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    Music Review

    Newport Folk Festival returns to its roots

    With their guitars, fiddle, washboard, and banjo, the Spirit Family Reunion captured the essence of the early days of the Newport Folk Festival.
    Joe Giblin/Associated Press
    With their guitars, fiddle, washboard, and banjo, the Spirit Family Reunion captured the essence of the early days of the Newport Folk Festival.

    NEWPORT, R.I. — Its producer, Jay Sweet, is fond of calling the venerable Newport Folk Festival an event for musical omnivores. Eschewing strict definitions of the genre, Sweet has expanded the scope of the programming to get the festival back to its legacy years when Newport was a beacon for American roots music.

    Festival founder George Wein gave Sweet some good advice early on: For every up-and-coming band you program, book someone who likely influenced them. That approach has worked well, particularly for this year’s event, which opened Friday, closed Sunday, and sold out three months in advance.

    Jackson Browne accompanied fiddler Sara Watkins during her set.

    With buskers roaming the grounds and the addition of a new stage — an intimate setting in a museum — it was the first year I gave up on trying to see every artist in the lineup. It felt impossible to take in nearly 50 acts over three days, at least if you wanted to get the essence of a performance.


    Technically, the attendance was not any bigger — it’s still capped at 10,000 people each day — but the festival’s spirit and energy were more robust than ever. More and more fans spilled over the edges of stages to watch from the sidelines or stretch out on the grass. Certain passageways routinely got congested, and the lines were longer for everything, from the food stands to the water taxis.

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    If the faces, both onstage and in the audience, looked younger than in recent years, the festival’s hallowed past still loomed large. Clustered around a single microphone with guitars, fiddle, washboard, and banjo, Spirit Family Reunion wasn’t that removed from the artists who played here four decades ago. The Brooklyn, N.Y., band acknowledged the debt it owed to Newport and played “Green Rocky Road,” which it learned from a recording by ’60s folkie Karen Dalton.

    The beguiling Swedish sister act First Aid Kit made the connections even more apparent with a haunting cover of Joan Baez’s “Diamonds & Rust.” Simply called “Emmylou,” a sweet tribute to Emmylou Harris referenced the Americana icon, along with Gram Parsons, Johnny Cash, and June Carter Cash.

    For other artists the weekend was a homecoming long in the making. Folk-blues musician Spider John Koerner, whose Sunday set was gloriously ramshackle, last played the festival in 1969. And the Kossoy Sisters, who are not especially known beyond their rendition of “I’ll Fly Away” featured on the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack, returned for their first performance here since the inaugural fest in 1959. They were worth the wait.

    Even more remarkable was how Rodriguez got to Newport. A long-lost cult artist, the 70-year-old singer-songwriter has recently been rediscovered by new generations through the rerelease of his early-’70s records and a new documentary, which screened at the festival, about his incredible life.


    The spirit of collaboration has become one of Newport’s hallmarks, and this year was full of surprises. Singer-songwriter Ben Sollee, in addition to his own solo set, popped up with his cello in performances with Apache Relay, My Morning Jacket, and the Head & the Heart, among others. Conor Oberst joined First Aid Kit on “King of the World.” (They returned the love during Oberst’s set on Sunday.) Jackson Browne, ahead of his headlining performance on Sunday, added gravitas to sets by California troubadour Jonathan Wilson and fiddle phenom Sara Watkins. The Preservation Hall Jazz Band welcomed bluegrass master Del McCoury, who has collaborated with the group before but was not listed on the festival lineup. (McCoury had played in Boston the night before at the Summer Arts Weekend.)

    Saturday skewed on the twangy side, starting with the honky-tonk of Robert Ellis, a Texan whose lyrics referenced everyone from Willie Nelson to Betty Draper (“I wish my wife was less like you”). A country-rock vibe also coursed through rowdy performances from Jonny Corndawg, Dawes, Deer Tick, Joe Fletcher & the Wrong Reasons, and Iron and Wine, whose cover of “Long Black Veil” cut across the generational divide.

    Led by Arlo, multiple generations of Guthries formed the Guthrie Family Reunion to celebrate the enduring legacy of Woody, who would have turned 100 this year. Woody’s songs were as timely as ever, serving as a reminder of the social inequalities that fired up the Occupy Wall Street movement. (Yes, “This Land Is Your Land” was in the mix.)

    Woody’s spirit was alive and well in other sets, too. Wilco, at Friday’s kickoff concert at Fort Adams State Park, played a selection of songs from “Mermaid Avenue,” the collaborative album of Guthrie songs the band recorded with Billy Bragg. And New Multitudes, a supergroup that includes Jim James, Jay Farrar, Will Johnson, and Anders Parker, performed an entire set of old Guthrie lyrics set to new music.

    Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaires got the crowd going with their soul revue.

    And then there were artists who sounded completely out of time and out of step with the rest of the roster. Closing out Saturday, My Morning Jacket was spectral and sprawling as it played with an ominous storm lurking on the horizon. Frontman Jim James’s vocals were as sweeping as the wind that kept his hair permanently in his face.


    Although Honeyhoney came close, no one unleashed rock ’n’ roll swagger quite like Alabama Shakes. In an electrifying set on Saturday, singer Brittany Howard held in her booming voice the ghosts of Janis Joplin and James Brown. She was a crowd-pleaser wherever she turned up, including a cameo with My Morning Jacket for “It Makes No Difference,” a salute to the late Levon Helm.

    On Sunday, Tune-Yards, the experimental rock project of Merrill Garbus, scrambled various instruments and genres for a wholly disorienting festival experience. Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaires galvanized the crowd with a ferocious soul revue that recalled Otis Redding and Stax Records.

    There were also incantations by way of bands whose greatest desire was to froth their fans into a state of euphoria. It was hard not to get swept up in the ecstatic choruses and intense energy of groups like the Head & the Heart, Trampled by Turtles, Rhode Island’s Brown Bird, and Iceland’s Of Monsters and Men.

    The quieter acts often burned the brightest. The Deep Dark Woods’ chamber Americana was soft and transcendent. And Oberst’s acoustic set, often backed by just someone playing the xylophone, was the Bright Eyes mastermind at his most affecting.

    At press time, Browne’s closing set on Sunday was as gentle as the light rain that covered the audience.

    As some of the day’s performers joined him, Browne reinforced a sentiment Dawes frontman Taylor Goldsmith had offered the previous day: “It feels more like a family reunion than a festival of music.”

    James Reed can be reached at