The 10 Best Things We Saw at Newport Folk Festival 2018

Newport Folk Festival
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Jon Batiste, Rachael Price, Brandi Carlile, Maggie Rogers, Leon Bridges, Brittany Howard, Valerie June, Mavis Staples, The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Chris Thile and more close out Newport Folk Festival 2018 at Fort Adams State Park on July 29, 2018 in Newport, R.I.

The grand finale of the Newport Folk Festival is, more or less, one giant, sweaty, musical bear hug. A hefty portion of the lineup crowds around several mics, with various musicians hurling into an off-the-cuff collaboration that could only happen here and then in that moment. Lightning never strikes twice -- and it certainly doesn't strike twice when Leon Bridges and Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes are trading verses with Mavis Staples as the sun sets.

2018 was different, in that the communal spirit of that sing-along carried throughout Newport Folk from Friday afternoon through its sensational closing set. Impromptu sit-ins were commonplace, with John Prine joining Margo Price at the mic and Brandi Carlile spending as much time backing up her friends for their performances as she did rolling through her own material. Surprises were ample, to say the least, and delivered shocking appearances from Bridges and Staples, but also Mumford & Sons, David Crosby, Maggie Rogers and more. This is definitely the first year that involved Missy Elliott's "Get Ur Freak On" bouncing off the walls of Fort Adams thanks to Bermuda Triangle's walk-off music, and several attendees walked away from Tank and the Bangas' set stunned when a "Smells Like Teen Spirit" cover blew their expectations (and their minds).

Here's a brief rundown of some of the best performances at the 2018 Newport Folk Festival, from the Jon Batiste-helmed finale to Courtney Barnett's head-banger's ball and more.

 

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Throwing It Back to 1968 With “A Change is Gonna Come”

Jon Batiste has spent the last four months honing his vintage-mining set with the Dap-Kings, as the groovemakers are still melding their Brooklyn-bred soul with his proud New Orleanian jazz since their first major production together at the Indian Wells Music Festival back in April. But it sounds like they've been headlining Carnegie Hall together for years, they're that tight. Their shared soulful backbone provided substantial support for "A Change is Gonna Come," the set tailor-made for the Newport finale that honors the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement and those fighting for its legacy.

Batiste and the Dap-Kings laid the bedrock for several guests to come out and re-tune tried-and-true classics and protest anthems embracing the spirit of '68. There are no adequate adjectives available for Rachael Price of Lake Street Dive singing the Sam Cooke standard the set was named for: "angelic" is too cheesy, "earth-shattering" too easy and "so moving it'll make even the swarthiest roadie who totally yelled at you for walking through that open part of the chain link fence cry" only sort of begins to cut it. The Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Valerie June breathed new life (via sousaphone, in Ben Jaffe's case) into Joan Baez's "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around." The Bermuda Triangle gals were living their best lives and singing with the gusto to prove it when they traded bars with Mavis Staples for "Jesus on the Mainline." By the time the set drew to a close, most of the Newport Folk lineup had convened on the stage, and they were just as eager to get in on the melody as Batiste was to lead it.

Lucius’s Touching Richard Swift Tribute

Since their Newport Folk debut in 2014, Lucius have been Fort Adams regulars, and the festival played a pivotal part in connecting them with one of their constant tour companions. When Roger Waters needed vocal support for his festival headlining set in 2015, Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig were surprise additions (and major highlights) to his entourage, and they’ve popped up to sing alongside a handful of other artists in Newport even when they’re not on the lineup in the years since. After two years spent lapping the world as Rogers’ official backup singers, this year’s Newport Folk set saw a radiant return to form: They threw the festival’s first proper dance party of the year thanks to “Turn It Around” and other clap-along cuts from 2013’s WIldewoman and 2016’s Good Grief on Friday (July 27), and the addition of the Seaweed Sisters, a trio of interpretive dancers, kept the movement going throughout the performance. Before they left the stage, they brought out a number of friends -- including Brandi Carlile, Sharon Van Etten, Nicole Atkins, Bedouine and more -- to sing “Most of What I Know,” a poignant tribute to dear friend, producer and multi-instrumentalist Richard Swift, who died earlier this month at the age of 41.

Courtney Barnett Kicks Up the Decibels 

"Avant Gardener" didn't echo all the way north to Providence, but the Australian indie all-star certainly played as though it could hit the further reaches of The Ocean State. Plenty of bands embraced the electric aspect of Newport's legacy -- this is where Dylan plugged in and turned up before a confused and outraged audience, mind you -- but Barnett's elicited the heaviest head-banging by far.

Surprise! It’s Mumford & Sons!

Newport Folk pulled off the best-kept secret of 2018’s festival season by keeping Mumford & Sons’ headlining set on Saturday (July 28) a complete and total surprise, right up until the festival’s producer and M.C., Jay Sweet, introduced them. For their Newport debut, the folk quartet deviated from their typical show to demonstrate they’d done their research and were ready to pay their dues: “The Cave,” “Little Lion Man” and “I Will Wait” had the audience dancing so intensely that clouds of dust hung over the jumping crowd before them, but it was the covers and presence of extremely special guests that had Marcus Mumford shrugging off every ounce of his cool to bounce around the stage and kick up some dust of his own.

