Concert review: Newport Folk Festival 2021 – A very unconventional year

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By Paul Robicheau

Folk We exceeded and tempered expectations.

Arts Fuse review at the Newport Jazz Festival

Nathaniel Rateliff at Newport Folk On, 2021. Photo: Paul Robicheau.

“It’s amazing to come to one place and see all your friends that you haven’t seen in a year,” Nathaniel Rateliff told the crowd during last week’s modified iteration of the Newport Folk Festival. , renamed Folk On. It was actually two years since performers and fans last gathered at Fort Adams State Park, and this time attendance was limited to about half capacity, while the days doubled to six.

Of course, there was a happy feeling of déjà vu – but a different one in the continuing era of Covid. With only 6,000 people (who recorded proof of vaccination or a negative test) for a less crowded peninsula, Folk On seemed more intimate and it was less hectic to move between the two main stages of the event (plus the stage small buskers) rather than the usual three. The setup will be similar for this weekend’s sold-out Newport Jazz Festival.

Folk We exceeded and tempered expectations. Since Newport Folk instantly sells out long before the queues exit, there’s plenty of room to save surprises – and it turned out to be true. Rateliff was a late announcement, performing as a low-key solo artist with an extended band on Sunday in addition to directing his soulful outfit The Night Sweats. Bad weather on Friday pushed the Night Sweats to a Monday niche where he finally ditched the guitar to wake fans up with preacher energy. It was a difficult act for the Black Crowes’ Brothers of a Feather, Chris and Rich Robinson to follow as an acoustic duo who struggled to demote in this catalog without their rock band’s boast of their current reunion tour.

Black pumas at Newport Folk On, 2021. Photo: Paul Robicheau.

The surprises continued throughout the second three-day session of the festival. Black Pumas showed that their ubiquitous hit “Colors” wasn’t their only catchy soul-funk track, while frontman Eric Burton proved to be an active and charismatic force, jumping into the crowd. But Bleachers – led by super-producer Jack Antonoff (Lorde, Taylor Swift, etc.) – seemed out of place and sloppy in stripped-down mode with an acoustic guitar, piano, and saxophones, rocking allusive Springsteen tunes and covers like a eerily whimsical “A Hard Day’s Night” and a flat version of “The Whole of the Moon” by Waterboys.

Antonoff also joined a few guests for Beck for Tuesday’s highly anticipated closing set. The shape-changing LA troubadour started out solo with ’90s nuggets like’ Pay No Mind (Snoozer) ‘and a loose, harmonica-fueled’ One Foot in the Grave ‘, then laughed at the folk songs. with excerpts from Dylan to Prince. Beck’s longtime guitarist Smokey Hormel emerged to give texture, and Antonoff performed well as a curiosity duet for the soundtrack “Everybody’s Got to Learn Sometime.” But a seductive, hand-picked “Lost Cause” was stupidly interrupted by the “Check 1, 2!” By comedian Fred Armisen (who had done musical parodies on the other stage) hitting drums in a simulated soundcheck. After a series of wacky riffs, they ended with falsetto-tinged “Debra” and Beck’s hymn “Loser”.

The real stone came from Wednesday’s closers Deer Tick and Middle Brother, led by John McCauley of Deer Tick, Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes, and Matt Vasquez of Delta Spirit. Celebrating the 10th anniversary of their debut with Middle Brother, they cheekily opened their Monday main set with the Traveling Wilburys’ bona fide “Handle with Care” supergroup, swapping out parts led by George Harrison, Roy Orbison and Dylan. Speaking of Dylan and Middle Brother, Emma Swift opened Tuesday’s main stage with measured readings from the bard (her recent “I Contain Multitudes” is her favorite), backed by her partner and cult psyche-pop figure Robyn Hitchcock. – after a kerfuffle on Twitter where she felt kicked out of the street music scene so Middle Brother could add an acoustic set on the weekends.

Allison Russell at Newport Folk On, 2021. Photo: Paul Robicheau.

