Joni Mitchell sang at Newport and the world will never be the same

There’s a box of tissues on my desk right now because it’s hard to not cry as I get ready to write this.

I’m one of the lucky ones.

I got to see Joni Mitchell perform an entire set of songs at Newport Folk Festival on Sunday, July 24, 2022.

Every single day for the rest of my life before Sunday will now be considered the “before times.”

And not only did I see her sing, I was front row, dead center proudly wearing my JONI cap.

Let me be clear, what I’m about to share is not bragging rights. This is coming from a place of pure, unfettered (to use a Joni word) joy. It’s coming from a place of shock, disbelief and profound gratitude.

And it’s coming from a chamber of my heart that I didn’t know existed. One that has been waiting for just the right moment to open itself. One that has forever shifted what I thought I knew about the live music experience.

I can’t not document the experience and if you’re reading this, I probably don’t have to tell you the significance of Joni Mitchell. I mean my god…

But first, I need to share something. On April 24 of this year my mother Louise was diagnosed with a very large and very cancerous brain tumor. We lost her on May 26 and her funeral was on June 6. I’m mentioning this because losing her, and the way we lost her, also opened up a new part of my heart.

Those two new parts converged on Sunday night. The sorrow and the happiness collided and that salt from the many tears I shed that night likely changed by DNA permanently.

So there’s that.

Now then.

Here’s what happened.

First off, this was my fourth time attending the Newport Folk Festival. My first was in 2018. Then came 2019 and the Dolly Parton miracle. The six-day Folk On festival of 2021 brought with it the surprise of Chaka Khan. By the way, I will be writing a separate thing about the rest of the festival! Coming soon! I mean HELLO, PAUL SIMON!

Now where was I?

Oh right. Sunday night.

Nothing could have ever prepared me for Joni Mitchell.

The schedule for the final performance of Sunday night initially said Brandi Carlile & Friends but it later changed into two different things: Brandi Carlile & Friends and then after a quick break The Coyote Set. “Coyote” is a track off of Mitchell’s “Hejira” album. Coincidence? Nah.

Every year one of the fun parts of Newport Folk Festival is to speculate based on unconfirmed hot tips and runaway imagination that the likes of maybe Neil Young or Taylor Swift will show up.

I mean shit man, the first time I went, John Prine walked on stage to sing with Margo Price and surprise act Mumford & Sons trotted out David Crosby for two songs.
In 2019 Kermit the Frog had 10,000 people, including Jim James from My Morning Jacket, singing along to “The Rainbow Connection” with him. That historic fort is like a field of dreams. Things happen there.

So yes, there was chatter all weekend long about the possibility of Joni Mitchell showing up with Carlile because if anyone could make it happen it’s Brandi and her friend, festival director Jay Sweet.

For one of the festival days I didn’t even dare say Joni’s name aloud as I was legit nervous about jinxing anything.

Plus I was entirely caught up with seeing Natalie Merchant surprise us with a pair of songs. I was caught up with being absolutely slayed by Madi Diaz and Rhiannon Giddens. And I was caught up with every nano second of The Roots.

The Roots ended their soul-quaking performance and shortly after, Brandi Carlile, Tim Hanseroth, Phil Hanseroth and the rest of her band hit us with a five song set that included “The Joke” and “You and Me on the Rock” with Holly and Jess from Lucius on backing vocals. Then Brandi told us all to sit tight for just a little bit. Believe you me, no one was going ANYWHERE.

That’s when many people on that stage sprung into action setting up couches, fancy chairs and so many microphones. The set was adorned with flowers, stacks of books and several flameless candles. It looked like a living room. Why? BECAUSE IT WAS.

For the past couple of years, Carlile had been sharing with fans that she was part of a very special circle of friends who would gather in Mitchell’s California home for Joni jams. Folks like Herbie Hancock, Paul McCartney, Elton John and Bonnie Raitt. Mostly, from the way Carlile described it, Joni would crack jokes and take it all in rather than participate all that much.

As we all know, Mitchell had a mother of a health scare in March of 2015. A brain aneurysm resulted in her having to relearn just about everything. Remember that? Remember hearing the news and having time stand still because you couldn’t bear the thought of Mitchell leaving this earth because it just wasn’t her time yet. It was as frightening as it gets.

