If you follow the Newport Folk Festival you’ve likely heard about the heat (it melted my sneakers), the Covid cancelations and last-minute changeups, and Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell (the rumors were actually true for once!). So highlighting those areas feels a little redundant to what we already know which is: Newport Folk is the hottest place in the USA, second only to Pennsylvania, Covid is forever, and Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell are near-perfect artists and living legends. Their impact and influence on music and songwriting are second to none and listening to their songs makes us better people in general. Also, I’m wondering if, “You Get What You Give” by The New Radicals is still Joni Mitchell’s favorite song.
Day 1 Highlights: “Hell they can track me I ain’t doing sh*t.”
Leith Ross, the recipient of the first-ever John Prine Songwriter Fellowship (Newport Festivals Announces 2022 Prine Songwriter Fellowship Winner), played a beautifully melancholic set to a pin-drop audience at the Harbor Stage. Anyone will tell you that the best thing about Newport Folk is discovering new-to-you artists and Ross was one of my favorites. Their songs focus on all the things that connect us as humans, and how appropriate to feel so connected at the start of a festival that emphasizes exactly that.
Song of the Set: “Grown Up”
Lee Fields & The Expressions are simply the truth. I’m convinced they made my sneakers melt. I’ll move to almost anything (blender noises, car horns, sprinklers) but if you didn’t shimmy during Lee Fields set please check your pulse.
Song of the Set: “Could Have Been Friends”
Faye Webster was a last-second addition and what a gift. If you’re familiar with Faye you know she plays R&B music and has that hiccupy, delicate, dulcet voice. I wondered if it might get swallowed at the Fort’s main stage but no. It entranced. Our inner groove was gently coaxed out and by the end of the set, we were all swaying in unison. She also took a brief recess to play a cover of her “favorite song from Animal Crossing” and to mention that her favorite Pokemon is Mawile “because they have bangs like me.”
Song of the Set: “In a Good Way”
I think I’m a John Craigie acolyte now? Is a folkgasm a thing? Can it be? Craigie is one of those artists whose albums I’ve listened to and was like “nice” and now that I’ve heard the songs live I’m like “I’ll follow you on tour.” He’s charismatic and funny and his songs are smart, clever (think Todd Snider), and best heard live. People standing in that queue from the Harbor Stage to the Quad were frustrated and I get that but they should have just pulled over to witness the pure folk enthusiasm of John Craigie.
Song of the Set: “Laurie Rolled Me a J” – listen to this song right now.
Dinosaur Jr. I love you. RIP my ears. Also, was the J Mascis solo set at NFF 2015 a figment of my imagination?
Song of the Set: “Feel the Pain” featuring Courtney Barnett
Goose. I never thought a jam band would be one of my favorite bands right now but here they were, putting me in a good mood. I usually shy away from this genre due to its excesses (20-minute instrumental interludes) but I love Goose’s tasty grooves, psychedelic sonic disco voyage, and indie sensibilities. See them if they come to your town or drive to another town to see them. Simple as that.
Song of the Set: “A Western Sun”
Day 2 Highlights: “I could be drunk at a party, laughin’ out loud. I could be anywhere, I could be right here, right now.”
Madi Diaz. Finally! I’ve always missed my opportunity to see her but damn was it worth the wait. Eavesdropping on a conversation or twelve, it seems her set was an easy favorite of the whole weekend and was absolutely one of mine. I am a fan of sad songs sung by women, of which Diaz has many, but her set was nothing but joyful and cathartic. Diaz plays her voice like a flute. She soars and descends with the most perfect control. She covered Patti Griffin’s “Be Careful” with Courtney Marie Andrews and S.G. Goodman in response to the overturning of Roe v Wade and brought Joy Oladokun out for “Resentment”. We love a collaborative set at Newport and I feel so lucky to have watched Diaz’s from top to bottom.
Song of the Set: “Think of Me”
I tried watching The Backseat Lovers and Neal Francis at the same time. I swapped sets every two songs. Both were fantastic. Both had some of the best fans of the weekend. They were super high-energy and completely invested. I expected people to start crowd surfing at any moment. Josh Harmon from The Backseat Lovers described the festival as a “beautiful, healing experience.” He gets it.
Clusterfolk had Natalie Merchant singing “Carnival” and “These Are Days”, Lukas Nelson and Robert Ellis covering Neil Young’s “Tell Me Why” and Craig Finn and friends singing “Peace, Love, and Understanding” by Elvis Costello. Finn mentioned he was just trying to attend the festival but his presence helped put together an emergency set in classic folk fashion.
Day 3 Highlights: “Make it up to me, you know it’s better.”
I caught most of Sierra Ferrell’s set and she is someone I would absolutely see live again and again. I’m really liking these habitual genre line steppers and she is no exception. Ferrell is at first listen, honky tonk country in all its glory. And then you hear the Latin influences, the folk, the jazz, the Amy Winehouse (just me?). Her audience loved her and danced with an energy no one deserved to have based on weather alone. I also want to note that her stage presence is nothing short of Dolly Parton-esque. How are some people just so damn good at being in front of a crowd.
