I don’t really know why it took me this long to finally realize the dream of attending the Newport Folk Festival. I’m reminded of a favorite line from writer Gail Godwin: “Some things arrive in their own mysterious hour, on their own terms and not yours, to be seized or relinquished forever.” OK so that’s a bit dramatic but the point is… I FINALLY WENT.
There’s a piece of my heart still out there at Fort Adams Park and likely will be forever, such was the impact of this storied festival.
I scribbled a few notes here and there in my reporter’s notebook but I’m not looking at them now. Instead, I’m gonna just write from the heart because after thinking about the experience three plus weeks later, I already know there’s no way this can be a traditional “review.” Maybe it’s an essay or a love letter or a journal entry.
Let me start by saying that walking into this festival on that Friday morning, July 27, I felt like Dorothy Gale stepping into Technicolor, Charlie Bucket walking into the Wonka factory , Edmund Pevensie stepping through the wardrobe into Narnia and Alice descending into the rabbit hole. Remove all scary or challenging parts of those stories and that may give you some idea of what it felt like for this music fan to be at this festival.
Before I unpack anything about what I saw and heard over the next three days, I think it’s important to mention that I’ve wanted to attend this festival since 1992. This is the year this compilation album below was released and I still have it. Before that I had heard of the festival but didn’t have a full understanding of just how special it is. But when I heard Indigo Girls singing Paul Simon’s “American Tune” I lost my mind. I knew that someday I would make it to Newport. Little did I know it wouldn’t happen until 2018. But let me say, in no uncertain terms and hell yes in all caps: IT WAS WORTH THE WAIT!!!
So there I was on a Friday morning on what was my first time in Newport and probably only my second or third time in the state of Rhode Island.
Upon arriving to the entrance to Fort Adams I saw a sign that told me everything I needed to know. It wasn’t a sign from God or a sign from the universe. It was literally a sign. This sign:
I parked my car, gathered up my stuff and began the seaside stroll to the front gates where I picked up my media pass and photo pass. I had purchased my actual tickets last November the second they went on sale in what was one of the most nail-biting ticket buying experiences of my life. I reached out to festival people a few weeks before the opening day requesting the photo pass and they graciously provided me with one and I’ll always be thankful for that because even though I am a complete rookie when it comes to photography, it was awesome to be in the photo pit all weekend where every single photographer I spoke to was incredibly kind. Early on I had a problem with my camera (which, TBH, I barely know how to use) and asked one of them for help and I was feeling quite embarrassed about it. Turns out it’s always a good idea to make sure ones lens is actually on properly. This guy, I wish I could remember his name, was amazing and didn’t make me feel foolish. I mention this because that’s what it was like the entire weekend. Every person I spoke to, rubbed shoulders with, asked questions to, hung out with and watched performances with was kind, in a good mood and super happy to be there. Said another way: there were no assholes at the Newport Folk Festival.
If you’ve never been to the Newport Folk Festival you may not know that when tickets go on sale in November, the lineup isn’t announced. That comes months later on a rolling basis and every announcement feels like the moment in “A Christmas Story” when Ralphie’s Dad tells him to look behind the desk because Santa left one more present there.
Even when acts I wasn’t familiar with were announced it sent a shiver of excitement down my spine because I knew that I’d end up loving some of them. (I’m looking at you, The War And Treaty, Bedouine and Beneath The Sacred Mountain to name a few).
The first announcement came on January 31 and it was Courtney Barnett!! Then every couple of days or weeks other ones would appear and every single time I smiled and it was like kernels of popcorn exploding inside my heart. Rachael & Vilray? YEP! Darlingside? YEP! Passenger? YEP! Phoebe Bridgers? YEP! The Lone Bellow? YEP! Jason Isbell? YEP!
On March 21 things took a turn for the even more exciting when my favorite name of 2018 was announced: Brandi Carlile!
Five days later another bomb was dropped: Lucius!
Three days later: Amanda Shires!
