Not even the threat of thunderstorms, torrential downpours, and Friday afternoon bumper-to-bumper traffic on I-95 could get in the way of Newport Folk Festival ringing in its 55th year — or soul icon Mavis Staples her 75th. “Thank you to [festival founder] George Wein for letting me celebrate my birthday for three days!” she said, vibrant in cloud-chasing rays of sunshine, during her closing set on Sunday night. Though Staples shows no signs of slowing down, her and Wein’s advancing ages were a bittersweet reminder that this was the first Newport Folk Festival without genre pioneer Pete Seeger, who died in January.
But the tributes came fast and thick, led by Jack White and friends’ (including John C. Reilly and Third Man Records signee Pokey LaFarge) stirring rendition of “Good Night, Irene” on Saturday night. Seeger would have been proud to see the diverse lineup his legacy inspired, from Wisconsin-based bright young things Phox to Kurt Vile‘s pedal-pushed swirls of reverb. Here are the 10 sets that moved us to tears and/or line-dancing.
10. Hurray for the Riff Raff (Sunday, Quad Stage, 2:45PM)
Pete Seeger may be gone, but there’s no question he’s not forgotten, especially in the hands of Hurray for the Riff Raff’s Alynda Lee Segarra, who gave new, but faithful, light to the folk icon’s “If I Had a Hammer…” at her Sunday set. Segarra, influenced by predecessors from Joni Mitchell to Townes Van Zandt, flies today’s Newport Folk Festival well — she pays tribute with traditional songs like bluegrass jam “Blue Ridge Mountain” or the molasses-slow “Levon’s Dream” while infusing her lyrics with political and feminist bents.
9. Thao & the Get Down Stay Down (Sunday, Fort Stage, 12:40PM)
This was San Francisco-based folk-rock outfit Thao & the Get Down Stay Down’s first appearance at Newport Folk Festival. With Thao’s plucky banjo strums and her just-restrained yodel, she and her band embody everything the festival has historically stood for — and then some. Thao and the GDSD were one of the bands at the festival that paid tribute to Pete Seeger (“and other activist artists”) with song; in their case, “We the Common (For Valerie Bolden),” which she dedicated to the California Coalition for Women Prisoners. “I’ve dreamed of playing Newport since I was a child,” she said. So have we.
8. Lucius (Saturday, Harbor Stage, 3:40)
You might be hard-pressed to classify Brooklyn indie-pop quartet Lucius as traditional folk, but that’s part of the allure of Newport Folk Festival: after a revamp in 2008, the lineups have reflected the changing nature of what constitutes that oft-contested genre. Lucius is fronted by the striking female duo Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig and fueled by taut percussion — the quadruple drum assault of “Nothing Ordinary” raised hairs, especially coupled with the frontwomen’s headbanging in matching platinum blonde bobs. Lucius qualify for Newport simply because they’re extremely gifted songwriters. If nothing else, Mavis Staples’ approval (she joined them onstage for “Go Home” and invited them up for her set on Sunday) should suffice.
7. Hozier (Sunday, Harbor Stage, 2:35PM)
Folk Festival attendees were treated to a sneak preview of Irish wunderkind Hozier’s impassioned, richly-textured invocations at Saturday afternoon’s For Pete’s Sake, a new Festival songwriter workshop series in honor of Pete Seeger. The song Hozier (real name: Andrew Hozier-Byrne) played there, a stripped-down version of his Junior Kimbrough tribute “To Be Alone,” saw a large audience enraptured into silence. But “Take Me to Church” — a criticism of Russia’s policy on homosexuality that has accumulated 5 million YouTube views — was the real draw. People literally came running as soon as they heard the opening strains of that song.
6. Deer Tick (Saturday, Fort Stage, 3:15PM)
For the past four Newport Folk Festivals, former Rhode Islanders Deer Tick (the band is now scattered between Nashville and Brooklyn) have hosted after parties every night at the Newport Blues Cafe, bringing on special guests from Jackson Browne in 2012 to Kurt Vile this year. It was especially hard to choose between their set at the Fort Stage — featuring the band in sailor outfits, a guest appearance by frontman John J. Macauley’s wife, Vanessa Carlton, and classics like “Twenty Miles” and “Baltimore Blues #1” — and their boozy late-night blowouts, including the band’s deep cuts and a blistering cover of the Replacements’ short, sweet “Waitress in the Sky” on Saturday.
