Newport Folk Festival 2016 Review: From Worst to Best

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


    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.


    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.


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



    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.



    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 // 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.




    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.


    Ben-Kaye-Newport-Folk-Fest-Amasa- Hines-1

    “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 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 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 with Ruby Amanfu // Photo by Ben Kaye

    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.



    The performance by The Texas Gentlemen would’ve been just a cool early afternoon country SuperJam if it weren’t for one mega guest. It wasn’t Terry Alan, Joe Ely, or JP Harris, all of whom did in fact come out. It was a true legend: Kris Kristofferson. His voice worn but his presence still awe-inspiring, the Highway Man — who hadn’t played a Newport stage since ’69 — played “Sunday Morning Coming Down”, “Help Me Make it Through the Night”, and a knockout “Me and Bobby McGee” with Margo Price. That alone turned a pleasant little set into legend.



    “And another thing!” Father John Misty yelled as he took to the Quad stage to close out Saturday. “Nah,” he joked. It was the perfect way to play off the already infamous rant he’d delivered just the day before. Even the last time he was at Newport, he tore into convention and ironically shat on the venerable festival. This time out, he delivered a truly respectful, composed solo acoustic set, sounding absolutely beautiful and showing the pleasant side of himself that doesn’t make headlines. He even made what could be considered calm remarks on the merits of folk music (while taking subtle shots at Jim James and Brittany Howard for their recent Chipotle ad, a spot he claimed he was offered for $250,000), a sharp contrast to his 2013 takedown.

    Between winning renditions of songs like “Writing a Novel” and “Bored in the USA” (which he introduced by saying, “I don’t know how I feel about this song anymore”), however, he did touch on what everyone was thinking. He recounted his previous diatribe, saying that he was just “making up for lost time” afters years of being non-political. He also quipped back at some remarks Ryan Adams made earlier in the day. “I got this shirt from some rich people out on a yacht watching Ryan Adams,” he said to good laughs. “‘Honey, remember the aughts?” It was a gentle turn, and he added that it “was just some playful ribbing.” Frankly, it was all a bit shocking how reserved it all was considering Mr. Tillman’s persona. Still, it was the right move and allowed for his stellar performance to really take the focus and wow.




    Maybe it was the heat, or maybe a punk poet just doesn’t carry the folk weight of a New Zealand comedy duo, but Patti Smith drew the sparsest crowd I’ve ever seen for a legacy headliner at Newport. Father John was clearly a huge draw, though there’s really no excuse for an icon to not pull in spectators at an iconic festival. Those who did stay witnessed a reverential, passionate set tailor-made for the location.

    It was loaded with memorable tracks (“Ghost Dance”, “Because the Night”), covers (The Rolling Stones’ “The Last Time”, her first ever live performance of Pete Seeger’s “If I Had a Hammer”), and tributes (Prince’s “When Doves Cry”, “This Is the Girl” on the fifth anniversary of Amy Winehouse’s death). There was the revolutionary power for which Smith rose to prominence, as she plugged in an electric guitar for “My Generation” and bellowed, “This is the greatest weapon of our generation, the only weapon we need!” It was all the things we’d expect from a NFF headlining moment, but if you weren’t steeped in the history, it’s not incomprehensible that you’d skip out on it. It’s just unfortunate that you missed such a dynamic performance.



    Ryan Adams’ shows with The Shining have turned into shredding showcases, so some folks were probably thrown off by the musician sitting in a semi-circle with bluegrass band The Infamous Stringdusters and Nicki Bluhm — midday, just two years after headlining, at that. Instead of a ripper, the set felt more closely tied to his country roots, with less focus on the “alt.” “It’s really hard to play all my big hits,” he joked, though “My Winding Wheel” and a mournful “Gimme Something Good” made welcome appearances alongside deeper cuts like “Jacksonville”. There were also bluegrass covers of Black Sabbath’s “The Wizard” and Slayer’s “South of Heaven”, because this was Ryan Adams at Newport Folk Festival, after all.


    His sharp wit was on display, as well, delivering an impromptu improvisation about Frightened Rabbit (whose sound bled over the Fort’s ramparts) and wondering aloud if KISS would ever play a similar set. He also sparked what could be the first modern Newport feud. “All this water and all these boats,” he remarked about his view. “I’m sure Father John Misty is out there having a meltdown… The National Guard is coming in to calm the outburst of his beard. Some rant about the evils of entertainment. Bless his heart, small as it is.”

    Shots fired across the bow, but even a little bile did nothing to diminish what was a unique and strong performance.



    So I’m a bit partial here, seeing as I’ve followed Lady Lamb’s career closely and even recommended her to the Newport Folk team two years ago. But that also has given me the chance to watch her grow as a performer, and her set at the Harbor stage was the most confident I’ve ever seen her. She mugged with assurance as she tore into her indie folk rock songs like “Bird Balloons” and “Billions of Eyes”, backed by a Portland, Maine-based two-piece. The expressive performance earned multiple standing ovations from the sun-beaten crowd, and that’s saying a lot considering the Saturday heat. She also announced a new EP coming soon, and with all the new fans she undoubtedly won over with this set, its release should help her star continue to rise.