With a sing-along of “The Weight” packing some Last Waltz-worthy star-power, Mumford brought out “the Queen” Mavis Staples to remind everyone why The Band’s 1968 classic has such a special page in the American songbook. She wasn’t alone: in addition to Staples, Brandi Carlile hopped on the mic to join Mumford for “Kansas City,” his interpretation of Bob Dylan’s lyrics for 2014’s The New Basement Tapes, and bassist Ted Dwane couldn’t wipe the grin off his face if he tried when Maggie Rogers forced a thousand jaws to drop with an impromptu performance of her debut single, “Alaska.”

Brandi Carlile, Stage-Hopping Champion

Carlile’s set didn’t go down until Sunday afternoon (July 29), but she must’ve been the first to arrive and the last to leave the festival if her stage time was any indication. On Friday, she joined Lucius for “Dusty Trails” and the Richard Swift tribute; on Saturday, she and Maggie Rogers hopped on the mic with Mumford & Sons and was spotted taking in several performances with her baby daughter, Elijah, over the course of the afternoon. For her allotted time on the Fort Stage on Sunday, she invited the Lone Bellow to join her for a rafter-raising rendition of “Sugartooth” Stage, and if Fort Adams had a roof, she could have blown it off with sheer lungpower when she blasted through “Mainstream Kid” off her 2015 album The Firewatcher’s Daughter (or the entirety of her set, really). Newport Folk wouldn’t be complete without at least one Bob Dylan sing-along, and Carlile closed out her turn at this year’s festival by leading the crowd with a sing-along of “The Times They Are a-Changin’” during the festival’s grand finale -- a humbling, torch-passing responsibility she didn’t take lightly.

Brittany Howard introduces her “best friends” in new trio Bermuda Triangle

Bermuda Triangle danced out onto the Quad Stage with Missy Elliott’s “Lose Control” blasting behind them, and Brittany Howard and her “best friends,” Becca Mancari and Jesse Lafser, took that boost from the legendary M.C. and ran with it for one of their first performances before a live audience on Sunday. The Alabama Shakes frontwoman is no stranger to Newport Folk, having headlined the festival herself in 2016, but 2018 saw a fresh and jovial side to the rock star as she traded her guitar for an upright bass and her solo singing for three-part harmonies. By the time they reached “Rosey,” Bermuda Triangle’s first single, in the set, the side stage was crowded with a number of artists who came to catch the trio’s chemistry, including Courtney Barnett and Deer Tick’s John McCauley (with his little girl, Sydney, watching while perched on his shoulders).

St. Vincent, Unplugged

When Newport Folk announced that St. Vincent would be joining the 2018 lineup, her set quickly rose to this year’s unmissable list on the strength of sheer curiosity alone: What would the guitar virtuoso do, exactly, given how high-voltage and larger-than-life her typical festival appearances usually are, and how a significant aesthetic shift from what the festival typically delivers? Annie Clark opted to shake things up at Newport with little more than a microphone, her stomping feet and the accompaniment of friend and collaborator Thomas Bartlett on the piano. She favored tracks off her 2017 album, Masseduction, and the minimal accompaniment lent a flamenco flavor to her performance between the intensity and the employment of her high heels as percussion. To draw breath during “New York,” “Savior” and “Los Ageless” felt offensive, almost, in that any movement felt like an intrusion on the spell Clark was casting; to say that the crowd gathered beneath the tent of the Quad Stage was enraptured would be an understatement, as the only noise they emitted came in bursts of cheers and fervent applause in between songs.

Sturgill Simpson Makes the Case for Ear Plugs at a Music Festival

Assuming that a folk festival would stick to acoustic instruments is a rookie mistake, but Sturgill Simpson set the amp-shaking standard on Friday that the rest of the rockers on the lineup would try to match for the rest of the weekend. He stretched “Brace For Impact (Live a Little)” into an ear-blistering, 9-minute epic for his opener, and the rest of his set retained the turned-up-to-11 quality of those first few chords.

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit Team Up For a Generational Jam

Jason Isbell, Amanda Shires and the rest of the 400 Unit were in the midst of an already superlative set on Friday when David Crosby strapped on a guitar and joined them for two cuts from the classic rocker’s catalog. “Ohio,” which Neil Young penned following the Kent State shooting, received two main stage treatments over the course of the weekend. Isbell and Crosby conjured the original potency of the track, with Crosby’s bellows tapping into the rage and sorrow he displayed during the rushed recording of it. On Sunday, Batiste, Gary Clark Jr. and Leon Bridges gave it a mellow reimagining, a modern update to a sadly all-too-current cry for change.

Shakey Graves Wears His Texas Pride on His Sleeve (Or, Well, Chest)

Alejandro Rose-Garcia hails from Austin, and he and his band showed their support for Beto O'Rourke -- the democratic candidate challenging Ted Cruz's senate seat -- by sporting I <3 BETO tees for their Fort Stage performance. Like Barnett and Sturgill Simpson, Shakey Graves leaned on the harder end of the rock spectrum, and his set didn't squander an ounce of intensity between new picks from his new LP, Can't Wake Up, and older cuts like the twangy twisted "Perfect Parts" and "Roll the Bones," which started with Rose-Garcia keeping time on his guitar and trusty suitcase-turned-drum and involved him hurling his cowboy hat into the crowd in between jokes.

Festivals 2018

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