NEWPORT, R.I. — Nothing may match the shock of Bob Dylan going electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. But the organizers of the festival made sure that fans would leave buzzing from this year’s edition — the 50th anniversary of that historic event — by jam-packing the sold-out weekend with an embarrassment of eclectic riches. Many performances were spiritually aligned with the festival’s roots while others built on those roots and put a contemporary spin on them. But, as Americana artist Jason Isbell put it on Saturday during his blistering main stage gig, “I like to think it’s all folk music if it’s done right.”
A lot was done right this weekend, as more than 60 acts spread across multiple stages over three days played a variety of sounds under mostly blue skies at the idyllic Fort Adams State Park overlooking Narragansett Bay. With overlapping set times, it was a serious, and seriously pleasurable juggling act roaming the grounds trying to catch as much as possible. It may have been impossible to take it all in but here are some impressions from the weekend that will tide us over until next year.
The organizers outdid themselves with major unannounced acts taking the main stage as a treat to the crowd, which sold out the festival in advance.
While there were unlikely rumors that Dylan himself would show, he did not. But he was the guest of honor during the rousing, one-night-only, all-star closing performance dubbed “ ’65 Revisited” celebrating his infamous moment. The splendid 75-minute hootenanny — which careened from tender acoustic ballads to rollicking rockers — featured a bevy of surprise artists and others who had played the festival, performing 13 of the songwriting icon’s classic tunes.
Gillian Welch and David Rawlings kicked things off with an exquisite acoustic take of “Mr.Tambourine Man” and were slowly joined by an increasingly large number of friends including Willie Watson, Dawes — who served as something of the house band — Hozier, Klara Soderberg from First Aid Kit, John McCauley and Ian O’Neill of Deer Tick, Blake Mills, and Robyn Hitchcock, who performed “Visions of Johanna,” calling it “possibly the greatest song ever written.” In varying combinations they offered up “Maggie’s Farm,” “Just Like a Woman,” and “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.”
Although Dylan himself was not there, two key links to him did put in an appearance as Dawes’s leader Taylor Goldsmith briefly played Dylan’s guitar from that infamous show and, in a great musical coup, the legendary sideman Al Kooper — who was there that night — was on organ, imbuing songs like “Like a Rolling Stone” with their classic color. The whole affair came to an ecstatic close with an all-hands version of “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35” complete with an assist from the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
Other surprises abounded as My Morning Jacket pulled a double whammy Friday, showing up to play their own unannounced set and then serving as the backing band for headliner Roger Waters.
Saturday’s treat came in the form of James Taylor, who played a late-afternoon set of beloved tracks like “Fire and Rain” and “You’ve Got a Friend” and charmed the crowd with the tale of his 1969 performance at the festival, which was interrupted by the moon landing.
Be Our Guest
Collaboration was the watchword of the weekend as scads of artists joined one another on stage for planned and impromptu harmonizing and jam sessions.
One such high was the Decemberists delightful headlining set Saturday, which included the signature, but site-appropriate, appearance of their giant prop whale on “The Mariner’s Revenge.” The band invited the ladies of Lucius, Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig, Welch and Rawlings, and Brandi Carlile and others out for a night-closing take on Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” in a tribute to Pete Seeger.
“We’re from Nashville, Tennessee, like a lot of people on this bill,” Nikki Lane proclaimed Saturday. Indeed, even if they weren’t strictly from Nashville, this year’s event brought the twang in a big way, from Lane’s brassy cowgirl sass — conjuring everyone from Loretta Lynn to Neko Case — to the blazing, peak form Isbell — blending southern rock, folk, and country — to Sturgill Simpson’s meta-modern sounds.
Swedish sister act First Aid Kit dropped a rocking cover of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” into their otherwise winsome set of pop-flecked country on Sunday and Carlile ripped through Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California” on Saturday.
In addition to many festival alums — including Hozier who went from the smallest stage to the biggest in one year — several buzzed-about newcomers made their debuts, including Aussie indie rocker Courtney Barnett, and endearing mother-son duo Madisen Ward & Mama Bear who had folks hooting and hollering on Saturday for their dusky, roots soul gems.
NEWPORT FOLK FESTIVAL
with the Decemberists, James Taylor, and more Saturday and Sunday