Song of the Set: “Jeremiah”
Alejandro and Stephan Gutiérrez, the immensely talented guitar playing brothers who make up Hermanos Gutiérrez said the Newport Folk Festival was the best festival they’d ever been to and I believe they were very much part of what made iit so special. They performed with such profound reverence and talent that any stress you might have felt at the start of your day because someone yelled at you for backing into a parking space, just simply melted away. Their set felt like a much-needed escape. Like a grounding exercise in being truly present.
Song of the Set: “Mesa Redonda”
I had the immense pleasure of seeing the brilliant Ukrainian folk quartet DakhaBrakha (meaning “give and take”) at PVD Fest in 2019 and have been a fan ever since. They were my #1 can’t miss set of the weekend and they were as profoundly inspiring as ever. They were supersonic in sound and polyphonic in vocal expression.They spoke of Russian aggression and the concept of home. The wore their signature foot tall woolen hats in the dead of summer. They made a throng of new fans.
Song of the Set: Що з-под дуба (Shcho z-pod duba)
The Linda Lindas was the second loudest band at the Newport Folk Festival. Their drummer, Mila is 11 while the eldest, Bela, is 17. Lucia is 15 and is a year older than her 14-year-old cousin Eloise who is also in the band. They are young, they are green but they attacked their time slot voraciously, traded vocals on every song, kept their feet on our necks, and during breaks charmed us with conversations about school break and Ben and Jerry’s.
Song of the Set: “Talking to Myself”
Sylvan Esso played an entirely new album to start their set and how brave. You never know how folks will react to that especially when they’re seeing a band they love for the first time and want to hear songs they know. It was hands down one of the best sets of the weekend and I think many folks would agree. I went from casual listener to total fan in less than an hour.
Song of the Set: Their entire new album, “No Rules Sandy”
Oladokun is so talented and versatile that she spent time in several different artists’ sets throughout the whole weekend, which is amazing considering it’s only her second year at the festival. I caught the end of Joy Oladokun’s performance and she was as great and charming and inspiring as usual.
Song of the Set: “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (Nirvana Cover)
I caught Danielle Ponder’s set at the Bike Stage by accident and it was sheer good luck. She quit her job as an attorney to become a full-time artist and her command of both voice and stage had me awe-struck.
Song of the Set: “Creep” (Radiohead cover)
Okay, you know The Roots were awesome. That should come as no surprise and If you were lucky enough to see their set Sunday then you also just attended the best block party of your life. I’m usually not a fan of medley-driven sets but this was perfect. What I grabbed from their set was Kate Bush, Jimi Hendrix, Donna Summer, Curtis Mayfield, Bob Dylan, and Kool & The Gang. I’m sure I missed some but I was grooving hard. They didn’t stop once throughout their set so neither would I! It was a literal tour de force. So fun to be part of it.
I love Japanese Breakfast. They were the artist I was most excited to see at the Newport Folk Festival this year. If there’s a sportsmanship award for bands, they deserve it. They’re dealing with Covid issues which have them canceling tour dates (but they still made NFF happen), they were supposed to play Friday then got moved to one slot on Sunday which turned into another slot that had them up against Brandi Carlile and Joni Mitchell at the end of the day. I have a lot of feelings about this.
One thing about Newport Folk is that no matter who the artist is, they could have three songs on a streaming site, they’re going to have a large audience at the festival. It’s just guaranteed. Jay Sweet said it this year when he brought our Leith Ross and it’s true. This being said, Japanese Breakfast had literally the smallest audience of any set of the weekend. Now, this is not because Japanese Breakfast isn’t a huge draw. Of course, they are. Who doesn’t love Michelle Zauner, especially us elder millennials? And we’re not the only ones. Her memoir spent more than 50 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list! She was named one of People’s 100 most influential people in the world THIS year! She rules!
Folks came out and supported with their whole heart but mine broke a little at the empty seats and sparse crowd. There was so much room people were re-creating the lift from Dirty Dancing. Now, I know so much goes behind the scenes and the crew are beyond stressed and work so hard. I know scheduling is a bear. I sincerely understand that *and* felt for Japanese Breakfast, who were most likely fine, by the way. They appeared to have a blast. I’m just a sensitive fan.
They played like there were 12,000 people in the crowd. Their set was total joy, energy, and atmosphere. Zauner’s soaring vocals sounded crystal clear and lovely. She bounced all over the stage. She mentioned she picked out a sailor outfit for the occasion. Her interaction with the audience was endearing. They played all the bangers you know. They also played “Glider”, which you might not know, which is a song from the soundtrack to the video game Sable. It was an astonishing, perfect set. Even if everything went wrong I’d still think so and die on that hill. Japanese Breakfast is deserving of all the love and it’s this writer’s opinion that Newport Folk should have them back soon.
Song of the Set: “Everybody Wants to Love You”