Legendary. Newport Folk Festival has long been associated with that modifier thanks to introducing audiences to musicians such as Joan Baez and infamous appearances by the likes of Bob Dylan. This year, as the event celebrated the 50th anniversary of one of its most historically significant performances, NFF lived up to its renown more so than any year since its second renaissance in the late 2000s.
From the beginning, we knew that 2015 would be looking back at 1965 and Dylan’s infamous “plugging in” incident. That’s why I decided to bring my dad along with me for his first return trip to the Folk Fest since, yep, 1965. He was there to hear Dylan go electric, but 50 years later, “electric folk” is something else entirely. “You know, this isn’t folk music,” he said to me halfway through the first day after taking in some of Leon Bridges and The Lone Bellow. It took him a minute to adjust to what the Festival had become since he’d last been there — it wasn’t even in the same venue back then — but once he came around, he found himself taken back by the scene and the sounds.
He witnessed the debut of Robert Ellis, Cory Chisel, and Jonny Fritz as Traveller; he heard Courtney Barnett redefine what a folk artist was with her left-hand guitar slaying; he became enraptured with Sufjan Stevens’ voice, even if he still can’t pronounce his name. Best of all, he got to witness Dawes, one of the first modern artists we shared appreciation for, take on some of Dylan’s classic songs with a jaw dropping lineup of guest performers. There was a nice bit of 50 year symmetry to that.
It was plenty amusing, and just a bit sweet, watching him schmooze backstage with managers and Felice brothers, and seeing him post up near the Fort Stage entrance to try and sneak a glimpse of some megastar coming to the stage. And I’m glad to have shared it all with him. But that’s not exactly what made this year’s Folk Fest so spectacular.
Even for those not there with a family member making their big return to Fort Adams, 2015 will go down as a Newport Folk Festival for the ages. No other year has featured the surprising mixture of fresh talent like Bridges and Barnett, scene favorites like Tallest Man on Earth and Langhorne Slim, left-field bookings like Tommy Stinson and J. Mascis, and rare gets like Stevens and Roger Waters. On top of all that, for the first time ever, there were true surprise acts. Sure, bands like Spirit Family Reunion and Deer Tick have shown up unannounced in years past, but this time around, festival producer Jay Sweet actually put acts on the schedule and didn’t tell anyone who they were.
That includes the final performance of the year, the star-studded ’65 Revisited Dylan tribute. But before you could even get to that, you witnessed My Morning Jacket returning to the Fort Stage and staying there to backup Waters for what became a truly iconic set. The next day, for a mere half an hour, James Taylor was given the chance to make up for lost time 46 years laters. A mind-boggling surprise appearance by one of the biggest rock acts in the world followed by the return of a classic voice in American sound. Nothing can bespeak to the current state of Newport Folk better than that.
But I’ll try anyway. I’m beginning to wonder when NFF will slow down, as it’s only gotten better each year I’ve attended. This year already seems insurmountable, what with its nearly flawless execution and a lineup that still looks stunning even after it happened. That’s for Sweet to figure out, however, and ours is the task of looking back on the Newport Folk Festival that was, and the legend it will become.
Harbor Stage — Saturday, 3:40 p.m.
Tommy Stinson was so late to his own gig that his band, who were also missing members, had to fumble through some jamming until he finally showed up. Unfortunately when he did, many (myself included) chose not to hang around for long because he was up against an “unannounced act” that was too tantalizing to miss. I didn’t see enough to really be able to review it, but what I did hear was certainly great, and it’s a bummer he didn’t give himself the chance to share more of it.
First Aid Kit
Fort Stage — Sunday, 3:20 p.m.
It’s a bummer that Johanna Söderberg had lost her voice prior to her appearance Sunday afternoon, because it revealed a crack in First Aid Kit’s armor: They’re just not as captivating without those sisterly harmonies. Oh sure, Klara Söderberg still has a more than incredible voice, and Johanna can still play a mean keyboard and guitar (and look stunning as she whips her hair back and forth while she does it), but “The Lion’s Roar” and “My Silver Lining” just sound better with two voices. Thankfully, the crowd was able to provide some soaring vocals of their own during closer “Emmylou”, but it’s still a shame the Swedish sisters couldn’t return to the Fort at full capacity.