Then the floodgates opened with announcements of Margo Price, Tuck and Patti, Jenny Lewis, Glen Hansard and OMFG St. Vincent among many others.
For a complete list of 2018 performers click here.
Anyway….back to that Friday morning, July 27. I joined the ever-growing line of festival goers and we excitedly awaited for the 10 a.m. opening of the gates. About 15 minutes before that magic moment, festival producer Jay Sweet appeared and made some enthusiastic, cheer-inducing announcements most of which I couldn’t hear but I’m quite certain included a welcome and a promise of good times ahead.
And then it happened. The gates opened and I watched as several hardcore fans made their way as quickly yet calmly as possible to the Fort Stage to secure a good spot for their blankets and chairs.
BTW, the festival has four stages: Quad, Harbor, Museum and the almighty Fort Stage.
I was immediately overwhelmed but not in a bad way, more of in a “Oh my God, I’m finally here! way.” But I also had a mission and that was to see the first act of the day on the Quad Stage, Tuck and Patti. Tuck is one of the most incredible jazz guitarists you’ll ever want to see and Patti is one of the most incredible vocalists on the planet. They’ve been playing together (and have been married) for many years and have a ton of albums out. I had only seem them once, in the mid 90s in Portland, Maine. It came as no surprise that they put on a sensational show and I can’t imagine starting off my first festival experience any other way. Also, about a week or so before the show, I Tweeted a request to them for the song “Takes my Breath Away” from the album “Tears of Joy.” Not only did they end their set with the song, they thanked me (not by name but that hardly matters) for the “sweet request.” I felt like Rudolph when Clarice called him cute.
Here’s the part of this Newport tale where I tell you that many brutal decisions had to be made all weekend long because with the four stages, acts overlap and some acts that I love I only saw a little bit of and some I missed entirely. (My apologies, Glen Hansard).
It was torture, for example, leaving Jenny Lewis’ set early but the reward was Courtney Barnett. If only all problems could be like this one.
I also only caught a few songs of the AMAZING Amanda Shires as I made a mad dash to the photo pit for Margo Price. (BTW, OMG, Amanda’s new album…get it!) I had seen Price earlier in the year here in Maine and knew she was not to be missed. It was during her set that I experienced my first legendary Newport moment. The festival is FAMOUS for guest appearances and this year was no exception. When Margo Price played the John Prine song “In Spite of Ourselves,” she was joined by JOHN PRINE!
Yeah, that happened. Three songs later, one of my favorite moments of the entire three days went down and I still can’t believe it happened. Not only did Price sing Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5”, she was joined by BRANDI CARLILE. I lost my mind and still haven’t quite found it. I have loved this song forever (I’m old af and saw the movie in the freakin’ theater) and seeing a duet by Price and Carlile was, if you’ll pardon the over-used but entirely justified word, EPIC!
Thanks to the fella named Chad for getting the whole song. Dude! Owe you one.
Still on a musical high from Margo Price, I readied myself for another band that I’m ALL ABOUT. This time it was Lucius who were joined by a trio of mesmerizing dancers called The Seaweed Sisters.
They opened their set with the arresting and vocally over the moon “Go Home” (from 2013’s debut album “Wildewoman”) and then went right into the Gerry Rafferty tune “Right Down the Line” (from the 2018 album “Nudes.) Their 12-song set was sheer bliss for every single second and when they played “Dusty Trails” (from 2016’s “Good Grief” another spectacular Newport moment happened. They brought out Brandi Carlile to sing it with them. I’m still feeling the afterglow of this. Holy shit.
Lucius also played tribute to musician and producer Richard Swift who passed away on July 3 at the age of 41 by playing his song “Most of What I Know.” Swift is sorely missed by many and his name was mentioned a number of times over the course of the weekend.
Friday wasn’t nearly done with slaying me though, not by a longshot. I managed to catch a few songs by Rachael & Vilray (LOVE THEM) and while cooling my heels for a bit in the media tent (they needed cooling, it was blazing hot out all weekend) I listened to Ben Harper & Charlie Musselwhite who tore it up on the nearby Quad Stage. I also mourned missing sets by Darlingside (LOVE THEM) and This Is The Kit (newish band to me and love them too).
