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.
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.
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.
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.
Expectations be damned; this is still fucking Newport Folk Festival. And it is glorious.
EDWARD SHARPE AND THE MAGNETIC ZEROS
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
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.
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.
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.
“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 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.
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.
Fruit Bats were introduced as being a major “part of the early 2000s folk movement,” so there’s no doubt they’ve earned their place here. That said, mastermind Eric D. Johnson noted this is somehow the first time they’d played Rhode Island in their decade-and-a-half existence. (Only 8 states to go.) Their gentle, unpretentious modern folk perfectly fit their early-day set. With its calming little yacht-y synths, “None of Us” especially helped the rising feeling that, yes, Newport Folk was on.
THE OH HELLOS
The Oh Hellos aren’t only a fantastic Newport band, they’re everything that’s potentially great about the modern “stomp” folk trend. A band packed to the brim with energetic members (two drummers, violinist, banjo player, multiple guitarists — despite usually being labeled a duo), it was almost too difficult to figure out where to look at any given moment. Yet even if you were so busy jumping and dancing about to focus on any particular musician, the gang harmonies and rollicking sounds were nearly as engaging. Like most of their kin, not every song was noteworthy, but their performance most definitely was. They’re likely to be welcome back to the Fort with open arms for years to come.
NATHANIEL RATELIFF AND THE NIGHT SWEATS
Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats tore down the Quad stage just last year, and they returned triumphantly to the main stage in 2016. The transition was indicative of how swift their rise has been on just one solid album — as was the huge crowd they drew. It was all well earned, though, as they sparked quite a fire for a midday set. It wasn’t vastly different from everything else we’ve seen from them over the last 365 days, but it doesn’t really have to be with this band; a good time is a good time.
Every so often there’s an artist that’s worked hard enough to make it to the Fort, but isn’t exactly on everyone’s radars. Judging by all the “Do you know who she is?” inquiries, that’s likely Basia Bulat in 2016. It’s going to be hard for people not to make the Lucius comparison with her appearance, but get past it and you’ll enjoy pitch-perfect folk pop and solid stage presence. Her raspy speaking voice rings like a gentle brass bell when singing, and she can play keys as well as a 101-year-old zither harp. (She said she’d always told herself she’d bring the instrument out if she ever played Newport.) The lack of crowd response as she stomped and banged her tambourine during “In the Name Of” may mean she hasn’t won everyone over — but she made it to NFF, and she’ll win them yet.
Leave it to a folk legend to open his Newport Folk show by taking aim at Donald Trump with an opener like “Military Madness”. The modern Folk Fest set isn’t as packed with classic artists as it was in years past, but there’s always a few to bring the familiar sound, and not many have delivered it as well as Graham Nash did on Saturday. Everything he did was on point, from his well-preserved, sterling vocals to his work on guitar (“Marrakesh Express”) and piano (“Wind on the Water”). The group sing-along on closer “Teach Your Children Well” sealed the deal: True folk still reigns at Newport.
If you don’t want to get shown up by your backing band, don’t tap My Morning Jacket to play your music. Ray LaMontagne’s vocals were constantly washed away in ripping solos by guitarist Carl Broemel and keyboardist Bo Koster. The band brought a level of psych rock to LaMontagne’s tracks that took them into a new stratosphere — “The Changing Man” and “Hey, No Pressure” especially. Things sounded more reminiscent of a typical show by the singer-songwriter on tracks like “Airwaves” and closer “All the Wild Horses”, but the highlights were when MMJ let loose. It was a great set, but it’s impossible to say, “That Ray LaMontagne set was great!”– it was more like a Ray Morning Jacket experience. And though awesome, it loses points for that. Jacket fans were surely satisfied; LaMontagne fans might’ve left a bit befuddled.
Alabama Shakes essentially pulled a 2012 My Morning Jacket with their headlining set. It was super appropriate for the setting, though rather unexpected for the band. Knowing that the Shakes can absolutely tear up a stage, fans likely expected a monster rocker of a performance. Instead, it was a mellow, soulful outing tailored for the Fort Stage. This wasn’t a flat-out bad thing, but it felt a bit soft as a festival closer.
That said, the band was still decidedly great. Brittany Howard seems like she was born for the stage: the perfect emotive facial twists, the knockout pipes, the commanding strut. There’s a genuineness to everything she does, even her casually sweet southern stage talk. “This right here is my favorite song on the record. I love singing it,” she said before “Over My Head”, and she introduced the members of Dawes for the closing cover of Bob Seger’s “Night Moves” with expressions like, “Ya’ll know Taylor.” Utterly charming and impressive as always.
And even if it was a bit lukewarm all together, the performance did produce a challenger for song of the weekend. “You Ain’t Alone” was delivered with such force and such a blowout outro that it almost made you forget how toned down the rest of the set had been. Almost.
DEER TICK AND FRIENDS
There’s a bit of a double-edged sword that comes with Deer Tick’s annual three nights of after-shows at the Newport Blues Cafe in that you’re always going to see a great gig, but one of those shows is going to be legendary. This year the lucky night was Friday when Jenny Lewis and Lucius made appearances — but the Saturday concert was far from a letdown. After openers Julien Baker and Raymond Baxter, the local legends and Newport royalty of Deer Tick took the stage with “Main Street” and proceeded to deliver a set handpicked from all depths of their catalog. “Thyme” was a band highlight, though it’s the guests that always make these “And Friends” shows so great. Ruby Amanfu stepped out to cover Cranberries’ “Zombie” and the classic “I Put a Spell on You”, while John McCauley’s Middle Brother pal Matt Vasquez came along for what was essentially a three-song punk set that included his solo single “Everything I Do Is Out”. At one point, he ripped off his shirt and smashed Jay Sweet’s face into his stomach; we may not have gotten Lewis and Lucius covering Prince, but we got Matty V covering Sweet in belly sweat. I’d call that a win.
After getting so used to seeing Dan Auerbach playing giant stages and stadiums with The Black Keys, watching him rip into these psych jams in a considerably more intimate space with The Arcs was refreshing. And actually impressive. The ubiquity of his other band has worn a bit thin, such that it’s possible to forget the chops he really does have. They were on full display as he smashed songs like “Velvet Ditch” and “Outta My Mind” while “Stay in My Corner” with Mariachi Flor de Tolache singing backup was a clear highlight. Auerbach appears to be having a lot more fun with this outfit than he has over the last few years with the Keys, and that alone made this performance a solid Quad-closer for day one.
Seeing a bunch of chairs laid out under a music festival tent can be a strange sight for first-timers at Newport, but a performance like Julien Baker’s is exactly what excels in that setting. Her soft and emotional songs could easily disappear in a larger atmosphere; here, her sound had a place to haunt, for listeners to absorb the heartache. They sat agape at how beautiful and powerful the music she produces is, standing only to shower applause on vocal and guitar solos. In fact, it was probably even more affecting than when she played the tiny Newport Blues Cafe opening for the prior evening’s Deer Tick and Friends after-party. It even made Baker herself tear up, which is about all you need to know.