NEWPORT — Halfway across Newport Harbor, gently cresting the waves and dodging dinghies in a water taxi with about two dozen other sunblocked music lovers, it occurs to me: This is peak summer.
We’re putt-putting our way through surf and spray toward Fort Adams State Park, site of the Newport Folk Festival. At this waterfront fortress of folk, a somehow always-enchanting lineup of rootsy rockers, up-and-comers, and songwriting legends gathers to perform every July — more out of sheer respect for the institution than a big payday. “There’s a reverence that comes with being asked to play Newport, and no one knows that better than the performers,” says Selene Angier, a Newport native and former music writer for the Boston Metro. “It’s a special place and they know it.”
It doesn’t hurt that it takes place in one of New England’s toniest seaside towns in midsummer. I’ve been to some music festivals that were a little rough around the edges — where you count yourself pretty lucky if no one throws up on you all weekend. Newport Folk, though? It is swank. Like the Gilded Age mansions just down the road, it offers a glimmer of the good life. (And it’s coming up, this year, July 28-30. www.newport
I can’t stress this enough: We’re on a boat. There’s a pleasant, $10 water shuttle to the festival from downtown Newport (though we did have to wait about 20 minutes to board). While some festivalgoers sit in brutal summer traffic, trying to reach the parking lot from which they’ll take a crowded shuttle bus to the entrance, we gently cruise along the harbor like fancy-pants sailors, then dock right by the gates.
As on a ski lift or inside Fenway Park, there’s something of a camaraderie on the ferry, because everyone’s focused on the same thing: Who are you planning to see today? Did you catch so-and-so’s set yesterday? With more than a dozen artists playing on four stages each day, having at least a loose game plan is important. “You’ll want to scout out who’s playing on which stage,” says Angier. You can download or print a schedule ahead of time, or grab one at the information tables when you walk in. The festival’s official mobile app is also handy — and it will ping you with updates throughout the day, including surprise collaborations and drop-in performances.
The Fort Stage hosts the headliner acts — it’s the biggest expanse and a good place to set up your home base. “A blanket is a must if you want to stake out your space for the day,” Angier says, and low-backed chairs are allowed if you don’t mind lugging them (as are small, handheld coolers). The crowd sprawls out in all directions, but a cordoned-off dancing area means you can usually get up close for your favorite acts if you don’t mind being jostled a bit. We watch Ryan Adams from the posh pit, but retreat back to our blanket afterward.
The main stage is hardly the whole story, though. “Don’t miss out on all the up and coming acts,” Angier says. “This is what makes Newport special.” Some of the festival’s bigger acts got their start on the tented Harbor Stage, and music fans ignore the small, indoor Museum Stage at their own peril. “It’s a cozy experience with headliners making surprise visits,” Angier says. When we arrive at the festival, the museum building is already overflowing thanks to a surprise set by Shovels & Rope, so we linger outside a window and let the sound cascade over us.
Our favorite stage is usually the Quad, inside the walls of the old fort. There’s a shaded tent with seats — grab one early if someone you want to see is up next (or if it looks like rain) — but there’s also plenty of room to roam the surrounding lawn. This is where we discovered some of our now-favorite bands a few years ago, such as hook-heavy Houndmouth and the acoustic alchemy of the Milk Carton Kids, whose harmonies brought me to tears in public.
This year, we stop by the Quad Stage at the tail end of Margo Price’s set — and we’re just in time to see Kris Kristofferson join her onstage, completely by surprise. They sing “Me and Bobby McGee,” his miracle of a song made immortal by Janis Joplin, and we’re melting inside.
It’s so hot out (and there’s so little shade to be found) that we’re melting on the outside, too. So we splurge on Del’s Frozen Lemonade. Other food vendors encircle the Quad Stage and stretch out on both sides of the Fort Stage, and we’re not talking lame festival fare: You can nosh on raw oysters, crepes, Thai food, inspired tacos from Tallulah’s, and other mobile delicacies. However, Angier recommends saving time and money by packing your own sandwiches and snacks. “Bringing your own food also means not standing in long lines while you miss a favorite performer jumping in unexpectedly with another favorite performer,” she says.