At 5:40 however I was all business as I hit the Quad state for the entire St. Vincent set. For this performance she didn’t play guitar (she’s a goddamn brilliant guitarist) but rather was accompanied by pianist Thomas “Doveman” Bartlett for a 13 song set that included “Los Ageless, “Pills, “Slow Disco” and “New York.”
She changed the first line of “New York” and sang “Newport isn’t Newport without you love.” As you imagine, we all went crazy. Annie Clark also pulled out an unexpected cover that I melted over. She sang Joni Mitchell’s “Court and Spark” and it was a tender and beautiful and true “Newport” moment if ever there was one.
Friday night was closed out on the Fort Stage by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. I had just seen them a week before at Thompson’s Point in Portland with co-headliner Brandi Carlile where they put on a hell of a great show. Little did I know that another giant Newport surprise was coming at the end of their set Jason Isbell introduced surprise guest DAVID CROSBY and before I had time to even catch my breath they tore into “Wooden Ships” and then “Ohio” and again…I lost my mind.
I’m pretty sure all 10,000 of us did. Then Isbell ended with the tear-my-heart-wide open “If We Were Vampires” and I walked out of day one delirious.
When I went to bed on Friday night at my friend Judy’s house about 40 minutes away I was as exhausted as a person could be. I had gotten too much sun and not enough water. I had also experienced one of the best days of my life in terms of live music. My last thought before drifting off that night was “Oh my god, there are TWO MORE DAYS!”
Saturday brought with it another round of live music thrills and chills that only the Newport Folk Festival can provide. My first order of business after some wandering around from stage to stage for a bit was Lukas Nelson & Promise of Real. Newport moments kept happening and every one was joyous. Holly and Jess from Lucius joined Nelson for “Die Alone” which make perfect sense as they’re on five songs on the album he put out last year.
Then it was off to the Quad Stage where I caught the first few songs of a performance that will long be talked about by the earth-shattering Tank & The Bangas. I should have stayed for their entire set because their take on Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was one for the ages.
Other Saturday highlights for me were Phoebe Bridgers, Jenny Lewis and Courtney Barnett.
But there was one other act on Saturday night. It was the unannounced one to close out the day on the Fort Stage. Speculation had been running wild all day on Friday with guesses including Neil Young. But by my arrival on Saturday morning, the cat had been let out of the bag and word had gotten out that the Saturday night surprise was Mumford & Sons. When they first broke out in 2009 with “Sigh No More” I was an instant fan thanks to songs like “The Cave” and “Little Lion Man.” In 2012 I still felt the love with “Babel” with the track “Lover of the Light” and the bonus track cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” Heck Mumford even brought their Gentlemen of the Road tour to Portland, Maine in the summer of 2015 and 15,000 of us attended the Munjoy Hill show. But then I sort of lost track of the band and still haven’t really listened to 2015’s “Wilder Mind” album. So when I heard they were the surprise act I’ll be honest, I was underwhelmed. Guess what? I WAS DEAD WRONG AND I ADMIT IT.
Jay Sweet himself came out on stage to introduce them and from the moment the four of them took the stage to the moment the show ended in glorious fashion (I’ll get to that) I was 100 % all-in and screaming along with the “You really fucked it up this time” refrain of “Little Lion Man” just like everyone else there that night. Marcus and company sounded fantastic and I immediately fell back in love with them.
It didn’t hurt one bit that they set was jam-packed with guests including -you guessed it- Brandi Carlile who sang “The Boxer” with them. She was one of many surprises. Jerry Douglass was also out on that stage. Phoebe Bridgers sang Radiohead’s “All I Need” with Mumford ans Sons and it was to-die-for. But there were two other surprises during the Mumford set that I still can’t believe. Maggie Rogers, who was not one of the weekend’s scheduled performers, was introduced and sang her enchanting tune “Alaska” with the band. I LOVE this song and hearing it in this context was an unexpected joyful moment.
