Photos by Nick DiNatale
This version corrects Patti Boyd to Patti Smith and clarifies that “several” members of Deer Tick performed.
Since 1959, Fort Adams State Park has been the home of the Newport Folk Festival. The three-day music festival has been the site of many critical events in the history of American music, like the first time Bob Dylan went electric—a moment that not only changed his career, but the course of folk and rock music in 1960s, and onward. Each year, the festival brings in performers and lovers of music and art, and this year’s lineup was unparalleled, featuring diversity across genres.
There were many fantastic acts that stayed close to the roots of American folk, country, and blues. On Friday, Florida natives Radical Face brought their own unique brand of folk to the stage. With clever stage banter and gloomy lyrics, they gave a performance unlike any other group. Later on, Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys performed with his band The Arcs, serving the audience some bluesy tunes. Inside the museum, outlaw country musician and visual artist Terry Allen pounded the keys. He was joined by Texas country musician Joe Ely, the 2007 recipient of the Americana Music Association Lifetime Achievement Award for Performing. Texas Gentlemen & Friends performed on Saturday, with members clad in cowboy hats and jean jackets. Joe Ely joined The Gentlemen on stage that afternoon. On Sunday, American folk rock group The Oh Hellos rollicked on stage and invited the audience to do the same. They were a big hit on the final and coolest day of the festival, a day bright with clear blue skies and warm sun. Towards the end of the weekend, everyone went wild for Middle Brother, an American rock supergroup consisting of John J. McCauley III of Deer Tick, Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes, and Matthew Logan Vasquez of Delta Spirit. The group returned to Newport for the first time after performing at the festival in 2011.
Newport delivered not only folk, country, and blues music, but music that transcended the limits of any one genre. Canadian singer-songwriter Basia Bulat was one of the first artists to perform on Friday. Her lovely voice and passion on the keys brought the audience into the atmosphere of an art space, ripe with new experiences. Soon after Bulat was Raury, a 20-year old American folk and hip hop artist from Stone Mountain, Georgia. As Raury danced on stage, and even leapt several feet in the air, the audience couldn’t have been more excited. He wanted to “bring the audience into [his] world,” and he certainly did. His unique blend of hip hop and folk music added diversity to the festival’s lineup. The mariachi band Flor de Toloache, New York City’s first all-women mariachi band, performed inside the museum and took the audience’s heart like no other performers this weekend. Their talent was unmistakable as they filled the intimate room with the beautiful vocals and traditional mariachi instruments, including a standing-ovation-inducing violin solo. case/lang/veirs, a new trio formed by Neko Case, k.d. lang, and Laura Veirs, showcased 60s-style guitar and sweet, layered harmonies. Saturday’s lineup featured Ruby Amanfu, a Ghanaian-born singer and songwriter now based in Nashville. She appears on Beyoncé’s culturally significant sixth studio album, Lemonade, singing backup in “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” a song produced by one of Amanfu’s frequent collaborators, Jack White. She also works with Ryan Adams, who performed later that day. Her set was rocked with her raspy and roaring vocals, and she was backed by several members of Deer Tick. Philadelphia rhythm & blues musician Son Little started his set with a soft voice, accompanied by the wild sounds of the whammy bar on his gorgeous guitar. Throughout the day, he spoke warmly with festival goers, with an affable and carefree air. Julien Baker looked right at home when she took the stage. Her haunting lyrics and rippling guitar tones attracted people from all around the festival to come listen to her as she crooned and echoed inside the walls of Fort Adams. Later in the afternoon, the Preservation Jazz Hall Band took the same stage. The band is named after the Preservation Hall located in New Orleans’ French Quarter. The band was established in 1961 to protect and promote traditional New Orleans Jazz. The group, which has a number of rotating musicians, brought every jazz instrument you could hope for to the stage, and had the crowd on their feet and dancing through the whole set. While folk is a traditional form of American music, there is nothing more American than jazz. The festival also welcomed Norah Jones, a musician known for the jazzy influences in her music. The Newport Jazz Festival took place at the Fort Adams State Park the following weekend.
In the tradition of folk music, politics came up, a topic that is nearly impossible to avoid during this campaign season. Both domestic and non-domestic performers tackled the subject. The Staves, an English folk group made up of the three Staveley-Taylor sisters, talked about Brexit and their concerns for their country, as well as making a plea to Americans, imploring concert goers, “Don’t vote for Trump!” Matthew Logan Vasquez, who spreads his talent across the groups Delta Spirit and Middle Brother as well as his solo career, shouted “Stop ISIS!” at the beginning of his set. Graham Nash, another Englishman, and member of the English pop group The Hollies, as well as the American folk rock supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, performed on Saturday evening. He opened with his 1971 song “Military Madness,” ad-libbing concern about nuclear weapons and Trump. The audience joined him in chanting, “No more war!” During a quiet moment, an audience member hollered, “Just say no to fascism!” Nash talked about being British, and how, ironically, the fort he was playing at was built to keep his kind out. He also played “Immigration Man,” a song he wrote after an irritating incident, where he was detained by a U.S. Customs official when trying to enter the US—perhaps an allusion to the struggles and fears that those wanting to enter the US face. The New Zealand-based comedy band Flight of the Conchords closed on Friday evening, and they echoed a sentiment that was common throughout the entire festival—don’t vote for Trump.
