Festivals, Music, Newport Folk Festival, The Revue — July 26, 2016 at 9:00 am

A Look Back at Newport Folk Fest ’16

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Every festival has a signature moment. It could be that one performance people will talk about for weeks after. It might be an expected collaboration that is recorded on every other attendee’s cellphone. Maybe it is a band digging deep into its catalogue to play a song not heard in years. Each Newport Folk Festival does not have a signature moment. Instead, they are countless, as they occur frequently within a single set and simultaneously across the performances occurring on the four stages. We are not talking about small events; these are magical moments that are not soon forgotten. We’ll do our best to capture our favorite moments, but this recap won’t do the festival justice. You really must go to experience it firsthand. That said, any NFF 2016 recap begins and ends with…

Kris Kristofferson, who made an unannounced and triumphant return to the festival that “launched” his career. The venerable singer-songwriter performed twice, leaving fans joyous, emotional, and awe-struck. The first time he played “Bobby McGee” in the Museum, he left everyone in tears as he broke down reminiscing about what the festival means to him. The second time he was joined by The Texas Gentlemen and Margo Price, and the collective gave a rousing performance that left everyone, including Mr. Kristofferson, on Cloud 9. Just goes to show that NFF’s spirit equally affects veteran artists and newer bands…

…like Birmingham, Alabama’s Banditos, who indeed blew the roof off the Quad Stage and became nearly everyone’s favorite discovery with their bluesy, southern rock/honky tonk mix. It was their cover of Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You” that blew away the audience, as frontwoman Mary Beth Richardson turned the number into a powerful southern-soul ballad. To top things off, she finished the song by hopping off the stage and singing from the middle of the audience. This might have been the most memorable, single-song performance of the fest if it hadn’t been for…

k.d. lang‘s explosive rendition of Neil Young’s “Helpless”. This wasn’t just one of the best musical moments of the festival; it was one of the best we have witnessed. EVER! (and we don’t use the words “ever” lightly.) Those 5+ minutes were powerful and mesmerizing. Not a voice could be heard during this moment, and all eyes – including her bandmates Neko Case and Laura Veirs – were transfixed on the Canadian legend. The case/lang/veirs set was filled with other great memories, such as Veirs’ terrific “July Flame” and Case’s “Man”, which provided one of the rare rocking moments of the fest…

Frightened Rabbit

…of which Frightened Rabbit provided many. The Scottish quintet may have been considered a relative risk since they are not a folk nor Americana band, but their set was outstanding. For long-time fans, the set list struck a perfect balance of older gems and crowd-pleasing hits (“Get Out” and “Lump Street” sent shivers up many spines!) from their critically acclaimed new album, Painting of a Panic Attack. For people unfamiliar with their catalogue, they immediately understood why FR are considered among the greatest indie-rock bands touring today…

…and Ryan Adams also unexpectedly got to know their name. Joined by The Infamous Stringdusters and Nicki Bluhm, Adams stripped things down and played an old-fashion, bluegrass set. Despite the massive Fort Stage, the performance felt intimate. The setting also allowed Adams to frequently interact with the crowd and be spontaneous, like when he created an impromptu song to Frightened Rabbit called “Frightened and Rabid” after hearing the bass from the Quad Stage bleed into their set. The two artists exchanged some playful Tweets afterwards, showing that NFF fosters collegiality, even among artists known for being brutally honest and brash…

…which Father John Misty has a sometimes illustrious reputation. But on his Saturday evening performance, he showed off a more affable, engaging side. The brutal honesty remained in his banter and new songs he’s working on, but he also reminded us about the hypocrisy and isolated world we’re living in on songs like “I Love You, Honeybear” and “Bored in the U.S.A.” Love him or hate him, Joshua Tillman is one of the most gifted singer-songwriters of our generation…

…and people are starting to realize that about Phil Cook, the vastly underrated artist who is considered to be one of the most respected songwriters in the business. His Southland Revue includes Amelia Meath (of Sylvan Esso), and together brought back the classic folk, blues, and country sounds. It was The Blind Boys of Alabama, however, who stole the show and took the set to new heights, as only the five-piece could do…

Alabama Shakes

…and sticking with the state that is home to countless talents, Alabama Shakes closed the festival with an energetic and blistering performance. True to form, Brittany Howard commanded the stage with her powerful voice, sharing songs from their two stellar albums, Boys & Girls and Sound & Color, including “Hold On” and “Don’t Wanna Fight”. The show also featured Dawes as the guest collaborator, which, not surprisingly, delighted the crowd. If you thought that was a great partnership…

