The 2017 Newport Folk Festival – Sunday Highlights

The Newport Folk Festival is known for its spirit of collaborating, and the stage-hopping and set-sharing reached a peak on Sunday, particularly with Jim James, who took up residence on the Fort stage: After his own solo set and a little guitar with Angel Olsen Saturday, James played cowbell with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, then hopped on stage for a tribute to Chuck Berry.

Sunday morning began with two very different but equally awe-inspiring choirs, the Toronto-based, volunteer singing event Choir! Choir! Choir! And the Berklee Gospel and Roots Choir, rounding out their fifth year at the festival.

Pinegrove followed up with another kind of religious experience, at least for those die-hard fans, which seem to be the only kind for the New Jersey-based band. Evan Stephans Hall’s lead vocals and Nandi Plunkett’s keyboards and vocals harmonized perfectly on setlist focused mostly on their 2016 album, Cardinal, from “Old Friends” to “New Friends.”

To see Margaret Glaspy live is to fall in love, the lyrics slipping you quietly into your own mind, all while raucous drums and guitar chords keep your hips swaying and toes tapping. Glaspy, who released her debut album, Emotions and Math, in 2016, brought Joni Mitchell vibes to Newport with “Love Like This” and “Parental Guidance.”

Michael Kiwanuka, the British soul singer known to American audiences primarily for “Big Little Lies” theme “Cold Little Heart,” captivated the crowd with the full version, including the long and ethereal instrumental song introduction of what might be the best standalone soul song of the year. Kiwanuka moved on to more songs off of his 2016 album Love and Hate, including the upbeat music and sober lyrics of “Black Man in a White World” and “Tell Me A Tale” off his first studio album, “Home Again.”

Sunday’s mystery “unannounced” set was a high-energy performance by Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats (Rateliff is no stranger to the FRB family. Check out our recording of his 2016 show at Brighton Music Hall), joined by The Preservation Hall Jazz Band for a show that had everyone —from parents holding babies to security guards— dancing through the aisles, closing out with a march through the crowd to “S.O.B.”

American Acoustic, a joint project between The Punch Brothers (check out our live recording of their 2015 show at House of Blues, Boston) and I’m With Her (Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O’Donovan) and Julian Lage, brought a soothing, charming traditionalist folk blend of voices and instrumental harmonies to the Harbor stage.

If the description of Speak Out — protest songs to “celebrate freedom” and that “reflect the times” in which today’s artists live — sounded somewhat predictable, that was until the very first note of Kyle Craft’s cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes,” a celebration that set the mood for the rest of the star-packed set. With cameos from Lucius, Margo Price, Sharon Van Etten, Shakey Graves, Rayland Baxter, Billy Bragg, and Preservation Hall as the backing band, the set was inspirational, and, of course, political. “Let’s do this song-along style, so we can try to remind ourselves what our president tries to remind us everyday,” Graves said, before launching into a call-and-response “I’m Better Than You.”

It was easy to tell that folk legend John Prine was having fun — dedicating songs to “our current Führer” President Donald Trump and making digs at his own music, “they told me I needed one more song on this album, I said no, I don’t,” Prine said. “It’s just three totally unrelated verses held together by an unrelated chorus…played by a broken guitar.” Prine played with everyone from Justin Vernon (“Bruised Orange”) to Margot Price (“Cake and Eggs”) to Roger Waters, making a special surprise appearance for “Hello In There.”

Prine’s set closed out Newport by exemplifying the festival’s spirit: a political message to ruminate on, played out by a family of collaborators, blending styles and talents together with warmth, openness, and just a little bit of sass.

Photos by Tori Bedford