    Matthew Logan Vasquez // Photo by Ben Kaye

    A Newport family member, Matthew Logan Vasquez opened and closed his set like a rock show, jumping up on the drums and amps for “Maria” and going balls out on finisher “Everything I Do Is Out”. But between that, it was as essential a Newport Folk set as you could want. He brought out his drummer’s father, Marc Black, to play guitar and sing on Fats Domino’s “I’m Walkin'”, Fruit Bats’ Eric D. Johnson and Amasa Hines guitarist Judson Spillyards for Jimmy Cliff’s “Many Rivers to Cross”, and the Parkington Sisters for “Angel from Montgomery”. Guests, classic covers, highlights from Solicitor Returns and even Delta Spirit — all while wearing a ridiculous/awesome rhinestone-embroidered jacket made by his mom because he “can’t afford the real thing.” You couldn’t ask for a more perfect midday show.



    The last time Elvis Costello played Newport billed as a solo performer in 2011, his voice was shot and he ended up bringing The Attractions to mask it. This time through, his voice sounded damn magnificent, but he still brought along support to turn in a stellar set. Larkin Poe were surprisingly good foils for the iconic guitarist, bookending him with superb voices and instrumentals. Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s dirge-y version of “Side by Side” was one of the more unique songs of the festival, and as always, they provided a great backing band. So did Dawes on classics like “Every Day I Write the Book” and “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love and Understanding”, even if Costello kept mistakenly referring to them as “The Middle Brother”. (Yes, technically Dawes is the Middle Brother band, but still.) He re-teamed with Glen Hansard plus Preservation Hall Jazz Band for closer “The Scarlet Tide”, capping his set with another memorable moment in a string of them.



    This was far and away one of the most non-conforming Newport Folk Fest headlining sets I’ve ever witnessed. People have cursed and played crude tunes before, but Flight of the Conchords sang about there being too many dicks on the dance floor and all the motha’uckas that are ‘ucking up their shit. They also mocked the entire concept of yacht-rock songwriting (“The Seagull”) in front of a giant harbor usually filled with yachts. Not to mention the fact that it was a comedy show before it was a musical performance, filled with ridiculous riffing about being so rock star that Jemaine Clement once left half a banana uneaten because he had to go on stage, and mocking of the very folk audience (“I bet you liked that over their in your lawn chairs and books. You literary types”). It was such a strange juxtaposition for the surroundings that one friend turned to me and drolly pointed out, “Ray LaMontagne opened for this.”


    Yet it completely worked. If you didn’t pay attention to the lyrics, it sounded like any other classic set you’d hear on the fort. There were protest songs (“Think About It”) and rambling country tales (“The Ballad of Stana”). If you did listen fully, you also got to end your first night at the festival laughing at some of the best deadpan humor currently on stage. The New Zealand duo were so good at that latter part that their constant tangents forced them to cut their setlist short. Their not getting to play everything they wanted is the only bad thing you can really say about one of the strangest, most enjoyable sets of the weekend.



    If you wanted a summary of what Middle Brother’s highly anticipated reunion was like, you only needed to see the smiles on all their faces. The trio were enjoying the hell out of playing together again, celebrating the fifth anniversary of their only album by playing it in full. John McCauley apologized for not having more material to show off, and though it was disappointing to learn there’d be no sophomore LP for now, his sorries weren’t necessary.

    Seeing him and Matt Vasquez put their arms around each other as they sat behind Taylor Goldsmith to watch him play “Wilderness” solo was enough. The same pair practically flirting during “Me Me Me” and kissing during “Million Dollar Bill” was enough. Vasquez conducting the crowd to sing along and Goldsmith to extend his solo was enough. But they kept giving more. Johnny Fritz — the “other member of our band,” as Goldsmith said — took a verse on “Middle Brother”, and The Suffers’ Kam Franklin came out to sing harmony with Shovels & Rope on “Someday”. Franklin also sang backup for the Vasquez-led “Theater”, helping turn it into possibly the best single song of the whole weekend, a literally chill-inducing performance even in the harsh midday heat. “Oh my God,” Vasquez remarked. That’s probably as good a summary as those smiles.




    Glen Hansard has played NFF in a number of incarnations. While he’s always been impressive, this one easily tops the list in terms of pure stunning power. The Irishman truly shredded his guitar in fits of distortion during “When Your Mind’s Made Up” and a cover of Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks”, likely adding to the patch of stripped wood running across the instrument. It was a dash of punk in a true folk set that also included moments of protest (lines about Trump were added into Woody Guthrie’s “Vigilante Man”) and nearly constant storytelling between each song, and even sometimes in the middle. “I wanna sing this one for Bernie Sanders,” he said as he neared the end of “Winning Streak”. “I think he won more than he knows.”

    He sounded impeccable, both vocally and musically, the underrated beauty of his artistry on full display. His honeyed voice was as pleasing on “Didn’t He Ramble” as it was while he told the story behind the migrant tribute “Way Back in the Way Back When”. Guests were plentiful, with trombonist Curtis Fowlkes and The Low Anthem/Arc Iris’ Jocie Adams both playing on multiple songs. But the true collaborative highlights came as a surprise even to Hansard.

    After starting and stopping “Lowly Deserter”, he turned to ask his fellow artists off-stage if anyone could come out and bang a tambourine. Hansard was as blown back as everyone else when none other than Elvis Costello walked out. Costello would return later for closer “The Auld Triangle”, which had yet another surprise all its own. Hansard recognized a fellow Irishman in the audience and told him he had to come up and sing a verse on the song. To the shock of the crowd, the seemingly random dude was a husky-voiced belter. As gorgeous as the flawless set was to behold overall, these little moments were completely off the cuff, and that’s the kind of pure magic that adds to the legend of this festival. Fucking Newport, man.


    Click ahead for an exclusive gallery from Newport Folk Festival 2016.


    Photographer: Ben Kaye