Glen Hansard

…then you missed living legends Glen Hansard and Elvis Costello taking turns supporting each other. Only at Newport will you see one Irish troubadour asking the attendees in the on-stage artist seats if anyone can play percussion – only to have musical legend Elvis Costello pick up a tambourine. Hansard delivered crowd favorites (“Falling Slowly”) followed by new classics like “Didn’t He Ramble” that had the sun-scorched crowd smiling and singing along. Later on, Costello (along with Larkin Poe) took to the stage to a huge ovation, and for an hour he serenaded us with new songs and classics like “Everyday I Write The Book”, during which members of Dawes joined him. Seeing the two greats perform was a treat…

…but seeing a new-ish and emerging artist like Raury is something we won’t forget. The 20-year old Atlanta native seemed to have been shot out of cannon as he burst onot the Quad Stage full of energy. Despite the pain and losses he has experienced, Raury shares songs of perseverance, hope, and love. There is youthful optimism in his music, and the world could surely use more of that positive energy…

Raury

…which shone through in Ruby Amanfu’s gorgeous set. The Ghana-born, Nashville-based artist displayed why she is a sought-after singer and why Ryan Adams produced her forthcoming debut album. From blues to soul to pop to rock, what can this young musician not do? With a down-to-earth, bubbly personality, Amanfu is a star in waiting…

…whereas Julien Baker‘s star has definitely exploded this year. The 20-year old singer-songwriter from Memphis may be small in stature, and her songs may be delicate and even at times whispery, but she commands the stage. Her songs are intimate, vulnerable, and introspective (like “Sprained Ankle” and “Brittled Boned”) but they were beautifully performed. The silence in the Quad revealed just how poignant a storyteller Baker is…

…just like John Moreland. Despite the early time slot and performing on the small Harbor Stage, the crowd arrived in droves, extending a dozen deep outside the tented area. It’s one thing to listen to “In the Throes” and “High on Tulsa Heat”, but it’s another thing to experience the trials and tribulations of Moreland’s life in a live setting. For nearly an hour, we were able to stand next to Moreland and see through his and his characters’ eyes. The combination of the Texan’s storytelling and soothing voice was like a cool breeze, providing the perfect counterpoint to the blazing sun…

.Basia Bulat..while Basia Bulat‘s permanent smile and emotional NFF debut melted our hearts. At times fighting back tears of joy and amazement, Bulat played with an energy we had not witnesses before as she performed songs from her Jim James-produced new album, “Fools” and some older numbers. She brought out the auto-harp and Wurlitzer for “The Shore” to showcase her versatility. The Toronto native’s set was spectacular, and she showed why so many critics and fans all over the world (ncluding NFF chief Jay Sweet, who introduced Bulat) have fallen for Canada’s gem…

…and a former hidden gem of ours, River Whyless, similarly shone brightly in their NFF debut. While they proclaimed to be battling nerves, the quartet from Asheville, North Carolina, displayed why many are excited about their potential. Their take on Americana is refreshing, offering a mix of the familiar euphoric approach and a dark and enchanting sound that is influenced by post-rock and classical music. Their performance was something else – lively, fun, and with the right amount of wit. They may have been newbies to the festival but they performed like veterans with the audience applauding every moment. With a new album coming out at the end of August, River Whyless could be one of the feel-good stories of 2016…

…and we hope for the same with Amasa Hines. The multi-instrumental collective from Arkansas opened the festival with their gritty mix of soulful indie blues/rock. Their performance reminded us of a young TV On The Radio: an innovative group willing to take chances without resorting to the formulaic. The NFF audience certainly agreed as the small standing crowd swelled during their performance. With songs like, “Coltrane” and “Savior”, Amasa Hines is on the verge of breakout…

…something that Margo Price has experienced in the past year. While many will remember her supporting role to Kris Kristofferson, she displayed why she is considered one of country music’s future stars. Price’s style is old-school and traditional, resonating the sound of the genre’s artistic peak in the ’70s and ’80s. Her songs about perseverance and finding hope inspired us while her Dolly Parton-esque charm not only entertained us but made us fans. She reminded us that being inspired by the past is something to celebrate and carry forward..