Still…she persisted. Joni Mitchell was not nearly done gracing us with her presence. And within the last year, as we found out on Sunday night, Mitchell started doing something that I don’t think anyone, including her, knew for sure would happen again. Joni Mitchell started singing.

The sun gave way to a cocoon of clouds and Brandi Carlile along with several musicians including her band (SistaStrings, Josh Neumann, Shooter Jennings, Matt Chamberlain, Phil and Tim Hanseroth) along with Celisse, Allison Russell, Wynonna Judd, Rick Whitfield, Taylor Goldsmith, Marcus Mumford, Holly Laessig, Jess Wolfe, Ben Lesser and Blake Mills formed a semi-circle of perfection on that living room set.

Brandi Carlile read a well-prepared speech which the occasion most certainly called for. She spoke about things like the power of togetherness and how it’s more powerful than any government and how radical love is. “If we love one another we might defend one other. ” She continued. “To power structures folk music is and always has been utterly fucking destructive. It’s a truth teller and it’s a power killer.” For several minutes Carlile honored the importance of the festival and how the sense of community means so much. She called out places like Sun Studios and Preservation Hall. But when she mentioned Laurel Canyon I felt a seismic shift in the universe. THIS WAS GOING TO HAPPEN.

Then Brandi told us all about the Joni jams. “We’re here to invite you into the living room.” She told us about all of Joni’s pets and her many orchids and the hidden door to the bathroom. “We are the cast and crew of the Joni Jams.” Then she told us how it doesn’t feel complete without Joni there to crack jokes and nod with approval. “How are we gonna have a Joni jam without our queen?”

Then Brandi Carlile said the two most important words she’s ever said: “WE’RE NOT!”

Please welcome back to the Newport stage for the first time since 1969…JONI MITCHELL!”

And there she was. Flesh and blood. Love and light. Slowly dancing her way to her gold wingback throne placed next to Brandi’s. The two of them embraced while the rest of us, fans and musicians alike lost our minds. Because of course we did.

Joni Mitchell and Brandi Carlile at Newport Folk Festival. July 24, 2022. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

Joni didn’t need to do anything. She could have just sat there in her blue beret and sunglasses and taken it all in. But she didn’t come all the way from the west coast to sit there. It had been 53 years since she last sang at Newport and the first song was “Carey.” Carlile sang the first few words but then OH MY GOD JONI STARTED SINGING!!!!!! Let me say that louder for those people in the back:
JONI STARTED SINGING.
I started trembling and I clutched the Celtic cross that belonged to my mother tightly. Was this really happening? WAS IT REALLY HAPPENING?

Joni Mitchell surrounded by an army of angels and in front of a stunned crowd was singing her song “Carey” with Brandi Carlile.

I lost it. I started crying and couldn’t stop for several minutes. My friend Hilary put her arm on me as she too got caught up in the moment and the gravity of it.

My friend Amy skillfully captured the entire set and as her clips are far superior to my own I enthusiastically will be sharing some of them. Here’s “Carey” and know that I’m the gal who yelled out “Am I dreaming” because I couldn’t help myself. Amy Karibian’s live footage is the bomb. Follow her on YouTube and thank me later.

Joni Mitchell having the time of her life at Newport Folk Festival. July 24, 2022. Photo by Aimsel Ponti
Magic at Newport Folk Festival. July 24, 2022. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

Here’s “Carey:”

lt could have been a one and done deal and it would have been enough. In the 90s I had tickets to see Mitchell in Massachusetts but for reasons I can’t recall, the show was canceled. I never thought I’d have the chance to see her live and was OK with that. It was enough to, as they say, be alive at the same time as her. So yes, it really would have been OK for her to have just done “Carey.”

BUT SHE WAS JUST GETTING STARTED!

Next up was another favorite Mitchell track (and yeah, I know, most of her songs are favorites because um, she’s Joni Mitchell). “Come in from the Cold” is from 1991’s “Night Ride Home.” Taylor Goldsmith and his golden voice sang it with Joni. Several people sang with Joni. Brandi, Holly and Jess to name a few. I was overwhelmed. It was overwhelming to stand there singing along. OVERWHELMING.

