NEWPORT, R.I. — It’s where Bob Dylan shocked audiences and amped up his electric Fender guitar for the first time in front of a major audience, debuting a new rock n’ roll sound. It’s where Johnny Cash introduced the young and relatively unknown Kris Kristofferson, a singer who would launch his career there on stage. And it’s where legends like Led Zeppelin, the Allman Brothers, Dolly Parton, and many others have made their mark.
Each summer, thousands of music fans flock to Newport, a Naval town known for its old American wealth, to attend both the Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals at Fort Adams. It was slated to celebrate its 61st year of music in the seaside city when the COVID-19 pandemic canceled their plans in 2020. It was a blow to fans, musicians, and the Newport community.
But this year as many national festivals, like Coachella, have scrapped their 2021 plans to set their sights on 2022, Jay Sweet, the executive producer and director of the festivals, said the “show must go on.”
On the latest episode of the Rhode Island Report podcast, Sweet said while putting on a smaller-scale version of the Folk Festival (known this year as “Newport Folk Presents: Folk On”) has involved capping audiences at a 50 percent capacity and removing some of the stages, he said the shows will still have that sense of “familiarity.” And many of the familiar artists that have performed on these stages before, like Randy Newman, are making a return.
“I think we really needed a touchstone of kind of looking around and saying, ‘Hey, we’re all here together,’” said Sweet.
Sweet said the pandemic has been a “crushing blow” to the foundation that oversees both festivals, much as it was for gig-reliant artists who couldn’t file for unemployment.
“The rug was really pulled out very quickly,” he said. And on a nearly hourly basis in the beginning of the pandemic, he said, he was hearing musicians say that they would have to move into their van, that they couldn’t make rent or afford food, and they had families they needed to support.
He and the team helped establish the Newport Festivals Musician Relief Fund to provide financial relief to musicians that lost income as a result of COVID-19.
Relief came in the form of one-time grants of $500 to $3,000. Within five days of establishing the program, Sweet said about $50,000 was dispersed to musicians who have either played on the stage or are from Rhode Island.
Having music play in Rhode Island again this summer was necessary, according to Sweet. both for the community, and for musicians who haven’t flexed their live performance skills in more than a year.
“You can sit at home and continually be dexterous at your craft... an instrument or singing. But the bigger muscle is playing live in front of people. Everyone’s extremely rusty,” said Sweet. “One thing that Newport has always provided for all the artists at our festivals is a safe space to kind of take a risk.”
Music is part of the healing process after a long-pandemic year. For him, it’s the “social glue” that unites people.
“It’s something you can be on opposite ends of any type of spectrum: the equality spectrum, the political spectrum, the economic spectrum,” said Sweet. “When two people are sitting there watching music being played someplace live, you don’t know anything about a person... [and] without any type of kind of communication, you can look over at somebody and [you’re] both be playing air guitar, singing that same lyric. And that’s enough to kind of bridge a lot of divide.”
This year’s Folk Festival is two three-day events of performances. They will run from Friday, July 23 through Sunday, July 25 and then Monday, July 25 through Tuesday, July 26. Check out the lineup.
The Newport Jazz Festival will run from Friday, July 31 through Sunday, Aug. 1 this year. Check out the lineup.
Hear more by downloading the latest episode of Rhode Island Report, available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon Music, iHeartRadio, Google Podcasts, and other podcasting platforms, or listen in the player below: