The final day of Newport Folk Festival was packed with powerful acts. Roots-y folk-rock band Steelism lived up to its name with a set full of steely, atmospheric pieces that flowed like instrumental interludes between the powerhouse guest performers Nicole Atkins and Ruby Amanfu. The instrumentation was somewhere at the intersection Victor Wooten and Jimi Hendrix. In a genre that too often feels dominated by a certain archetype, Atkins and Amanfu delivered a revitalizing dose of feminine moxie. Gutsy vocals and an incredibly engaging stage presence on both accounts had the audience whooping and hollering in appreciation. Amanfu performed “Getting in My Head,” from her upcoming record as well as the co-written, “Roulette.” Audiences were regaled with instrumentation inspired by 70s film scores, and evoking the theatrics of a Webber libretto.
Following the set by Steelism, and finally staying put at the same stage for two subsequent acts, one could catch a set by Margaret Glaspy, a larger-than-life performer. Her brand of mildly poppy folk has garnered her a sizeable fan base already. She looked much like yet another festival goer if not for the guitar in her hands, and she spoke of her first time at Newport Folk as something not to be taken lightly. An impressive command over her voice allowed audience-aweing folky melisma and vocal fry. Her style was somewhat bubbly but not bubblegum. She urged us in “Parental Guidance,”: “It’s about time you started to try a little harder, don’t you think?” It was clear that she was certainly not taking the experience lightly, and already having influence on listeners and budding artists; one audience member called out in a moment’s pause, “You’re my hero!”
Michael Kiwanuka gave a festival-appropriate set at Fort Stage, with his soulful flavor. He talked unabashedly about race and positionality in the mantra-like, “I’m a Black Man in a White World,” and utilized isolated vocals and rhythmic clapping to engage the audience. Folk audiences of a certain demographic seem to love clapping in (what they perceive as) rhythm, whether or not the song calls for it.
Once again, being in the right place at the right time proves invaluable at Newport Folk. Hearing the announcement of TBA performers Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats meant that one could at least catch the end of their set in passing. Or, rather it could catch you. The rousing brass band closer had people literally singing and dancing on the sidewalks, creating a joyful and transcendent atmosphere for transient attendees. Upon exiting the stage, the band came parading down the installed walkway, compelling even the security personnel to bust a move.
Young indie rock group Whitney delivered feel-good vibes all around. With casual stage banter and Julien Ehrlich’s slightly androgynous falsetto, the set was dripping with summertime ambience. The music itself could hardly be described as “ambient” in the genre sense though, with jubilant brass and lyrics rich with shared human experience. After performing, “You’ve Got a Woman,” Ehrlich admitted, “I don’t like the lyric, ‘Come with me / I’ll set you free’ though. If you’re saying that to girls— or guys—you need to pipe down. You’re not that special.” Nobody would dream of asking Whitney to pipe down, though. The band is nearly radio-ready, perhaps alongside bands like Train or Fun. “Light Upon the Lake,” was described from onstage as, “not really a festival banger, except maybe near the end. Then it turns into, like, Mumford and Sons shit.” Long, brassy intros and uplifting trumpet solos boosted audience morale on a beautiful but at times sweltering day. We were invited to dance to “The Falls,” and reminded that songwriting isn’t done just for the sake of making records, with “Follow,” which was “dedicated to [Ehrlich’s] late grandfather…and all y’all’s late grandfathers—or grandmothers.”
A standout act continuing Sunday’s trend of powerhouse female vocalists and musicians was the set by Rhiannon Giddens, frontwoman of the blues and old-time band the Carolina Chocolate Drops. The supremely bluesy and soulful set list reminded listeners of the roots of American folk, as Giddens declared, “You can take my body but not my soul,” and performed “We Could Fly” from her album Freedom Highway. Giddens is inspired by African American folktales and ostensibly, spirituals, as the call-and-response form of a later song indicates. A member of the band shared an anecdote about following in a Newport legacy: his father-in-law played 1964’s Newport Folk, which was made up of a set of Cajun tunes that received a standing ovation. A blues-rock rendition of the spiritual, “Go Where I Send Thee” cemented the feeling of the show. Phenomenal vocal chops and a clear connection to her roots make Rhiannon Giddens an act one should take great care not to miss.
Also in this cohort was longtime folk and alternative musician Suzanne Vega, who donned a top hat seemingly on a whim and without context (somehow it worked). Noting that she hadn’t played Newport Folk in upwards of 25 years, Vega reasserted her place in the lineup just fine. Songs included, “When Heroes Go Down,” “Tom’s Diner,” and a few numbers from a play she penned about author Carson McCullers: “New York is My Destination,” and “Harper Lee”. The play begins in Houston on February 14th, 2018. Vega’s longevity is partly due to her easy but commanding stage presence. The decidedly edgy, “I Never Wear White,” and a rendition of “Some Journey,” with producer and original soloist, Darol Anger, accompanying on strings with the Berklee Instant Strings. After closing with, “Luka,” Vega received a standing ovation for her versatile performance.
Ending the night at Fort Stage, John Prine’s country western repertoire was a lesson in the importance of cadence if not diction. Appearing for his fifth Newport Folk Festival, Prine offered a loping “Long Monday,” and continued the movement with “Taking a Walk.” His headlining set featured a marquee of big-name performers, some having already been featured on other Newport stages, like My Morning Jacket’s Jim James and Harbor Stage’s unannounced act, Nathaniel Rateliff. Also among the collaborations were Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, Nashville’s Margo Price, and a duet with Roger Waters, his 1971 hit, “Hello in There”. The set got shamelessly and angrily political with, “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You into Heaven Anymore,” and closed with a crowded stage full of performers chorusing on, “Paradise.”
Unabashed country western stylings reared themselves, also, in the set by the sardonic and honest John Paul White. “That’s where it all starts for me,” he said. In true country western fashion, the melancholy “I’ve Been Over This Before,” hushed the audience, much to White’s appreciation. Upon his repeated insistence that he had not intended to come back to music and was “perfectly happy” with domestic life, an audience member offered, “Welcome back!” Ballads, acoustic numbers and anything that’s not saccharine pop is frequently expected to have a deep or emotional meaning, and is sometimes ascribed one according to listeners’ subjectivities. “I have no idea what the songs mean most of the time,” admitted White, just before explaining, about the mournful “Simple Song,”: “This came to me after my grandfather passed away…[it will] cheer you up. You’re welcome.”
Filling Fort Stage with a parade of artists, the annual Speak Out event offered a rapid-fire succession of numbers by multiple artists present at the festival Sunday as well as previous days. New Orleans jazz band Preservation Hall served up David Bowie’s “Heroes,” with an interluding and suspiciously Hendrix-like star-spangled motif. Shakey Graves, Stephanie Hunt (of Nancy and Beth) et. al sought to “remind ourselves of what our President tries to remind us every day,” with a “grumpy” sing-along to, “I’m Better Than You.” After the event was described as, “a safe place we can all come together and be with each other and…bridge all the divides between us with our shared love of music,” Billy Bragg delivered a pointed rendition of Anais Mitchell’s “Why We Build a Wall.” From its very impetus, Newport Folk has been breaking barriers, shattering ceilings, and demolishing walls, and the legacy was clearly not about to stop in 2017.