Here it is:

Next Joni took us back to 1974’s “Court and Spark” with “Help Me.” This was not just one or two quick songs. This was a goddamn concert. A JONI MITCHELL CONCERT. This version of “Help Me” featured superstar Celisse shredding with her red electric guitar while also slaying with her vocals. The arrangement was quite different from the original and as you’ll see below, entirely awesome. Jess and Holly’s “Didn’t it feel goods” did indeed feel really good. Jesus.

Then Joni made me cry again. By now she’s made the entire planet cry as footage has been shared far and wide. Joni Mitchell and Brandi Carlile sat there and sang “A Case Of You” from Blue.

I don’t know what to say. Joni Mitchell sang one of the most beautiful, poignant and heart-piercing songs ever written. Her song. HER SONG.

The chills I felt had chills. It was EVERYTHING.

Here it is:

“Thank you so much” said Joni with pure delight. Then Brandi told us it was party time. She told the Lucius girls to wipe the tears from their eyes then it was off to the goddamn races with “Big Yellow Taxi.” Holly and Jess did just that and crushed it because they always do. Joni was singing right along as was Brandi as was EVERYONE. Joni even went low for the last line of “put up a parking lot.”

I MEAN MY GOD PEOPLE!

Singing wasn’t the only thing Joni Mitchell came to Newport to do that night. She picked up an electric guitar and played “Just Like This Train” from “Court and Spark.” Guitar was one of the more recent skills Mitchell had to relearn and she explained during an interview on CBS that aired the day after Newport that she had to watch videos of herself playing to help her remember where to put her fingers. IT WORKED.

Next was a song that Mitchell told us she loved as a teenager by Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers and one that had been played at Joni jams. At Newport, “Why Do Fools Fall In Love” was delightful and Rick Whitfield sang lead vocals in Newport. Lots of us helped with the “ooh wahs”. Whitfield’s voice was fabulous and Carlile was right there with him as was Mitchell.

In 1976 Joni Mitchell released “Hejira” and in 2022 Taylor Goldsmith and Brandi Carlile sang “Amelia” from it with her. Look, I’m starting to run out of ways to describe how transcendent these songs were.
It’s the most gigantic example of “I can’t even….” I’ve ever known.

Anyway…here’s “Amelia:”

Another oldie that Mitchell adores is “Love Potion No. 9,” penned by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller and made a hit by The Clovers and especially the Searchers with their 1964 recording of it.

If you had told me that morning that I’d be seeing Joni Mitchell later that day I would have been skeptical. And if you had told me I’d hear her sing “Love Potion No. 9” I sure as shit would have likely laughed in your face and sent you to rehab.

But remember, we were in the field of dreams. Or in this case, the fort of dreams. Joni took lead on a bunch of this tune. She and Carlile sang the line “I held my nose, I closed my eyes…” then Mitchell went wayyyy down low and sang “I took a drink” and it was hilarious and again I say…perfect.

Dig it:

The last studio album that Joni Mitchell released was 2007’s “Shine” and the title track, in my opinion, is one of the strongest, most eloquent and important songs in her astounding repertoire. The song is a prayer, a plea, a meditation, a poem and a hopeful incantation. I feel so strongly about “Shine” that I’m gonna share a bunch of lyrics.

Oh, let your little light shine
Shine, shine, shine
Let your little light shine
Shine on good humor
Shine on good will
Shine on lousy leadership
Licensed to kill
Shine on dying soldiers
In patriotic pain
Shine on mass destruction
In some God’s name
Shine on the pioneers
Those seekers of mental health
Craving simplicity
They traveled inward
Past themselves
Let their little lights shine
May all their little lights shine

SHE SANG IT AT NEWPORT. When Carlile introduced the song I could have collapsed. Brandi took lead but Mitchell was right there, clear and strong. My shoulders shook. I don’t know how I made it through the song without evaporating in some kind of mystical rapture. Somewhere in the clouds above Fort Adams there are molecules floating around with notes of “Shine” attached to them. Songs are like tattoos, lest we forget.

