Jim James was everywhere at the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island over the weekend. My Morning Jacket’s bearded leader caught Brian Wilson’s headlining set Friday (James said later he was disappointed Wilson didn’t play “Merry Christmas Satan”); strolled along the Newport harbor Saturday morning virtually unnoticed with a white lei around his neck; and sat in during She & Him’s set Saturday afternoon for a duet with Zooey Deschanel before performing a set of his own that conjured up the spirits of Folk Festivals past — Bob Dylan’s groundbreaking 1965 electric set not entirely out of mind. James switched between acoustic guitar and a duct-taped synth, which he used to create a demented drum machine loop for his last song, then packed up and abruptly left the stage as if he had to catch a train. (Unlike Dylan, the crowd did not boo him for it.)
Earlier, the skies opened up over the main stage during Trey Anastasio’s solo set — part of the Phish leader’s post-drug bust 12-step program to rock rehabilitation (Step 2: Play gushing acoustic lullabies to a blindly adoring audience; drink Aquafina) — leading throngs of soaking-wet folk fans over to the covered side stage tent, where for four hours James, She & Him and Cat Power played the part of indie rock royalty perfectly. The rain was coming in sideways during She & Him’s set, prompting Deschanel to adorn a polka-dotted poncho (“for solidarity” with those who couldn’t squeeze into the tent, she said) and guitarist M. Ward to lean in a little closer to the mike.
Ward then sat in for a couple songs with James, adding an element of twang to James’ reverb-soaked Southern sermons. James and Ward hung out near the back of the stage during Cat Power’s soulful spirituals, where the notoriously loopy singer Chan Marshall, looking healthier than ever, had it together. Marshall, backed by a band that looked like they took the day off from Guitar Center but played like the Stones, offered a mix of bluesy originals (the venue-appropriate “Song to Bobby”) and eclectic covers (Hank Williams’ “Ramblin Woman,” James Brown’s “I Lost Someone,” Lil Wayne’s Hot Boys hit “I Feel”) all with a hymnal feel. Marhsall strutted to both ends of the stage like Mick Jagger, singing so forcefully during “Metal Heart” that her face shook, and eventually climbed unannounced into the middle of the crowd to deliver her growling gospel to a seated congregation.
On Sunday, the Phishheads were replaced by Parrotheads, who staked out prime real estate in front of the main stage for Jimmy Buffett’s festival closing set. But there was magic in the tent once again, as Kaki King and Son Volt provided dexterous shredding and quiet country balladeering, in that order. Jim James was at it again on Sunday, too, joining Calexico to sing “Goin’ to Acapulco,” the song they contributed for the soundtrack to the Dylan biopic I’m Not There.