By Bethany Geaber
August 4, 2018
Newport Folk Festival, it’s the first music festival and the only music festival that doesn’t announce its headliners. Make no mistake– there’s no circus, no sculptures, the closest thing to a fashion show is political t-shirts, you won’t be on your phone, or talking during the set– the audience at Newport is here for the music.
Born in 1959 the Newport Folk Festival (NFF) was created as a safe haven where musicians could play their music and speak their minds. And thanks to the curating of executive producer Jay Sweet its identity is very much in tact.
Here are some of our favorite moments from 2018:
JD McPherson – Starting the festival with the rockabilly sounds of JD McPherson is like beginning your morning with a shot of whiskey and espresso. Being one of the first artists in the lineup may have its disadvantages because on Sunday night, Friday morning feels like a distant memory. But JD’s band is tight and together in a way that refuses to shake you loose. His “North Side Gal” is the perfect opener. It allows you to travel through time, feeling nostalgic for a festival that is older than you.
Jason Isbell took to the Fort with his better half Amanda on violin and the 400 Band (earlier in the day he joined Amanda for her set). Armed with six albums from the last decade to draw from, his fans were not disappointed. The high point of the evening was his surprise guest David Crosby. Isbell called out to the crowd: “These are songs that we need right now!” And the two launched into “Wooden Ships” and “Ohio.”
Brandi Carlile was a guest on everyone’s set. Who doesn’t want to play with Carlile? She’s unapologetic and inherently kind. These qualities are often at odds but not with Carlile. She never takes herself too seriously and, when it’s a called for, just serious enough. In her own set, she embodied the spirit of female evolution, recalling Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You” and assaulting us with Joan Baez’s “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You.” A necessary way to honor the woman that came before her whilst still making her mark in Newport history.
Margo Price isn’t going anywhere. She’s worked her way up from the smaller stages and she’s not going back. Brandi Carlile and John Prine joined her for Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” but the highlight of her set was “All American Made” where she added, “ I wonder if the president sleeps at night…and I wonder if the people at the border are sleeping alright.”
Tyler Childers proved that the best part of Newport is not the act you’re planning to see but the ones you happen to stumble upon. Familiar yet different, his point of view will make you wonder why you’ve haven’t been a country fan all along. A little dangerous, wildly humble, Tyler Childers might just be the Ray LaMontagne of country music. His music will walk you to the edge of the cliff and his lyrics on songs like “Feathered Indians” and “Tattoos” will make you appreciate the view.
Tank and the Bangas – You know the festival is rocking if people in the Quad Stage are on their feet. It’s a smaller setting but the Tank and the Bangas deserve nothing less. Hailing all the way from New Orleans this nine-piece band is an experimental mix of poetry, funk and rock theatre. They have a gift for setting the standard; we’re gonna play and you are going to join us! They opened with a rousing “National Anthem” on guitar and found their way to an inspiring cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Singers Tank and Jelly know where to take you. They hit hard with tunes like “Quick” and make you question if you like “Rollercoasters.” It’s a sneaky trick but they want access to your heart and mind.
A Change is Gonna Come – One might argue that Jon Batiste and The Dap Kings isn’t folk. But if improvisation is the cornerstone of jazz then politics is the cornerstone of folk. Batiste led the charge with a powerful rendition of civil rights era protest songs. Proving that “This Land is Your Land” is more than just a song boy scouts sing around a campfire. Shortly thereafter, the movement began with Chris Thile (Punch Brothers) and Leon Bridges joining him for a chant-like arrangement of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s “Ohio.” A full stage of artists closed out the festival with Mavis Staples singing lead on “Freedom Highway” with Valerie June, Leon Bridges, Gary Clark Jr, and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
Learn more about Newport Folk Festival from this PBS NewsHour feature.