Three more songs to tell you about.

The next one requires a quick, personal context story.

On the last day of school when I was in either first of second grade there was an assembly and the teachers put on a variety show for us. One of my teachers, Mrs. McDougal (hope I’m spelling that right…it’s been a minute) sang “Summertime” from George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess.” I had never heard anything like it before and I still remember it. I’m not exaggerating when I say that it a key moment of my childhood that made me into such a music lover. I swear to god. Since all those billions of years ago, that song has held a special place in my heart. In 1998 Herbie Hancock released the album “Gershwin’s World” which includes “Summertime” with Mitchell on vocals. I didn’t know about this until about 15 minutes ago. ANYWAY…Joni sang it at Newport.

I quietly sang along but also was suspended in a state of surreal wonder. What is happening? Joni Mitchell is singing “Summertime.” I’VE COME FULL CIRCLE. And she didn’t just sing it. SHE FUCKING SANG THE SHIT OUT OF IT. I’m watching and listening to the clip as I sit here and still can’t believe it.

Here’s “Summertime:”

In May of 1969 I wasn’t alive yet but Joni Mitchell released her “Clouds” album. On it is the song first made famous by Judy Collins, who, incidentally, is the person who brought Mitchell to Newport for the first time in 1967. “Both Sides Now” is just one of those songs. It’s one that most of us never tire of. It’s extraordinary and emotional EVERY SINGLE TIME.

I mean Christ, even on a good day that song can dismantle me. Every line of “Both Sides Now” is a work of art. Oh man, I am losing it again watching the clip from Sunday. The dizzy dancing way that I felt indeed was something that will always be with me. During the happiest moments and the ones where I’m clutching that cross and missing my mother badly.

Dreams and schemes and circus crowds, I’ve looked at life that way.

When Joni started singing “Both Sides Now” at Newport, Brandi Carlile put her hand on her own heart. We all did in one form or another.

Oh Joni, Joni, Joni. What would we ever do without you?

I really don’t know life at all but I do know this: Joni Mitchell at Newport Folk Festival was the most significant moment of live music I’ve ever known, and honestly, I’ve had a lot of them. I’m lucky. But this. THIS. This is the kind of moment that explains to me why I sacrificed sleep to get to the fort at the crack of dawn and stand for hours to hold my sacred spot. It’s why, over the years, I’ve gone to great lengths to see live music and to support the artists I love so dearly.

Music is everything. It’s everything. And Joni Mitchell is at the very core of this.

Here’s “Both Sides Now:”

But that’s not all. There was one more song. Brandi Carlile, Joni Mitchell and a stage full of first rate musicians sent us home with a sing-along.

In 1970 Mitchell released “Ladies of the Canyon.” It’s one of those perfect albums. And it’s home to “The Circle Game.”

Before the song started there was a earth-shaking “Joni Joni Joni” chant. That happened.

And the seasons, they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return, we can only look
Behind, from where we came
And go round and round and round, in the circle game

I couldn’t help but sing along (quietly) as I stood there knowing that tomorrow would feel entirely different. (It sure did).

I am not the same person I was when I woke up on Sunday morning. Neither are my dear friends who were by me at that railing in Newport.

Here’s “The Circle Game:”

I have to tell you two more things that happened that night. Both I’ll never quite get over because they were unreal.

As I said, my friends and I got there early and got spots front and center against the railing at the Fort stage. Point being is that it was a straight line between me and Joni. Last year I bought a blue cap with big yellow letters that say JONI on it. I LOVE it and only wear it on special occasions. Clearly this was one of them. Joni Mitchell spotted it and smiled at me and pointed it out. I smiled back. But then something else happened. I flashed her the “I LOVE YOU” hand symbol AND SHE DID IT BACK TO ME. I can’t even… I really can’t. I fully understand that Joni Mitchell is a human being just like the rest of us but understand that her music means the world to me and to have that brief moment with one my heroes meant so, so much, especially now with my heart so freshly fragile.

Joni Mitchell at Newport Folk Festival. July 24, 2022. Photo by Adam Shanker

The other thing that happened I am also in complete shock over.

