Insider tips for your Newport Folk Festival experience

One volunteer suggests having someone in your group show up when gates open, to claim choice turf with blankets and chairs.
Joe Giblin/AP/file 2013
One volunteer suggests having someone in your group show up when gates open, to claim choice turf with blankets and chairs.

Nicole Dawes’s parents met at the Newport Folk Festival in the late 1960s, while camping with friends on the beach.

“You could say I owe my life to Newport,” Dawes says.

The venerable festival, which launched in 1959, has been affecting lives for generations. Dawes, for one, has repaid the favor. When her father died in 2009, Jay Sweet — the promoter who’d just assumed leadership of the festival — read about his Newport connection and invited Nicole and her mother to be his guests at Fort Adams State Park.


A couple of years later, Nicole and her husband, Peter, proposed creating a kids’ tent for the children who make Newport such a family affair. They’ve been doing it ever since, hosting crafts and activities and special appearances by mainstage performers.

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It’s a matter of closing a circle for Dawes, who runs the Boston-based Late July organic snacks company. Her late father, Steve Bernard, founded Cape Cod Potato Chips.

The kids’ tent at Newport is just one of many hidden and not-so-hidden attractions that make the Newport Folk Festival (and its older sibling, the Newport Jazz Festival, established in 1954) a concert experience unlike any in the United States. The spectacular views of the harborside setting are just the backdrop for expertly curated lineups where one-of-a-kind collaborations among artists are actively encouraged, and enthusiastically embraced.

Whether you’re a Newport novice or you’re old enough to remember when Joan Baez was a barefoot teenager, there’s always a new twist on tradition at Newport. We surveyed a sampling of regulars — staff, volunteers, musicians, and annual attendees — for some of their go-to insider tips.

This year’s Folk Festival, taking place Friday-Sunday, will be the seventh consecutive trip for Kyle Schaffer , an investment manager who lives in Needham. He first attended Newport in 2012 because he wanted to see two of his favorite bands, the Kentucky freakers My Morning Jacket and Rhode Island’s own Deer Tick. But he was knocked out by almost every performance he caught.


“Now I go regardless of who’s playing,” Schaffer says. As do a growing number of his fellow fans: In the past few years the festival has sold out even before the lineup was officially released. When the announcements begin to roll out, Schaffer fires up the streaming services.

“I now listen to music based on who’s playing Newport,” he says. This year, he’s excited to see Daniel Norgren, a Swedish songwriter he hadn’t heard of before.

Steven Keyes is a familiar face among the volunteers at Newport, having coordinated the photographer’s pit in front of the main stage at the jazz and folk festivals for nearly 20 years. He suggests that groups assign an advance man or woman who is willing to show up when the gates open, to claim some choice turf with blankets and chairs.

Keyes, a property manager in Boston, has come to love the Newport area so much, he’s considering buying a place there. In the meantime, he has decorated his home with artworks he’s picked up over the years at the festivals.

“I always tell folks, please take advantage of the vendors,” he says. “There’s great arts and crafts and food. That’s worth the price of the ticket right there. One year I bought an original piece of art for $800.” Now, he says with a laugh, it’s mostly knickknacks.


Nan Parati has some simple words of wisdom about navigating the grounds.

‘Just read all the signs. . . . I love the history, the feel, the air, the seagulls. I love the heck out of the whole thing.’

“Just read all the signs,” she says. Since the early 1990s, Parati has been creating the distinctive, hand-lettered signage that has become a well-known visual reminder that you’re at Newport.

Each summer, she creates placards for the performers, then works on call during the weekend. Using the bed of her Toyota Tundra as her desk, she letters signs for the Folk Festival’s surprise guests and last-minute changes. Originally from the South (where she got her start in the concert world by making signs for the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival), she fell in love with the Folk Festival the first time she crossed the bridge, she says: “I love the history, the feel, the air, the seagulls. I love the heck out of the whole thing.”

The overall vibe in Newport appeals to Zach Williams, too. He’s the frontman for the Lone Bellow, the roots band from Brooklyn that recently relocated to Nashville.

“The first word is family,” says Williams, who will celebrate his 15th wedding anniversary with his wife, Stacy, this year at the festival. “Jay Sweet is crazy passionate, and he loves collaboration. And the whole staff is so kind.”

Williams’s band has played Newport twice. Last year he showed up solo to take part in the Speak Out protest song showcase, and he joined several of the spirited late-night jam sessions around town.

Besides a bit of transportation advice — “Trust the water taxi!” — Williams says his biggest tip for first-timers is to ignore that nagging voice in your head, fretting about the gig you might have to miss. This year, his own band’s Sunday set on the Fort Stage overlaps with Nicole Atkins on the Harbor Stage, and Williams’s friend Jonny Fritz strikes his first note on the Museum Stage the moment the Lone Bellow wrap up.

At Newport, he says, “it’s easy to get a bad case of FOMO” — the fear of missing out. “Just enjoy wherever you’re at.”

James Sullivan can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.