Fort Stage — Saturday, 6:15 p.m.
No one had a less enviable position on the lineup than The Decemberists. Not only did they have to follow Roger Waters’ stunning headlining spot and also act as stopgap before ’65 Revisited, but they had to go on after James Taylor and Sufjan Stevens. I mean, ouch, right? And they’d already headlined Folk Fest once before, back in 2011. The set was doomed to underwhelm from the beginning, but that didn’t stop the band from putting on a solid effort. They sounded great, as they really do seem to be at a new peak since coming off a hiatus. But even launching confetti from the blowhole of a giant fake whale and bringing out Bela Fleck and Lucius for the NFF requisite “This Land is Your Land” couldn’t save the set from comparative mediocrity.
Quad Stage — Sunday, 11:10 a.m.
Ballroom Thieves had left me severely unimpressed back in May when I saw them from afar at Boston Calling, but good word of mouth drove me to their set early Sunday. It turned out to be well-worth revisiting the band, as their haunted, heavy folk style definitely played better to NFF than it had to BC. Devon Mauch’s busking percussion, beating his box drum and shaking the tambourine wrapped around his leg, and Calin Peter’s gorgeous and often intense cello work were as powerful as Martin Early’s big, full voice. The band revealed that they’d changed their name at the festival a few years back, giving a nice full-circle feel to a very solid NFF debut.
Quad Stage — Sunday, 12:15 p.m.
A member of The Gaslight Anthem certainly feels like an outside booking for a folk fest, but Brian Fallon didn’t play a lot of Gaslight songs. Instead, he focused on mostly material from his Horrible Crowes side project, like “Behold the Hurricane” and “Ladykiller”, with that outfit’s guitarist Ian Perkins joining his band on the Quad Stage. Fallon also had that folk fest stage banter down pretty pat, getting so caught up in joking about how his band had never played together as a unit save for some failed attempts at Skype rehearsals it almost seemed like he was forgetting to play music. He also showed incredible love for the NFF crowd, expressing awe at the pure friendliness of the place, saying, “I’ve never experienced anything like this” at a festival. Well, it takes more than compliments to win over the Newport crowd, but Fallon had definitely done it in his own right by the end of his set.
Hiss Golden Messenger
Harbor Stage — Friday, 2:25 p.m.
When first encountered with Hiss Golden Messenger’s name on the lineup, no one would’ve questioned M.C. Taylor’s place at a folk festival. Still, the band’s sound came off more like ’70s blues rock than pure Americana folk, especially as Taylor was backed up by the others’ hushed voices during “Brother, Do You Know The Road”; each iteration of, “Yes, my brother, I know” felt more stirring than the last. “Saturday’s Song”, too, felt different live, taking on a rockier bar room strain as Taylor played with short, heavy strums. Much of the music took on an altered form on the Newport stage, ironically swinging further away from “folk,” but it was in no way a downgrade. Besides, all these sounds have a place, a fact perhaps best summed up by Taylor himself when he reacted to a crowd call he couldn’t quite make out: “Did you say ‘Freebird’ or reverb? Because the latter’s cool… The former has it’s place, too.”
The Tallest Man on Earth
Fort Stage — Friday, 4:00 p.m.
Kristian Matsson is no stranger to taking a Newport stage as The Tallest Man on Earth, but this was his first time on the main Fort Stage. Perhaps the even greater change was the fact that he was backed by a full band this time. He carried both facets equally well, demonstrating the strength of newer material like “Slow Dance”, while giving older hits like “1904” a bigger platform. It all worked remarkably well for the Swedish folk singer, even as he shifted into a quieter solo performance that opened with “Love is All”. Quieter, that is, only due to the lack of a full band behind him; the song felt as full and powerful as anything that had come before. What he ended up proving is that whatever the stage, whatever the size of the sound, it’s his own energy that makes him so damn tall.
Fort Stage — Saturday, 11:00 a.m.
