Festivals, Music, Newport Folk Festival, The Revue — August 7, 2017 at 9:00 am

Things we loved at Newport Folk Festival 2017

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For the past six years, we’ve been attending the Newport Folk Festival, and every year we’re left wondering how Jay Sweet and his team of organizers, curators, and volunteers could outdo themselves. This year, they may have organized the best NFF to date, and this is taking into consideration that it’s nearly impossible to see every artist and band due to the numerous conflicts. So, of the performers we witnessed, here are some of the things that we loved at the Newport Folk Festival 2017 edition.

But first, while we didn’t catch every single set, we did manage to photograph the majority of them. If you’re keen to see the photos from each day, click the link below.  The artists captured on film are also listed:

  • Day One – Matt The Electrician, Joshua Hedley, Aaron Lee Tasjan, The Wild Reeds, Seratones, Blind Pilot, L.A. Salami, Big Thief, Hurray for the Riff Raff, Carol Broemel, Alone & Together, Shovels & Rope, Benjamin Gibbard, Nancy and Beth, The Head and the Heart, Regina Spektor, Fleet Foxes
  • Day Two – Mt. Joy, Julia Jacklin, Chicano Batman, Jalen N’Gonda, Marlon Williams, Grandma’s Hands Band, Offa Rex, Robert Ellis, Nikki Lane, Angel Olsen, Joseph, Jim James, The Avett Brothers, Drive-by Truckers, Wilco
  • Day Three – CHOIR! CHOIR! CHOIR!, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, C.W. Stoneking, Steelism, Margaret Glaspy, Michael Kiwanuka, Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, Whitney, Rhiannon Giddens, John Paul White, Dr. Dog, Speak Out!, Suzanne Vega, John Prine

Things We Loved at Newport Folk Festival 2017

Every day of each Newport Folk Festival commences the same way – with a long queue that snakes along the Fort Adams State Park harbor as thousands of festival goers patiently wait for the gates to the open. They are equipped with backpacks, coolers, blankets, tarps, various hats, chairs, and even tents. Those at the very front of the line are prepared for the annual “Running of the Folk”, racing to the different stages, namely the Fort, to stake their claim on the best real estate. Those behind are eager, some even nervous, but for the veterans this is a rite of passage. The queue is time to meet neighbors and make new friends, share stories and expectations, and inhale the magic that is growing.

At 10:00, the Festival is open and the attendees stream in, going right towards the Fort Stage, heading straight inside the Museum, or turn left and look for seats at the Harbor and Quad Stages. Everyone here is for the same reason – to hear some of the most talented and gifted artists on the planet and hope to witness surprise collaborations, with which Newport Festival has become associated. Sure enough, NFF didn’t disappoint, highlighted by…

John Prine‘s closing set during which he was joined by Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), Margot Price, Jim James, Nathaniel Rateliff, and Roger Waters. The one moment of the performance, however, that was simply magical was when the venerable folk icon was surrounded by dozens of artists while he sang “Paradise”. This one song encapsulated why people annually flock to the little Rhode Island city each year – to not just witness history but to be reminded that music is one of the few things on this planet that simultaneously brings people together, inspires, and provides a medium to…

Speak Out, which was a special one-hour session curated by Festival director Jay Sweet and focused on the power of music as a form of protest. The house band alone was a powerhouse, featuring Chris Funk, Jenny Conlee, Nate Query, and John Moen of The Decemberists; Patrick Hallahan and Carl Broemel of My Morning Jacket; and Kyle Craft on keys. The set list was remarkable with several artists coming just to play one song, but it was Zach Williams of The Lone Bellow stealing the show, who along with Margot Price covered Little Steven Van Zandt’s “Patriot”. In order, here was what was performed:

  • Kyle Craft – “Heroes” (by David Bowie)
  • Shakey Graves and Rayland Baxter – “I’m Better Than You” (original)
  • Billy Bragg – “Why We Build the Wall” (by Anais Mitchell)
  • Sharon Van Etten with Olivia Chaney and Kyle Craft – “Black Boys on Mopeds” (by Sinead O’Connor)
  • Jim James and Nick Offerman – “Masters of War” (by Bob Dylan)
  • Margot Price – “Working Class Hero” (by John Lennon)
  • Zach Williams of The Lone Bellow with Margot Price – “I Am A Patriot” (Little Steven Van Zandt) (note: thanks to Andy for the correction)
  • Lucius with Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Berklee Gospel & Roots Choir – “Ooh Child” (by Five Stairsteps)
  • Nathaniel Rateliff – “Fortunate Son” (by Clearance Clearwater Revival)

