In July of 2018 I attended the Newport Folk Festival for the very first time. When I left that festival I remember thinking to myself that the experience would never be topped. It just wasn’t possible.
Now for a little journalism 101: I am not going to bury the lede!
Instead I will shoot it into the sky like a 100 foot blazing arrow and to further embarrass myself, I’m going to do it in all caps and goddamn bold too. Ready?
DOLLY PARTON AND KERMIT THE FROG WERE SURPRISE GUESTS AT THE 2019 NEWPORT FOLK FESTIVAL.
I still can’t believe it. Dolly Parton AND Kermit the Frog. Both were surprises and both slayed every single person at the festival. Parton slayed us five times and Kermit did it with one song and a little help from Jim James (My Morning Jacket).
I’ll have more on the country icon and the beloved Muppet shortly. But first, a little unpacking of the rest of the festival.
As I quickly learned at my festival debut last year, it’s not possible to see all of the performances. There are a total of four stages and unless I had Orphan Black-esque clones with me, there are always brutal decisions to make. For example, I missed Sheryl Crow’s entire Fort stage set. Ditto for Kacey Musgraves, save for one song. And I foolishly only hung around the Quad stage long enough to see a few songs from Our Native Daughters. I’m still kicking myself over that misstep.Those are but three examples. But I also quickly learned that it’s futile to worry about what you missed, especially when you hear about the surprise guests that jump on stage all weekend long. For example, James Taylor’s boat docked by the fort and he joined Crow on a song. I didn’t see it.
But I sure saw a lot. Some acts I caught the entire sets of, some just a song or two. But everything I saw and heard touched me one way or another. Sometimes I got teary, other times I was spellbound by the music or singing and dancing along with everybody else. Other times I thought my heart was going to beat its way right out of my chest. Like when surprise guest Linda Perry, surrounded and accompanied by an array of extraordinary, mostly female musicians, sang her early 90s anthem “What’s Up?”
I mean for the love of god WATCH THIS:
It’s been more than 25 years since that song was first released and we’re all still trying to get up that great big hill up hope for a destination.
Newport Folk Festival is like spending three days in a place that’s one part Fantasy Island, one part Candy Land and one part heaven, all with a to-die-for live soundtrack and with 10,000 people who are damn happy to be there with you.
If you’re curious and want to see the entire schedule so as to better understand the magnitude of the lineup and why decision making was so rough click HERE.
For the past several days I’ve been thinking that I have to someone qualify this next part or include several disclaimers. But doing that would actually take some of its power away. Therefore, I’m declaring this as plainly as I can:
THE WOMEN WERE THE STARS OF THE 2019 NEWPORT FOLK FESTIVAL!
That is what I’m going to focus on.
Were the fellas also outstanding? Obviously. In particular J.S. Ondara (do yourself a favor and check him out!) and Jeff Tweedy.
So not only were the women the superstars of this year’s festival, one in particular led the charge. It would not be a stretch for the unofficial name of the 2019 Newport Folk Festival to be the Newport Brandi Carlile Folk Festival. She likely appeared on more stages than anyone else all weekend long (Amy Ray Band, Hozier, Sheryl Crow, etc. etc. etc) but she was also the leader on what was referred to on the festival schedule only as this:
In fact, it is this collaboration that I’ll spend the most time on because if I live to be 119, I don’t think I’ll ever see anything quite like it again.
It closed out Saturday night and although we had a whole other day of festival left to go, it’s the part of the festival that for me at least, was the most incredible part.
But there were many other moments of the festival that MUST be mentioned and these I’ll mention in the order that I saw them.
It all began on Friday morning.
YOLA. If you don’t know her name you likely will soon enough. Then you’ll listen to her debut album “Walk Through Fire” on repeat. She was the first act I saw at this year’s festival. YOLA is a British country soul singer and if Brandi Carlile was queen of the festival, YOLA was princess, or co-queen, or co-supreme being. She too was on several stages and for good reason, I mean listen to her sing.