The Suffers frontwoman Kam Franklin made sure the Newport crowd knew who was on stage, asking them to repeat their name and hometown, Houston. The memory trick wasn’t entirely necessary, as anyone paying attention would’ve remembered the big band soul sound regardless. Their music has a Latin edge that kept the energy high and the folks dancing. “Yeah, you didn’t know you were going to the gym this morning, did you?” Franklin joked, as a smiling crowd took a breather between songs. It was a fun, spirited way to kick off day two, and certainly nothing to suffer through.
The Lone Bellow
Fort Stage — Friday, 2:30 p.m.
It’s incredibly easy to see why The Lone Bellow are such a favorite not just at Newport, but in the Americana/folk scene at large. All three of the main members — Zach Williams, Kanene Donehey Pipkin, and Brian Elmquist — perform with the utmost intensity, the kind where their eyes squint up tight on every powerfully delivered note. They were in constant motion, especially Williams and Elmquist, with their instruments and necks whipping around in constant elation. Of course, they can still burn slow and low, as when Leon Bridges joined them for “Watch Over Us”, but they’ll always bring it back up again, like when New Breed Brass Band came on during set closer “The One You Should’ve Let Go”.
Harbor Stage — Sunday, 3:45 p.m.
Blake Mills proved himself to be one of the finest guitarists to grace the Fort this year. From the slap-heavy rendition of “Hey Lover” to the thumping blues riffs of “Under the Underground”, Mills’ prowess was on full display for the late afternoon crowd. Covers of Joe Tex’s “I’ll Never Do You Wrong” and Bob Dylan’s own “When I Paint My Masterpiece” showed that he could handle the licks of any of the greats as deftly as his own. Still, Mills isn’t all guitar work, as he demonstrated with the vocal and lyrical work on stirring opener “If I’m Unworthy”. But if he were to go down known only for how he handles the strings, it’d be a legacy earned 10 times over.
Quad Stage — Sunday, 4:05 p.m.
The only excuse I can think of for why Laura Marling failed to fill out the Quad Stage as completely as other acts over the weekend is because people were already waiting for Hozier. ‘Twas a shame, as Marling demanded better attendance, as she always does. She’s never been the most active performer, and in fact stood with one foot tucked up behind the other for the first two songs, “Take the Night Off” straight through “I Was an Eagle”, at least. But her voice and guitar skills are exactly what should thrive at NFF. While big name pulls might have drawn folks away, those who sat in the Quad for more than a few minutes got to hear some gorgeous modern folk music in its purest state.
Harbor Stage — Sunday, 5:05 p.m.
J. Mascis has played solo acoustic sets before, so his booking at Newport to close down the Harbor Stage wasn’t completely left field. What he did with that instrument, however, was unlike anything else the Fort had heard all weekend. In a way, it was the reverse of what Dylan did 50 years prior, as the Dinosaur Jr. frontman turned his acoustic guitar into a broad wail of electronic distortion. So heavy were the effects Mascis channeled through his looped sounds that it barely registered as acoustic at all, if not for the faint and familiar tinge of a hollow body. It’s no wonder that he had to bring his own soundboard. While it’s hard for an old-timey alt indie rocker to go up against a guy like Hozier, the sparsely filled Harbor crowd got to witness some incredible song writing prowess, and the guitar work of a mad genius.
Nathaniel Rateliff and the Nightsweats
Quad Stage — Sunday, 1:25 p.m.
The dirty, rumbly-voiced soul of Nathaniel Rateliff and the Nightsweats is just the type of dance-inducing soul that seems to slide in so nicely alongside the other Americana styles at Newport. Rateliff himself, as he belted out rocking numbers like “I Need Never Get Old” and “S.O.B.”, was shucking and jiving every which way about the stage. A group in the audience even worked out their own choreography, with one guy leading an entire slice of the crowd like a instructor at the best gym ever. When I saw J. Mascis checking the band out early in the set, I figured it was just another sign of how appealing they are. Of course, he then joined them on stage for a cover of The Band’s “The Shape I’m In”, and minds were just blown.
Harbor Stage — Friday, 12:00 p.m.
