The million-dollar question at Newport Folk Festival Saturday was what to expect from the headlining performance, mysteriously labeled with four Venus symbols and the phrase “The Collaboration.” When the surprise was finally unveiled, it did not disappoint — but even before that, the festival’s second day offered much to enjoy.
Wisely, the bookers seem to define “folk” pretty broadly. The Nude Party and Illiterate Light were straight-up rock bands, with the latter bashing out a cover of Neil Young’s “Vampire Blues” so explosive it earned a standing ovation (no small feat before noon). Though Maggie Rogers has the stage presence and slick hooks of a pop star, she played expertly to the Newport crowd with a reimagining of John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery.” Meanwhile, Awaaz Do, who mixed rock and country with South Asian influences, and Jupiter & Okwess, whose hyperactive Congolese rhythms proved irresistibly danceable, provided pointed reminders that not every culture’s folk music foregrounds white people with acoustic guitars.
There were plenty of singer-songwriters, but no two troubadours sounded alike. Rayland Baxter drew inspiration from breezy soft-rock; Ruston Kelly waxed depressive over polished country; Jade Bird sang like she could overpower her woes through sheer passion; Gregory Alan Isakov built lugubrious, cello-streaked monuments to his own melancholy. Kevin Morby alone was like a human jukebox, recalling Leonard Cohen one minute and T. Rex the next.
A handful of artists stood out from the pack. Haley Heynderickx turned small moments like catching a mantis into delicate, affecting indie-folk gems. A Lucy Dacus song like “Night Shift” could bowl you over with its quietly devastating lyrics alone, but Dacus’s expressive vocals and her band’s sensitive yet forceful accompaniment turned it into an absolute emotional hurricane. Mixing selections from his new solo albums with old Uncle Tupelo and Wilco cuts, Jeff Tweedy peppered his movingly sincere acoustic set with dry quips like, “What a beautiful day. Here’s a song about my dead dad.”
If one style predominated Saturday, it was ’70s folk-rock, with two separate guest-studded sets dedicated to playing a whole album from that genre. An homage to Graham Nash’s 1971 record “Songs for Beginners” featured the likes of Jonathan Wilson and vocal trio Mountain Man (whose own, mostly a cappella set was positively spellbinding). Later in the day, Dawes celebrated the 10th anniversary of their debut, “North Hills,” as loving a tribute to the Laurel Canyon sound as this decade has seen.
The Collaboration turned out to be a Brandi Carlile-curated, all-female hootenanny. Name a woman on the lineup, and she probably showed up at some point. After some fun covers and a repeat of Friday’s Sheryl Crow and Carlile duet on “If It Makes You Happy,” Carlile started bringing out the ringers. First, Linda Perry, who led a colossal sing-along to 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up?” Next, Judy Collins, whose version of “Both Sides Now” sounded as lovely as ever. And finally, the one and only Dolly Parton. For five songs, Dolly was everything you’d want her to be, captivating audience and performers alike with her iconic voice and funny stories, whose feminist slant perfectly fit the occasion. She closed with her three greatest contributions to the American songbook: “I Will Always Love You,” “Jolene,” and “9 to 5,” which brought the entire Collaboration family onstage for a once-in-a-lifetime celebration.
NEWPORT FOLK FESTIVAL
At Fort Adams State Park, Newport, R.I., Saturday