The Newport Folk Festival’s Saturday show added a new wrinkle this year: an “unannounced” closer. That non-disclosure stoked anticipation and speculation both beforehand and during the day. Would it be Neil Young (his backing band lately, Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, were playing earlier in the day)? Would it be Bruce Springsteen (no Broadway performance Saturday evening)? Paul Simon, perhaps (a perfect addition to his farewall tour)? Or maybe David Byrne?
As it turned out, it was none of those titans; instead, it was Mumford & Sons, playing the festival for the first time. In light of the expectations that had been generated, that was a let-down for some (including this reporter). But the band got into the spirit of Newport by bringing out several guests during the course of their set, including Phoebe Bridgers for a rendition of Radiohead’s “All I Need” and, in closing, someone who certainly also qualifies as a titan with her own deep ties to Newport in the person of Mavis Staples; they joined with her on what has become a staple of her appearances at the festival, a cover of the Band’s “The Weight.”
Those sorts of collaborations and pop-ins are the marrow in Newport’s bones. No doubt, there was more than enough to sate the musical appetite of any festivalgoer in the day’s straight-up performances. Hiss Golden Messenger laid down their singular country-rock-soul hybrid, with multi-instrumentalist Phil Cook working the crowd into a frenzy with his electric harp blast during the Van Morrison-channeling “Gulfport You’ve Been on My Mind.” Courtney Barnett’s archly affectless talk-sing style and the guitar shredding of her melodic rock slam focused on her new record, “Tell Me How You Really Feel,” during her main-stage set.
The ancient frail of Canadian Kaia Kater’s banjo, when married to the standup-bass of Andrew Ryan and to Kater’s own songs, had the effect of the past into the present (fittingly, she was the first out of the gate Saturday, performing as part of the festival’s annual showcase “For Pete’s Sake” — Pete being Seeger, of course). Another Canadian, Colter Wall, playing his sometimes-Waylon, sometimes-Townes country-folk, showed that indoors or out, his impossibly deep, resonating baritone is a thing of wonder.
But at Newport you always anticipate the moments you’ll get from artists getting together with each other. Saturday, there were plenty of those, too. There was Nicole Atkins with a set titled “Nicole Atkins Digs Other People’s Music,” the other people being the members of her band and assorted guests, including Scotsman Davey Horne’s Americana takes, some throwback rock ’n’ roll from Owen Bradley (who performs as Indianola), and marvelous country-soul courtesy of the Watson Twins, who previewed a pair of songs from their forthcoming record.
Later came “Beneath the Sacred Mountain,” a collaborative revue shepherded by the Fruit Bats’ Eric Johnson that included contributions from various members of Hiss Golden Messenger, Matthew E. White, the Watson Twins, Bedouine, and James Mercer of the Shins. The title is a lyric from the Byrds’ “Wasn’t Born to Follow,” with which the revue started; what followed was a loose exploration of what Gram Parsons dubbed “Cosmic American Music” that ranged from the Flying Burritos Brothers’ “Sin City” to the Dead’s “Deal.” Its curveball moment came when Mercer stepped to the mike, offered that he doesn’t often get to sing country music, and then proceeded to nail the Everlys’ “Cathy’s Clown” and Neil Young’s “Helpless.”
Those collaborations once again showed that you never know who will do what at Newport. And who knows?
Maybe next time it’ll be Neil or Bruce doing it.
Newport Folk Festival
At Fort Adams State Park, Newport, R.I., Saturday
Stuart Munro can be reached at email@example.com