Newport Folk’s ‘Folk On’ reignites live music in dazzling fashion

Hi!

As I sit here and write, it’s been a few weeks since I got home from the 2021 Newport Folk On multi-day extravaganza. I’ve been dragging my feet with writing this because it’s been tricky figuring out exactly what I want to say. Also, I’ve mastered the fine art of procrastination so there’s that…

Here. Let me tell you something funny to kick things off. Margo Price was putting on a hella fine set (as she always does) on the Lawn stage on the first day in Newport. Toward the end of her stellar performance, I started to make my way over to the Quad stage to get ready to photograph Grace Potter.

But then a text from my friend Marian alerted me that Allison Russell (who released my favorite album of 2021 so far, called “Outside Child”) had just joined Price on stage to lend backing vocals to a song. In a smiling panic, I decided to hot step it back from whence I came. But I hot-stepped a bit too quickly and managed to fall. Badly. I mean holy hell, I fell like an anvil dropped from a roof and I don’t even know what I tripped on. Thankfully both cameras that were around my neck weren’t damaged. But my right knee sure was. I’m still grateful that a few fellow festival goers rushed to my aid, helped me back up and made sure I was OK. I took a few steps towards Margo-land then thought better of it and instead ducked into the nearby medical tent. They took one look at me and said “Get in here.” One ice pack, two ibuprofen, one ace bandage and about ten minutes later I limped my way back to that Quad stage just in time to photograph Grace. The festival doctor on duty at the time said I may need to consider going to get x-rayed. Had this happened at home I would have done a MUCH better job of self-care. But I soldiered on and although the knee is better, it’s still not quite fully healed. I give zero shits. This is all really funny to me because it could have been much worse and because I am my mother’s daughter: We fall. A few days later, while shooting a portrait of Allison, I pointed to my knee and jokingly blamed her for it and we shared a laugh.

Little did I know that the fall would be one of the least interesting things to happen over six glorious days in Newport. Little did I know.

And so, it is with a joy-filled heart that I share a few thoughts and photographs about some of what went down between Friday, July 23 and Wednesday, July 28.

Truth be told though, there was A TON of music, and it was impossible to see all of it. But I sure saw a whole bunch.

Wanna know the entire schedule and list of artists? It’s here.

This year wasn’t called The Newport Folk Festival. Instead it was called Folk On with half-capacity crowds of about 6,000 fans per day and it was split into a pair of 3-day sessions. First was the weekend of July 23, 24 and 25. Then there was the second session of Monday to Wednesday, July 26 to 28. I went to all of it. Because. Of course I did.

As a longtime music journalist , I’ve reviewed many shows for the newspaper I work for. Typically I take detailed notes the entire time including what songs were played , interesting things that happened, the vibe of the crowd, etc.

That format, while effective, is not how I’m gonna roll for this. Instead here are my highlights, served up with nerdy enthusiasm. I’m not gonna fret about tiny details. Instead, I’m gonna write from the heart because that’s the least I can do when it comes to offering up my documentation about what I saw, heard and experienced over those six unforgettable days in July.

Every artist that I mention below are worthy of your time and further exploration. Some are big names, others were entirely new to me. They all knocked my socks off one way or another.

Looking back now, it feels like I was granted access to Narnia. Through the back of the wardrobe I entered not into a snowy forest but a wonderland of live music that had a surreal feeling to it given the current status of the pandemic and the shaky ground we’re very much all still standing on.

Perhaps the pandemic is a cyclone and I landed in Oz? (minus crashing a house on anyone).

It’s like the world sort of stopped for those six days and allowed those of us who were there to fully inhale, hold those breaths for a few glorious moments and then exhale again with reinvigorated hearts.

Joni was right. You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone. I didn’t fully realize how badly I have missed live music and in particular the kind of live music experiences one has at Newport. This wasn’t just about live music, it was a community of kind-hearted musicians, staff, volunteers and fans. I felt an unspoken shared sense of tremendous appreciation that we were able to experience what we did.

Maybe that’s the entire point of what I’m trying to say.

Music, and in this case live music, is art. Humans need art. Art gives us access to something divine (however we choose to define that). Art makes us feel things differently. Art can access parts of our hearts and minds that are otherwise inaccessible. Art might not the antidote for what’s wrong in our individual lives or what’s wrong in the world. Or maybe it is? Hmmm.

