The Newport Folk Festival 2022 ended up being one of the books. Special appearances by not one but two legendary American musicians (Paul Simon on Saturday and Joni Mitchell on Sunday) left people in tears of joy. But there was plenty to cheer about in a lineup that included Brandi Carlile, Lucius, the National, Japanese Breakfast, the Roots, Maren Morris, and more. So if it weren’t for the special guests, the festival experience would still have been pretty amazing. Here are some of the highlights we witnessed.
Rhiannon Giddens sings in Bengali
Until a few years ago, the Silkroad Ensemble was led by cellist Yo-Yo Ma. But a change of direction has been made, and now MacArthur Fellow and multi-instrumentalist Rhiannon Giddens has the reins. Dubbed “Phoenix Rising,” the Silkroad Ensemble’s new program features songs as culturally diverse as the ensemble’s 14 members. When tabla player Sandeep Das introduced “Ekla Cholo Re”, he surprised the audience with the fact that Giddens would sing the song and that she had learned to sing it in Bengali. That was delicious.
My Bluegrass Heart by Béla Fleck
After Béla Fleck welcomed a roster of extremely talented artists to his my bluegrass heart show at Carnegie Hall, he continued to spin the record with smaller variations of the band. So we knew the Newport Folk set would be tighter. Still, Fleck had a few guests up his sleeve, including mandolinist Sam Bush who joined in a nearly 40-year-old collaboration (“When the Storm’s Over”), then banjo player Noam Pilkeny and Jerry Douglas on dobro for a jam between his dry spirit and the songs of Fleck’s Grammy-winning my bluegrass heart.
The haunting songs of Arooj Aftab
Speaking of Grammy winners (and wits), Arooj Aftab, who had won the award for “World’s Best Musical Performance”, was an inspired selection for the Folk festival. As she took the stage, she noted the color palette of the audience. Aftab’s music, mostly sung in Urdu, has certainly not been understood by many (Newport Folk’s audience isn’t very diverse, although the list of performers is getting more and more diverse). But her songs, including the Grammy-winning “banger” of a finale, “Mohabbat,” by her Prince Vulture record, were exciting.
New stage powered by renewable energy
Nashville rockers and environmentally conscious duo Illiterate Light hosted about five acts a day on their unique stage in the Quad area this year. The “Bike Stage” was powered partly by five riders and partly by solar power. As noted by guitarist Jeff Gorman in an interview, “It’s a way…to do something different and for us to start the conversation around the use of energy…to try new ways to create electricity.” Illiterate Light played a lively set (including their friends at Palmyra for a song) on Saturday, but some of the other acts included Madi Diaz, SG Goodman and Bendigo Fletcher.
A true tribute to Pete Seeger
Dubbed “For Pete’s Sake”, Newport Folk’s vigil held a tribute to Pete Seeger and marked the debut of a new USPS stamp featuring the legend at the Jane Pickens Theater. There were names I knew, like Fleck and Giddens. Still, there were some I had never seen before, including Jake Blount and Nora Brown, both banjo players (The Decemberists’ MC of the night Chris Funk made a few jokes about how many banjos would be on scene during the tribute). Blount commented on the paradoxical nature of the event – Seeger was at one point a “card-carrying communist” and might not have argued that his face represents part of the US government.
Meanwhile, teenage Brown was phenomenal as she performed a few songs, including one with Giddens and one with JP Harris. Anaïs Mitchell acknowledged that Seeger’s legacy is more important than timbre as she asserted how deeply rooted her music is – a “song can be in the world and nobody knows you wrote it”.
The Black Opry Review
Among the artists participating in the Black Opry review, I only knew the blues of Buffalo Nichols. I saw him open for Valerie June earlier this year, and I’ve often heard his songs on the satellite radio broadcast. Nichols and other artists, Autumn Nicholas, Julia Cannon, Chris Pierce, the Kentucky Gentlemen, Lizzie No, Leon Timbo and Joy Oladokun (who got her place later in the festival), took turns playing before reunite for a powerful finale. Nobody commented that it’s usually “like one or two blacks [at a folk fest]. It might be an accident, but more likely it’s because we’re extremely dangerous when we’re all together. A similar statement echoed in the final set.
A Spiritual Helpline Gospel Review Brightens Sunday
Newport Folk has hosted gospel sessions in previous years, but the slot hosted by Phil Cook in 2022 was particularly brilliant. Cook enlisted fellow 83-year-old North Carolinians Lena Mae Perry, Thomas Rhyant and the Union (Leslie Gardner and Simone Appleby) for a jolly morning. The band’s set radiated spirituality as they sang “Freedom Highway”, “You’ve Got a Friend/Precious Lord” and “Walk Around Heaven”. For the finale, they invited anyone backstage to join them. Soon, Natalie Merchant and Valerie June were on stage singing “This Little Light of Mine,” and the audience cheered as Perry got up to dance. A recent documentary Stay prayed, offers a behind-the-scenes look at Perry and the Branchettes recording a new album.
The Linda Lindas Let the kids go wild
The members of the punk group the Linda Lindas are between 11 and 17 years old and were among the most rowdy bands at the festival. During their set, children of all ages approached the stage to dance to songs from the band’s album Growing up. Although Newport Folk has a family tent where the artists perform, it was great to see the children’s joy in the uncontrolled space.
Sylvan Esso Let the adults go wild
Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn form electronic duo Sylvan Esso, not a genre you would typically expect at a folk festival. But the duo’s effervescent synths attracted a surprising number of people. Even more unexpected, the duo presented their brand new album, No rules Sandy, which comes out on August 12.
Anaïs Mitchell’s star shines brightly
Hadestown playwright and songwriter Anaïs Mitchell had two official sets lined up at Newport Folk, one with the band Bonny Light Horseman (Mitchell, Eric D. Johnson and Josh Kaufman) and a solo (she released a well-received, self-record album titled earlier this year). When the Bonny Light Horseman set was unfortunately canceled, Mitchell relied on her musical connections. She turned that time slot into a collective jam dubbed “Clusterfolk,” which saw special guests like Cassandra Jenkins, Natalie Merchant, and more. At the time, Mitchell was two days in Newport, having played the day before at Pete Seeger’s tribute and with the National for “Rylan” (for appearances I witnessed). She brought her band up on Sunday, performing simple, evocative songs like “Brooklyn Bridge” and “Bright Star.”
American Tune Revue with Paul Simon
Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats’ set was dubbed “American Tune Revue” and was to be a tribute to Paul Simon. But after Rateliff did an hour of reruns alongside notable guests like Lukas Nelson, Adia Victoria and Marcus Mumford, he brought out the legend himself. Paul Simon had the honor of being on stage as part of the tribute and performed four of his songs, including “The Boxer” with Jerry Douglas and “American Tune” with Rhiannon Giddens. His finale was a solo “The Sound of Silence”, after which the crowd roared. It was the 80-year-old Simon’s first festival.
Joni Jam with Joni Mitchell
If you haven’t heard it already, Joni Mitchell has returned to the Newport stage almost 20 years after her last live performance and 53 years after she first performed in Newport. Brandi Carlile introduced her hero for the salon-style “Joni Jam”; a tribute that included Marcus Mumford, Celisse, Blake Mills, Lucius, and more. But before that, Carlile spoke about the power of gathering and folk music – “for power structures, folk music is and always has been completely destructive. He destroys it. He is a truth teller. He’s a power killer. When Mitchell’s confidence was evident, she got up to play guitar for the first time since suffering an aneurysm several years ago, she devastated the audience singing for “Both Sides Now”, “Summertime” and ” Circle Game”.