The Mumford and Sons set could have ended right then and there and I would have left that night elated. Little did I know that another Newport moment was about to happen and even as I write this I can’t believe I witnessed it.
Mavis Staples was introduced and she sang, with her glorious voice, The Band’s “The Weight” with Mumford and company. Phoebe, Maggie and Brandi were also there to sing it. When Mavis took lead on the second voice I could barely process it.
I walked out of the festival on Saturday night even more delirious then I had been on Friday night.
And then came Sunday.
I’m going to start by saying that I didn’t stay for the final performance of the night, the Change is Gonna Come set led by Jon Batiste with the Dap-Kings. The set featured the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Rachael Price (Rachael & Vilray, Lake Street Dive), Valerie June, surprise guests Brittany Howard (Alabama Shakes), Chris Thile, Leon Bridges, Mavis Staples, Brandi Carlile and several other Newport luminaries. The 2018 Newport Folk Festival ended with an all-star jam of the Staple Singers “Freedom Highway.”
I had given all I had to give by the time Brandi Carlile finished her set just before 6 p.m. and walked to my car all smiles. Sunday had been the hottest of the three days and I stood under that sun with my new pal Marian for hours upon hours with no regrets so that we could be right up front for Carlile’s set. I missed my gal and my dog and as I made the three hour drive home on Sunday night back to Maine, I knew I had experienced something I will never forget. So that’s why I had no regrets about my early departure.
BUT HERE’S WHAT I DID SEE ON SUNDAY!
Sunday was the day I spent just about all of my time parked at The Fort Stage. I did catch a few songs on other stages by The War and Treaty (SO GREAT!) and Jen Cloher (SO GREAT!) but Fort Stage was my Sunday destiny. This was my first time seeing Passenger (Michael Rosenberg) and his solo acoustic set was outstanding. I only knew the radio singles “Let Her Go,” “Scare Away the Dark” and the new one “Hell or High Water” but truly enjoyed the entire set. His voice is exceptional and I did indeed sing at the top of my voice during “Scare Away the Dark.” That song’s damn near perfect.
After Passenger it was the magnificent act The Lone Bellow. Holy bananas. I experienced just about every emotion one can experience during their set and experienced temporarily straightness, such was the handsomeness of Zach Williams. Looks aside, my oh my, those harmonies, those lyrics, all of it…
The Lone Bellow paid tribute to Scott Hutchinson from Frightened Rabbit with the new song “There Is Love All Around You” and it was beautiful.
After The Lone Bellow it was Gary Clark Jr. I had heard the name but was otherwise fairly unfamiliar with Clark other than knowing he was known to be a hell of a guitarist from Texas. Despite not knowing any of the songs, I thoroughly enjoyed -and rocked out to- the entire set by Clark and his band. Standing near a mega-fan who was more into the performance than just about anyone I had ever seen at a show added to the experience.
By the time Clark finished his set at 4:15, I was hotter than hot and had drained the last of my water, which had been heroically been procured by my friend Marian who braved the crowd to keep us fed and hydrated. No, I will not loan her out for future festivals so don’t ask. She’s the festival friend everyone needs and I also applaud what a huge Lucius fan she is and how she hilariously described herself as a “heat-seeking missile” when it came to being at the right stages at the right times for the many Holly and Jess surprise moments during other acts’ sets.
When Brandi Carlile and her band hit the stage at 4:45 p.m. on Sunday, July 29, I was a live-wire, a whirling-sun-baked dervish. I didn’t bother using my photo pass for entry to the pit, I stayed right where I was, right up front with Marian and a throng of fellow Brandi fans who shared water, snacks and love for Carlile and the performance we were all about to lose ourselves in.
At this point in 2018, I had already seen Carlile three times; twice in Boston and once in Portland and since the Newport show I’ve seen her at a private fan club show in Boulder and at another bucket list location: Red Rocks Ampitheater (review coming soon!)
