This year, of all years, Newport Folk Festival needs to go on, says Jay Sweet.
“Newport [Folk Fest] being what it is — a safe space for people to speak their convictions, speak out against injustice, raise awareness for the ones that can’t be heard through a microphone that doesn’t kowtow to any real corporate overlord — this would be the year that it was needed more than ever,” said Sweet, the festival’s executive producer, in a recent phone interview.
The iconic fest, cofounded by Boston native George Wein, 94, and the late folk legend Pete Seeger in 1959, boasts a history rich in both protest songs, and game-changing moments, like Bob Dylan going electric in ’65.
Billed as “Newport Folk Revival Weekend,” July 31-Aug. 2 is packed with archived sets, streaming concerts, a Mavis Staples tribute, and music films. “I think New Englanders are super proud of [this fest] because it has somehow stood this test of time,” Sweet said. “We decided to make the best of it, and use our megaphone … in a virtual world.”
Proceeds from this year’s ticketed events go to the Newport Festival Foundation. “Any funds raised go to helping artists, who are arguably the hardest hit in this whole pandemic,” Sweet said.
Here are four ways to experience the festival in 2020.
1. DIG INTO THE ARCHIVES
Tune into archived sets Friday through Sunday via WMVY radio in this area (as well as New York Stations) or MVYradio.org. You can also ask Alexa or Siri to “play Newport Folk Radio,” or listen via newportfolk.org/archives. Highlights include a 2017 set from the late John Prine, a fest favorite who died of complications from COVID-19 earlier this year.
Sweet said they selected sets “that seemed to capture those lightning-in-a-bottle moments that seem to happen at Newport. Picking these songs was hard, but it was really hard not to go through more and more boxes of Kleenex. Super emotional stuff here.”
2. CATCH A FORT ADAMS CONCERT MOVIE
Rhode Island native folk/rockers (and frequent Newport Folk guests) Deer Tick recently recorded a set from an empty Fort Adams, the festival’s setting since 1985, according to a spokesperson. Remotely joining the Deer Tick and Friends In-Your-House Party were Leon Bridges, Sharon Van Etten, The Tallest Man On Earth, Robert Ellis, and Courtney Marie Andrews. Aug. 1, 8:30 p.m. $20-$25. Tickets via seated.com.
Or watch in-person with Deer Tick’s Ian O’Neil and Chris Ryan, live at the Misquamicut Drive-In in Westerly, R.I. O’Neil and Ryan will take part in a live Q&A at this “In-Your-Car-Party,” followed by a screening of the Fort Adams concert film, directed by Colleen Hennessy. Aug. 2, gates at 7 p.m., $75 per carload. Tickets via eventbrite.com.
“Playing to an empty Fort was a pretty even combination of weird and fun. Bittersweet, I guess,” said Deer Tick’s John McCauley via e-mail.
“Powerful” is the word Sweet used to describe Deer Tick’s set. “They’re in the fort, in front of nobody. You can hear seagulls and a foghorn now and again,” he said. “We wanted to juxtapose this incredibly amazing live band that feeds off audience energy with an empty fort … it’s beautifully shot.”
3. CELEBRATE A BIRTHDAY
Celebrate a legend’s birthday with “Mavis 80.” The tribute concert to Mavis Staples, recorded in LA in 2019, features Brandi Carlile, Jason Isbell, Ben Harper, Phoebe Bridgers, M. Ward, Lucius, and Trombone Shorty.
“Mavis played Newport Folk when she was a teenager with Pop Staples and The Staple Singers. She’s been with us forever,” Sweet said of the singer, who turned 81 this month. “She’s my spirit animal. I think Mavis Staples should be everybody’s spirit animal.” July 31, 8:30 p.m. $12-$15, $30 with poster. Watch via fans.com.
4. ‘A CALL TO ACTION'
Shot both at Fort Adams and remotely, “Our Voices Together,” directed by Josh Goleman, features original performances and personal messages from Roger Waters, Brandi Carlile, Jason Isbell, Tom Morello, Jim James, and more. It’s “truly the grassroots call-to-action from some of the biggest artists in the world, speaking directly into the camera about the state of our world,” Sweet said. Aug. 2, 8:30 p.m. Watch it free via YouTube or Facebook. More information at www.newportfolk.org/revival.
NEWPORT FOLK REVIVAL WEEKEND