The weekday firepower elicited some regret from weekend-only attendees alone, but they bore witness to the six-day festival‘s most emotional collaborative ensemble in Allison Russell’s Once & Future Sounds. Building on the 2019 women’s collaboration crowned by Dolly Parton and hosted by Brandi Carlile (who showed up for Sunday’s finals), Russell widened the circle to spotlight women of color and the LQBTQIA community.

“It’s time for us to stand up,” said Russell, joined by artists such as the expressive Joy Oladokun, the unorthodox fingerpicker Yasmin Williams, Margo Price (who is part of a group taking on the “Help!” Beatles) and Yola, who had just rocked the stage with her own mind-blowing set that included her new disco-oriented “Dancing Away in Tears” with Natalie Hemby and “Be My Friend” with Carlile. Celisse Henderson sang a volcanic rendition of the civil rights anthem “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize”, peppered with her searing electric guitar. Guests continued to ride, with Sunny War, Amythyst Kiah (Russell’s companion in Our Native Daughters), Adia Victoria, Kyshona, poet Caroline Randall Williams and Kam Franklin of the Suffers – until the big reveal: the icon R&B Chaka Khan, leading the troops in “Ain’t Nobody” and “I’m Every Woman”.

Billy Strings at Newport Folk On, 2021. Photo: Paul Robicheau.

Graceful Russell also killed a solo on Tuesday featuring her marvelous album Outside Child, centered on the haunting ‘Hy-Brasil’, a nod to her Scottish-Canadian heritage and the lack of parental violence that pervades it. is finished with his clarinet. The magic of Newport Folk is as much in discovering emerging artists as it is in listening to established headliners. Billy Strings was a relative newbie in 2019; now he’s growing up like a supernova and has appeared twice with his bluegrass quartet, first in a seated tribute to Doc Watson, then igniting fans like a rock star who can tap into sustain and pedal tones. SG Goodman (a Kentucky farm worker who tossed wry, observant lyrics in gritty guitar tones) and clear-voiced Katie Pruitt, who spoke about pandemic anxiety with “My Mind’s a Ship (That’s Going Down) “also turned heads on weekdays.

The artists have consistently noted that this was their first return to a concert stage since the success of Covid and that the majority (including Grace Potter, Randy Newman, Jason Isbell, Ben Gibbons and Aoife O’Donovan) are appeared solo or with minimal guests rather than full groups, adding to the nerves of some. Julien Baker sat down to switch to full acoustics, including banjo, and lost some of his usual intensity. Spectral singer Sharon Van Etten buried herself in solo electric and acoustic guitars and a piano to convey her melancholy songs, but she stumbled while trying to make up for the loss of production with a drum machine beat that distracted into songs. as “Comeback Kid”.

Kam Franklin, Yola and Chaka Khan in Folk On, 2021. Photo: Paul Robicheau.

Mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile, meanwhile, was at home solo, from White Stripes’ “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” to an incredibly agile Bach concerto – before losing the crowd in a tedious and pretentious inspired piece. by CS Lewis Screwed letters. He almost made amends by singing David Bowie’s “Starman” with Lake Street Dive’s Rachael Price during this band’s encore tribute to the late radio host Rita Houston, followed by his other favorites “You Are Not Alone “(with Allison Russell replacing for Mavis Staples, who plays Newport Jazz on Saturday) and” Instant Karma, “with Jonathan Russell of Head and the Heart. Price commanded the stage before that as his band roared through old and new material with guitarist James Cornelison replacing recently retired Mike “McDuck” Olson. And the six-day festival came to a successful close with Deer Tick, nodding to his Providence roots with “Smith Hill” and joined by stragglers to sing “Goodnight Irene,” the traditional closing number of Newport Folk, which still shines in a very unconventional year.


Paul Robicheau served over 20 years as a contributing editor for music at Bad Bostonian in addition to writing and photography for the Boston Globe, Rolling stone, and many other publications. He was also the founding artistic editor of Boston subway.


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