Art might not be able to mend a broken heart or solve a problem. In fact it might make you feel it all the more. We are capable of feeling multitudes of emotions all at once. Art reminds us of this. Live music is my favorite form of art because when I’m experiencing it. I mean REALLY experiencing it, I’m able to let go of all the stories I tell myself about what life should be and feel like and I can just be present. You never know where a song might take you. You might be dancing one minute and weeping the next. Whatever emotion you’re feeling is exactly the right one even if it hurts. Sometimes it’s moments like “Wow, who is that horn player? They’re amazing!” or “OMG, I freakin’ love this song so much. I can’t wait to buy this album.” You never know where art is going to take you and that’s one of the things that I love so much about it.

Here are some of my favorite Newport moments. I hope to have many more of them in the years to come.

In the meantime, stay safe, please get vaccinated and please support your favorite artists in ways that work for you while also keeping your ears open for new ones to get excited about.

Let’s get to it!

Grace Potter at Newport Folk On. July 24, 2021. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

FRIDAY JULY 23

  • Resistance Revival Chorus opening the festival on the Quad stage!
  • Celisse, one of several new artists to me, BLOWING THE DAMN DOORS OF THE PLACE also on the Quad stage.
  • Lucy Freakin’ Dacus on the Quad stage.
  • Margo Price on the Lawn stage!
  • Grace Potter on the Quad stage(for two songs then things ended early because of weather but Grace got another set the next day!)
Lucy Dacus at Newport Folk On. July 24, 2021. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

SATURDAY JULY 24

  • Grace Potter starting the day off on the Quad stage. Solo performance. Piano, guitar, vocals. TREMENDOUS. I love her so much. She even hit us with a “White Rabbit” cover. Jesus H. Christ.
  • Yasmin Williams. Another new to me artist. I was MESMERIZED by her instrumental set. Williams is a guitarist phenom and I haven’t been this impressed since seeing Kaki King live.
  • Joy Oladokun on the Lawn stage. I caught part of her SUBLIME set.
  • Natalie Hemby on the Quad stage. Also caught part of the set from the Highwomen member and songwriting superstar.
  • Waxahatchee on the Quad stage. Katie Crutchfield had me transfixed for every moment. I’m a newer fan but OMG.
  • Randy Newman on the Lawn stage. I laid down on the grass far from the stage and caught a few songs. God love that man.
  • Jason Isbell on the lawn stage to close out the night. Isbell can do no wrong. Amirite?
YOLA at Newport Folk On. July 25, 2021. Photo by Aimsel Ponti
Allison Russell portrait at Fort Adams State Park during Newport Folk On. 7/27/21. Photo by Aimsel Ponti
Surprise guest Chaka Khan at Newport Folk On. July 25, 2021. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

SUNDAY JULY 25

  • Kevin Morby on the Lawn stage, joined by spouse Katie Crutchfield. Crackerjack set.
  • Devon Gilfillian on the Quad stage. I heard rather than saw part of this set. I regret not being there for the entire thing as he and his band tore through Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” album. Holy shit.
  • Billy Strings on the Quad stage. Only caught a few songs but I totally get what all the fuss is about!
  • YOLA on the Lawn stage. I LOVEEEEEEE YOLA! Her new album “I Stand For Myself” is ALL THAT! And for her set at Newport she brought out special guest Brandi Carlile! Plus Celisse was there, Natalie Hemby was there! And she started her set with Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”. WHAT A PERFORMANCE! I also saw her special pre-album release show on Monday night at the Newport Blues Cafe. EPIC.
  • Allison Russell’s Once & Future Sounds. This curated set which closed out Sunday night was created and led by Russell was WORTH THE ENTIRE TRIP TO NEWPORT. The focus was on Black women artists and the entire list ( I hope) included Russell, Amythyst Kiah, Joy Oladokum, Yola, Adia Victoria, Sunny War, Daisha “Rap Girl” McBride, Kyshona, Yasmin Williams, Celisse, Kam Franklin and essayist/poet Caroline Randall Williams. Margo Price, Natalie Hemby and Brandi Carile were also there. Apologies if I’m left anyone off this list. The entire set was powerful, important and overwhelmingly beautiful. I thought to myself “This could not possibly get any better.” And then it did. Somehow I managed to not hear about it advance because I hadn’t spend much time that day in the media tent so this was a COMPLETE SURPRISE. Seemingly out of nowhere at the end of the set Allison Russell suddenly introduced CHAKA KHAN!!! Before I had even caught my breath “Ain’t Nobody” started, followed by “I”m Every Woman.” It was PHENOMENAL. I still can’t believe it. In fact, I am going to share this image captured by my new friend, photographer Joshua Mellin. This was the EXACT MOMENT after Chaka was introduced. I was losing my mind and that’s my friend Hilary Cox to my right also losing her. Most photos of myself make me flinch but not this one. This one I love because it was one of the purest moments of joy I’ve ever known. It also felt like a pandemic-induced primal scream. And it sure felt good.
Yours truly in the Joni cap on July 25, 2021 at Newport Folk Festival’s “Folk On.” Fort Adams State Park, Newport, Rhode Island. Photo by Joshua Mellin
Aoife O’Donovan at the Newport Folk On Festival. July 26, 2021. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

