Newport Folk Festival: Saturday Highlights

By Tori Bedford and Jason Turesky

NEWPORT, RI–After a broken down tour bus and unexpected lightning pushed the prospects of a Friday night show in Providence into oblivion, indie-pop quintet Lucius popped by Newport Folk for a surprise Saturday morning show with their good friends, Shovels and Rope. Lucius joined husband and wife duo Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst for a set that included a cover of Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny About) Peace Love & Understanding?”

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Lucius and Shovels and Rope. (Credit: Newport Folk Festival Instagram)

The versatile Ruby Amanfu roared through a powerful set, drawing on her years of musical collaboration and innovation: from her 2012 stint with The Peacocks — Jack White’s all-female band — her time with Sam & Ruby, to her roots among Nashville’s singer-songwriter set. The Lemonade backup singer was backed by three-fourths of Deer Tick: Chris Ryan on the bass, Dennis Ryan on drums, and Rob Crowell on keyboards. She was also joined by fellow Nashvillian Jeremy Fetzer on guitar to spin through tracks from her 2015 release, Standing Still. Amanfu put her own touch on Brandi Carlile’s “Shadow On The Wall,” Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ 1956 classic, “I Put A Spell On You,” and Irma Thomas’ “Anyone Who Knows What Love Is.” Amanfu also crooned through her 2013 single, “Bluff,” sprinkling her set with gratitude for new beginnings: “There was a time when I didn’t know if I wanted to be a solo artist again,” she said. “So …thank you.”


Ruby Amanfu

Levon Helm’s loomed heavily over daughter Amy Helm’s set at the main stage Saturday. Helm’s music and family history stretch back to John and Allan Lomax’s recordings, through Woodstock, and to modern day takes on American roots music. Instead of trying to hide from her father’s shadow, Helm embraced it. The standout song from her set was a poignant performance of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” The Band’s main songwriter, Robbie Robertson drew in part on Levon’s southern heritage in writing the song. Throughout her performance, Amy Helm banged on a large bass drum that rang out like the song’s heartbeat, later confirming her father had played the same drum at Woodstock. And the crowd roared at Helm’s knowing smile when she sang, “Like my father before me, I will work the land.”

There is little doubt thought that Amy Helm’s success is not simply nepotistic nostalgia for Levon. Beyond singing, she displayed her own prodigious talents on a number of instruments throughout the show. After featuring a funky, blues rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Meet Me In The Morning,” Helm ended her performance with a hymn she said she learned from her father. She dedicated the song to all of those loved ones and friends who are on the other side. She could have been referring to the other side of the festival grounds, where directional signs listed the musicians who have played Newport Folk and have now passed on. Her father Levon’s name was among them.


Amy Helm

Rounding out their second year at Newport Folk, Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats lifted a usually hazy afternoon crowd out of their seats, turning the main stage field into a raucous dance floor with songs like “Shake” and “Howling at Nothing,” off of their self-titled 2015 album. Rateliff took time between each song to express his gratitude for the opportunity just to be there. “I was getting ready to flip burgers,” he said. “I never thought I would be here.” Despite the intense summer heat, Rateliff showed off his dance moves, performing his signature footwork across the stage. Matthew Logan Vasquez made a guest appearance with the Night Sweats, stopping to play a bit of guitar on Rateliff’s radio hit, “S.O.B.” between his solo set Friday and his upcoming Middle Brother set Sunday.

A midday crowd greeted Lady Lamb’s pop punk aesthetic with great enthusiasm at the festival’s harborside tent. Aly Spaltro, the band’s vivacious young leader, bounced about on stage quickly strumming chords with a captivating intensity. Songs like “Milk Duds,” “Dear Arkansas” and “Daughters,” had the audience nodding their heads to their uptempo, catchy sound. Growing up in Maine, Spaltro acknowledged days spent watching the PixiesLive at Newport concert video at her video store job. So when Spaltro said, “Thank you Newport we are so happy to be here,” we believed it.


Aly Spaltro

Glasgow band of brothers (among others) Frightened Rabbit opened up their set with “Get Out,” off of Painting of a Panic Attack, their recent April release produced by Aaron Dessner of The National. Four songs off of Panic Attack — including “Woke Up Hurting,” “Break,” and “Lump Street” — showcased a refreshed, excited version of the band. After a three-year hiatus from touring and writing as Frightened Rabbit — opting instead to work on solo projects (Owl John) or bike 1100 miles for charity  — the band has emerged this year with new material, new videos, and a U.S. tour. The excitement to see the Glaswegians back on stage at Newport was palpable.


