The announced lineup for the 2019 Newport Folk Festival, held July 26-28, was impressive to begin with, but then they had to go and shock everyone with surprise appearances from Dolly Parton, Mavis Staples, Kermit the Frog (seriously) and other rock, pop, folk and Americana artists for its 60th anniversary over the weekend.
To honor the late Pete Seeger and mark what would’ve been his 100th year with a celebration of his music and the causes he championed, this year’s iteration of the festival was inspired by his encouragement of collaboration and his steadfast belief in its power. Nearly every set was crashed by another musician — though nothing topped Parton leaving all of Fort Adams utterly dumbstruck when she joined Brandi Carlile’s all-female super jam on Saturday (July 27). From “Jolene” to “Goodnight Irene,” the festival embraced each individual voice, but offered ample examples for how they’re stronger when they’re singing together. (And that goes for the Muppet, too.)
Here are 10 of the best moments from the 2019 Newport Folk Festival.
Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris, Amanda Shires and Natalie Hemby introduced the Highwomen
You know a musical project is a big deal when you spot handmade merch in the front rows before the band’s released any of its own. Most anticipated set of the weekend, most hug-filled set of the weekend, strongest harmonies of the weekend, best suits of the weekend — the Highwomen, the Carlile/Morris/Shires/Hemby supergroup, made their official live debut on Friday afternoon (July 26) and set a sky-high standard with a performance that was the sum of its extraordinary parts. Wearing custom Manuel Cuevas suits, the quartet walked onstage and received a standing ovation before they even sang a note.
Their self-titled album is out on Sept. 6, and the Newport crowd got a run-through of the material with the added bonus of hearing Yola add her voice to the fray and Sheryl Crow pick up a bass and join in. At several points, songs were met with embraces or dissolved into tears, notably “Cocktail And A Song,” Shires’ heartbreaking rumination on the mortality of her father. Raw vulnerability is a show of strength, and the Highwomen offered up ample proof of that, in addition to a lung-busting cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” and country crowdpleasers “Heaven Is A Honky Tonk” and “If She Ever Leaves Me,” a love song penned by Jason Isbell (who supported on guitar, along with Carlile’s collaborators, Tim and Phil Hanseroth) for Carlile to sing. Let the rapturous reception at Newport Folk be a sign of bigger things to come, and a fruitful collaboration with plenty of touring from this superlative collective.
Dolly Parton, Judy Collins, Linda Perry and more stunned with female-headlining collaborative surprise
If someone could check on Jade Bird to make sure the muscles of her face are doing okay after smiling that hard, that’d be great — and the same goes for every performer who wound up on the same stage as Parton on Saturday night. The singer/songwriter was one of the several women who joined the country queen in celebrating the legacy of female voices at the festival in a set curated by Brandi Carlile. To single out one highlight is impossible, but Parton — whose appearance was the biggest surprise the festival’s pulled off to date — joined the mistress of ceremonies for “I Will Always Love You,” which was arranged as a duet that all present surely won’t forget anytime soon. (Also: Mercy Isbell, Amanda Shires and Jason Isbell’s little girl, deserves an honorable mention for being the most adorable addition to the final sing-along, which had her joining her mom and the rest of the women to sing the “9 to 5” finale.)
Our Native Daughters wrapped their tour with an astounding finale
Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla and Allison Russell, a.k.a. Our Native Daughters, received multiple standing ovations for the most moving performance of the weekend. To acknowledge the foundational contributions African music and instrumentation laid for American folk and popular music at large is a necessary act at a festival like Newport Folk, but Our Native Daughters went beyond that to celebrate that lineage while singing timeless songs in a jarringly current context. Giddens broke down while performing “Mama’s Cryin’ Long,” as did a significant portion of the audience, which is more than understandable considering the brutality inflicted by white supremacy in the song’s sparse lyrics. The banjo was passed from player to player, and each of the women also took the mic to tell stories that mined dark depths in some and skated euphoria in others, all with grace, skill and gravitas. Giddens wore a denim jacket with a “Black Girl Banjo Magic” patch on the back — a fitting description for what transpired in the heart of Fort Adams on Sunday.
If I Had A Song grand finale paid fitting homage to Pete Seeger
Kermit the Frog doesn’t play festivals because he’s, um, a Muppet, but whatever: Newport Folk builds on surprises and saved a few of the biggest ones for the final super jam, and that included the lean, green, tiny-banjo-pickin’ machine. After lyric booklets were passed out to the crowd, Kermit led a fort-wide sing-along of “Rainbow Connection” with Jim James. A veritable crew of the festival’s lineup was represented in the last set, as were several surprises guests, including a Pacific Northwest indie delegation with Janet Weiss holding it down on the drum kit and Chris Funk of the Decemberists, Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold, the Fruit Bats’ Eric D. Johnson and the Shins’ James Mercer all hitting the stage at one point or another.