PHJB…in much the same way Preservation Hall Jazz Band have been doing for decades. The band, despite having some technical difficulties early, were on fire. Their one-hour set was full of highlights – the jubilant dancing and rendition of “Tequila” by trombonist Freddie Lonzo; the blaring arias from Mark Braud’s trumpet; Clint Maedgen’s sonic delights with his saxophone and cabaret-style movements; Joe Lastie pacing the band on the drums and having an opportunity to playfully lead the audience through some “woot woots”; Ben Jaffe strumming his standup bass with that permanent smile; and Rickie Monie stoically playing the keys in the background. But the show belonged to the iconic Charlie Gabriel, who sang, danced, and played the saxophone and clarinet like a person six decades younger. His smile never left his face and his energy was unmatched…

…although Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats might have something to say about that. Just like in 2015 when they performed on the Quad Stage, the Denver-based group put on a show to remember. Despite the excruciating mid-afternoon heat, Rateliff and crew’s set was 60 minutes of unrelenting, soulful energy with the highlight unsurprisingly being the anthemic (and brilliantly written) “S.O.B.” The sweaty aftermath was worth every second for the jubilant crowd, making it possibly the best show of the festival…

St Paul & The Broken Bones

…if St. Paul and The Broken Bones hadn’t provided a similarly high-energy performance. How Paul Janeway and the band can perform wearring suits in such temperatures is beyond our comprehension, but they overcame the heat and took us to the summit and back with their southern soul. By the end of their set, everyone was in a state of exhaustion, and no one more than Janeway, who was constantly moving (in seriously snazzy shoes!) and rarely stood still. We hope he was wearing a FitBit to track the mileage…

Matthew Logan Vasquez

…and Matthew Logan Vasquez definitely should have done the same. Making his return to NFF (and first as a solo artist), the Delta Spirit frontman performed like an artist playing his finale show. He held nothing back, giving long-time fans a performance for the ages (heck, you don’t have to be a fan to appreciate his showmanship). We were left in awe and admired how he has become edgier with age. Vasquez proved that the rock music isn’t just for the young kids…

….although The Flight of The Conchords took us back to the past with their comedic performance. Closing out the Fort Stage on Friday, the New Zealand duo charmed the crowd with classics like “The Most Beautiful Girl (in the Room)” and “Business Time”. They may have also set an unlikely record of most inoffensive profanities with their American-accented tale of the evil “Stana” that left many wondering if it’s possible to crack ribs from laughing so much…

…while Radical Face, the project of one of America’s most imaginative artists, Ben Cooper, weaved a spell over us with his intimate performance at the Harbor Stage. The Florida singer/songwriter has introduced fans to a full cast of characters in his family tree trilogy of albums, and those stories came to life to the delight of a packed crowd. Cooper is one of America’s most underrated artists, and his set was a real pleasure to experience, as was…

The Oh Hellos who took our worries away with their anthemic brand of Americana. The harmonies of siblings Maggie and Tyler Heath were stunning while the musicianship of their seven bandmates were tremendous. Having watched them two years ago, the nine-piece have evolved from an enjoyable group to watch to a must-see festival addition. The energy they had at midday was infectious, and despite the heat all one could do was dance, jump, and sing with the band. Next time they return to NFF, we don’t think they will have to carry their own equipment and their arrival will no longer be unexpected…

…such as when honky-tonk icon Joe Ely and “Americana king” Terry Allen joined The Texas Gentlemen for an impromptu performance, filling in for Songhoy Blues, who had to cancel due to illness. The two legends gave folks a taste of what the music of the ’70s was like, when bands played actual instruments and songwriting ruled. It was a celebratory moment to be in the presence of two of music’s most influential artists and who continue to inspire today’s musicians, like J.P. Harris who joined Allen on stage for a song and could be seen mouthing the lyrics to the other two tracks. This special moment was a reminder that NFF’s spirit is unquantifiable and intergenerational. It remains THE festival that will give the smaller artists a stage to share their stories, draw in the biggest names in music, and…

…have newcomers shaking in their boots and bring veterans to tears, like Kris Kristofferson. His moment in the museum where he broke down and thanked the Newport Folk Festival will be forever remembered as will the wide grin he displayed when Margo Price sang the chorus to “Bobby McGee”. NFF is unlike any festival we have attended, and the unique, communal vibe felt during its 3 days is why some of us have been attending aince the ’90s. And for those of us who have gone sporadically or attended for the very first time, these moments made us appreciate how special the festival at Fort Adams is. Thank you to the all the artists and Newport Folk Festival staff for another memorable experience. We will see you next year!

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