Festivals, Newport Folk Festival, The Revue — August 8, 2018 at 6:05 am

Things We Loved at Newport Folk Festival 2018

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Just like every other year, picking the highlights of a jam-packed Newport Folk Festival is a difficult task because each performance usually has at least one. Given that the schedule is filled with conflicts, it is nearly impossible to see them all. The four of us – Ben, Darren, Dina, and our latest addition Adam – will attempt to do this great three-day event justice by naming the Things We Loved at Newport Folk Festival 2018. There are photos throughout this summary, but we have also prepared full photo galleries for each of the three days. They can be found:

In terms of our favorite moments, it has to start with the very first performance of the festival when…

Darlingside

Darlingside ecstatically shouted, “This is our first song at Newport Folk Fest… and it’s 11:00 in the morning!”. And with that, the Festival commenced with a bang. It wasn’t just the great harmonies and the catchy and cool Americana that  Auyon Mukharji, David Senft, Harris Paseltiner, and Don Mitchell performed, but they performed with great passion, enthusiasm, and energy. Those who took in their performance could only do one thing when it was all said and done – give these Boston lads a standing ovation…

Sturgill Simpson

…while everyone who watched Sturgill Simpson never sat down. Forget about gracefully wallowing away the afternoon on a hot summer day, the Grammy Award-winning artist and his talented band mates turned up the volume with their speaker-shattering outlaw country. Heck, this felt more like a rock show than a country gig. At one point during his set when his guitar was out of tune, Simpson threw it aside and took another one in hand, and then he hollered, “Fuck it! We haven’t played with a setlist and we’re not starting now.” Honestly, who needs a setlist when Newport brings out something special in every performer who sets foot on the Fort Stage…

…and all one has to do is ask Xavier Amin Dphrepaulezz – a.k.a. Fantastic Negrito. The Oakland-based artist and winner of the NPR Tiny Desk contest in 2015 was like a preacher leading his procession, which he called Negrito Nation, through 45 minutes of rollicking roots and blues-rock. It wasn’t just the anthemic and uplifting nature of his music, but his stories of the “American Dream” and its history (such as sung on “Hell Fire”) really hit home for many, particularly in these chaotic times. These tales encapsulated what this year’s version of the Festival would focus on…

…and punctuated on two occasions – the first occurred when Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit were joined by David Crosby, and they played a memorable version of “Ohio”. One of the great political anthems in music history, the collective sang the tune like it was 1971 all over again, but the audience treated it like it was their soundtrack for 2018. Even though 37 years have passed since the song was first released, it remains incredibly relevant. Just goes to show that great music is ageless…

…which is what the legendary harmonica and folk singer Charlie Musselwhite is. Together with Ben Harper, the two along with their band simply dazzled everyone under the Quad tent. They seamlessly went from country-folk to roots, but they saved their best for last when they turned “The Bottle Wins Again” into a Led Zeppelin-esque rocker. To say this was mind-blowing would be an immense understatement…

…just like saying Annie Clark – a.k.a. St. Vincent – is simply a genius. The indie star and guitar god is one of the most creative forces in all of music, and her live shows are known for their tight choreography and extravagant displays. Her addition to the Festival’s lineup, as such, left many wondering what she would do at Fort Adams State Park. So when a grand piano and a single microphone were placed on the stage, we knew something special and extraordinary was about to happen. Accompanied by her dear friend and classically-trained pianist Thomas Bartlett, Clark’s performance was stripped back and bare bones. She encouraged the audience to “pretend we’re in a seedy bar in downtown New York City”, but it was much more than that. She and Bartlett took us through jazz and blues bars to the Lincoln Center to a Disney film. The performance was theatrical and stunning, where we’ve never seen Clark perform with such abandon, emotional, and raw force before…

St. Vincent

…while on a Sunday morning The War and Treaty awakened everyone with a performance that simply can be categorized as unforgettable. For a band that has yet to release a full-length album, Michael Trotter, Jr., Tanya Blount-Trotter, and their band played their hearts out. Ms. Blount-Trotter was so moved by being at Newport, that she was crying through most of their set and the audience wept her. As Mr. Trotter and the band delivered one sky-shattering gospel and roots tune after another, the crowd hollered in appreciation. This was one of those special moments at Newport, where a few thousand people merge into one tour-de-force…

…which is what Courtney Barnett and Gary Clark, Jr. have become. There really isn’t much to say about these two great artists and guitarists, who respectively delivered two spirited rock shows. Instead of feeling like we were basking under the rays of the mid-afternoon sun, Fort Adams was into an arena. They were loud, they were fiery, and the festival-goers roared in appreciation with dozens unleashing their air guitars. Before Dylan went electric, what would have partisans of NFF thought of this display…

Gary Clark Jr.

