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.