over Beethoven” and Deer Tick’s Dennis Ryan’s note-perfect Berry imitation on “Run Rudolph Run.”
For their Newport debut, the Brooklyn indie rock band Big Thief brought their blend of bleeding-heart intensity and feedback-laden guitar shredding to the Quad Stage on Friday afternoon. The result was one of the weekend’s star-making sets, as lead singer Adrianne Lenker, drummer James Krivchenia, bassist Max Oleartchik and Buck Meek, who played guitar and sang harmony vocals, sang an array of highlights, like “Masterpiece,” “Shark Smile” and “Paul,” from the band’s two records. Early on, Big Thief displayed their folk bonafides when Lenker delivered a stunning, hushed new song on acousic guitar before eventually switching to electric for the band’s fresh blend of feedback-laden, grunge-folk. Mostly, Big Thief’s set was a masterclass in intimacy, as Lenker hushed the overflowing sidestage crowd as she deployed brief moments of silent pauses in the middle of her songs for dramatic effect.
Alynda Segarra conjured Newport’s long history of political activism early on, when her band Hurray for the Riff Raff presented a powerfully determined set of Latinx roots rock Friday afternoon. Wearing a shirt that read “Fuerza” (“Strength” in English), Segarra delivered an impassioned call to action as she showcased songs from the band’s most recent album, The Navigator, an ambitious concept record that revolves around issues of gentrification, displacement and Puerto Rican identity. “Latinx people truly make America great,” she announced early on during the band’s hour-long performance. Segarra performed rousing versions of album highlights “Living in the City” and “Rican Beach,” summoned the crowd to raise their fists in solidarity during the powerful climax of “Pa’lante,” and conjured the festival’s 1960s spirit when she closed with Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son.” “Sing it with us now,” she implored before Fogerty’s final chorus, “I want them to hear this down in Mar-a-Lago.”
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.
After soundchecking a snippet of Destiny’s Child “Say My Name,” Angel Olsen took the stage to chilly temperatures and high winds on Saturday afternoon. But the sun had come out by the time the 30-year-old singer was finished with her career-spanning, piercing collection of fractured folk lullabies and R&B-indebted heavy jamming. Jim James of My Morning Jacket strutted on stage unannounced halfway through Angel Olsen’s set, adding harmony vocals and playing guitar during an extended jam on 2016’s “Sister,” which served as the undisputed highlight. Other standouts included songs like songs like “Shut Up Kiss Me,” and “Those Were the Days,” as well as the finale: an understated, extended performance of “Woman.” Sharing vocals alongside keyboardist Heather McEntire, Olsen’s mainstage show provided one of the weekend’s most boldly and admirably uncompromising performances, as Olsen and her band alternated their hushed, introspective confessionals with exploratory instrumental passages.
“Playing some of these songs in an actual fort feels strangely appropriate,” said Drive-By Truckers singer Mike Cooley, remarking on the festival’s surroundings halfway through the band’s blistering early evening performance on Saturday. The songs of the Alabama band – whether they address the ongoing legacy of the Civil War or the struggling post-Civil Rights South – have always reckoned with the more violent parts of American history, and the band’s show provided Newport Folk with an essential dose of national reckoning. For a band accustomed to sprawling two-plus hour concerts, the Truckers imbued their abbreviated set with a relentless punk energy, relying heavily on their 2016 return-to-form American Band. Cooley and co-frontman Patterson Hood delivered bristling versions of working man’s laments (“Hell No, I Ain’t Happy,” “Righteous Path”) and offered cautionary tales of prejudiced violence (“Ramon Casiano,” “What It Means”), before ending with a snippet of Prince’s “Sign O’ the Times.”
“I’m a very historical kind of person,” Rhiannon Giddens announced midway through her mainstage set on Sunday afternoon. “What’s happening now has roots in what happened 500 years ago.” During her spellbinding, 14-song performance, Giddens sang a mix of traditionals and originals as she elevated “voices that need to be represented,” as she put it, in her mix of contemporary protest anthems, Civil Rights-era folk standards, and reimagined slave narratives. Giddens’ appearance provided the weekend’s finest, and most essential, dosage of traditional American music, as Giddens and her band cycled through string-band stylings, gospel, country, Cajun music and hip-hop. Giddens offered up gorgeous modern spirituals (“We Could Fly”), channeled Odetta (“Waterboy”) and ceded the stage to guitarist Dirk Powell, who led a touching tribute to his father-in-law, pioneering cajun fiddler Dewey Balfa. To cap off her triumphant show, she offered up an appropriately righteous, Mavis Staples-approved cover of the Staples Singers’ “Freedom Highway,” with the festival’s original founder George Wein nodding approvingly from the side of the stage.
“The great thing about Newport is you can come here to get inspired by music, and then go home and do something about it,” announced the Decemberists’ Chris Funk toward the end of Speak Out, a Sunday afternoon ensemble performance of protest music, new and old. With members of the Decemberists, My Morning Jacket and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band serving as the backing band, guests like Billy Bragg and Nathaniel Rateliff offered songs of hope, compassion, anger and action. The songs ranged from the feel-good anthemic (Kyle Craft singing Bowie’s “Heroes”) to the directly partisan (Billy Bragg’s haunting rendition of Anais Mitchell’s “Why We Build The Wall”). The source material for this covers-heavy set alternated between the reassuringly reliable, with Jim James and Nick Offerman singing Dylan’s “Masters of War” and Margo Price belting John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero,” to the wonderfully unexpected, such as Sharon Van Etten’s sparse take on Sinead O’Connor’s “Black Boys on Mopeds” and Lucius’ soulful harmonizing on the Five Stairsteps’ “O-o-h Child.” After a 2016 Newport Folk that felt strangely devoid of much political commentary, Sunday afternoon’s Speak Out provided a vital, much-needed moment of explicit sociopolitical musical communion.
“With friends like that, who needs pizza?” John Prine asked during his star-studded Sunday evening performance, in which the singer invited up a slew of special guests to accompany him on his country-folk classics. Prine’s festival-closing show was an exemplary model of old-fashioned folk songwriting, with the 70-year-old singer holding the audience in rapt attention, often merely by himself on acoustic guitar. Justin Vernon dropped in for “(Bruised Orange) Chain of Sorrow,” Jim James duetted on a touching take of “All the Best” and Margo Price accompanied Prine on “In Spite of Ourselves,” all before Roger Waters stunned the crowd by appearing, unannounced, to share the stage for a tender rendition of “Hello in There.” Prine, for his part, ran through highlights from his 2004 masterpiece Fair & Square, sang classics “Angel From Montgomery” and “Sam Stone” (with Nathaniel Rateliff) and even dedicated his offbeat protest anthem, “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore,” to “our current Fuhrer: Donaldo Benito Trumpitini.” To end 2017’s festival, Prine invited out several dozen of this weekend’s performers to sing along to “Paradise,” ending a weekend of feel-good moments on a loving high point.