…well they likely would have lined up to hear the alluring tranquility of Azniv Korkejian’s project Bedouine. Her delicate, whispery voice softened the hardest soul while her stories – which are told on her beautiful, self-titled, debut album – recalled times where we’ve had to persevere and endure. Her peaceful, little island turned into paradise as her “delectable” and “highly coveted” friends, Hollie Laesig and Jess Wolfe of Lucius, joined her for a song. It was the perfect moment happening before us…

…akin to when Warren Haynes nonchalantly strolled onto the Quad Stage to join guitarist extraordinaire Nels Cline and his partner Brandon Seabrook. Watching the three perform was like participating in a Guitar Gurus course at the Ph.D. level. The set was short but memorable and a treat for guitar aficionados or those who just like to watch geniuses at work. It was also an extra treat to hear Cline sing a couple of tunes, including a Wilco track that was written by his good friend Jeff Tweedy, “What Light”. While Cline isn’t the greatest singer (and he admitted as much), he did hold a tune…

Nels Cline’s Curtis Rogers Memorial Resonator Excursion

…but the immensely underappreciated Erika Wennerstrom can hit nearly every octave and then some. As expected, the Museum Stage wasn’t big enough to hold her powerful vocals. She shared songs from her moving and immensely personal solo debut album, Sweet Unknown, while also sharing a couple of new tracks. One in particular, “The Revolution Is In Your Mind”, stood out, as it was Wennerstrom at her most fiery and political. Too bad she didn’t play on a larger stage because the lyrics, “sick and tired of politicians selling bullshit to the masses”, would have been the Festival’s mantra for the entire three days…

…although coming a close second is when H.C. McEntire of Hiss Golden Messenger said he said that for a long time had been “living on a bag of Doritos and hope”, and yet he and his band were playing Newport for the second time in four years. Recognizing their good fortune, the band delivered one of the most energetic and feel-good sets of the entire Festival. They rocked, they told stories, and they laughed. They, in other words, encapsulated everything that makes Newport Folk Festival great…

Margo Price

…and why an artist who doesn’t play folk music even dreamed about playing at Newport one day, which is the case with Moses Sumney. Like St. Vincent, Sumney was an interesting selection, but he validated Jay Sweet and company’s belief in him by delivering one of the Festival’s most unique sets. His silky smooth, experimental soul was mesmerizing, and at one point he led the audience through an a capella of one of his songs. After which, he said, “I wish my parents were here so I could say to them, ‘I told you so.’” It was a moment that made everyone smile and applaud in approval…

…which they did when the great John Prine walked on the Fort Stage to introduce Margo Price. After the two friends embraced, Price and her band delivered an hour-long concert of country-rock and Americana perfection. Price’s presence and booming vocals, however, weren’t the show stoppers. Instead, when she sat at the second drum kit and whaled away like a seasoned pro, the crowd went nuts. The Nashville-based artist is one gifted entertainer…

…as is Langhorne Slim. Anyone who has seen Sean Scolnick and The Lost at Last Band perform over the years know exactly what to expect – several performers who play like the gig is their very last one. On this day, they brought a hoedown atmosphere tinged with heartfelt emotion and personal stories to Newport. For instance, he danced outside the tent and serenaded the audience while standing on the rail, but then he would deliver a tearjerker with “Song for Sid”, which is about his grandfather. Predictably unpredictable is Langhorne Slim…

Langhorn Slim and The Lost at Last Band

…just like Tank and the Bangas. Driving 21 hours from New Orleans, the 2017 winners of the NPR Tiny Desk contest epitomize what America is – or ought to be. Their cross-genre, multicultural, and multifaceted brilliance and unwavering energy won over an overcapacity crowd at the Quad Stage. People danced, shouted, jumped, and threw fists in the air. Whether you were under the tent or watching from outside, it was a sight to behold and experience to remember. For roughly an hour, we believed that America could become the shining example of harmony, community, and inclusion…