Though Joe Pug joked that 90% of his catalog is “dark as fuck,” his set actually made for a lovely way to enter the afternoon on day one. His brand of Americana is the kind of dusty prettiness that settles just lovely over Narragansett Bay. Even with the moodier material, there was one moment that felt sweetly, beautifully Newport. Rose Guerin of Vandaveer joined Pug on stage for much of his set, and he informed the crowd that not only was it her birthday, but her house had burned down just two weeks prior. He told her she didn’t need to “learn these stupid songs,” but she responded, “Playing Newport on my birthday is the only thing that’ll take my mind off my house burning down.” The crowd cheered in support of Guerin, right before the musicians went into a heartening, apt rendition of “If It Still Can’t Be Found” from Pug’s latest, Windfall. Though Guerin herself was providing backing vocals, it felt like the song was being sung right to her.
Quad Stage — Saturday, 2:55 p.m.
Okay, so the first question is clearly, “What is Courtney Barnett doing at a folk festival?” The answer comes right down to songwriting, though her deadpan speech delivery also has something to do with it. Songs like “Dead Fox” and “Depreston” are definitely folk tunes, they’re just masked in Barnett’s left-hand guitar rock. She did keep her punkier tendencies in check, emphasizing the bluesier notes of tracks like “Sleepless in New York” and introducing “Debbie Downer” as a pop folk song. Reeled in or not, she was clearly as enthralled with the work as ever, and it came through in one heck of a rowdy set, carrying on the legacy of acts like Reignwolf who’d played the Quad stage before her in years past. Folk moves forward, and Barnett is definitely a new, dirtier breed.
Langhorne Slim & The Law
Quad Stage — Saturday, 1:40 p.m.
Langhorne Slim is definitely one of “the folk,” and the Newport audience pretty much knows what to expect from the man at this point. Everyone rose to their feet as soon as he took the stage, and from new single “Spirit Moves” to the crowd favorite “The Way We Move”, it was all about the movement from there on out. Slim vibrated with intensity, spun and fell to his knees, used amps as spring boards and lounge chairs, and couldn’t wait to get into the crowd. Yes, he’s been here numerous times, but as he himself put it, “I know I’ve said it before, but being here, this shit feels good.”
Quad Stage — Friday, 1:35 p.m.
“This one filled up fast,” I heard a photographer tell his wife before Leon Bridges’ set. Bridges may be too fresh to be a main stage act, but the Quad could barely contain him as it kept right on filling until the crowd spilled deep outside the tent seating. Though the swiftly rising throwback singer came out already sweating, he delivered such effortless, smooth soul coolness that he quickly made you forget the heat. His confidence seems to have increased markedly since I last saw him in March, as his limited banter was confident and he moved about more freely on stage. He opened with some of his most recognizable numbers, like “Better Man” and “Brown Skin Girl”, and introed “Shine” by saying he and his band were “gonna take you to Church a little bit on this next one.” It was redundant, because it’s always Church when Bridges takes the stage.
Quad Stage — Saturday, 12:25 p.m.
“We’ve been playing these songs for about two weeks,” Jonny Fritz said early in Traveller’s set, garnering laughs from the crowd. The supergroup trio brought a lot of good cheer and humor to their show, but this time Fritz wasn’t joking. He, Robert Ellis, and Cory Chisel had bumped into NFF producer Jay Sweet and mentioned the band they were forming. Sweet invited them to play the festival, and they agreed. Two weeks out from the fest, however, the trio hadn’t progressed beyond a general idea. Fritz said the first time they were all in a room together since was just a few days ago, and this was their fourth ever gig. If they hadn’t told that story, you never would’ve guessed.
With Ellis tearing into an electric guitar, Chisel staying steady on his acoustic, and Fritz switching between all that and shuffling about in his genie shoes, the newly realized project put on a show that begged for more. The songs were just the thing for Americana purists (in other words, don’t think too heavily about Middle Brother), with a light-hearted edge to many of them. “Hummingbird” was an easy standout, with its playful lyrics about a middle-aged woman just discovering online dating and reimagining the end of Thelma and Louise. “Nobody Makes It Out” and opener “Get Me Out of the South” were also notables, though the whole thing just made me want to beg for a full CD and tour. Thankfully, I’m told at least the former is definitely in the works.
Jon Batiste & Stay Human
Fort Stage — Sunday, 12:40 p.m.
