The legendary Newport Folk Festival is a much different beast these days than what your grandparents or parents may have known it to be. The fest has never been stronger, to the point where executive producer Jay Sweet lives in constant fear of having to exceed the previous summer’s event. It has gained a reputation as a gathering whose glory is due as much to who isn’t on the lineup as who is, as well as a place for coming together not just with fellow music fans, but fellow human beings. There’s a feeling of ultimate unity — ultimate folkness — between audience and artist, both sharing in the warm knowledge that this weekend will be scrawled in the ledger of music history.
Which all makes it harder and harder to “review” Newport Folk. But I’ll be back next year, and the year after that, and as long as I’m able, I’ll go back to the Fort.
I’ve written every word from the preceding two paragraphs before. Literally; every sentence is copied and pasted (with slight editing for flow) from my last 10 years of reviewing Newport Folk Festival. 2022 marked my 12th time at the festival, and what you’re reading is my 11th recap. If I haven’t presented a fair summation of Newport by this point, why should I be able to now? (That last sentence there, also copy-pasted.)
I’ve literally said it a dozen ways: Newport Folk Festival is magic. It is ever-evolving, continuously setting new standards for itself, and existing in a sphere that is so (unfortunately) outside the norm of the average music festival experience that reading about it or seeing photographs from it will simply never do it justice.
Look around at what happened this last weekend in the live music landscape: Kid Cudi got harassed off the stage while the icon he replaced gave the entire crowd and festival the middle finger by showing up anyway. Tom Morello got knocked into the pit after someone rushed the stage. Kid Rock fans threw a tantrum because weather.
Now look at the headlines that came out of a relatively tiny, 10,000 person event on a peninsula in Newport Harbor: Paul Simon un-retired to play four songs after a group of artists (led by Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats) honored him with a tribute set. Joni Mitchell brought her living room to the stage for an emotional sing-along performance surrounded by a score of musician friends (thanks to Brandi Carlile).
Numerous artists canceled or had their set times rearranged, and all were replaced by family (Dawes’ Taylor Goldsmith filling in for his pregnant wife, Mandy Moore), folks who just so happened to have their own plans altered (Hurray for the Riff Raff, saving the day after beabadoobee cancelled), or a “screw it, let’s just throw a bunch of people on stage and call in Natalie Merchant and Craig Finn” Clusterfolk collaboration (after Bonny Light Horseman couldn’t all make it). Do we see the difference yet?
Japanese Breakfast actually had her set time changed twice. After travel delays, she was pushed from Friday evening to early Sunday morning, with Faye Webster taking her original spot. The Newport team threw together a silly plan to compensate all the diehards who were now going to have to get to the festival site perhaps far earlier than intended: Breakfast for Breakfast, where they sprung into action finding a local bakery to produce hundreds of pastries to feed the early arrivers. But then Trampled by Turtles pulled out, and J. Brekkie was able to move to a Sunday closing set on the Quad stage (opposite Carlile’s surprise Joni Jam, which led to a sparse but appreciative crowd for Michelle Zauner by the end of her set).
And still the festival organizers went ahead with their breakfast plans, enlisting a handful of musicians to grab boxes of treats and deliver them to the crowd before the opening sets. No croissants were thrown angrily back onto the stage, and John Craigie even returned with some friends to perform the soundtrack to The Beatles’ “Let It Be” during that vacated morning Quad spot.
I could go on and on and on and on about all the amazing things that happened at Newport Folk Festival 2022. There was Goldsmith bringing fans from the crowd (plus Blake Mills and members of Goose) to accompany him during his solo set. There was Sylvan Esso — an electropop band — announcing and debuting a full album that turned the Fort Stage into a dance club. There was Dinosaur Jr. demolishing the Quad Stage with unapologetic noise rock, including a cameo from Courtney Barnett on “Feel the Pain.” There was Joy Oladokun sliding out of “I See America” into Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and then covering Elton John’s “Rocketman.” There was The Roots’ absolute barn-burner of a funk-soul-hip-hop party in the pre-headlining Sunday spot, a set that felt like it truly never let up. There was The Linda Lindas proving handedly that the kids are indeed alright.
But the truth is, there’s just too much magic on any given Folk Fest weekend to capture it all. You can’t even witness it all, let alone write about it. During the afterparty on the final evening, Jay Sweet himself perhaps summed it up best: “Raise your hand if you saw Paul Simon this weekend. Now keep it up, and raise your other hand if you saw Joni Mitchell this weekend,” he said, leading to a tent filled with arms held high. “Good night!”
For the sake of “recapping,” however, below are five particular highlights from the weekend. Ask me next week, and I may have an entirely different list of memories. Check in with me again next year, and I’m sure to have a dozen more.
While Anaïs Mitchell was still present, her Bonny Light Horseman bandmates Eric D. Johnson and Josh Kaufman weren’t able to make it. So Mitchell kicked off a last-minute jam sessions dubbed Clusterfolk with a cover of Don Henley’s “The End of the Innocence” alongside Cassandra Jenkins and others. Lukas Nelson and Robert Ellis later came out to play Neil Young’s “Tell Me Why,” and Craig Finn — who was just planning to watch music at the festival — closed the whole thing down by bringing out any artist he could wrangle to sing “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.”
And did I mention Natalie Merchant? Seemingly out of no where, Merchant appeared with a guitarist by her side to sing the classic “Carnival,” joined next by Sarah Lee Guthrie (and the audience) for “Kind & Generous.” Between the numbers, she beckoned the crowd to show their appreciation for the Newport Folk crew for not just being able to technically pull off something like Clusterfolk, but for fostering the relationships over the years to make magic like this spark.
