Friday: Cue Sunshine
Resplendent in late-summer sun, hopes were high at this sell-out event. (The venue, Fort Adams, is an old structure on the historic register, established in 1799 to protect Narragansett Harbor. Its landmark status limits the crowds to a manageable 10,000 attendees.)
Sporting a flannel shirt and a beastly beard, Tall Tall Trees certainly looked the part opening up the festival’s Harbor stage. But Mike Savino is definitely not your typical banjo player. He sent his banjo through loops, building beats that drew from a variety of global influences. He used a bow across the banjo’s strings, and altogether stretched the instrument’s capabilities en route to a stand-out performance befitting the sunny scene.
As a counterpoint, up-and-coming acts like Providence, Rhode Island’s Death Vessel and Seattle’s Noah Gundersen did admirable jobs stretching out their visions of stark, alternative-folk.
Similar to years past, some performing bands blurred the definition of “folk” music with defiance—the swinging pop of Lake Street Dive—while others absolutely tore the genre’s boundaries apart, such as Reignwolf. Canadian-born Jason Cook cranked up the volume and ripped out impressive blues riffs in a Zeppelin-esque show of sheer force that left mouths agape and the festival crowd in awe.
The day concluded with Ryan Adams on the main stage, who alternated between cracking jokes and crushing tunes. Although his banter was a little hit-and-miss and altogether much too lengthy, the songs he did play were beautifully rendered against the postcard-perfect setting. (The backdrop, naturally, lent itself to a yacht-rock joke and a surprisingly spot-on Michael McDonald impression.) The 39-year-old Adams certainly serenaded the sell-out crowd with fan favorites like “Magick” and “Oh My Sweet Carolina” amid new songs like “Gimme Something Good” and “My Wrecking Ball,” which he described as “a protest song, protesting my grandmother dying.” His set ended with a Danzig cover of “Mother” and a wrenching version of “Come Pick Me Up,” a song Adams described as “stupid, and I’m stupid… [it’s] purposefully dumb in a beautiful way,” which pretty much sums up Adams’ set.
Saturday: Jack White & John Reilly
The Saturday morning sets opened quietly with the traditionalist allure of Aife O’Donovan, Willie Watson and John Reilly, rising alongside the morning sun. Reilly in particular was a pleasant surprise: the “Step Brothers” actor looked equally at ease on the stage as he does on the screen. Donning a cowboy hat and teaming with the talented tandem of Becky Stark and Tom Brosseau, the trio traipsed through a mix of familiar covers from the Carter family, the Stanley brothers, Woody Guthrie and others. “We’ve got a lot of nerve singin’ folk songs in Newport,” Reilly said. “But someone’s gotta keep that torch aloft.”
The Oh Hellos bridged the gap between the traditional and alternative acts, with a blend of pop-folk seemingly built for car commercials. Though their Mumford-esque material seems commonplace on today’s airwaves, their undeniable energy gave it powerful resonance with the crowd. Later in the day, Benjamin Booker and Kurt Vile & the Violators provided ample amplified energy to prepare for the evening’s headliner.
As the day wound down, energy ramped up as crowds shifted for a good seat to see Jack White, who immediately keyed up a combustible snippet of “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground.” At the same festival where “Dylan went electric,” it was a special sensation to hear White’s blazing guitar blast overhead. And though the troubadour is making many a stop on the festival circuit, here his finely aged tendencies and oft-performed covers of Son House (“Death Letter”) and Blind Willie Johnson (“John the Revelator”) felt right at home. In front of a simple blue backdrop, White waltzed through his quieter fare (“Entitlement,” “Rose with a Broken Neck”) while also ratcheting up the volume with White Stripes songs like “Cannon” and “Icky Thump.”
After 18 stellar offerings, White tipped his cap and waved adieu, only to return a short time later with a stage full of friends for an emotional encore of “Goodnight Irene.” The song was a perpetual favorite of folk hero Pete Seeger and this year’s iteration was the first in which Seeger was not around to join in. White even got a little choked up, making a sentimental moment all the more special.
Sunday: Time & Time Again
A rainy Sunday greeted guests for the third and final day of the Folk Festival. The precipitation did little to cast a pall over early day acts like Deslondes and The Lonesome Trio (featuring Ed Helms).
The rain did present a bit of disconnect for the effervescence of Thao and the Get Down Stay Down, but created a certain intimacy inside the tent of the Harbor stage for Hozier, and in the Quad stage for Rodrigo y Gabriela, who delighted the packed house with their acoustic pyrotechnics. The duo pranced across the stage in a refreshing display of showmanship, to say nothing of the sheer spellbinding abilities.
Afterwards, the rain stopped and the clouds seemed to settle quietly, leaving behind with Conor Oberst a grayish overcast. Backed by Dawes, who played the same stage just minutes earlier, Oberst fiercely launched into his brilliant new solo album, Upside Down Mountain. In contrast to Adams, there was no onslaught of wit here, only open-ended existential examinations shipped out stoically towards the waning afternoon light. It was a startling and beautiful performance.
Later in the evening, Folk Festival favorite Jeff Tweedy took the main stage. The first stanza of Tweedy’s set centered around his new album, Sukierae, which features his 18-year-old son Spencer on drums. The songs were tuneful and performed well, and the elder Tweedy joked that the summer afternoon was the perfect environment to shell out their “sad songs written in the middle of winter.”
Mavis Staples followed to take the cake—literally. Celebrating both her 75th birthday and her 50th appearance at the Newport Folk Festival, Mavis was downright triumphant as she blew out the candles on her birthday cake and blew the house down. With a career that spans more than 60 years, Mavis looked every bit the boss as she sauntered between soulful covers of songs like “For What It’s Worth” and her inspiring send-up of traditional gospel music.
The festival ended as it traditionally does, with a sing-a-long. This year it was “We Shall Overcome,” a fitting number for any number of moments. If you squinted your eyes, looking past the raised cell phones, it could have easily been an evening from any other decade. The blend of tradition and contemporary relevance make the Newport Folk Festival the best kind of memory—one you enjoy making time and time again.