Right when the show ended and I was still standing there (wondering what on earth I was going to do with the rest of my life) something entirely unexpected happened. A gentleman from the stage walked over to in front of where I was and pointed at me. Then he gently tossed me one of the candles AND THEN A SETLIST. I was speechless. I don’t know who he was but if ever he sees this by some miracle I hope he knows how thankful I will always be for these absolute TREASURES.

Candle and setlist from Joni Mitchell’s performance at Newport Folk Festival. July 24, 2022.

And there it is. My humble offering of what it was like to bear witness to Joni Mitchell’s first live performance in many, many years and her first time at Newport since 1969.

THANK YOU, Jay Sweet for making Newport Folk Festival what it is. You’re a superstar.

THANK YOU, Brandi Carlile for everything you do to make the world a better place. From your music to your activism to the way you lift others up, you’re a hero of mine. Truly.

THANK YOU, Joni Mitchell for the most remarkable night of my life. Your light is strong as is your heart and soul. Your words make my life better. If you ever decide to let a low-impact, low maintenance music journalist into one of your Joni Jams, my schedule is instantly clear.

By the way, you haven’t lived until you’ve heard Joni Mitchell laugh. She did this several times while on that stage in Newport. It was among the most divine and delightful sounds I’ve ever heard.

There is now only one name left on my bucket list.

Hey Kate Bush. Hi!!

Ponti out.

Newport Folk Festival 2019: All about the women & one famous frog

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.

J.S. Ondara
J.S. Ondara on the Harbor Stage of the Newport Folk Festival. 7.28.19
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

Jeff Tweedy
Jeff Tweedy on the Fort Stage at the Newport Folk Festival. 7.27.19.
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

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:

the collaboration

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.

YOLA
YOLA on the Harbor Stage of the Newport Folk Festival. 7.26.19.
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

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'm With Her 1
Sara Watkins, Sara Jarosz and Aoife O’Donovan of I’m With Her on the Quad Stage at the Newport Folk Festival. 7.26.19.
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

I also caught parts of sets by Adia Victoria, Liz Cooper & The Stampede and Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real. All outstanding.

Amy Ray Band on the Harbor Stage were also  tremendous. It didn’t suck one bit that Brandi Carlile hopped on stage for a handful of songs. Ray released the album “Holler” last year and it’s SO GOOD! 

Amy Ray and Brandi Carlile
Amy Ray with special guest Brandi Carlile during the Amy Ray Band set on the Harbor Stage. 7.26.19.
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

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.

BC smile highwomen walk out on stage
Brandi Carlile walks onto the Quad Stage at Newport Folk Festival as The Highwomen get set to play their first-ever show. 7.26.19
iPhone Photo by Aimsel Ponti

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!!!

The Highwomen
Amanda Shires, Maren Morris, Brandi Carlile and Natalie Hemby playing their first show as The Highwomen at Newport Folk Festival. 7.26.19.
Photos by Aimsel Ponti

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.” 

Maggie Rogers
Maggie Rogers on the Fort Stage on 7.27.19
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

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 Linda Perry on the Fort Stage at Newport Folk Festival. 7.27.19Photo by Aimsel Ponti

Linda Perry (surprise guest) as I already mentioned DESTROYED us all with “What’s Up?”

crow and rogers
Sheryl Crow and and an awestruck Maggie Rogers on the Fort Stage at Newport Folk Festival. 7.27.19
iPhone photo by Aimsel Ponti

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.”

Collins and Carlile USE
Judy Collins with Brandi Carlile on the Fort Stage at the Newport Folk Festival. 7.27.19.
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

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 said before 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.

Dolly Parton
Dolly Parton on the Fort Stage. 7.27.19.
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

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.

Next was “Just Because I’m a Woman.” OMG.

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…

Dolly Parton
Dolly Parton on the Fort Stage. 7.27.19.
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

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.

Mavis Staples
Mavis Staples played on Saturday night at the Jane Pickens Theater and was part of the If I Had A Song finale on the Fort Stage on Sunday. 7.28.19. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

ONTO SUNDAY!

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.

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Rachael Price of Lake Street Dive. LSD played on the Fort Stage. 7.28.19.
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

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?