Tank and The Bangas

…which The Texas Gentleman – a.k.a. Shakey Graves – reminded us when he rolled out his edgier, more alternative rock sound. For the first fifty-odd minutes of his set, he told tales about a “Big Bad Wolf”, “Cops and Robbers”, and what it’s like to be “Dining Alone”. But for the final two songs, he turned back the clocks and made us think of simpler times, like when he was a one-man band delivering raucous and fun tunes that would get the crowd into a tizzy. Alejandro Rose-Garcia’s performance also marked a milestone for him. Call it the “Grand Slam of Newport Folk Festival”, as Shakey Graves had officially played on all four of the Festival’s stages.  No one else likely will achieve this accomplishment anytime soon…

…but in just two days Nicole Atkins is halfway there (note: edited from Ms. Atkins’ contributions). On Saturday, she dazzled a capacity, Museum Stage crowd with her take on the music she digs, including songs from Davey Horne, The Watson Twins, Indianola, and Dancey Jenkins. Then on Sunday she bowled over those at the Harbor Stage with her retro vibes. However, it was her soaring rendition of her song “A Little Crazy’” that blew minds. It was one of the signature moments of the festival that people will long be talking about…

…and in the years to come, people will continue to raise Jon Batiste‘s choreography and direction during the Festival’s finale, A Change is Gonna Come. With the Dap-kings as the backing band and a who’s who of singers and musicians – including the surprise appearance of one Mavis Staples plus the likes of Brandi Carlile, Rachael Price, Valerie June, Brittany Andrews, Leon Bridges, Maggie Rogers, and many others – the set was filled with surprises. It was filled with love, hope, and unity. It was a performance that everyone should witness..

…and more people need to pay attention to Twain. Bone-chilling sanctity is the only way to describe the trio’s set, which was nearly a decade in the making. Through Mt Davidson’s unique and immersive vocals and the band’s ability to enchant and then suddenly make the hairs on our arms stand up, Twain simultaneously took us down to the river and high about the mountains. It was an out-of-body, spiritual enterprise…

Khruangbin

…while Khruangbin took us to their all-encompassing Wonderland. Their one-hour set was a kaleidoscope adventure of psychedelic haze, Bedouin nightscapes, and disco grooves. Yet here they were playing on a sunny and warm Sunday afternoon, yet they made the Quad Stage feel like it was a Friday night in a cavernous nightclub in New York City. The one positive of the earlier slot is that one could truly appreciate the musicianship of Laura Lee (bass), Mark Speer (guitar), and Donald “DJ” Johnson (drums/piano), as they are three of the finest at their craft…

Phoebe Bridgers

…and Phoebe Bridgers has quickly established a reputation for being one of indie rock’s and indie folk’s most gifted singer-songwriters despite being just 23 years old. The LA native left the Harbor Stage audience in complete paralysis and silence with her self-described “dark love songs”. Her set was one of the most intimate, but it turned into a little party when some of her former band mates joined her for a couple of songs. This was Bridgers way of embracing the collaborative spirit of the Festival, but instead of super stars she shared the moment with old friends…

…and listening to the music of Curtis Harding recalled times when many of us sat by the radio to listen to the music that was coming from Detroit in the ’60s and ’70s. Gritty soul, surging rock, and smooth R&B were on order in the mid-day’s heat. Despite a blistering set, Harding and his band somehow kept their cool. While they literally didn’t sweat, a house party was developing on the Fort Stage, as people slowly grooved to “It’s Not Over” and “Need Your Love”. Just as the party was intensifying, Harding and his band’s time was unfortunately up, but they…

…and artists and bands like Darlingside, Twain, Moses Sumney, The War and Treaty, Erika Wennerstrom, and the other 80+ performers reminded us why Newport Folk Festival remains one of the great music events. The community among the artists and fans is unmatched, and the energy with which each performer plays approaches surreal. You have to experience the Festival yourself to truly understand how special it is and why so many people – from the artists to the fans – often say during and after the three days, “I can’t stop pinching myself”.

 

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