Friday afternoon on the Quad stage, I’m With Her performed. They’re the trio of Sarah Jarosz, Aoife O’Donovan and Sara Watkins. To know them is to love them and even though all three of them have well-established solo careers, what they do as I’m With Her is its own galaxy of musical perfection.
I also caught parts of sets by Adia Victoria, Liz Cooper & The Stampede and Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real. All outstanding.
This brings me to what was arguably the most highly-anticipated performance of the entire festival: The world debut performance by The Highwomen. They’re the new country supergroup (and I don’t give three shits if you disagree with the use of the term. It’s accurate) of Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris, Natalie Hemby and Amanda Shires. Not unlike I’m With Her, all four women of The Highwomen have significant solo careers. They’ve joined forces to turn country music on its ear. The album drops on Sept. 6 and the first single is “Redesigning Women,” which they played twice at Newport because why the hell not right?
When festival director Jay Sweet took the stage to introduce The Highwomen the level of excitement beneath -and well beyond- that Quad stage tent was as palpable. I could barely contain myself. You know who couldn’t either? Brandi Carlile. This is the exact moment when she took to the stage, with her fellow Highwomen right behind her. If this isn’t the world’s most genuine expression of joy, I don’t know what the eff is.
The Highwomen played their entire new album in order, starting with “Highwomen” and ending with “Wheels of Laredo” plus a bonus replay of “Redesigning Women” and if that wasn’t enough, the set also include their take on Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” from the soundtrack of the film “The Kitchen.” I never had any intention of breaking the chain when Fleetwood Mac sings it and I sure as hell won’t now having heard Highwomen’s take on it. Plus they had YOLA and Sheryl Crow join them on a few songs. I loved every single nano-second of their set. Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires and their friend Chris Tompkins wrote a gay country love song called “If She Ever Leaves Me.” It’s on the album and the Highwomen played it. Holy Shit.
In a press release I received a few weeks ago, here’s what Carlile said about The Highwomen:
“Anyone can be a Highwoman,” Carlile notes. “It’s about banding together, abandoning as much ego as humanly possible, holding one another up and amplifying other women every chance we get. Shoulder to shoulder. One push, one love.”
COUNT ME IN!!!
Now onto Saturday!
Jade Bird was fantastic as was Gregory Alan Isakov and as I said above, Jeff Tweedy. I’m sad I missed Lucy Dacus, Ruston Kelly, Mountain Man and a bunch of other acts but such is festival life.
I did however catch Maggie Rogers’ set on the Fort stage and her performance was dynamic and an absolute blast to see and hear. Despite not playing my two favorite songs, “Alaska” and especially “Dog Years,” her set was fabulous and packed with tunes from “Heard It in a Past Life” along with John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery.”
Soon it became time to gather for the semi-mysterious collaboration. I say semi-mysterious because it was already known that this was Brandi Carlile’s thing. And yes, the rumors about Dolly Parton were also flying around the media tent and the festival on a whole. But let me tell you, there is a HUGE difference between a rumor and actually witnessing something.
I skipped the photo pit for this performance and took up the spot secured to me by my friend and fellow Carlile fanatic Tracy Albernaz. Tracy was to my right and to her right was another friend, Marian Starkey. The three of us all went to Brandi’s Girls Just Wanna Weekend so it only made sense that we ended up together for this performance. To say we had a good spot would be an understatement. We were RIGHT UP against the railing, front and center. And the three of us, along with the other 10,000 fans around us, lost our minds. I may never quite find mine again and I’m entirely OK with that.
There were so many exceptional women on stage that night. SO MANY. And SO MUCH HAPPENED. Here are some highlights:
Pretty much the entire time, all four Highwomen were on stage along with Tim and Phil Hanseroth (Carlile’s bandmates,) Jason Isbell and Chris Powell (Carlile’s drummer).
Women of Bluegrass kicked things off. They’re Bonnie Payne, Molly Tuttle, Sierra Hull and damn it…who am I forgetting? If you know, by all means chime in via the comments. Thanks!
Amy Ray came out and busted out the Indigo Girls’ song “Go” (one of FAVORITE Ray-penned songs!!!) with Lucy Dacus and Carlile. It was a blistering storm of musical thunder. I freaked right out.
