Newport Folk Festival - Fort Adams State Park, Newport, RI July 28-30 2023
The greatest artists always keep their fans guessing. They follow their own muse, and don't let the fans or critics dictate their next project or style. So too it could be said for the organizers of Newport Folk. Already revered in music circles for it's curated selection of varied artists, last year's return of Joni Mitchell and a surprise set by Paul Simon set the bar at impossibly high levels for this year.
But despite all the celebrated history, general trust in the process, and overall reverence for the event, when the rolling lineup revealed pop star Lana Del Ray, even some of the faithful were skeptical. Those fears, like Dylan plugging in and scaring the folkies in '65, proved to be misplaced.
The magic of Newport Folk is hard to describe if you haven't been there. While the headline sets get a lot of the attention, those who have been will tell you that the most amazing moments often happen on the smaller stages, backstage, and at the legendary after shows. On these stages, fans can discover new artists - from tour veterans with deep catalogues so deep you can't understand how you haven't heard of them, to up and coming sure fire stars in the making.
Artist conflicts are not only numerous, but unavoidable by design. Luckily, there is someone for everyone. And while folk is the theme, Newport is about celebrating musical diversity and the blending of genres. The result is a embarrassment of riches - a version of choose you own musical adventure, with no bad outcomes...only new doors to open. And at only 10k people per day, it's possible to set up on the rail and geek out over that artists you absolutely need to see. Our group usually packs lightly, and tend to move around all day. Some come to set up camp and chill in the sun by the main stages. There is no wrong way to do it. Everyone's adventure ends up being memorable.
Peter One "Don't Go Home" - with Erin Rae taking Allison Russell's spot.
Bella White - stunning emerging Americana. "Well, maybe Richmond's the way I oughta go"...
Nickel Creek - One of the day's best sets on the Quad, or anywhere. "The Smoothie Song"
James Taylor (a last minute fill in for Noah Kahan) - the surprise set of the weekend. "Carolina in My Mind" with his wife and son.
Caamp - the Fort stage was packed, for good reason. "Strawberries" and "26".
SistaStrings - your laughter and stories and music were so heartwarming
Grace Bowers - her blistering guitar had the legends awed- if you don't know her, you soon will.
Earls of Leicester - Jerry Douglas and co - a real treat for the bluegrass fans - paying tribute to Flatt and Scruggs.
My Morning Jacket - a glorious headlining set with special guests Maggie Rogers "You Make Lovin' Fun", Margo Price "I Feel The Earth Move" and Animal of the Muppets "One Big Holiday".
Sumbuck - solo project of lead singer Taylor from Caamp. Great new album
Gregory Alan Isakov - a gorgeous folky set featuring his beautiful new song "The Fall"
Mereba - the most beautiful cover of "Redemption Song"
Abraham Alexander - his life story is a study in resilience. "Xavier" in the crowd was devastating.
Lana Del Ray - a dreamy set that had her fans in tears. "Hope is a Dangerous Thing for a Woman Like Me" was a standout.
Billy Strings - Great high energy set to close the show, but the a capella version of "Am I Born to Die" as the Newport turned to golden hour stole the show.
Like any good piece of art, Newport Folk sticks with you long after you leave. You question what you thought you knew about music, and realize there's always new exploring to be done. Newport Folk reminds us to remember where we came from, but that in order to live well we need to be creative and innovative and never stop growing. Change is the only certainty in life.
A week after this festival, and after a day or two of recovery and the blues, I'm reminded of this fantastical experience and the joy and community of it all. I'll follow these artists trails through the fall, until it's time for the rolling lineup to begin, and the next doors will begin to open...