Hey, look at that; I made it through a Newport Folk Festival without something terrible happening — that is, if you exclude missed deadlines. (Editor’s Note: Ben did a fine job with the deadlines.) For years, I’ve been talking about how the NFF has been changing over the last half-decade, and frankly I can’t do it anymore. Not because I’m sick of it, mind you, but because the continuous tense no longer applies. Newport has changed; it is a much different beast than your grandparents or parents might have known it as.
Show this year’s lineup to one of your elders and they’d probably scratch their head in confusion. Jack White, Ryan Adams, and Mavis Staples topped the bill, none of whom you’d consider “folk” artists. Still, somewhere in all their musical DNA there is some connection to Americana traditions, whether it’s blues or country or gospel. What’s more, this year was dedicated to the 75th birthday of Fort regular Staples, with many artists paying tribute with guest appearances and a cake being delivered on the final night. At the same time, acts like Shovels & Rope, Benjamin Booker, PHOX, Lucius, and others are all out there putting their modern sensibilities onto age-old styles. That’s exactly the kind of thing Newport has always celebrated: heritage right alongside innovation.
But the bands aren’t the only things that have changed. The section of the main lawn in front of the Fort Stage reserved for seating has been pushed back to make way for even more standing-room-only space along the entire length of the stage. Every year, the Friday festivities start an hour earlier than the year prior. Tickets now sell out before the lineup is even announced. It’s getting bigger and better every damn year, and that’s quite a feat for a 55-year-old event. (Jay Sweet, the festival producer and booker, can’t be given enough credit for this.)
At the same time, the festival is still remaining true to what it is. This is not the place for drunken debauchery (though there’ll always be a few tipsy fools), drug overdoses, or littered grounds. Even as the bills attract younger crowds, the newcomers quickly learn to adapt to the ethos of the Folk. Bonnaroo has the slogan “Radiate Positivity!” now because, frankly, some people there just don’t; Newport doesn’t need the slogan because attendees just naturally do. It’s an amazing experience returning to find the same friends you met the year before wandering the grounds, something that I found was literally a daily occurrence.
Same goes for the bands who perform here. While there’s now a handy festival app to send you push notifications when “secret sets” go down at the Late July Family Stage or the Museum Stage, there’s still an air of spontaneity on the grounds, as if your favorite act could appear anywhere at any time. And they honestly could! The musicians love this festival as much as the fans, perhaps even more so, something you can feel in each performance.
Newport may be in a very different form these days, but it continues to pay all due respect to where it came from, making it a supreme example of how to adapt and grow without losing your identity. It’s because of that that I find it so easy to answer when people ask me what my favorite festival in the country is. No threat of thunderstorms, no drizzle or downpour can keep Newport’s spirits down. No amount of careful modernization can damage its legacy. And most of all, no Newport Folk Festival has ever been better than this one … until next year.
10. Conor Oberst
Sunday, Fort Stage – 3:20 p.m.
The last time Conor Oberst was on the Fort, he put together a perfect set of surprises touching upon various aspects of his career. This time a bit of the unexpected element was taken away: It was announced beforehand that Dawes would be playing support and Oberst had just released Upside Mountain, so him filling half the setlist with new tracks was fairly predictable. That didn’t stop him from delivering another standout performance, however. Dressed in all black (perhaps mourning his recent legal troubles?), Oberst played every song with heavy, deliberate intention. “Bowl of Oranges” came out carefully, with Taylor Goldsmith’s vocals doing their part to elevate Oberst while never overshadowing. Every note of “Danny Callahan”, on the other hand, was hammered with driving force. Best of all was the superlative rendition of “No One Would Riot”. With blaring horns, Goldsmith’s blistering solos, and Oberst’s fervent slap of his guitar as they entered the haunted, misty echo of a bridge, the set could’ve ended there on a high note. Loud and ferocious, it was just the kind of Oberst set NFF called for in 2014.
09. John Reilly & Friends
Saturday, Harbor Stage – 12:05 p.m.
“How did I get here?” John Reilly asked with a giant grin as he took the Harbor Stage. Well, being friends with Jack White and having singer Becky Stark and guitarist Tom Brosseau to back you up certainly doesn’t hurt. But honestly, Reilly has worthy vocal and guitar skills all his own, and he used them to deliver one of the most classically “folk” sets of the entire weekend. “Got a lot of nerve doing folk songs at Newport, but somebody’s gotta do it” he quipped, acknowledging the lineup’s decidedly un-folky skew. Covering everything from Patsy Cline to the Carter Family to Dolly Parton, Reilly called the songs “seashells” to be shared as he paid reverence to the sounds that have made Newport their home for so many years. Yes, he joked frequently (“There’s something perverse about people yelling ‘Dewey Cox’ at you wherever you go”), but he also pulled NFF-appropriate banter like railing against the corporatization of water (specifically Dasani: “Sorry sponsor, but your water gives me a headache”). I never would’ve expected a comedian to give Newport its finest folk performance of the year, but, well, for your health.