The Quad Stage also has the less-crowded of the festival’s two beer gardens; the other is down a long pier on the water with a distant view of the Fort Stage. “For better or worse, you can only drink alcohol in the beer gardens,” Angier says. “Better because it means Joe Drinky doesn’t spill his tall boy Narragansett on you when he’s jumping up and down to the Avett Brothers. Worse because the beer garden is about as far away as you can get from the main stage.”
As with any big music festival, there’s a lot of ground to cover, and you’ll find yourself bouncing between stages depending on which artists you want to see. Allow yourself ample time to get from one area to another — a bottleneck can form at the entrance to the Quad, for example, and you may want to browse the artsy vendors selling crafts, clothes, and artwork along the way.
There’s precious little shade, so pack a hat or sunblock, and a water bottle you can fill up at one of several refill stations. Some folks cool off by wading into the water near the Fort Stage, which is where you’ll see the boat crowd. “They mean it when they say by land or by sea,” Angier says. “You can take a kayak, a rowboat, or your big fancy yacht over.” It’s free to listen from the water — “a different kind of front-row experience,” she says — but you’ll need a ticket to make landfall.
Speaking of alternative means of entry, biking is perhaps the best way to get to and from the festival — it’s a relatively flat, three-mile ride from downtown Newport. Best of all, you won’t get stuck in traffic or waiting for the ferry when the show’s over. “If you’re lukewarm on the closing act, you’d be smart to get yourself on the ferry ASAP or back to your car before the masses descend,” Angier says. “If you must see the closing act, it’s like leaving any major concert — it takes time.”
As for us, we’ve already heard a summer’s worth of great music in the past six hours, so we listen to the first couple of songs by headliner Patti Smith and make a beeline to the boat. We’re able to jump right on board without waiting, and the music tries to follow us home over the water.
My other favorite part of Newport Folk is staying in Newport itself. Instead of camping in a hot tent in or near a vast parking lot in the middle of nowhere, you can stay and eat downtown in one of America’s oldest seaside resorts — one that somehow combines historic polish and charm with bachelor-party-caliber nightlife.
That nightlife is at your doorstep if you stay near the waterfront or along Thames Street, as we did two summers ago. You’ll find all manner of lodging along the harbor, from high-end hotels like the Newport Marriott and Forty 1° North, to B&Bs for every budget. A couple of blocks inland, boutique hotels inhabit historic buildings like the Jailhouse Inn (a former city jail), the Vanderbilt Grace, The Attwater, Gilded, and Hotel Viking. South of downtown, nearer to the mansions, the Wellington Resort and Oceancliff are within walking distance of Fort Adams.
Hotels and B&Bs fill up months in advance, even at sky-high rates (expect to pay $300 to $400 a night or more). But Newport is lousy with vacation rentals, so check Airbnb and HomeAway for alternatives. Middletown, Portsmouth, and even Providence are also viable overnight options, while nearby Jamestown also offers ferry service to the festival. “If you don’t plan on eating or hanging out in town after the concert, Jamestown is the perfect option,” Angier says.
This year we’re a few blocks into downtown at the La Farge Perry House, an elegant bed and breakfast on Kay Street. The potentially awkward communal breakfast is actually a huge help, because everyone there is a festival regular with great tips to share. And the location proves to be perfect: Near enough to walk to all the action, but not so close it keeps us awake at night.
It also puts us closer to the less-touristy restaurants and bars along Broadway; we sample the eclectic menu at the spunky Salvation Cafe. Other worthwhile watering holes nearby include Pour Judgment and Malt, while Mission Burger serves up excellent burgers and beer.
Down toward Washington Square, Angier recommends the homey Perro Salado for “creative Mexican in an adorable converted Colonial.” And if it’s open in time for the festival, she adds, try the French country menu of Stoneacre Pantry, which is relocating next door. The same owners just opened La Vasca, a Basque-style wine and tapas bar, in the old location on Thames Street.
If you’re ready to embrace Newport at its most touristy, and we are, there’s nothing like a sunset drink or seafood dinner along the harbor at local institutions like the Landing, the Black Pearl, or the Clarke Cooke House. After dinner, we join the strolling summertime shoppers. We buy nautical-themed decor we don’t need, eat ice cream cones by the waterfront, and listen to bar musicians in flip-flops serenading the sea. Tomorrow, we’ll head back to Boston, still riding high on music and crisp ocean air.
And then it occurs to me: Summer’s all downhill from here.