Frightened Rabbit

Ryan Adams took took to the main stage of the festival in an old-style picking circle. Adams was backed by the bluegrass band The Infamous String Dusters, who sat on wooden stools in a tight semi-circle with one microphone in the center. The musicianship was spectacular, with a version of Adams’ “Jacksonville” being a standout, featuring upright bass and fiddle of the String Dusters. During the show though, Adams seemed more focused on talking to the crowd though ignoring requests yelled at him. At one point, Adams gave a shout out to fellow Newport performer Father John Misty saying, “I think the National Guard is going to have to come in and maintain his beard.”

Ryan Adams

Even in his later years, Graham Nash has held to a spirit of the 1960’s, continuing to sing and talk about the injustices that remain relevant today. Nash did insert the name of  Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump into “Military Madness,” but mainly brought the audience back in time with “Marrakesh Express” and “Chicago.” The festival’s setting played a roll for Nash’s set as well. During “Immigration Song,” he noted the irony of a British musician playing in Fort Adams, fortified during the American revolution to keep the British out.
Seeing guitarist Del McCroury and mandolin player David Grisman from Del & Dawg perform felt like a peak at the heyday of the Grand Ole Opry. The set focused on McCroury’s time playing with the legendary Bill Monroe, particularly the foundational role of Monroe’s bands in bluegrass music. Their show could have been mistaken for a master class on the genre. They played multiple Bill Monroe compositions — now bluegrass standards — as well as a few originals and a classic rendition of the traditional “Man of Constant Sorrow.”  The two elder musicians received a standing ovation as they finished their last song. It had been 53 years since McCroury had last played at Newport, and 50 years for Grisman. Before leaving the stage, Grisman said he hopes it doesn’t take another 50 years to get him back to the festival. Given their living link to the founding father of bluegrass, let’s hope the same.

David Grisman and Del McCroury

Smiling sweetly all the while, Norah Jones charmed the Newport audience for the second time since her 2014 performance with Puss N Boots, Jones’ band with singer Sasha Dobson and bass guitarist Catherine Popper. In tribute to that project, Jones performed “Don’t Know What It Means,” accompanied by Josh Lattanzi’s inspired basslines. Jones rose from keys to guitar, a seamless transition as she glided through “Come Away With Me,” “Sinkin’ Soon” and “Stuck.” Diving into her seemingly  limitless repertoire, Jones revisited Rome, her 2011 album with Danger Mouse and Daniele Luppi. “We touch the walls of a city streets, and/Didn’t explain/Sadly showed us our ways/Of never asking why,” she sang poignantly on “Black.”


Norah Jones

Father John Misty started off his set with a dedication. “I would like to dedicate this song to Graham Nash, who said it doesn’t make any sense, and he would rather listen to Chuck Berry,” he said. “I can’t say that I disagree with him.” Tillman launched into his hyperliterate stream-of-consciousness “I’m Writing a Novel,” altering the lyrics slightly to: “I rode to Malibu/On a dune buggy with Graham Nash… and associate Neil… He said, “You’re gonna have to drown me down on the beach/ If you ever want to write ‘the real’.” Tillman performed without his band; just a man, a guitar, and his eccentric brand of social-commentary-meets-comedy, this time with a political spin. “Our idiot king was coronated this week,” he said, echoing comments made earlier this week at a festival in Camden, New Jersey. “Sadness is sort of what we need right now, more than outrage, which can be sexy… I think it’s a time to be profoundly sad at the current state of affairs.” “Now I’m Learning to Love the War” followed, with glib yet timely lyrics, Let’s just call this what it is/ The jealous side of mankind’s death wish.”


Father John Misty

Punk poet Patti Smith has not lost her edge. She closed the second day of Newport Folk with a tribute-filled set, beginning with a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Boots Of Spanish Leather.” Smith followed that by reciting Allen Ginsburg’s poem, Holy, Holy, Holy, and spitting on the stage as she finished. The crowd cheered her on as she pumped her fists in the air during a cover of Prince’s “When Doves Cry.” “This is your f–king life and this is freedom,” she yelled. Smith also played “This Is The Girl” in honor of the fifth anniversary of Amy Winehouse’s death. Despite these, her most fitting tribute of the night was aimed at Newport hero and icon of American folk music, Pete Seeger. “I haven’t sang this song since I was 14,” she said before signing Seeger’s classic song, “If I Had A Hammer.” Ending the evening with a signature cover of the Who’s “My Generation.” Smith struck the perfect tone to wrap up day two of the festival built around songs of protest.


Patti Smith