As always, the festival hosted several well-known artists. Violent Femmes performed Friday. Gordon Gano sang and strummed his guitar with aggressive affection and Brian Ritchie rocked out on his sweet acoustic-electric bass. They were accompanied by Blaise Garza, a musician, actor, and saxophone enthusiast, who played a contrabass saxophone—a majestic and rather rare reed instrument. Gano referenced one of the Newport Folk Festival’s most famous incidents, when on July 25, 1965, Bob Dylan performed “Like a Rolling Stone” with a rock band and the audience “freaked out.” Some criticized Dylan for straying from his folk roots. Gano reflects, conversely, that when Violent Femmes went from punk to folk, everyone thought, “That’s fucked.” They played everything from their hits, like “Blister in the Sun” and “Kiss Off,” to folkier tunes, and even some polka. Their performance was engaging and infectious.
Flight of the Conchords closed the first day of the festival with some of their classics, as well as some new material. The crowd was excited to hear old favorites, like “Foux du Fafa,” “Business Time,” and “Mutha’uckas/Hurt Feelings.” New songs, such as “Father and Son,” were well received. In addition to hosting music makers and appreciators, Newport was also visited by tons of seagulls. Bret McKenzie cleverly incorporated their presence into the new song, “The Seagull.” They made the audience laugh with both their music and their stage banter. Jemaine Clement humorously remarked that, “We’re a cover band of ourselves.” Their songs were folkified, most notably their humorous dance song, “Too Many Dicks on the Dance Floor.” The audience fell in love these kiwis, and a woman even yelled at them, “I love you!” to which Clement replied, “We love you too, but in a different way.” They were the perfect act to finish the first evening of the festival.
Ryan Adams stole the show Saturday afternoon. He sat in a semi-circle, surrounded by his friends, the Infamous String Dusters and singer Nicki Bluhm. The swarm of mics in front of them conjured an image of an old-time radio show. The highlight of his performance was all thanks to two misheard words. When Adams asked the audience who was performing on the stage behind him, someone shouted, “Frightened Rabbit!” Adams, however, misheard (or pretended to mishear) the man, and asked him, “You’re frightened and rabid?” and proceeded to improvise an entire song about this unsettling condition. The band joined in as Adams sang about his friend’s dog who had been eating rats and “bit a chunk out of his leg,” making him look “like an extra in the Exorcist.” Not only did the audience connect with the music, but also with his flat and sarcastic, yet friendly demeanor. “I couldn’t hear what you said, but it sounded full of rage,” he replied to an audience member who hollered something at him. He kept it light, made people laugh, and put on a great show, which even included covers of Slayer and Black Sabbath.
“Patti Smith closed the festival on Saturday, opening with a gorgeous rendition of the Dylan tune, “Boots of Spanish Leather.” She continued her set with an impassioned reading of Allen Ginsberg’s, “Holy Holy Holy,” from the footnotes of one of his most famous works, Howl and Other Poems. She read it as if she felt every single word as an ultimate truth. It was a powerful moment, unparalleled to anything that occurred all weekend. The rest of her set did not disappoint, as old and young fans gathered together on the dirt, overlooking the water, to listen and watch her perform.
One of the last acts of the festival was Elvis Costello and friends. Costello, who hails from London, was joined by Rebecca and Megan Lovell, sisters from Atlanta who perform together as Larkin Poe (but were also members in the progressive acoustic trio known as the “Lovell Sisters,” which included their sister, Jessica). He played a bit of the old and a bit of the new, performing some prototypes of new pieces. He performed “American Mirror,” a piece which will be featured in the new musical, A Face In The Crowd. It was presented to the audience as cautionary tale to America, but he did explain that the song could be applied to any country—that it’s important for us all to assess ourselves and our actions. The entire performance was enhanced by the guests he welcomed on stage towards the end of the set: Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Middle Brother, as well as other artists who had performed at the festival earlier this weekend. It was an explosive performance, and it energized the audience until the final major act of the weekend.
Alabama Shakes closed the festival on Sunday evening. Eager feet kicked up dust in the minutes leading up to their set. Brittany Howard, wielding a metallic sea-foam Gibson SG, commanded the stage with her captivating and powerful presence. She engaged the crowd, telling them, “You give me a little bit, and I’ll give you a little bit,” a most equal trade of emotion and energy. Heavy bass pulsed through everything, and the sound her band created was red-hot. This Alabama blues rock band left the crowd shaking, grateful for such a wonderful end to an incredible weekend of music and art.