08. Deer Tick
Saturday, Fort Stage – 3:15 p.m.
“I’ve been waiting six years to say this,” festival producer Jay Sweet said by way of introduction. “Welcome to the main stage, Deer Tick!” After being a perpetual presence at the Fort for more than half a decade, John McCauley and the Rhode Island five-piece had finally made it to the big stage. Dressed in white tuxedos reminiscent of My Morning Jacket’s headlining 2012 set and with McCauley wearing his traditional captain’s cap, they delivered a performance honoring their rise to NFF icon status. They saved the bar-room stompers and Lou Reed covers for their after-shows, and gave the rain-dampened crowd a run of favorites like “Baltimore Blues #1” and “Smith Hill” along with rarities like “Spanish” and the Liz Eisenberg-assisted “Friday XIII”. With sailor-garbed horn section and harmonies bolstered by Dennis Murphy’s uniquely pinched voice, the crowd favorites felt right at home looking at Pell Bridge, and, truthfully, they were.
07. Jeff Tweedy
Sunday, Fort Stage – 4:45 p.m.
“This is an ideal setting for us,” Jeff Tweedy said early in his pre-headlining set. “Summer day with clouds and rain – sad songs written in the dead of winter.” He was joking, but as he went into new number “Hazel” amidst a setlist almost entirely of fresh material, it was evident that Tweedy really was a perfect Newport band. First of all, it’s a family band, and family and music are what Newport is all about. Spencer often kept his eyes on his father as he skillfully worked the skins, confident enough in his talent to appear rather unphased by the situation. His father, meanwhile, delivered soft folk songs in his relaxed, unforced voice. The Tweedy material was a nice blanket as the rain finally stayed away, but it was the appearance of Mavis Staples that really made the set. Staples came out with a cane for a cover of John Fogerty’s “Wrote a Song” and a rendition of Staples’ own “Only the Lord”, although one imagines the spirited birthday girl only needed the help because all her power is in her voice.
Friday, Quad Strage – 2:55 p.m.
I’ve been coming to Newport Folk Festival since 2010, and I don’t think I’d ever seen everyone at the Quad Stage on their feet and rocking out for an entire performance until Reignwolf’s set. Unlike Benjamin Booker the next day, people knew at this point what to expect with Reignwolf, and Jordan Cook’s band delivered as advertised. Halfway through “In the Dark”, just the second number, Cook’s jet-black hair was drenched in sweat thanks to his ceaseless energy. Though aware his gritty blues was a loose fit at best for the setting (as was the local paper, which published a front-page story about Reignwolf the day before the fest), he never held back an inch. “We don’t normally do this at folk festivals,” he said as he had his bass drum brought into the crowd for “Bicycle”, “so just bear with us.” The audience was more than happy to oblige, and by the time Cook returned to the stage, his drummer’s kit had been moved off the back riser and brought front and center for a brief cover of Vera Hall’s “Trouble So Hard” to open “This Is the Time”. As I walked away at the end of the set, I overheard a man say breathlessly, “That really kinda shook me.” I think it’s safe to say it shook everyone.
05. Benjamin Booker
Saturday, Quad Stage – 1:35 p.m.
Benjamin Booker only has a handful of singles out, so my research before the fest was limited. Hearing the incessant buzz about him early Saturday convinced me to check out his set, and it was the best decision I made all weekend. Consider Booker the punk-rock purveyor of New Orleans blues. He wails on his guitar, distorting its sound into a wall of noise. As he screams out his words til sweat has no choice but to be pushed from his pores, his upper lip hangs on the microphone like a lover holding onto a kiss with her teeth. “This is not a folk show,” he warned the crowd during opener “Young, Lost, and Hungry”, “not a folk show.” In fact, it was closer to a punk show, which made it surprising that the crowd remained largely seated through originals and Otis Redding covers. Or they did until Booker tossed a bottle of beer into the air, then dropped to his knees and rubbed his head along the neck of his guitar and into the spilled booze, creating a bleeding distortion that became a break so forceful it yanked people to their feet. Jack White could be seen side-stage enjoying the young-gun’s gig, and no doubt many others will see what he sees in Booker soon enough.
04. Nickel Creek
Saturday, Fort Stage 4:40 p.m.
“Hi!” Chris Thiele called as Nickel Creek took to the Fort Stage under a cloudy sky. “It’s been awhile!” I don’t think it’d be a stretch to say most reading this review would’ve been waiting for Jack White’s headlining spot, but the cheers from the crowd signaled that this reunited trio was the must-see act of the weekend for many. After witnessing their performance, I completely understand why. If you ever thought the mandolin was a “cute” little guitar good for a few pretty plucks, you ain’t seen Thiele. The man handles his instrument like a rock star, furiously strumming and plucking through “Smoothie Song” and “Rest of My Life”. I once said Sarah Watkins’ voice wasn’t strong enough to cover for The Decemberists’ Jenny Conlee, but in her own group it’s a much better fit. Her voice blended with those of her brother Sam and Thiele created warm, charming harmonies on everything from “21st of May” to “Lighthouse Tale”. And dammit if she isn’t the finest fiddle player around. True bluegrass masters of their instruments, the trio provided some of the best jams of the festival. Newport was lucky indeed that Nickel Creek picked this year to reunite, and so are we all.