Here’s just a sample of the setlist Jon Batiste and the three-piece Stay Human delivered, in order: “St. James Infirmary”, “Home on the Range”, “If You’re Happy and You Know It”, and “Killing Me Softly”. That really happened; and ya know what, “If You’re Happy and You Know It” was one of the best moments of the entire fest. Batiste stood up from his piano and played the first call of the song on his melodica, and without a single moment of prompting, the entire crowd clapped twice. That’s how in the palm of his hand they were. He and Stay Human may be the only band on the bill that could play both the Newport Folk and Jazz Festivals, but he’s definitely the only one who could pull off “Blackbird” and “Killing Me Softly” in the same set.
The latter song was played with all the musicians (who, by the way, were each equally as engaging and spectacular as their leader) sitting on the stage edge. There was a point where they stopped playing, and the crowd took over to sing the chorus in gorgeous harmony. Not long after, they became part of the audience themselves, running through the standing pit as they sang and played in true New Orleans second line fashion.
Let me tell ya, if they bring a fifth of this style and energy to The Late Show, Stephen Colbert fans are in for a major treat.
My Morning Jacket
Fort Stage — Friday, 5:30 p.m.
By the time My Morning Jacket took the stage for the first of what was essentially three unannounced performances over the course of the weekend, most folks knew who it would be. (Not least of which was do to the familiar golden and big brown bears on stage.) But knowing the secret beforehand did little to undermine the excitement of the situation, as one of the biggest touring bands around just showed up at Newport, out of the blue, and kicked off what will go down as some of the most memorable two hours in the festival’s history.
The last time MMJ took the Fort stage, they were headliners in their own right back in 2012, a set infamously cut short by rain. Warnings of more inclement weather threatened to end this return early, as well, but thankfully the rain held off. Back then, the band played a relatively simmered down set; this time through, they focused heavily on Waterfall material, an album that’s decidedly not folky. And yet, even here, tracks like “Tropics (Erase Traces)” and “Spring (Among the Living)” played incredibly well. Yes, “Wonderful” with Lucius and oldie-but-goodie “Golden” were great, but the set really proved how solid an album Waterfall is, and how special a band MMJ is.
Fort Stage — Saturday, 3:50 p.m.
In 1969, James Taylor had his Newport Folk Festival set cut short because man had just set foot on the moon for the first time in history. You can’t blame George Wein for pulling the plug back then, but you have to give Jay Sweet oodles of credit for pulling off this surprise booking so Taylor could finish that long ago set.
Things got off to a rough start as technical issues forced Taylor to come on late, and the worst mic feedback I’ve ever experienced threatened to end his set short yet again. Thankfully, the ship righted itself, and Taylor delivered a Newport moment of pure bliss. As is the classic folk way, he separated each song with stories, like how he wrote “Carolina on My Mind” while witnessing the heads of his new label, The Beatles, record the White Album in London, or how his 1969 set ended right after “Fire and Rain”. “The moon was just hanging there in the sky,” he recalled, “and people were walking on it.”
My dad chose to sit in his chair set up in the back of the crowd for Taylor’s set, despite his being one of the few artists he actually knew at the fest. “I’ve seen him hundreds of times,” he told me, “so I could just let the music wash over me and take it in.” It may have only been a 30 minute set, but it was a lot of magic to take in, indeed.
Fort Stage — Saturday, 4:45 p.m.
It was a strange scene going from James Taylor’s set, where he sat simply on a stool and played acoustic guitars, to Sufjan Stevens’, which saw the young, fit songwriter playing with all kinds of synths, keys and a laptop. (And a banjo!) It was a stark representation of what folk in 2015 looks like, while also proving that it can stand right alongside the classic genre sound. Either way, Stevens played with the idea of “folk”, turning “All of Me” into a “sexy jam” and explaining that the album the song comes from, Carrie & Lowell, is indeed a folk record, though the songs have found new life live. Elsewhere, he laughed as he said of the rare (and shockingly funky) “Come on, Feel the Illinoise” that the 5-4 song was “fundamentally a folk song.” Then again, there was that chaotic bangout of “Fourth of July”. It would have felt odd if Stevens hadn’t taken the time to explain that the point of the lyrics was to “appreciate the abundance of life we have here.” Nothing’s more folk than that.
Also, Stevens’ music is just damn gorgeous live.