Linda Perry (surprise guest) as I already mentioned DESTROYED us all with “What’s Up?”
Sheryl Crow sang “Strong Enough” with Maggie Rogers and YOLA. Oh and she also did “If It Makes You Happy” with Carlile and Maren Morris.
Courtney Marie Andrews and a few friends sang “Big Yellow Taxi.”
Judy Collins sang “Both Sides Now” with Brandi Carlile. I know. I can’t deal either.
YOLA, Bonnie Payne, Molly Tuttle and a bunch of other fabulous females sang “Sisters are Doin’ It For Themselves.” They CRUSHED IT!
But nothing could have ever prepared any of us, including and perhaps especially Brandi Carlile for the arrival of Dolly Parton and Carlile’s the one who invited her in the first place. She wasn’t just in on the secret, she made it happen.
Here’s what Carlile before said beforel Parton walked out onto the stage:
“Ladies and gentlemen of the Newport Folk Festival. On its 60th anniversary, I bring you one of the greatest surprises ever. The incomparable unicorn legend that is Dolly Parton…” WE ALL WENT BANANAS.
Oh heck: WATCH THIS:
Parton sang an astounding FIVE SONGS!!
“Eagle When She Flies” came first. I have chills even thinking about it. The Highwomen were backing her up on it along with the all-star band. Even if Parton had JUST done that one song it would have been enough.
BUT FOUR MORE CAME.
AND NEXT WAS “JOLENE.” At this point I’m dead. I mean WTF? I heard Dolly Parton SING ‘JOLENE” live. I can’t even. I just can’t…
And it wasn’t over yet because next came a live music moment that will always live in the corner of my heart reserved for such moments. I didn’t believe it then and I still don’t believe it now. It will go down as one of the most sublime duets ever performed live.
Here’s Dolly Parton with Brandi Carlile singing Dolly’s “I Will Always Love You”:
I still have no idea how I held it together for this. Same goes for Brandi Carlile. You can tell at the end of the song that Carlile knows this is one of the most significant moments of her life. We all felt it. I still do. As I write this I’m watching the above clip with goosebumps all over. It’s that good. It’s the stuff that dreams are made of and I am sticking by that cliche because it fits.
And…say it with me: IT STILL WASN’T OVER.
Saturday night at Newport Folk Festival ended with a sing-along for the ages with “9 to 5.” Everyone joined in: Yola, Brandi, Linda, Jade, Maggie, Courtney Marie, Amy, Sheryl, Lucy, Natalie, Amanda, Rachael and Bridget (Lake Street Dive) to name some.
My friend Marion and I walked out of there in a dream-like state but also in a bit of a hurry. Despite having just experienced something that we could barely process, we hot-stepped with our festival-worn feet to her car parked a mile and a half away and experienced a Newport miracle: We found a parking spot directly across the street from the Jane Pickens Theatre. Our night wasn’t over because we had managed to snap up a pair of tickets to a festival after-show. These tickets were as hot as a ticket could get. Why?
Because they were for Mavis Staples! She and her crackerjack band put on a hell of a show and her 80th birthday which has been celebrated several times already this year was celebrated once again because of course it was.
Not only was Mavis herself spectacular, the stage was a revolving door of special guests. Lake Street Dive, Milk Carton Kids, Jeff Tweedy, YOLA, Jason Isbell, Hozier and Brandi Carlile all graced the stage that night during a 14 song set.
After all that you would have thought I would have slept like the dead. Hardly. I was awake until almost 2 a.m. because I could not come down from the high. And yeah, it was a music one. Of course it was! With the exception of a lone whiskey, water and watermelon seltzer was all this kid consumed all weekend long.
After two BLISSFUL and long days of festival joy, not to mention the Mavis show on Saturday night, I didn’t have much gas left in the proverbial tank. As I walked into the festival (after a grueling 45 minutes in the blazing sun waiting in line) I thought to myself that I would see what I could see but may need to mostly chillax either in the media tent or in a spot far from the action.
