From the moment you pull in to Fort Adams State Park, with its views of the Newport Harbor and the Narraganssett Bay, it’s clear that this is a special setting for a weekend of “folk” music. While every performer at the Newport Folk Festival has some sort of traditional foundation, this year’s festival stretched the folk label to include such acts as My Morning Jacket and Alabama Shakes. To the conservatives this may seem like a step in the wrong direction, but the audience definitely skewed younger and more enthusiastic than at prior incarnations of the festival. Add to the wider scope of performers a brilliant layout that prevented stage noise crossover, and the beautiful setting, and you have all the necessary ingredients for a perfect festival.
The official schedule covers only the Saturday and Sunday of the weekend, but NFF recently added a separately ticketed bill on Friday. This year’s pre-party featured Wilco, whose performance was nearly washed out by a heavy rainstorm prior to their set that forced openers Blitzen Trapper to cut their set in half. Wilco put on a show meeting their high standards, and, as has been happening of late, heavily featuring guitarist/genius Nels Cline.
Friday’s rains led to a slightly soggy start for Saturday’s festivities, but that did little to dampen the spirits of either the bands or the audience. The crowd was treated to energetic sets from duo Brown Bird on the main stage, and southern-style rockers Apache Relay on the nearby Harbor stage. In contrast to Sunday’s lineup, the inside-the-fort Quad stage featured quieter, mellower acts (aside from the raucous Deer Tick), best represented by the well-attended set by Iron & Wine that preceded a tight but pitch-y set from the Guthrie Family Reunion. The folk-plus for Saturday was focused on the outer stages, including mains tage performances by Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Alabama Shakes. Both served as a funky, swinging precursor to the following afternoon’s soul-drenched set from Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaires, but the disparity between frontwoman Brittany Howard’s abilities and the competency of the rest of the band made for a somewhat unsatisfying performance that made Bradley’s set seem superior in comparison. Not that the rest of the Shakes put on a poor performance, but Howard’s impact as a performer begs for a more exciting backing band. The Harbor stage seemed to be Saturday’s winner, hosting excellent sets from Spirit Family Reunion and First Aid Kit, as well as a packed crowd for a guest-laden set by Dawes. My Morning Jacket closed out the evening assisted by everyone from Conor Oberst to members of Preservation Hall.
A sense of community seemed to be the common thread among NFF performances, with such collaborations as a duet between Jonathan Wilson and Sara Watkins on Sunday, and an epic off stage ping-pong showdown between Punch Brothers’ Chris Thile and Dawes’ Griffin. The final day of the festival featured the most eclectic schedule, ranging from the aforementioned Wilson, Watkins, and Bradlet to the high energy blues of Gary Clark Jr., the complex folk delivered by Of Monsters And Men, and of course the “don’t call it bluegrass” magic of Punch Brothers.
Sunday was probably the day that seasoned NFF fans found the most challenging, best demonstrated by the muted response to Conor Oberst’s Dawes-backed performance of Bright Eyes’ greatest hits, but the festival organizers threw a few bones to the stalwarts in the form of The Head And The Heart and The New Multitudes, Jim James’ side project devoted to the works of Woody Guthrie. Overall, Sunday was the grooviest day of the festival, closing out with a polished set from veteran performer Jackson Browne.
Reports indicate that this year’s Newport Folk Festival had the highest attendance in its history, and this is a good thing. The organizers clearly know what they’re doing, and while the wider range of performers may irk some of the older fans, overall the moves that NFF has made in recent times serve to further cement its reputation as one of the best festivals in the country.
Wayan Zoey plays drums, bass, and guitar with a number of bands. A regular contributor to FP, he recently wrote about two weeks on the road with DJ Shadow, and reviewed Esperanza Spalding’s show at Webster Hall, and Robert Glasper and Soulive’s shows at Brooklyn Bowl.
Photos: Feathertree Photography