NEWPORT, R.I. — The text message from a friend was incredulous: “Never thought I’d be dancing to ‘Loser’ at a folk fest.”
Right? But that particular moment was the perfect example of just how far the Newport Folk Festival has come in recent years, reshaping ideas about what folk music is, who plays it, and who listens to it these days.
“Loser” was an alt-rock anthem from the early 1990s by Beck Hansen, who closed out the festival on Sunday night with a memorable performance right in line with Newport’s mission.
Since taking the reins, Jay Sweet has had a quick and easy description for what Newport Folk is under his tutelage as its producer. He likes to say it’s intended for the musical omnivore, the kind of fan who appreciates something old, something new.
That vision was alive and well over the weekend, as the venerable event celebrated its 54th year. Its popularity now is such that it ballooned to a three-day festival, with a full lineup on Friday. (Typically there has been a kick-off concert that evening, but this year the music started in the early afternoon.)
That meant more fans than ever passed through Fort Adams State Park. Saturday and Sunday sold out months in advance, drawing 10,000 people each day, and Friday was nearly at capacity with 9,400. Building on last year’s momentum, it buzzed with a youthful energy, thanks in no small part to an expanded area for dancing and standing in front of the Fort Stage, which imparted more of a festival vibe.
There was a lot to hear, with more than 50 acts spread over four stages, plus a family tent that Elizabeth Mitchell mostly held down.
Out of New Orleans, Hurray for the Riff Raff played a little bit of everything, from swaying doo-wop to country with a bluesy swagger. Frontwoman Alynda Lee Segarra, an earthy singer who wasn’t much bigger than her acoustic guitar but packed a lot of feeling into her vocals, could look back just as easily as comment on current events. “Everybody Knows (for Trayvon Martin)” was her impassioned reaction to his murder.
No other duo raised a ruckus – and pulses – quite like Shovels & Rope, the South Carolina pairing of Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent, who are married. Hearst’s boots and blue gingham dress might have said, “I’m going to pack you a picnic,” but her ferocious vocals screamed, “I’m going to burn your house to the ground.”
On Sunday, Lord Huron made an electrifying Newport debut, reeling off songs rooted in folk and country but shot through with percussive flourishes from world music. Singer Ben Schneider’s energy was so contagious that it caught fire with the audience mid-song and led to a rousing performance that lingered in your mind long after it had finished.
Father John Misty’s set was a rollicking collision of cosmic country and ’70s rock. Frontman Josh Tillman was clearly having a ball, even poking some fun at the refined setting: “Now is a good time to reach into your cooler for another carafe of white wine.” He demanded your attention, dropping to his knees and smoking cigarettes onstage. It was as if Gram Parsons, Jim Morrison, and Elvis Presley had taken over his body all at once.
Amid all those dude harmonies, certain acts stood out more than others. From New Orleans, Trombone Shorty fronted a funky band with one goal: to make you dance. British singer Michael Kiwanuka’s soft acoustic soul borrowed heavily from Bill Withers. The Tuareg guitarist Bombino’s propulsive take on desert blues was like a drop of Technicolor on a black-and-white canvas – full of driving, circular rhythms from his native Niger.
The weekend gave larger-than-life band leaders an excuse to explore their softer sides with solo sets. Colin Meloy played a show so casual that he sometimes forgot the lyrics to his songs and didn’t seem especially invested even when he did remember them. He did surprise the crowd by bringing onstage his bandmates in the Decemberists, who are also in a group called Black Prairie, which played on Sunday. Together they performed a pair of Decemberists tunes, “Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then)” and “Down by the Water.”
John McCauley from Deer Tick played a stripped-down set on Friday that revealed shades of a heartfelt Dust Bowl balladeer. (That night he was decidedly more raucous with Deer Tick during the first of the band’s three nights of after-parties.)
Amanda Palmer was particularly ruminative, mostly playing her ukulele. As her husband, author Neil Gaiman, recorded it on his phone, Palmer and her father, Jack, performed a hushed duet of Leonard Cohen’s “One of Us Cannot Be Wrong.” (Afterward, Jack told this reporter that he had grown up with music by Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. “So the notion of coming to Newport and singing at this festival with Amanda was just irresistible,” he said, beaming.)
Not to be outdone, McCauley invited his mother up during his set around the same time, and together they tackled an unlikely cover: Jimmy Buffett’s “Margaritaville.”
Newport has made a point of honoring vanguard artists who have fallen through the cracks. Michael Hurley, the cult folk artist, has been making records since the early 1960s and made his Newport debut with a spirited performance backed by Black Prairie.
Hurley was among just a few older artists on the lineup this year, including Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, who turns 82 this week. He was likely the only artist at Newport this weekend who could tell stories about his adventures with Woody Guthrie.
If old-timers were in short supply, their legacies at least cast a long shadow over the weekend. Dylan, as usual, was on a lot of minds. Rayland Baxter summoned the poetry of Dylan’s “To Ramona,” while Sarah Jarosz, the New England Conservatory-educated songwriter and mandolin player, put a rootsy spin on his “Simple Twist of Fate.”
In other homages, Old Crow Medicine Show, during Friday’s headlining set, saluted Lead Belly with a knee-slapping rendition of “C.C. Rider.” The Milk Carton Kids resurrected the lost art of intimate harmony singing handed down by the Louvin Brothers. Their voices entwined like vines, while their acoustic guitars went into overdrive.
Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Dawn McCarthy, in a quintet setting with everyone huddled close around a single microphone, paid tribute to the Everly Brothers, lovingly playing the duo’s songs that they recorded on a new album.
Other artists seemed to exist on their own astral planes. Jim James, going solo from My Morning Jacket, burrowed deep into a sprawling performance that could have been played in Newport – or on the moon. Phosphorescent struck a similar spell, imbuing its rollicking country-rock with a spectral glow from Matthew Houck’s cracked croon. Imagine Willie Nelson on quaaludes instead of pot.
Capping a rainy Friday, Canadian singer-songwriter Feist sounded especially gorgeous under gloomy skies. Her electric guitar – steely and syncopated – complemented the luminosity of her voice.
In a longstanding tradition, there was also a spotlight on bands with local ties. Boston-based roots-rockers Kingsley Flood played a triumphant set on the Fort Stage Friday afternoon, alternating between heart-on-sleeve ballads and all-out rockers. Curated by the Low Anthem, a showcase called “Newport Homegrown” championed Rhode Island musicians.
As Sunday’s headliner, Beck had obviously considered Newport’s legacy and played a special set indebted to the surroundings. He embraced his inner folkie, revamping some of his songs with rootsy arrangements (including Smokey Hormel’s mandolin on “Loser”). After dedicating a Jimmie Rodgers song to Ramblin’ Jack, whom he called “a big influence,” the man himself sauntered out on stage and took Beck by surprise. “Oh! Hello, sir,” Beck said, as the two then swapped verses.
Afterward Beck remarked, “Well, that was an honor.” For all of us.