NEWPORT, R.I. — “People, behold: the greatest weapon of my generation,” Patti Smith shouted to the mighty throng assembled before her at the Newport Folk Festival on Saturday afternoon. She was referring to the electric guitar hanging around her neck, which she’d brutalized to the point of broken strings in the chaotic version of the Who’s “My Generation” that ended her set. An audience that extended to the Fort Adams State Park shoreline and beyond roared in approval.
A punk-era icon vital and plugged in at 69, Smith might seem at a glance an unlikely figure to headline something identified as a folk-music event. But her exhortation harked back across the years to the slogan Woody Guthrie plastered on his own guitar: “This machine kills fascists.”
In fact, Smith had proved ideally suited to Newport — present-day sold-out spectacle and turbulent history alike — as soon as she hit the stage. She opened with Bob Dylan’s “Boots of Spanish Leather,” and then followed with an incantatory recitation of Allen Ginsberg’s footnote to “Howl” — profanities intact.
Memory and eulogy permeated her set. Noting that Saturday marked the fifth anniversary of Amy Winehouse’s death, Smith offered “This Is the Girl,” which she’d written about that singer. She honored Prince with a retouched “When Doves Cry” and Pete Seeger with an earnest “If I Had a Hammer” — which, she told the crowd, she’d last sung in church choir as a child.
Still, there was no shortage of joy and passion. Smith danced with giddy abandon during a gangly take on the Rolling Stones’ “The Last Time,” and shared choruses with the audience in “Because the Night,” the Springsteen anthem she’s owned for decades. Introducing “People Have the Power,” she cited Ted Cruz — presumably for the first time, possibly the last — urging all in earshot: “Vote your conscience.”
Such moments were rare on Saturday, despite an election season as volatile as any in recent memory. The veteran mandolin player David Grisman played his joyous afternoon set with Del McCoury adorned in a “Dump Trump 2016” T-shirt. Otherwise, you didn’t see or hear much campaigning. Escapism seemed to be a common goal.
Which is not to suggest anyone saw everything there was to see on Saturday, for that almost certainly was impossible. If a festival can be almost too successful for its own good, then Newport has become a textbook illustration.
Likely I protest too much — there were people everywhere you looked, and they all appeared to be having a good time. Possibly they’d accepted that you just can’t witness every set taking place on the four stages circling the park, and thus planned accordingly: a timetable for scooting from one overflowing tent to the next, a list of targets and acceptable losses.
Attempting that tack, I caught highlights from a diverse range of shows, any two or three of which in whole would have constituted a terrific outing. Margo Price served up unalloyed honky-tonk burners and ballads, augmented by a live string section on her devastating “Hands of Time.” Indie-rock spitfire Lady Lamb (a.k.a. Aly Spaltro) offered edgy songs with baroque structures, a sizeable portion of her audience mouthing lyrics in time.
Graham Nash, between vivid accounts of “Marrakesh Express” and “Immigration Man,” quipped about how odd it felt to perform in a fort constructed to keep the British out. Norah Jones, who eased among acoustic and electric pianos and guitar, and who returns to play the Newport Jazz Festival next weekend, snuggled the Grateful Dead’s “It Must Have Been the Roses” into a cozy set that closed with “Come Away with Me” and “Don’t Know Why.” Father John Misty played to a crowd that exceeded the Quad Stage’s capacity by considerably more than the “a lot” you saw at every show, all day.
The quixotic venture to sample a bit of everything had its advantages. If you ducked into the intimate Museum Stage at just the right time, you saw a tiny master class in folk fundamentals: Joel Rafael, a veteran singer with an agreeably Dylanesque voice and harp, coaxed an audience of traditionalists to sing along on “500 Miles,” after which Sam Moss, a prodigious Bostonite whose festival appearance was awarded by Converse Rubber Tracks, plied his winsome voice and fingerpicking prowess in songs from his recently released LP, “Fable.”
Still, inevitably, you were going to miss something. I admired everything about what I caught of Ryan Adams’s freewheeling set with the Infamous Stringdusters and vocalist Nicki Bluhm — rootsy versions of “My Winding Wheel,” “Oh My Sweet Carolina,” and “New York, New York,” plus the spontaneously concocted “I’m Frightened and I’m Rabid” (surely a play on Frightened Rabbit, performing on a different stage around the same time). But I’d give a lot now to have heard the songs I later learned had opened and closed Adams’s set: “South of Heaven” by Slayer and Black Sabbath’s eponymous doom epic, respectively.
Oh, well. There’s always next year to try this again.
NEWPORT FOLK FESTIVAL
At Fort Adams State Park, Newport, R.I., July 23