NEWPORT, R.I. — As Newport Folk Festival celebrates its 60th anniversary, it has maintained an identity rooted in storied musical traditions while booking enough contemporary acts to avoid sliding into empty nostalgia. Friday’s kickoff proved as much, both celebrating the past and looking to the future.
And as the title of a performance series showcasing rising singer-songwriters unambiguously declared, “The Future Is Female.” Certainly, the two women who opened the festival delivered the most inventive interpretations of American roots music. Black Belt Eagle Scout (a.k.a. Katherine Paul) led her band through dream-pop that evoked yearning, restless nights more than actual dreams, and Adia Victoria led hers through a gothic, theatrical enactment of the blues.
Revivalists were still legion among the modern artists. Some, like mighty soul singer Yola and Cedric Burnside’s no-nonsense blues duo, sounded as comfortable in their chosen genres as if they’d invented them. Others, like the “guitar-face”-pulling white-boy-bluesman Parker Millsap, nailed the notes but not the music. Charley Crockett took a less self-serious approach, donning a flamboyant cowboy outfit and serving up country-fried corn with a smile.
Many of the lineup’s veterans could justify their old-school leanings with deep classic-rock credentials. Former Allman Brothers Band guitarist Warren Haynes’s set peaked when he brought out Jason Isbell, Lukas Nelson, and Jonathan Wilson for a haunting cover of Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War.” Tom Petty’s loyal keyboardist Benmont Tench also covered Dylan (“A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”), but his best cover was a beautiful piano version of “American Girl” that felt like an elegy for his fallen comrade.
You know who else covered Dylan? Sheryl Crow, who enlisted the ubiquitous Isbell for a rollicking “Everything Is Broken.” Crow may have been the day’s most purely enjoyable act. Her hits have aged incredibly well, she blows a mean harmonica, and a string of surprise guests culminated in James Taylor recounting his 1969 Newport set’s interruption by the moon landing before he and Tench joined Crow on “Everyday Is a Winding Road.” As enjoyable (albeit in very different ways) were Kacey Musgraves, still riding high on her post-“Golden Hour” victory lap/charm offensive, and Todd Snider, whose motor-mouthed, bitingly direct talking-blues drew laughs and blood in equal measure.
Then there were the supergroups. I’m With Her wowed with stunningly gorgeous three-part harmonies and bluegrass chops, while the easy rapport and sharp lyricism of the Highwomen (featuring Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris, Natalie Hemby, and Amanda Shires, with Shires’s husband, Isbell, on guitar) stoked anticipation for their upcoming debut album. By evening’s end, headliners Phil Lesh & The Terrapin Family Band felt like a supergroup too.
Aided by Tench’s weightless organ runs, the Grateful Dead bassist led a good-natured simulation of the live Dead experience. With one lengthy mid-set exception, jams stayed relatively concise, and if transcendent heights like Haynes’s stinging guest solo on CSNY’s “Almost Cut My Hair” were few and far between, noodly lows were rarer. As Crow put down her harmonica to join in one last a cappella chorus of “Not Fade Away,” the audience clapping along in time, another long, strange trip reached its conclusion — at least until Saturday.
NEWPORT FOLK FESTIVAL
At Fort Adams State Park, Newport, R.I., Friday