Live Review: Newport Folk Festival Still Surprises

Roger Waters even shows up as unexpected collaborations and political commentary resurface at seaside event


Even before unannounced guests like Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon joined folk icon John Prine to close out this weekend’s Newport Folk Festival, the annual event bolstered its rich history with lots of other surprise collaborations and a renewed penchant for protest music to reflect difficult times.

Sure, the Avett Brothers and headliners Prine, Wilco and Fleet Foxes delivered as proven favorites. But the hallowed festival at Rhode Island’s Fort Adams State Park still thrived on the unexpected, from inspiring newcomers (crowd-stirring female trio Joseph, psych-funk rockers Chicano Batman, the versatile New Zealand singer Marlon Williams and the intimate, intense Big Thief) to the players in announced feature sets dubbed Grandma’s Hands Band, Chuck! and Speak Out.

Grandma’s Hands Band paid tribute to Bill Withers, as a low-key Vernon played lead guitar and sang a resonant “Ain’t No Sunshine” — fitting for a grey, windy but rain-free Saturday. Chuck! greeted a picture-perfect Sunday with a Chuck Berry tribute anchored by Charlie Sexton and Texas Gentlemen and benefiting from the gritty kick of guests Shakey Graves and the Suffers’ soul singer Kam Franklin.

But as a tribute to Newport Folk’s history of protest music, Speak Out truly stood out on Sunday, setting up and even transcending Prine’s star-aided finale, where Rogers reprised his 2015 festival cover of the songwriter’s “Hello in There” with the man himself before many of the fest’s artists filled the stage for “Paradise.”

Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon

Kam Franklin, Shakey Graves and Charlie Sexton for Chuck

Speak Out unleashed its own string of surprise (and often surprising) performers, starting with an all-star backing band that featured members of My Morning Jacket and the Decemberists, plus members of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.

“The great thing about Newport is you can come here and get inspired by music, and then go home and do something about it,” said emcee Chris Funk of the Decemberists, which may explain a rousing version of David Bowie’s “Heroes” sung by rocker Kyle Craft. Sharon Van Etten sang Sinead O’Connor’s “Black Boys on Mopeds,” a still-relevant commentary on police killings. Jim James and Nick Offerman traded stirring verses of the Dylan classic “Masters of War” (with a scorching guitar solo by James’ MMJ bandmate Carl Broemel) while Newport impresario George Wein watched side-stage. Country upstart Margo Price lent gravitas to a tempo-pushed “Working Class Hero” before she was joined by the Lone Bellow’s zealous Zach Williams for Jackson Browne’s “I Am a Patriot.” Lucius’ Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig sang “O-o-h Child” with help from the Berklee Roots and Gospel Choir. And Nathaniel Rateliff – who’d just nailed an unannounced set at the tiny Harbor Stage with his Night Sweats – cranked into “Fortunate Son” as fans went wild.

Jim James and Nick Offerman

But signs of resistance weren’t limited to Speak Out. Her shirt emblazoned with the word Fuerza (Spanish for Force), Hooray for the Riff Raff’s Alynda Segarra championed her Latino heritage and queer identity while taking her folk rock to edgier heights, evoking Patti Smith. Rhiannon Giddens — who once graced the same stage with the Carolina Chocolate Drops and returns to play the Newport Jazz Festival this Saturday — proved her versatility with her powerhouse vocals, banjo and fiddle work around originals and traditional songs, drawing parallels between what’s happening today with the days of slavery. Her bandmate, Cajun fiddler Dirk Powell, called for “a willingness to celebrate diversity” after noting his father-in-law Dewey Balfa brought that then-suspect music to Newport in 1964.

Perhaps the most incendiary set on the political front came from Alabama-bred rockers Drive-By Truckers in songs like “Surrender Under Protest” and (with Decemberists guitarist Chris Funk) “Hell No, I Ain’t Happy.” Co-frontman Patterson Hood prefaced “What It Means” with a heartfelt, expletive-laced back story about a black neighbor shot in his then-hometown in Athens, Ga., making it “personal not political.”

Drive By Truckers

Other Newport collaborations were expected, including the Decemberists’ fine union with British folksinger Olivia Chaney as Offa Rex and the teaming of Billy Bragg and Joe Henry around traditional songs from the railroad age (Bragg also sang Anais Mitchell’s “Why We Build the Wall” for Speak Out and joined Wilco to perform “California Stars,” one of a few songs Wilco included from their past joint project around lyrics by Woody Guthrie).

The weekend’s most sublime collaboration could well have been American Acoustic, which brought together the Punch Brothers with I’m with Her (a folk trio of Sara Watkins, Aoife O’Donovan and Sarah Jarosz) and guitar ace Julian Lage for a bluegrass-tinged Sunday set that unfortunately overlapped with Prine’s. The mix-and-match ensemble even floated a transcendent cover of the Beatles’ “Julia” and gave mandolinist Chris Thile the chance to resurrect “Destination” with his ex-Nickel Creek mate Watkins.

Other standouts included Angel Olsen (who battled Saturday’s winds with her spectral gauze-rock, assisted by Jim James for “Sister”), Michael Kiwankuka (who blended raw soul, groove and Pink Floyd-ish space rock, particularly in 10-minute opener “Cold Little Heart”) and the delightful pianist Regina Spektor, who oddly highlighted songs from her underrated 2009 gem Far, starting with “Folding Chair,” which fit the Fort Adams setting and included her imitations of dolphin calls. Perhaps a few of them were listening in the harbor along with the boats.

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