The Newport Folk Festival careened into Fort Adams State Park this weekend, selling out for the first time in its 52-year run. The festival, one of the oldest in the United States and recently enjoying non-profit status, joined veterans and neophytes with a series of guest appearances and surprise acts that delighted its 10,000 attendees.
Though not a scheduled performer this year, the reigning king of Newport, Pete Seeger, made the rounds throughout both days of the festival, joining performers like Ramblin’ Jack Elliot on stage, watching acts like the Decemberists from backstage, and appearing at the Kid Zone tent for a sing-along or two.
Headliners Mavis Staples, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and the Decemberists wrapped up day one, with Decemberists frontman Colin Meloy joining Staples on stage in a rendition of The Band’s “The Weight” just minutes before his own set on the main stage. The gospel singer and her sisters, as the Staples Sisters, performed at one of the first Newport Folk Festivals, in 1960.
Amidst jibes at the anchored sailboats watching the performance from Newport Harbor (“I hope your rosé is served chilled, because lord knows mine isn’t!”), Meloy gave a solemn shout-out to Decemberists accordionist Jenny Conlee, who has been forced to sit out the band’s tour dates since being diagnosed with breast cancer in May. The group finished the day off by dedicating “Why We Fight” to Seeger and festival founder George Wein.
Other highlights from day one included a hit-packed (albeit somewhat marred, by a song restart and a minor technical mishap) set from sister duo Tegan and Sara, a zealous performance by adventurous up-and-comers River City Extension, and an hour-long set from Gillian Welch, who performed songs from her newest album, “The Harrow and the Harvest,” alongside musical partner Dave Rawlings.
Day two included exceptional performances from Southern string band Carolina Chocolate Drops, madrigal folk trio Mountain Man, and rock ‘n’ roll queen Wanda Jackson; Jackson’s set included a cover of Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good,” which the singer recorded with Jack White’s Third Man Records before Winehouse’s untimely death last weekend.
Apart from the main stage performances, impromptu wandering acts throughout the festival grounds and out around the city of Newport fleshed out the weekend; the What Cheer? Brigade of circus-like horn players appeared sporadically around the fort, while after shows at venues like Gas Lamp Grille showcased local acts like Boston’s Kingsley Flood and NYC’s Pearl and the Beard. Newport Blues Café housed a three-night residency in which Providence’s Deer Tick invited friends like Felice Brothers, Dawes, and Trampled by Turtles to play perhaps the drunkest sets of the weekend.
Many festival-goers were torn, towards the end of the second day, among three concurrent, equally exuberant performances: the one from Sub Pop up-and-comers the Head and the Heart, which showcased several new songs to a round of particularly deafening applause; the rowdy, beer-infused one from indie supergroup Middle Brother, which featured guest appearances from alt-country singer Jonny Corndawg and musicians from Middle Bro member Taylor Goldsmith’s main project, Dawes; and the not-quite-acoustic (as previously billed) one from Elvis Costello, who had his Imposters in tow and also invited headliner Emmylou Harris to the stage at the end of his set.
Harris, M. Ward, and the Civil Wars capped off day two, with Harris bringing the Civil Wars to the mic for an encore. To wrap up the weekend, Seeger himself took to the stage with members from the day’s lineup joining him and festival-goers in sing-along renditions of “Turn Turn Turn” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”
As the sun set, buskers with acoustic guitars, banjos, and harmonicas regaled attendees heading for shuttle buses and the water taxis, keeping the folk tradition alive for at least one more year.