I see Carlile as much as I do because she and her band put on one of the best live shows you’ll ever want to see. They’re THAT GOOD. Carlile’s latest album “By The Way, I Forgive You” is my favorite album of 2018 with songs like “Sugar Tooth” and “Party of One,” not to mention the single to end all singles, “The Joke.” Plus she and twins Phil and Tim Hanseroth chose covers like nobody’s business. The entire band is at the top of their games and every Carlile show is a goddamn spiritual experience. Festival sets are never as long as regular show ones but Carlile demolished the 11 songs with every fiber of her being, as did the band. They came out swinging with “Raise Hell” from 2012’s “Bear Creek” and then hit us with the song that for many of us, started it all. The title track from her 2007 second album “The Story.”
Next it was Carlile with twins Phil and Tim Hanseroth for the three-part harmony vocal supremacy with the song “The Eye.”
“The Mother” from “By The Way” tells of the birth of Carlile’s first daughter Evangeline and the emotional roller-coaster that ensued for Carlile. She and her wife Catherine welcome a second daughter, Elijah, a few months ago.
Then Carlile played “The Joke” and almost in a daze, I cheered my heart and soul out. The Lone Bellow joined Carlile for “Sugartooth,” a song about losing a friend to drug addiction and what came next was a one-two punch of covers that just about leveled me. Between the two songs I pretty much screamed out something along the lines of “you’re killing me!” and it made Carlile laugh for a few seconds. (I was right the eff up front ).
First she sang Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You.” I had never heard her sing this before and to say she nailed it would be the biggest understatement of my entire writing career. Even now, a few weeks later, I’m struggling to find the words to capture to gravity of the performance. At this point I was feeling this performance more than I had felt just about any other show I have been to (and trust me when I say, I’ve seen thousands). That’s when Carlile and company busted out with a tune that although I had seen a couple of times before, was all the more intense on the Newport stage. If Wikipedia is to be believed (and I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt on this one) the song “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” was written in the late 50s by a woman named Anne Bredon while she was a student at University of California, Berkeley. It ended up being recorded by none other than Joan Baez on her 1962 “Joan Baez in Concert, Part I” album. Seven years later, Led Zeppelin recorded it for their 1969 debut self-titled album. Fun fact: I saw Robert Plant in Boston earlier this year and he sang it. A few month laters, on that same stage, was when I first heard Carlile’s version. The Newport version was one of the most electrifying moments I’ve ever witnessed.
Then Carlile sat at the piano and played a song I have yet to make it through yet without crying. That song is “Party of One”and it’s the closing track on “By The Way, I Forgive You.” Every time I think I’m going to make it through I always fall apart when the strings come in, especially live.
Brandi Carlile ended the Newport set with the spirited anthem “Hold Out Your Hand” and was joined by The Lone Bellow, The War and The Treaty, The Watson Twins as well as little Evangeline and a couple of the twins’ adorable kids.
She gave it everything she had and so did the band and so did us fans.
Not only will I never forget all of the music I saw and heard at the 2018 Newport Folk Festival, I will never forget the 100% positive vibe. It may sound cliche but it’s entirely true. From the musicians joining each other on stage all weekend long to the enthusiastic open-hearted fans, I now understand why this festival is so well loved and respected. It also explains why tickets vanish moments after they go on sale.
If you’re going to attend this festival here are my four pieces of advice:
- Be ready when tickets go on sale in the fall. I mean REALLY ready.
- Bring a reusable water bottle and put serious thought into getting one of those little hand-held +fans/water misters. I saw two elderly women with them and I won’t hit this festival again without one of them.
- Don’t try to see everything. It’s not possible. See what you can and enjoy every moment.
- Expect the unexpected. Fort Adams becomes a field of dreams (by the ocean) during this festival.
Thank you Newport Folk Festival for being so welcoming, so memorable, so magical and such an authentic live music experience. I’ll be back. You can count on it.
Oh and hey, here’s this! (with gratitude as always to my tech hero Shamus Alley)
Aimsel on the Record is sponsored in part by LB Kitchen in Portland, Maine.
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