Rhiannon Giddens Our Native Daughters
Rhiannon Giddens from Our Native Daughters who played on the Quad Stage. 7.28.19.
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

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.

Kermit the Frog
Kermit the Frog on the Fort Stage 7.28.19.
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

Here’s another photo of Kermit.

Kermit the Frog
Kermit the Frog on the Fort Stage 7.28.19.
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

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. And Mr. Jason Isbell, AKA King of Twitter, was on guitar! Can you even stand it?

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.

THANK YOU.

Ponti out.

 

Worth the wait: Thoughts on the 2018 Newport Folk Festival

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!!!

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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:

welcome sign
iPhone photo happily shot from my car window after I said Hi to the police officers by the entrance and told them I was a first-timer and made one of them high-five me.

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.

Tuck and Patti
Tuck and Patti at the Newport Folk Festival 7.27.18 Photo by Aimsel Ponti

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).

Jenny Lewis
Jenny Lewis at the Newport Folk Festival. 7.28.18. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

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.

Amanda Shires
Amanda Shires at the Newport Folk Festival. 7.27.18 Photo by Aimsel Ponti

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!

Margo Price John Prine
Margo Price with John Prine at the Newport Folk Festival. 7.27.18. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

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.

Margo Price Brandi Carlile
Margo Price with Brandi Carlile at the Newport Folk Festival. 7.27.18 Photo by Aimsel Ponti

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.

Lucius Seaweed Sisters
Lucius with the Seaweed Sisters at the Newport Folk Festival. 7.27.18. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

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.

Lucius
Lucius at the Newport Folk Festival. 7.27.18. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

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).

Rachael and Vilray
Rachael and Vilray at the Newport Folk Festival. 7.27.18. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

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.”

St. Vincent
St. Vincent at the Newport Folk Festival. 7.27.18. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

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.

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St. Vincent Photo by Aimsel Ponti

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.

Jason Isbell David Crosby
Jason Isbell with David Crosby at the Newport Folk Festival. 7.27.18. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

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!”

Lukas Nelson
Lukas Nelson at the Newport Folk Festival. 7.28.18. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

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Holly and Jess from Lucius on stage with Lukas Nelson and the Promise of the Real at the Newport Folk Festival. 7.28.18. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

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.

Tank & The Bangas
Tarriona “Tank” Ball of Tank & The Bangas at the Newport Folk Festival. 7.28.18.
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

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.

Courtney Barnett
Courtney Barnett at the Newport Folk Festival. 7.28.18.Photo by Aimsel Ponti

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.

Mumford and Sons
Marcus Mumford or Mumford and Sons at the Newport Folk Festival. 7.28.18.
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

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.

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Brandi Carlile and Maggie Rogers joined Mumford and Sons on stage at the Newport Folk Festival. 7.28.18 Photo by Aimsel Ponti

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.

Maggie Rogers
Maggie Rogers on stage with Mumford and Sons at the Newport Folk Festival. 7.28.18.
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

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
Mavis Staples with Brandi Carlile and Maggie Rogers perform with Mumford and Sons (among others) at the closing Saturday night set of the Newport Folk Festival. 7.28.18.
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

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.

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A happy crowd, including Marian Starkey, get ready for Brandi Carlile at the Newport Folk Festival. 7.29.18. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

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.

Passenger
Passenger at the Newport Folk Festival. 7.29.18. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

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
The Lone Bellow at the Newport Folk Festival. 7.29.18. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

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.

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Zach Williams from The Lone Bellow at the Newport Folk Festival. 7.29.18. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

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.

Brandi Carlile
Brandi Carlile front and center at the Newport Folk Festival. 7.29.18. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

Brandi Carlile
Brandi Carlile at the Newport Folk Festival. 7.29.18. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

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.

Parting thoughts:

If you’re going to attend this festival here are my four pieces of advice:

  1. Be ready when tickets go on sale in the fall. I mean REALLY ready.
  2. 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.
  3. Don’t try to see everything. It’s not possible. See what you can and enjoy every moment.
  4. 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)

Ponti out.


Aimsel on the Record is sponsored in part by LB Kitchen in Portland, Maine.

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Please contact me if you’re interested in sponsorship opportunities!