5. Caitlin Rose (Sunday, Harbor Stage, 12:10PM)
“Is it still raining?” Nashville’s Caitlin Rose asked a fairly wet audience at the beginning of a day that threatened thunderstorms and guaranteed a downpour. “No? We’re not going to drown! That’s my segue, because this song is about drowning.” It did eventually re-start raining during Rose’s set, but the country treasure brought the Southern heat (“I’m sweating like a pig”) and sunshine (she kept her sunglasses on) with her lilting voice and its slight edge around the breaking point of her high notes. She’s the sound of someone who’s suffered heartbreak but remains clear-eyed and optimistic.
4. Rodrigo y Gabriela (Sunday, Quad Stage, 5:35PM)
Flamenco duo Rodrigo y Gabriela captivated the crowd with their quick-fingered acoustic percussive techniques, involving just their two acoustic guitars and an intermittent but powerful kick drum to send it all home. Their backstory is a musician’s fairy tale: after reaching a glass ceiling in their home country, the two traveled to Europe and busked on the streets of Dublin before getting noticed and asked to tour with Damien Rice. And in 2006, their self-titled LP beat U.K. favorites Arctic Monkeys for the No. 1 spot on the Irish charts. But none of that matters when you’re watching Gabriela Quintero hopping about on stage, her long, dark hair bouncing in front of her face, transfixed by her rapid-fire fingers.
3. Ryan Adams (Friday, Fort Stage, 6:15PM)
No one banters like Ryan Adams. “What is the hot chance that f—-ing Michael McDonald is on one of those boats?” he asked at one point during his set at the close of the Folk Festival’s opening day, before launching into some freestyle yacht-rock. Though much of the singer-songwriter’s best work arguably has been associated with his worst, most alcohol-fueled moments, today’s alt-country hero looks great and sounds even better. He segued from old staples like Cardinology’s bittersweet “Fix It” to guaranteed tear-jerker “My Sweet Carolina” to a nearly unrecognizably gnarly cover of Danzig’s “Mother.” He also previewed a few songs off his forthcoming self-titled, self-produced album due Sept. 9 (like “My Wrecking Ball,” “a protest song against my grandmother’s death”).
2. Benjamin Booker (Saturday, Quad Stage, 1:35PM)
Tapped to open for Jack White on some of his Lazaretto tour, New Orleans-based singer and guitarist Benjamin Booker sings with the world-weary rasp of Ray LaMontagne and rips guitar solos like Gary Clark, Jr. Schooled as a journalist, Booker didn’t play his first live show until 2012, but you wouldn’t know it from his tight, raucous set that comes with enough well-placed gaps in the riffage onslaught to highlight his searching, soulful lyrics. His live performances, including a spot at Lollapalooza and on Letterman, are ramping up anticipation for his debut LP, Violent Shiver, due Aug. 19 via ATO Records.
1. Mavis Staples (Sunday, Fort Stage, 6:15PM)
Ms. Staples was definitely the most popular person at Newport this year. The 75-year-old maven appeared on stage with Lucius, Norah Jones’ relatively new country trio Puss ‘N Boots, and Tweedy (Jeff and his son, Spencer) before recruiting them for her set — not to mention Duluth, Minn.’s lickety-split string outfit Trampled by Turtles (which she called “Smashing Turtles” before correcting herself), legendary Muscle Shoals songwriter Spooner Oldham, and her sister Yvonne. After a day of rain, the sun came out just in time for a rousing cover of the Band’s classic, “The Weight,” nodding to the Folk Festival’s timeless appeal with Dawes frontman Taylor Goldsmith and Jones. When the latter made a move to leave the stage, Staples teased, “Oh, you’re going to sit down? I haven’t gotten to that age.” At “30 years old with 45 years of experience,” let Staples’ feisty spirit be an inspiration for everyone, musician or not.