Songs of Seeger’s, like “If I Had A Hammer” (sung by Hurray For the Riff Raff’s Alynda Mariposa Segarra and Brandi Carlile) and “Turn! Turn! Turn!” (rendered captivating by Judy Collins and Pecknold), were bolstered by other folk classics, such as “This Land Is Your Land” (led by Colin Meloy of the Decemberists and the Milk Carton Kids), the Staples Singers’ “Everyday People” (sung in the presence of Mavis herself by Lake Street Dive and Hozier) and “Goodnight Irene,” the festival’s long-standing grand finale and a favorite of the centennial troubadour.
Warren Haynes called on Jason Isbell, Jonathan Wilson and Lukas Nelson to “Find the Cost of Freedom”
To close out his Fort Stage set on Friday, Haynes veered away from his own work by casting a spell with two classic covers and some excellent company. Isbell was on hand to roar through “Ohio” and “Wooden Ships” with David Crosby himself on the same stage the year prior, but Haynes’ assembly was hypnotic and timely. “Find the Cost of Freedom” struck a particularly chilling tone as the four joined their voices in haunting melody for the Crosby, Stills & Nash tune, which they astutely paired with a rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” that flourished into a dance of guitar solos. Sheryl Crow rolled through the hits and let a few famous superfans live their best lives. Brandi Carlile represented the general mood of the fort when Crow hit the first chorus of “If It Makes You Happy” on Friday afternoon: standing side stage, she stretched out her arms and sang along with the kind of joyful abandon typically reserved for long drives when your favorite song blares over the radio. She eventually skipped out to sing along with Crow, and she wasn’t the only one: Isbell strode out to join her for a raucous cover of Bob Dylan’s “Everything is Broken,” and Maren Morris lent her voice to their collaboration “Prove You Wrong.”
Maggie Rogers returned to the Fort Stage, this time as a main attraction
Rogers was absolutely in the right place at the right time last summer: she came to Newport Folk to hang out and listen to some of her favorite bands, and wound up making an appearance in Mumford & Sons’ surprise headlining set when they sang her breakthrough single “Alaska” that Saturday. This year, she returned for her own performance, and sprinted onto the Fort Stage in a scarlet flourish to “Give A Little.” Clad in a head-to-toe red ensemble with a flowing scarf throwing to the one she wore on the cover of her debut album Heard It In a Past Life, Rogers was the personification of joy as she rolled through the LP, grabbing a flower crown a member of the audience threw to her at one point and wearing it with pride.
Kacey Musgraves eased into an acoustic bluegrass jam in the perfect setting
“The earth is neat! We’re lookin’ at it right now!” Musgraves marvels at the beauty of natural wonders on her Grammy-decorated Golden Hour, and she brought that appreciation to the Fort Stage, which overlooks the sweeping splendor of Newport’s boat-dotted harbor and beyond. In between cuts from the album, Musgraves wryly dissed her own floral pantsuit (“Why the hell did I wear polyester?! That’s never a good idea!”) and encouraged the crowd, who hung on her every word, to be kind (“Reach out to your fellow humans… it’s the one thing that’ll save us in the end. You can’t kill love if you try!”). Musgraves and her band ditched their electric set-up for a traditional bluegrass arrangement for “Mother” and “Oh What A World,” and that combo — acoustic beauty and Musgraves’ voice ringing out as clear as the blue skies above her — made for an immediate highlight.
Liz Cooper & the Stampede wrecked the Quad Stage right on down to the floorboards
One of the biggest mischaracterizations of Newport Folk is that it’s solely a gathering for the banjo lovers. Cooper and the Stampede took that pretense and smashed it with a hard-rocking romp on Friday afternoon, and appeared to be having a blast while doing so: the Nashville rockers playfully bopped back and forth while cracking each other up through “The Night” and other surf and psych rock-inflected bangers. At one point, drummer Ryan Usher ditched his kit and came down wreak havoc on the floor of the stage itself alongside Cooper, which built into a dizzying jam that brought the whole Quad Stage crowd to their feet. The moral of the story: bring ear plugs to a folk fest, especially if Cooper’s showing up.
Dawes celebrated ten years of North Hills and their first foray at the Fort
In 2010, Dawes earned themselves a rare encore after they performed the bulk of their then-new album, North Hills, and added “When My Time Comes” to the list of Newport Folk’s most beloved sing-alongs. Frontman Taylor Goldsmith and drummer Griffin Goldsmith’s father, Lenny, hopped onstage with his boys, and the touching moment was a foundational one for the band, who’ve since returned to Fort Adams several times (to sing their own stuff and also back up Conor Oberst and Jackson Browne, among others). To mark the 10th anniversary of North Hills, Dawes returned to the scene of this pivotal career juncture, and Goldsmith shared the mic with Yola for “When You Call My Name,” tapped Jason Isbell and Jonathan Wilson for “If You Let Me Be Your Anchor” and other friends to breathe new life into the songs that entrenched them in this community.