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Newport Folk Fest Marks the Glorious Return of Festivals in the US

Newport's "Folk On" weekend dazzled with legendary collaborations, surprise appearances, and other landmark firsts

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Newport Folk Festival’s Folk On Weekend 2021, Chaka Khan, photo by Ben Kaye
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    Most major music festivals coming back in 2021 chose to give perspective attendees a fair amount of time to decide to get vaccinated while still keeping the events “summer.” Hence September is jammed with nearly sold-out fests, from Bonnaroo to BottleRock. But many are looking towards August’s Lollapalooza as the first real test of what a post-pandemic festival looks like, which isn’t entirely accurate. Over the weekend (July 23rd-25th), Newport Folk Festival returned for part one of its slimmed-down Folk On 2021 double-event — and there really is no better way to bring music festivals back.

    Typically on the smaller side of capacity limits anyway, Newport cut back to just 5,000 daily attendees to help mitigate COVID risks. They also broke up the schedule over two back-to-back three-day chunks, each with a completely unique lineup. There were overlaps and surprise spots a-plenty — as there always is at Fort Adams — but it didn’t matter who was playing anyway — as it rarely does at Fort Adams.

    Newport Folk has always been about coming together not just with fellow music fans, but fellow human beings. It’s a place where protest and unity are more than encouraged, they’re at the core of its very ethos: “Be Present, Be Kind, Be Open, Be Together.” After the last 18 months, with all their rage and fear and uncertainty, the Folk Family needed this sort of reunion more than ever. For the Newport Folk Foundation and the state of Rhode Island to work so hard to make this happen so ahead of almost anyone else’s schedule is something of a godsend.

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    Of course, there’s still that nagging concern it will also be a setback. Being on the Fort felt like an escape from reality (which, again, is typical for NFF), but undoubtedly in the back of most everyone’s head was the realization that there’s already worry about all those September events not happening. Folk On did about as much as you’d expect without forcing strict mask mandates: Proof of vaccination and negative tests were required, confirmed via a CrowdPass app and a quick check by volunteer staff. There was also the option to take a rapid test on-site, though thankfully it seemed few individuals actually needed that recourse. Signs suggesting masks in close quarters (the tunnel to the Quad stage, the standing areas in front of the stages) were largely ignored, but how’s that different from most places recently? On the other hand, folks made constant use of the hand sanitizing stations set up around the grounds.

    We won’t know how effective any of these measures were for days yet. What matters in the immediate is that they provided Folk On attendees a sense of relative normalcy. Lord, did we need it. Newport Folk has long been a place where anyone can feel safe, welcome, and comfortable. For three days, it was beyond nice to experience that solace amid what still feels like wild uncertainty.

    Amidst the calm and joy were, inevitably, signs that the last year-and-a-half were very real for everyone. The reduced capacity was a noticeable contrast to years past, although also a welcome way to ease back into the festival lifestyle. Artists were unmistakably rusty. Some were performing new material for the first time ever, while nearly all were returning to the stage for the first time since at least early 2020. Slipped notes, forgotten lyrics, shaky queues — all were forgiven, understandable, and frankly expected.

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    Jason Isbell Newport Folk Festival Folk On 2021-7

    Newport Folk Festival Folk On Weekend, photo by Ben Kaye

    The Festival itself also made efforts to acknowledge some of the harder truths of the last year, namely by giving Allison Russell the closing spot on Sunday. It’s become the norm for at least one headlining spot at Newport Folk to be given over to a massive collaborative showcase, curated by a major artists around a particular theme. Think Taylor Goldsmith’s Bob Dylan tribute, or Brandi Carlile’s Dolly Parton-featuring ????: The Collaboration from 2019. This year, the festival organizers (led by famed Executive Director Jay Sweet), those reins were handed to Russell, who put together a brilliant superjam featuring almost exclusively Black female artists.

    In fact, across the lineup was evidence of a concerted diversity push. (Newport has typically featured performers from a range of backgrounds, although Russell’s Once and Future Sounds: Roots and Revolution was the first headlining spot by a POC in some decades.) With the messages and music delivered by the likes of Demeanor, Celisse, Devon Gilfillian, Yola, Joy Oladokum, Yasmin Williams, and others over the weekend, the realities of the world outside Fort Adams were never far from mind.

