Jason Isbell might want to take up sailing. He’s been a regular at the Newport Folk Festival, overlooking the city’s scenic harbor, since the old institution’s rejuvenation a decade or so ago.
The Alabama songwriter has made the most of his visits, bringing David Crosby onstage as a surprise guest in 2018 and watching proudly the following year as his wife, Amanda Shires, joined the Highwomen onstage with Dolly Parton. In 2015, the festival marked the 50th anniversary of Bob Dylan’s historic “electric” performance by presenting Isbell with Dylan’s Stratocaster backstage.
On Saturday, however, Isbell anchored the festival’s return after the “lost” year of 2020 with a no-frills acoustic closing set that fit the mood perfectly. Accompanied by his wife, who is a monster fiddler, and guitarist Sadler Vaden, Isbell played 90 minutes of songs that were by turns somber, dignified, and generous of spirit.
“Last year was a son of a . . .” he sang on “Hope the High Road.” It’s a song he released in 2017, but its currency was not lost on the cheering crowd. Operating at roughly half-capacity — the festival usually brings 10,000 fans each day to Fort Adams — this year’s “Folk On” event is spread across six days, not three, to encourage less congestion. Beck, Lake Street Dive, and Bonny Light Horseman are some of the artists who will appear during the carry-over dates this week.
After performing “It Gets Easier,” a song about getting sober (and working to stay that way), Isbell expressed his admiration for the community the folk festival team has created since Jay Sweet became the event’s producer in 2009.
“People take it seriously,” he said. One theme on Saturday was the complex role of heroes. On the Quad Stage inside the fort, Margo Price and her husband, Jeremy Ivey, played his very Dylanesque song “Somebody Else’s Problem.”
If there’s an audience for an 11-verse song about the world’s worries, she joked, “it’s right here.”
She closed their set with an unplanned, a cappella version of the Band’s “Tears of Rage,” sung in the style of Joan Baez, “one of my favorites.”
By contrast, Natalie Hemby and her band nailed a new song of hers about heroes who fail to meet your expectations. Hemby, an accomplished Nashville songwriter who has written hits for Miranda Lambert, Kacey Musgraves, and Lady Gaga, is one-fourth of the Highwomen, with Shires, Brandi Carlile, and Maren Morris.
With an album of her own coming out in October, Hemby focused on her new work. Several pulled off the neat trick of sounding like old favorites. She dedicated an older song, “This Town Still Talks About You,” to the late John Prine (“Every time I think of Newport, I think of him,” she said), and she pitched “Crowded Table,” the Grammy-winning Highwomen song she co-wrote with Carlile and Lori McKenna, as a post-COVID sigh of relief.
“I’m really happy to hug people again,” she said.
On the main stage, newcomer Joy Oladokun played “Taking the Heat,” her song about legends who die young. She closed with a mash-up of her own autobiographical “Sunday” and a striking acoustic version of “The Cross,” written by one of her biggest heroes, Prince.
In one of the festival’s more inspired bookings, 77-year-old Randy Newman provided plenty of comic relief during an hour-long solo set. Seated at a grand piano, he drew an enthusiastic response for his accidental, heavily satirical 1977 hit “Short People.” In the past, he has regretted its success. Now, he said, he’s paying for it: He used to think he was 5-foot-11, but his doctor recently told him he’s shrunk to 5-foot-8.
Thrown off a bit by an incessant foghorn (“Hey buddy,” he griped at one point, “this one is in F”), Newman had the audience cracking up on “I’m Dead (But I Don’t Know It),” a song he wrote more than 20 years ago about rock stars of a certain age.
But he closed without irony, playing his Oscar-winning soundtrack song “I Love to See You Smile”: “In a world that’s full of trouble/You make it all worthwhile/What would I do if I didn’t have you/I just love to see you smile.”
Email James Sullivan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.