This set alone could have closed the festival or at least lasted more than an hour…

Marlon Williams

…which is what people were saying when Marlon Williams finished his 55-minute set on Saturday. This was the set of the Festival, at least one that didn’t feature any special guests. The New Zealand native and his band played with fire, an edge, and a sense of humor, all the while delighting the folks at the Quad. There wasn’t just one standing ovation, but multiple ones from the appreciative crowd. It was a performance to remember…

…but the one song that stole people’s breaths and will forever be etched in their minds is when Adrienne Lenker of Big Thief fell to her knees during “Mary”. It was a performance that was a microcosm of the earth-shaking, emotive power of the Brooklyn-based band, who have become one of indie’s most provocative groups. Their entire set was gripping and akin to their first two albums – starting gently like a calm breeze that slowly developed into a fierce storm…

…and ferocity was the only thing on tap during the Seratones‘ early afternoon set on the Festival’s first day. The Shreveport, Louisiana quartet rolled through a 45-minute set of punk-inspired tunes and some good old fashion, Black Sabbath-esque power rockers. They played with energy and basked in the glow of Newport, and not even a tumble over the barricade by frontwoman AJ Hayes could stop this fast-rising freight train. Seratones were here to do one thing – make a statement…

…but for London-based L.A. Salami, the project of Lookman Adekunle Salami, he was here to make several. He’s the next Ghostpoet with his quick spoken-word style and poignant yet biting lyrics. He tackled various subject matters from violence to Brexit to religion. “Jesus is a nifty type of mother” he sang early in his set, basically telling people to buckle up and be ready to be challenged. After his performance, it’s safe to say Salami is one of the great, young singer-songwriters today who could one day…

L.A. Salami

…close the Fort Stage and have ten thousand people hanging on to every note and word like they were for Fleet Foxes. It’s been eight years since Robin Pecknold, Skye Skjelset, Morgan Henderson, Casey Wescott, and Christian Wargo graced Newport with their presence, but the wait was well worth it. They played the highlights from the past (“Helplessness Blues”, “Mykonos”, and “Your Protector”) and their current album, the outstanding Crack Up, but the moment was an opportunity to celebrate the return of one of music’s great bands after a six-year hiatus…

…although Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats are becoming fixtures at NFF. While they were not officially on the lineup, they were the “unannounced artist”, and this year’s participation marked their third straight. The little Harbor Stage, though, was turned into a rave – well a folk-style one as people danced, sang, locked arms, and relished the Colorado-based collective’s raucous Americana and roots. And only at Newport will you see Nathaniel Rateliff and Preservation Hall Jazz Band parade through the crowd while singing “Son of a Bitch”. Talk about a “wow” moment…

…and just being at Newport was such an occasion for Joshua Hedley. Backed by Steelism, the Nashville-based artist shared his “sad songs” while mixing in his dry sense of humor. Hedley was humble and seemed to be taking in every second of the experience. At one moment, he opened up what it meant to be at the Festival.

“I’ve been a side man for a lot of musicians, and I just started my own things. I didn’t think anyone would be here at 11:15 in the morning and a guy with no record, but wow to kick off Newport Folk Fest right out of the gate – just wow.”

In watching him perform, one could see why Jack White’s Third Man Records is investing in him because he’s like a young Roy Orbison. And akin to the legend, Hedley is down-to-earth, which was evidenced when he finished his set with “When You Wish Upon A Star”…

The Wild Reeds

…which reflects that dreams do come true like they have for The Wild Reeds. A band we’ve long predicted would play NFF, they made their debut one to remember. Most of their discography features warm and intimate indie-folk songs with multi-part harmonies, but their last record, The World We Built, saw them get a bit edgier. Live, though, they dialed everything up several notches and played with an unexpected fire and ferocity. The beautiful harmonies were still there, but they turned into rock stars on this day…

…whereas one of the great guitarists of our time, Carl Broemel, showed off his folksy side and warm vocals. It’s easy to forget that the My Morning Jacket guitar player has a softer side to him, as his solo work, including his last album 4th of July, features songs that are equivalent to serenades. But of course in front of a live audience, he unleashed his inner Jimi Hendrix, turning a lush lullaby like “Snowflake” into a groovy rocker and sending fireworks at the end of “4th Of July”. But for every MMJ fan, the highlight will always be “Carried Away”, a serene ballad turned into cataclysmic rocker where Broemel demonstrates why he is among the living greats of his craft…

…and very soon one of our favorites Jalen N’Gonda will be known as a legend. His smooth, soulful approach sounded even better live. Watching him on stage made many people around us utter names like Otis Redding, Bill Withers, and Leon Bridges. N’Gonda is a star in the making, and he, along with Bridges, represent the future of soul music. Check that, he is part of soul’s present…

…while Julia Jacklin is alt-country’s and folk-rock’s next great artist. She dazzled the audience with her Patsy Cline-like grace and Angel Olsen-esque grit, as she and her band covered songs from her wonderful debut album, Don’t Let The Kids Win, plus played her new single “Eastwick”. At times, her set felt like a slow dance on prom night and other times we were at a bar in Springwood, Australia rocking out with the locals. In another two or three years, we expect her to return and take her performance to another level…

…just like what Angel Olsen did. In 2015, she played a subdue solo set, but this time around she brought her full band and they ignited the Fort Stage. Playing songs mostly from her 2016 critically acclaimed album, My Woman, Olsen blew everyone’s minds. Despite the howling winds, she turned the Fort into a cavernous night club where songs like “Sister”, “Woman”, and “Shut Up Kiss Me” became the day’s anthems. Olsen, though, did share the stage with one notable rocker…

Jim James, who was everywhere. When he wasn’t joining an artist on stage, he could usually be seen watching them perform. That same respect was returned to him during his solo set, which was surprisingly low-key and stripped down. His 50 minutes featured songs from his own solo work, including 2016’s Eternally Even, and of course from My Morning Jacket’s lengthy repertoire. The focus, though, was on music that fit these uncertain times, where he offered biting social commentary (“Same Old Lies”) and uplifting numbers, namely on his intimate cover of Prince’s “Beautiful Ones”. As surprising as James’ set was…

…seeing Benjamin Gibbard turn the pop fare of Death Cab For Cutie into folk songs was a marvel. This was a truly unique experience. Sure, one would expect to hear “I Will Follow You Into the Dark”, but to hear “Photobooth” stripped back was a delight. The best quote about the show came from Sharon Silva of The Wild Reeds, who said to me, “I hope to one day be able to do what he does. His songs work, and they sound great regardless of the genre. It’s just timeless.” Indeed it is…

Benjamin Gibbard

…like seeing The Berklee Gospel & Roots Choir and Preservation Hall Jazz Band play every year on Sunday. This year, the two collectives were given the responsibility of energizing the crowd first thing in the morning. As always, they delivered. The Choir kicked off their set with some Samba before bringing Newport Folk Festival to church. Preservation Hall, meanwhile, grooved the morning away with some Latin spice and southern soul and a touch of cow bell from none other than Jim James, who again was everywhere…

…but he wasn’t to be seen at Nancy and Beth‘s highly entertaining and amusing concert. The project of Megan Mullally and Stephanie Hunt, the actresses were joined by Nick Offerman and a surprise appearance by Shakey Graves. They brought Vaudeville to the Harbor Stage, sharing stories about Mick Jagger and Tina Fey and taking on social norms and the current political climate with satire and humor. Indeed during these times, laughter is the best medicine…

…yet there is always a place for powerful protest music, which Drive-by Truckers provided in spades during their hour-long set. The underrated southern rockers have been writing music that reflects the current social times for nearly two decades, and they added an extra element of ferocity to songs like “Surrender Under Protest” and “Hell No, I Ain’t Happy”. DBT aren’t just another band, they’re one of the most important out there today…

Michael Kiwanuka

…and Michael Kiwanuka is one of the world’s most powerful singer-songwriters of the decade. When Phil Cook, Jim James, and Nicole Atkins are sticking around for your set and vibing to the music, this is a demonstration of the talent of an artist. Kiwanuka’s powerful soul and R&B music perfectly encapsulated the spirit of this year’s Newport Folk Festival. “Father’s Child” and “Black Man In a White World” were mind-blowing, mouth-gaping numbers, but it was “Love & Hate” that had every single person in a daze. It was one of the highlights of the festival…

…that was filled with so many, but it’s still difficult to top John Prine‘s performance. Just seeing Prine stand on the Fort Stage in front of thousands of adoring fans and hundreds of worshiping artists and music industry executives was a sight to behold. In this one individual, Newport Folk Festival brought a piece of its past to the present while still looking to the future. Prine’s set was one part art, one part protest, and entirely about the people at Fort Adams and the world as a whole. In these times, we need more Prines, more NFFs, and more reasons to work together and make this world a community again.

Until next year Newport Folk Festival.

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One Comment

  1. Fantastic coverage of a memorable weekend. One minor correction – I Am a Patriot was written and recorded by Little Steven Van Zandt. It was subsequently covered by Jackson Browne,you Pearl Jam, and others. Agree that Zach and Margot crushed it.

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