03. Ryan Adams
Friday, Fort Stage – 6:15 p.m.
Everything about this Ryan Adams’ headlining set was about defying expectations. First off, if seeing how Reignwolf brought the Quad crowd to its feet was strange, the dance area taking up the entire length in front of the Fort being packed to the brim was straight surreal. Second, everything Adams did shattered my preconceived notions of the man. As someone who really only discovered him more recently than I care to admit, his music and performances have always been these rare, elusive things, and so I’d always imagined him to be somewhat similar – quiet, withdrawn, humble. Instead, Newport got a funny, lively musician who could improvise a Michael McDonald parody about weed and lobster rolls and a purposefully awful version of “Let it Be” one second, and provide absolutely stunning renditions of “Sweet Carolina” and “Fix It” the next. He would have his own band in stitches as he playfully prodded them (“Good job, Charlie!” was a favorite line) and dedicated songs to everything from calves’ blood to “Mr. Feelings. It seems like 10 years ago I was really depressed, and now I get to play music with fucking sailboats in the background.” With his scraggly hair, jean jacket with the Terminator T-800 on the back, humor, and alt-country tunes that were variously heartbreaking and rollicking, Adams managed to personify the new NFF better than perhaps any artist that weekend.
02. Mavis Staples
Sunday, Fort Stage – 6:15 p.m.
After appearing during no less than three other performances over the course of the weekend, birthday girl and icon Mavis Staples finally took the stage for her own festival-closing set, this time without the help of a cane. At 75 years young, Staples performed with the power of a woman a third her age. “Don’t go walking around saying I’m 75,” she told the crowd. “I’m 30 years old, with 45 years of experience!” All those years of experience were on display as she belted out a string of positive Staples staples like “I Like the Things About Me” and “Respect Yourself”. There were guests aplenty, as any true Newport headlining set should have, including Lucius during Talking Heads’ “Slippery People”, Tweedy for the Jeff Tweedy-penned “You Are Not Alone”, and Norah Jones and Trampled by Turtles (whom Mavis alternately referred to as “Smashing Turtles” and “Stomping Turtles”) for a bluegrass-gospel rendition of “Will the Circle be Unbroken”. Jones stayed on stage and was joined by Dawes’ Taylor Goldsmith for one of the best covers of “The Weight” I’ve ever heard. Though the crowd had thinned early, it was the most active for any headliner, with hands raised high and feet shuffling about all over the grounds. Great energy, lovable humor, and a crowd that loved her – it really was the best birthday party ever.
01. Jack White
Saturday, Fort Stage – 6:15 p.m.
It’s no secret Jack White is currently experiencing a new peak of live performance prowess. Ironically, that’s what made his headlining spot Saturday night such an unknown. Having just recently played the longest set of his career, what would he bring to a strictly limited hour-and-15-minute time slot at a folk festival?
He delivered a clear answer right from the get-go. With a simple blue backdrop and aesthetic that lacked the lights and flash of their other festival gigs, White and his band came out stomping with frequent opener “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground”. But not a word of the song was sung; instead, the snippet bled into a cover of Son House’s Delta blues classic “Death Letter”. This was but the beginning of a setlist that would, yes, include his popular rockers, but also covers of Jimi Hendrix (“Hear My Train a Comin'”) and Blind Willie Johnson (“John the Revelator”).
And White didn’t just deliver fan favorites in his typical rollicking, face-melting way (though there was plenty of that, too). “Top Yourself” was played slower and softer than I’d ever heard before, only to be ripped apart with ferocious jams. “We’re Going to be Friends” was sung with the whole band huddled around a microphone like the olden days. The highlight may have been “Blunderbuss”, a rendition which played up the song’s bluegrass roots (something you couldn’t help but hear after Nickel Creek’s performance), complete with a gorgeous drum solo.
“This is the first time in 12 years I’ve walked around a festival to watch other bands and no one bothered me,” White stated halfway through his set. That coupled with how he highlighted his work’s true roots demonstrated that Newport Folk Fest is indeed a special place, and White knew it. Nothing said that more, however, than when he called out John C. Reilly & Friends, Pokey LaFarge, and other Third Man Records affiliates for a stirring rendition of “Irene Goodnight”. “Since this is the first time Pete [Seeger] isn’t here,” White told the crowd, “it sure would be nice if you all could sing along.” Of course, we all did, but none with as much heart as White himself, his voice quavering with genuine emotion and real tears in his eyes.