Instead I went pretty much all in and saw as much as I could. Yeah, I took breaks when I needed to but for the most part, I immersed myself in the music and once I reached a certain point, it didn’t matter how hot (quite) or tired (mf exhausted) I was. I was INTO IT.
I started Sunday off by catching part of Preservation Hall Jazz Band on the Fort stage. Then I raced over to the Quad stage for part of J.S. Ondara’s riveting set. Then I zipped back (my Fit Bit damn near exploded it got so much action) to the Fort stage for some of Lake Street Dive’s set because I adore them.
I made it back to the Quad stage in time for the beginning of one of the most talked about sets of the weekend. As I said above, I didn’t see all of it. But I saw enough.
Our Native Daughters is Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla and Allison Russell. Google the hell out of them and go down a YouTube rabbit hole. Follow them on every platform. Get a copy of their album. Become a superfan! Trust me on this. Their music is important. Their message is important. And they’re tremendous. Got it?
After catching the beginning of Hozier’s set (and damn it, I missed it when he brought out Brandi Carlile and sang “The Joke” with her), I ducked into the museum because on that stage is where Judy Collins was playing with Ari Hest. I was there long enough to hear Collins sing Mitchell’s “Chelsea Morning” and the sun poured in like butterscotch all over my heart.
Then it was time for the grand finale of the 2019 Newport Folk Festival over at the Fort stage. It was called If I Had A Song and songbooks were handed out.
While the rumor mill had been buzzing about Dolly Parton, what happened next was out of nowhere. Hats off to all those involved with guarding this secret. It needed to be guarded. I am SO GLAD I had no idea what was about to happen.
And so it came to be that what kicked off If I Had A Song was Kermit the Frog leading us in a sing-along of “The Rainbow Connection.” For the second verse, Kermit brought out Jim James of My Morning Jacket. I cried real tears. This was upper level special and I stood there ( crouched down to not block peoples’ views) and took it all in, doing my best to take photos while keeping my shit together.
BTW, Kermit the Frog duties have been handled masterfully for the past couple of years by puppeteer and singer Matt Vogel who was assisted by puppeteer Peter Linz at the Newport appearance.
Here’s another photo of Kermit.
The rest of the If I Had A Song was entirely glorious. The band was guitarist Chris Funk from Decemberists (he also served as bandleader) , Benmont Tench from the Heartbreakers on keys, John Stirrat from Wilco on bass, Taylor Goldsmith from Dawes on guitar and Sleater-Kinney alumnist Janet Weiss on drums.
So much went down. Including this:
Trey Anastastio sang “God Only Knows” with Rachael Price.
Rachael Price and Preservation Hall Jazz Band covered “We Shall Overcome.”
Our Native Daughters played “If You Miss Me at The Back of the Bus”
Alynda Segerra (from Hooray for the Riff Raff!!!!) sang “IF I Had a Hammer” with Brandi Carlile.
Hozier sang “Everyday People” with Lake Street Dive
Robin Pecknold (Fleet Foxes), Jason Isbell and Eric D. Johnson played “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” and halfway through it Judy Collins came on stage and finished it with them. I’m not making this up!
Collins stayed on stage and sang “Turn Turn Turn” with Robin Pecknold.
Colin Meloy (The Decemberists) joined Milk Carton Kids for “This Land is Your Land.”
And the evening ended, as it always does, with “Goodnight Irene” this time led by none other than Ramblin’ Jack Elliot who is still bringin’ it at 88 years old.
I drove home that night, back to Maine, with my eyes on the road and my head in the clouds.
I thought about everything I had seen and heard over the previous 72 hours.
I thought about Brandi Carlile and YOLA. I thought about Linda Perry, Amy Ray and I’m With Her. I thought about Our Native Daughters and Lake Street Dive. I thought about The Highwomen.
I thought about, as you can imagine, a lot of things.
But what I thought about the most was Kermit sang “Rainbow Connection” and that moment when Dolly Parton walked out onto that stage.
The world needs more moments like these. May we all continue to find them.
Thank you, Newport Folk Festival.