Seeing one of your favorite bands performing at your favorite festival is always going to be a memorable experience. The National made extra sure of that, debuting a new song called “Space Invader (Threaded Gold),” and welcoming guests in Jenkins (“I Need My Girl”), Mitchel (“Rylan”), Hannah Georgas “I Am Easy to Find”), and the incomparable Adia Victoria (“Fake Empire” — on her birthday, no less!). The band pulled no punches for their Newport set, ripping into “Mr. November,” sliding in new tracks “This Isn’t Helping” and “Tropic Morning News (Haversham),” and letting Matt Berninger loose on the crowd to sit in beach chairs and sing to children on “Terrible Love.” Their typical closing sing-along of “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” (with all their guests joining in) has never sounded sweeter than it did coasting over Newport Harbor.
Sylvan Esso were tied to three different sets over the course of the weekend (not including their pop-in appearances). There was The A’s, Amelia Meath’s new project with her Mountain Man bandmate Alexandra Sauser-Monnig; that No Rules Sandy reveal set; and Psychic Hotline, a showcase for the label Meath and Nick Sanborn run out of Durham, North Carolina. Each set had its treats, but with Psychic Hotline playing like a very Newport-appropriate jam session, it was the type of show many will call “slept on.” (Then again, any Quad set up against the Fort headliner is always going to be at a disadvantage.)
With appearances from Sylvan Esso themselves, Jenn Wasner, Anjimile, Uwade, tUnE-yArDs’ Merril Garbus (with a killer all-hands-on-deck “Hold Yourself” closer), and more, it was a set that should put anyone who caught it on notice to keep their third eye on Psychic Hotline.
American Tune Revue:
The themed headlining set is now a Newport Folk standard. There was Allison Russell’s Once and Future Sounds: Roots and Revolution with Chaka Khan 2021, Carlile’s landmark ♀♀♀♀: The Collaboration that brought Dolly Parton in 2019, and the star-studded ’65 Revisited tribute to Bob Dylan in 2015. No one really knew what Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats’ American Tune Revue was going to be on Saturday night, but it quickly became clear when it opened with “Mother and Child Reunion” with Lucius and “Kodachrome”: This was a Paul Simon celebration.
With Robert Ellis on guitar and Phil Cook on keys, guests rotated in constantly: Lee Fields on “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” Merchant on “El cóndor pasa,” Marcus Mumford for an image-redeeming rendition of “Cecilia.” Then it happened, and the “retired” Simon himself took the stage. He sang “Graceland” with Jerry Douglas sliding behind him, played guitar while Rhiannon Giddens sang “American Tune,” and welcomed everyone back on stage for “The Boxer.” Most powerfully, he stayed on solo to sing the classic “The Sound of Silence,” hushing an awed crowd.
Considering Simon hadn’t played since a 2019 Outside Lands set, his appearance would have been the weekend’s highlight on any typical Newport Folk year. But the magic wasn’t over yet.
The festival-closing set was billed as “Brandi Carlile & Friends,” and many expected an exciting collaboration similar to Carlile’s ’19 masterpiece. But when the day’s schedule was posted on the board near the grounds’ entrance, there was a change: Carlile & Friends now had a 15 minute set, and something called “Coyote Jam” was to close the event.
Even that turned out to be a misdirect; after Carlile’s four-song set, the audience watched as the single most massive changeover ever seen on the Fort Stage took place. Couches, chairs, side tables with stacks of books, and numerous microphones were set about the stage, leaving us all to wonder what this “Coyote Jam” would bring. When everything was ready, Carlile walked out with the likes of Mumford, Goldsmith, Lucius, Celisse, Blake Mills, Russell… wait, is that Wynona Judd? Shooter Jennings? What is going on?
In what could be the first pre-scripted introduction speech at NFF, Carlile explained that what she was presenting was a “gathering.” She talked about how coming together in places like Newport for the right ideals was a more powerful movement of righteousness and freedom than any political body could restrict. She spoke of honoring those who paved the way for things like Newport Folk to exist. And then she talked about the Joni Jam sessions, gatherings of friends and musicians at the great Joni Mitchell’s house that began after her 2015 brain aneurysm; she was recreating those special experiences for us right there on the stage — and Mitchell was joining them.
Sitting in a gold-trimmed chair identical to Carlile’s, Mitchell seemed unshaken about returning to the stage: She was there to jam with some friends, tell some stories about the old days, and cackle with glee at the love she was receiving. Even the weather respected her presence, as the heatwave broke when a cool fog rolled in just minutes before she arrived.
The musicians on stage sang more to Mitchell than to the audience, as we were all wrapped in the reverence for this mighty musical legend. Goldsmith and Mills’ “Come in from the Cold” was jaw-dropping, Celisse’s playing on “Help Me” had Mitchell rocking in her chair, and Mumford was all of us when he got choked up during “Shine.” Mitchell sang along to most everything, taking the big “drop” moments on “Big Yellow Taxi” and “Love Potion No. 9,” but also wowing with how strong she still sounded on “Summertime” and “The Circle Game.”
But nothing compared to “Both Sides, Now.” The duet with Carlile was perhaps the single most emotional moment the Newport Folk Festival stage has witnessed in a decade. It was the culmination of everything the festival has always been, everything Carlile set out to do by bringing the Joni Jam to the Fort, and everything Mitchell has done for folk music. It was legend on top of legend on top of legend, and the tears of beauty dripping onto the Fort Adams grass will ensure that legend grows for years to come.