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    Yet for all the cultural and societal background to this year’s proceedings, the overarching theme was still — and simply — the rebirth of live music. This return was as welcomed by the artists as the fans, perhaps even more so, as performers’ pure joy at playing with their friends and peers again on full display. Though collaborations are always a hallmark of NFF, they felt exponentially more celebratory and exciting in 2021. Not only were we fans lucky to witness such musical camaraderie, artists were blessed to be able to even have the chance to do it.

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    Newport Folk Festival Folk On Weekend, photo by Ben Kaye

    Doubly so after a nation-wide festival furlough year, it felt impossible to catch every amazing moment at Folk On weekend. Yet as is always true at Newport Folk, we were grateful for what we were able to experience — and again, doubly so. Read on for our 10 favorite moments from the return of US festivals.

    — Ben Kaye, Editorial Director

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    10. Firsts for Natalie Hemby and Phosphorescent

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    Natalie Hemby, photo by Ben Kaye

    It was a given that a number of performances at the first major music festival since 2019 would mark musicians’ first time on stage since the pandemic. Amazingly, there were event bigger, lifetime firsts for a number of acts. Natalie Hemby, known for writing songs for the likes of Kacey Musgraves and Miranda Lambert in addition to being one of the Highwomen, delivered her first-ever full-band show after signing her first record deal in her 40s. On the other end of the spectrum, long-time folk favorite Phosphorescent performed acoustically for the first time in his career. Old is new again in 2021.

    Phosphorescent Newport Folk Festival Folk On 2021-4

    Phosphorescent, photo by Ben kaye

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    09. Margo Price and Andrew Bird Constantly Collaborating

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    Margo Price with Andrew Bird, photo by Ben Kaye

    Margo Price ended up with two spots on the lineup, both times accompanied by her husband/collaborator, Jeremy Ivey. Those two playing together makes a lot of sense, but who knew that Andrew Bird would be on stage the entire time during Price’s solo set? Forgiving a moment or two when his whistling threatened to steal the show, Bird played strong support to the country star. Returning the favor, Price later appeared during Bird’s set with Jimbo Mathus, where the trio paid tribute to the late John Prine with a rendition of “Angel from Montgomery.”

    08. What’s Going On with Devon Gilfillian’s Smile

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    Devon Gilfillian, photo by Ben Kaye

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    Soul musician Devon Gilfillian brought a shock of brightness wherever he appeared over the weekend, beaming wide with a smile that rivals Anderson .Paak’s. But Gilfillian has a voice and energy all his own, an instantly captivating personality and talent that makes everything he says and does seem somehow wondrous. Leading an all-star tribute to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, Gilfillian delivered one of the most exciting sets of the weekend.

    07. Waxahatchee Finally Playing One of the Best Albums of 2020

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    Waxahatchee, photo by Ben Kaye

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    Albums released well over a year ago feel brand new since the return of live music. Artists haven’t had a chance to properly play much of their latest material in over a year, and there was a lot of great material put out since then. So getting to witness someone like Waxahatchee, who’s Saint Cloud remains one of the best pandemic releases, finally play songs like “Lilacs” and “Fire” in front of actual humans was something of an honor. And as a bonus, she brought out her partner Kevin Morby — and showed up at his solo set later in the day.

    06. The Joy of Discovering Joy Oladokun 

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    Joy Oladokun, photo by Ben Kaye

    What was music discovery in 2020? Playlists? Recommendations? Consequence? You almost forgot that one of the greatest ways to discover new sounds is by walking in front of a stage at a festival. Such was the case with Joy Oladokun, an R&B/folk artists making a breakout on her sophomore LP, In Defense of My Own Happiness. Walking out with a Mac Miller shirt on and corduroy pants embroidered with mushrooms, Oladokun was clearly a bit nervous playing the big Newport Folk stage, stumbling over lyrics more than once. But each time, she played through and simply restarted the verse, like an old pro would. Her songs about mental health, joints, and self-awareness were presented with such easy, well, joy that she quickly became a favorite find for festival goers

