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Newport Folk Festival 2016 Review: From Worst to Best

A year that proves expectations mean nothing when a festival is simply magic

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    When I sat down with Executive Producer of the Newport Festivals Foundation Jay Sweet eight months ago for our 2015 Festival of the Year feature, he kept bringing up the concept of the paradox of compounding expectations. Basically, as the Newport Folk Festival seemed to get better with each year since he came on board, Sweet feared that he’d eventually hit that point where he could no longer exceed the previous summer’s event. If that’s the case, then he royally screwed himself with what he put together last year because it wasn’t just the best Newport had seen in ages; it was the best experience of any festival in the country.

    Credit to Sweet for realizing the fatal flaw in all his hard work to bring the venerable Newport Folk Festival back to prominence — and for being completely right about it. There was undoubtedly a sense of 2016 not quite matching the level of 2015, both in terms of lineup and experience. There were shifts all around the Fort, from the sudden appearance of massive branding in the form of a Toyota Prius tent to the creation of a separate media tent that put space between journalists and the artists and friends of the festival. They still treated those reporting on the event better than most any other festival in the country, though, and the segregation could well have been due to the considerable increase in the presence of working media personnel.

    Newport Folk Festival 2016 // Photo by Ben Kaye

    Which is actually just another symptom of Sweet’s theory. With NFF squarely back in the spotlight, everyone wants a piece of it. You could meet newbies at almost every level of attendance, from patrons to reporters to staffers themselves. Labels and artist reps who had never booked a performer for the festival were suddenly mixed in with longtime veterans and frequent guests. They all mingled as pleasantly as one would hope at the Fort, of course, but it was still noticeable how many more wide-eyed neophytes there were.

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    That’s not to say any of this was a bad thing. The worst of it was the rookies taking a minute to figure out some of the rules, like where to stand to watch shows at the seated Harbor and Quad stages or how you don’t tear down the plastic netting to go take a dip in the water by the pier. (Though, to be fair, the heat was pretty crippling this year — it could be the first time I’ve seen multiple individuals faint in the Rhode Island sun — and Fort Adams isn’t known for its shady spots.) And while the lineup as a whole wasn’t as bold-print as 2015, there’s no questioning how solid it was on its own merits. Pointing these things out is just to give acknowledgement to Sweet’s reasonable fears and the fact that he was, in his way, completely right.

    Newport Folk Festival 2016 // Photo by Ben Kaye

    But as I told him back in November, he was also completely wrong in the most important ways. Just as the existence of the paradox is his own doing, so are the reasons why it will never matter. There may have been no major surprise performances like last year’s unannounced James Taylor and My Morning Jacket sets, but there were plenty of unexpected appearances all weekend, from multiple sets from Folk Family members like Lucius and Kam Franklin of The Suffers to Dawes and Deer Tick serving as respective backing bands for Elvis Costello and Ruby Amanfu. Though he didn’t have a main stage set to call his own, there was a surprise as Newport legend Kris Kristofferson returned to the festival where his career launched 50 years ago. Newcomers like Julien Baker and Banditos turned in performances that stunned the uninitiated while legends like Graham Nash and Patti Smith took swipes at expectations.

    All of it was taken in with the same rapt appreciation and reverence for the music that has become the true hallmark of what sets this festival apart from anything else in its league. No matter how much things might change here, no matter how short of expectations any particular year’s lineup may appear to fall, there is never a doubt that the experience will always be a singular one. The music will always ring out across Newport Harbor to launch new legends and create ineffable memories that we’ll remember for a lifetime.

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    Expectations be damned; this is still fucking Newport Folk Festival. And it is glorious.


    EDWARD SHARPE AND THE MAGNETIC ZEROS

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    Maybe it’s not fair to start this review off with Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros considering I only caught a song and a half of their set. Then again, that’s not my fault; the band went on over 20 minutes late, something patently unheard of at Newport. It was a drag waiting that long, and to have them start with dragging versions of a song from an album most people have already forgot exists (“Wake Up the Sun” off Person A) and then “Man on Fire” wasn’t a winning way to go. Sure, Alex Ebert was in the crowd dancing with everyone by the end of that second song, but the packed house was clearly already filled with fans. What I was able to see just didn’t do a thing for me.


    ST. PAUL AND THE BROKEN BONES

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    Surely some people walked away thinking St. Paul and the Broken Bones was the best set of the day. It was a solid show of high-energy soul with a powerhouse of a vocalist. The down shot is so much of it rests on that voice. The band isn’t doing a ton of super interesting things — they’re just doing what they do very well. Every song being sold as “we’re about to get funky/sexy/take you to church” didn’t help the slight feeling of shtick. It’s hard to minimize the actual quality of musicians, but it was only a good set, and not much more.


    CASE/LANG/VEIRS

    Case/Lang/Veirs // Photo by Ben Kaye

    Neko Case was so excited to perform with case/lang/viers that she messed up a verse on opener “Atomic Number”, the only true crack in what was generally an admirably tight performance. Still, there wasn’t much else to get excited about besides the fact that these three musicians were playing together. They seem to have teamed to make music, but not necessarily to do anything interesting with said music. They were best when Laura Viers took lead and most venerable when Lang stepped up. “I think someone just called us classy,” Viers said at one point. That’s a fine descriptor; it was a nice performance by respected artists, full of class, just not inspiration.


    RAURY

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    You know how the lines between R&B and hip-hop have blurred in recent years? That’s essentially what Raury is doing with rap and folk, which is something no one has really attempted like this before. In overalls and a straw hat, the 20-year-old Atlantan doesn’t have the greatest of singing voices, and his “songs for revolution and peace” can come off a bit canned (“God’s Whisper”). And despite being the first to get the Quad crowd up on their feet, he didn’t seem to hold everyone’s attention. Still, you just can’t shake the positive vibes and the fascinating things he’s attempting.


    AMASA HINES

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    “We’re gonna be your Newport breakfast,” frontman Joshua Asante said as Amasa Hines took the stage. It was a fine meal to start the festival, as the psych-leaning blues rock went down easy in the early, breezy day. They were really at their most enjoyable when they brought out their funky, island vibes — or maybe that was just the bright blue skies inspiring the feeling. Either way, it was a pleasant, though not a standout, performance to kick off the weekend.


    VIOLENT FEMMES

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    Violent Femmes were that oddball addition to the lineup this year from whom you just weren’t sure what to expect. They turned in an acoustic set (plus the charcoal grill drummer John Sparrow played), one that highlighted that they’re the original indie folk-punks. It didn’t always click — they slipped on the opening of “I Held Her in My Arms” (a song they admitted they’d never performed “quasi-acoustic before”), and the bass (badass as Brian Ritchie and his huge instrument were) was a bit heavy in the house mix. But openers “Blister” and “Kiss Off” were sure crowd-pleasers, though there wasn’t a ton of up to go from there. It was a cool show to see, although not one that will live on in NFF legend.


    SON LITTLE

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    Rhythm & blues artist Son Little has a whole heap of potential. His smooth jams are just breezy enough to have sailed out comfortably from the early afternoon Harbor stage, adding a smokiness to the gloriously sunny day. He’s got the guitar chops to bring out the cheers from the packed crowd, too. Although his stage presence felt just a tad too reserved (save for some chuckle-worthy banter), it’s not hard to imagine him moving up fairly quickly with the right songs and a jolt of energy.


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