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Newport Folk Festival 2017: 10 Best Things We Saw

New bands thrilled alongside Newport mainstays Wilco, Fleet Foxes and the Avett Brothers

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.

newport folk festival rhiannon giddens

Sachyn Mital

Rhiannon Giddens Delivers an American Musical History Lesson

“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.

newport folk festival speak out protest songs margo price

Margo Price and Zach Williams

Sachyn Mital

Lucius, Margo Price, Sharon Van Etten Offer Songs of Healing and Protest

“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.

newport folk festival john prine roger waters jim james lucius

Taylor Hill/WireImage

John Prine Bids Newport Farewell With Some Famous Friends

“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.