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    05. Lucy Dacus Finally Playing One of the Best Albums of 2021

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    Lucy Dacus, photo by Ben Kaye

    Where we had to wait months to hear Waxahatchee’s latest greatest, we’re only a month or so removed from Lucy Dacus’ Home Video. Even so, without pre-festival gigs to road test the material, this was the first time the boygenius member had a chance to unfurl tunes like “Thumbs” and standout “Triple Dog Dare.” No worries, as the fresh tracks sound just as incredible as older favorites like “Night Shift” — which still has the power to bring an audience to their feet.

    04. Middle Brother’s Early Acoustic Reunion

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    Middle Brother, photo by Ben Kaye

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    Middle Brother — the supergroup made up of Delta Spirit’s Matthew Logan Vasquez, Deer Tick’s John McCuley, and Dawes’ Taylor Goldsmith — was set to deliver a full reunion set on the first day of Folk On weekday. Ahead of that pre-scheduled 10 year reunion gig (their first since their five year reunion at Newport Folk Festival 2016), however, they took of the tiny Busking stage next to the main Lawn stage for a special acoustic set. The group is something of Newport legends (individually in addition to as a unit), so for fans missing out on Monday’s show to get a chance to see them play again was a true treat.

    (Note: There was some controversy around their pop up performance, as the scheduling forced a bumping of Emma Swift. She was later awarded the opening Lawn set on Tuesday, but she was understandably annoyed at having her original slot usurped.)

    03. Yola Being Crowned the New Queen of Newport

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    Yola, photo by Ben Kaye

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    Since debuting at Newport Folk back in 2019, Yola’s star has only risen. She returned to take the main stage with fresh material from her forthcoming Stand for Myself, her muscular vocals creating waves way back in the Newport Harbor. Her voice is straight up jaw-dropping live, so when The Highwoman’s Hemby came out to bestow upon her a silvery tiara, it was like she was being dubbed the new Queen of Newport. Yola later brought out another Highwoman, the great Brandi Carlile, to debut a new collaboration called “Be My Friend”; only royalty has the authority to bring in such starpower.

    02. Randy Newman Cursing His Way Through “You’ve Got a Friend in Me”

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    Randy Newman, photo by Ben Kaye

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    Man, Randy Newman is old. As he walked out with no introduction to hunch over his piano, you’d be forgiven for wondering if he could make it through his set. Yet age has done nothing to damage the iconic songwriter’s disposition, as he was whip-smart as ever. He did, however, fumble the bridge of “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” letting loose a string of playful profanities as he tried to recover the right melody and keys. But that’s Newman at this point, an old man jokester, who can crack wise about having shrunk three inches since writing “Short People.” Still as fun and funny as ever.

    01. Chaka Khan and All of Allison Russell’s Once and Future Sounds: Roots and Revolution

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    Chaka Khan at Allison Russell Presents: Once and Future Sounds: Roots and Revolution, photo by Ben Kaye

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    Out of all the Newport superjam closers, perhaps none have been as powerful as Russell’s Once and Future Sounds: Roots and Revolution. Yes, it was interesting, to say the least, for a set with such potent messages about history and civil rights to be delivered to a crowd so white you could feasibly count the POC from the right vantage point. But as score after score of diversely talented, commanding female artists took the stage, the only feelings that remained were those of awe.

    Adia Victoria, The Suffers’ Kam Franklin, Yola, Oladokun poet Caroline Randall Williams, Amythyst Kiah, Kyshona, Sunny War, and more stepped into the “circle,” as Russell consistently referred to it as. The whole house came down with the final guest, as all the day’s performers were joined on stage by the legendary Chaka Khan. The icon led them through “Ain’t Nobody” and “I’m Every Woman,” a singalong for the ages like only Newport Folk can provide: a Sunday night closing performance with as much talent as a typical festival bill and a meaningful meaning to boot. Yes, that’s Newport Folk — and that’s the return of live music.

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