MONDAY JULY 26

  • Erin Rae on the Lawn stage. New artist to me! Note to self: Dig in!
  • Aoife O’Donovan on the Quad stage: I’ve been a fan of Aoife’s for many years and she never disappoints.
  • Ben Gibbard on the Quad stage. This is the singer from Death Cab For Cutie. I only caught a few songs of his solo, acoustic set but my oh my…
Allison Russell at the Newport Folk On Festival. July 24, 2021. Photo by Aimsel Ponti
Sharon Van Etten at the Newport Folk On Festival. July 27, 2021. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

TUESDAY JULY 27

  • Emma Swift on the Lawn stage. She played all Bob Dylan covers and I loved ’em all.
  • Allison Russell on the Lawn stage. Again I say: ALBUM OF THE YEAR.
  • Bleachers on the Lawn stage. This was announced on Tuesday morning. Well done, Newport!
  • Sharon Van Etten on the Lawn stage. OMG I GOT TO FINALLY HEAR “SEVENTEEN LIVE” !!! Along with a new song or two. I love every single thing this woman does. 100%.
  • Beck on the Lawn stage. Also a last-minute-ish surprise-ish announcement.
Eric Burton from Black Pumas at the Newport Folk On Festival. July 28, 2021. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

Katie Pruitt at the Newport Folk On Festival. July 28, 2021. Photo by Aimsel Ponti
Julien Baker at the Newport Folk On Festival. July 28, 2021. Photo by Aimsel Ponti
Mike Calabrese and Rachael Price of Lake Street Dive. Newport Folk Festival’s “Folk On.” July, 28, 2021. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

WEDNESDAY JULY 28

  • Jake Blount on the Quad stage. New to me. Love this guy.
  • Katie Pruitt on the Quad stage. I’ve heard of Katie and finally listened to her album”Expectations” about a week before heading to Rhode Island. SEEING HER LIVE WAS A WHOLE OTHER THING. What a voice!
  • Black Pumas on the Lawn stage. I seem to recall we found out about this the day before so my friend Marian and I listened to their 2019 self-titled album in our Air B&B on Tuesday night. At that time I only knew one song. But as we listened the more I fell under their spell. The band is led by guitarist Adrian Quesafa and singer (and songwriter) Eric Burton. Holy shit.
  • Julien Baker on the Lawn stage. What a songwriter!
  • Lake Street Dive on the Quad stage. One of the best performances by them I’ve ever seen. Tons of new stuff, older stuff and covers of Steely Dan’s “Dirty Work” with Akie Bermiss on lead vocals AND Bowie’s “Starman”. OMFG.

Marian and I drove home Wednesday night and I was in a bit of a post-Newport daze for a few days after as my knee continued to recover. Two nights later she and I met up in Portland (Maine, we both live in the area) and BOOM! Right up front for Allison Russell, Marcus King Band and Nathaniel Rateliff, all of whom had crushed their sets at Newport earlier this week. It felt like a reunion.

As I set here now and close my eyes for a moment I can still feel that peaceful, present, calm and joyful feeling. I tend to run kind of anxious and worried. For those six days I wasn’t worried about much, other than remembering sunscreen and my water bottle and to charge my camera batteries. I got to absorb hours and hours and hours of riveting, soul-touching, smile-inducing, jaw-dropping and goddamn spectacular live music. It was unreal. Did that really happen? Did I really scream along with Sharon Van Etten to “Seventeen” and witness greatness in the form of Allison Russell? Did I really have a front row spot for Chaka Khan? Did Grace Potter absolutely SLAY? Did all those things really, truly happen?

Indeed they did. All these things and so many more and all of the other 6,000 fans there each day have their own wondrous list of moments and memories swirling around inside them.

I’ll end by sharing the dates for the 2022 Newport Folk Festival are July 22, 24.

Oh and HEY! Here’s one more photo! Special guest Brandi Carlile showed up right on time to jump on stage with YOLA.

Brandi Carlile on stage with YOLA during the Newport Folk On Festival. July 25, 2021. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

Your live music joy is out there. Find it!

Ponti out.

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