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Every year, folk-lovers from all over the country gather in the beautiful Newport, RI to celebrate the great practitioners of this timeless genre. This year’s lineup included some classics, some newcomers and some newcomers singing the classics, all coming together to make for a weekend that was truly unforgettable.
We started off our Newport weekend with one of our favorite bands, Big Thief. The highlight of their set had to be the extended rendition of their song “Mary.” Halfway through the song, lead singer Adrienne Lenker put down her guitar and asked to restart, this time becoming completely consumed by the song with every ounce of her being, and pulling us all into her lyrical kaleidoscope. The song ended with tears and a standing ovation. If you came to Newport not knowing Big Thief, chances are you left with a new obsession. The next act we caught was Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie playing a strikingly honest acoustic set of songs old and new, from various projects. Aside from the fact that he soundtracked some of the darkest and most important moments of our teenage years, his songwriting rings with a consistent relatability that could get us at any age. Needless to say, Gibbard’s performance of “What Sarah Said” delivered chills through the crowd and was a moment we are still reeling over.
We caught the beginning of Regina Spektor’s set before heading to Fleet Foxes and we wish we could have cloned ourselves to experience both of these simultaneously. Regina’s voice is like butter, and her skill and musicianship shine through in every song. She began her set a bit late, having just run off of the bus and straight onto the stage, yet still delivered flawlessly. We ran over to the Fort Stage after about three songs from Regina to catch Fleet Foxes. The band’s perfect harmonies echoed across the field and reverberated off the waves of the ocean. They played favorites from their self-titled album, Helplessness Blues and new album, Crack-Up. My favorite moment had to be the thousands of voices singing “White Winter Hymnal” as the sun set over the sailboats behind us, ending a perfect first day of the festival.
Our Saturday began with another favorite folk newcomer Julia Jacklin. And even at 11 am, on a cold and rainy morning, the Quad Stage was filled with people eager to hear this new voice. Julia performed so effortlessly, sending her voice to flutter through the air and wrap around us all in what felt like a calming hug from a good friend. She played with a live band and some beautifully blended backup vocals. However, my favorite moment of this performance was her last song “Don’t Let The Kids Win,” which Julia played stripped down by herself with her electric guitar. During this song, you could hear a pin drop, and it was not only because of the beauty of her voice. This song teaches countless lessons about love and life that could allow us all to be better people and to treat the ones we love better. During this song, it felt like Julia was guiding us to a greater understanding, and we were all fully invested in following her word.
The next act that we saw was the great Angel Olsen, who continues to amaze and inspire with every single performance. Angel performed songs from all across her catalog, from early folk number “Acrobat” to recent rock single “Shut Up Kiss Me.” She’s a dynamic musician who can bring in the audience with the intimacy of a whisper, and in the next moment, belt out with a tremendous amount of power. She joked in between songs about the wind (which was going wild during her set), and by her last song, the sun had come out and the wind had calmed, a metaphor for what her music does to our hearts. Jim James came onto stage to perform during “Sister” and “Those Were The Days” and later played his own wonderful set on the Quad Stage.
After that, we caught Grandma’s Hands Band, the Bill Withers tribute band which was star-studded with the likes of Justin Vernon, Natalie Prass, members of Hiss Golden Messenger and more, playing renditions of “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Lovely Day,” leading the crowd in a celebration of one of the great songwriters of history. Billy Bragg also played a moving set including a version of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changing.” This one was specifically tailored to our political times, and it was called “The Times They Are A-Changing BACK.” The performance created an empowered moment with the massive audience watching over at the Harbor Stage.
The night ended with Wilco joining forces with Billy Bragg to perform “California Stars,” their song with lyrics by Woody Guthrie, one of the most significant musicians in folk music history.
Soon enough, it was the end of our magical weekend at Newport Folk Festival. The final day began with a tribute to Chuck Berry performed by the Texas Gentlemen, Shakey Graves, Nathaniel Rateliff and more. Nathaniel Rateliff also did a full set at the Harbor Stage as the “unannounced” artist of the weekend.
We got to catch New Jersey alt-country band Pinegrove at the Harbor Stage, whose crowd was not only insanely large but quite loyal, knowing every word to every song they played. This set felt like a big reunion of good friends. Pinegrove’s energy on stage was absolutely infectious, and I now understand what everyone is talking about when they say I “must experience the live thing.” Halfway through this set we ran to the Quad stage to catch Margaret Glaspy whose beautiful voice and quirky songwriting charmed the crowd.
Other highlights of day three included Whitney, Dr. Dog and “Speak Out,” a set of protest songs featuring Sharon Van Etten among others. The night ended with John Prine joined by surprise guests Roger Waters, Lucius, Justin Vernon, Margo Price and Jim James.
We are always amazed to experience the camaraderie of the people and the artists at this festival, as well as everyone’s real devotion to the art of folk music. It is a special space where a two year-old could enjoy the same music as an eighty year-old, who could enjoy the same music as a millennial. The surprises, collaborations and overall memories made at Newport this year felt a lot like magic, and we can’t wait to see what’s in store for the coming years.