By Tori Bedford and Jason Turesky
NEWPORT, RI–This year’s eclectic and inventive mix of artists included hip-hop and comedy acts, rock bands and gospel choirs, delighting the musically adventurous and dismaying old-school folk-music purists. Joan Shelley, a singer-songwriter from Louisville, Kentucky, broke through the technology-driven riffraff with just her voice and two guitars, joined by guitarist Nathan Salsburg. Shelley’s serene vocals and Salsburg’s simple yet melodic guitar created a classic British-folk haven with songs like “Over and Even” and “Easy Now.”
Canadian six-piece band the Strumbellas brought a fun-folk party onstage, with a mix of foot-stomping, raucous melodies and group vocals akin to the Lumineers. Just when Simon Ward and David Ritter’s vocal crescendos seem to arrive as expected, Izzy Ritchie’s violin shone through. Formed in 2008, the Juno-award winning band found commercial success last year, with their hit “Spirits,” which raised the Newport audience out of their seats, hands in the air and boots stomping the ground.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the Oh Hellos became a Newport headliner in the next couple years. Their brand of pop folk is infectious in its rambunctious spirit. Despite the stifling afternoon heat, each member of the ensemble jumped about on stage, slamming on their folk instruments as if they were in punk band. The crowd joined in, stumping their feet to songs like “Soldier, Poet, King,” and “Hello My Old Heart.”
Aaron Little, also known as Son Little on stage, channeled an old Texas blues man in name and style. He walked on stage alone, wearing a worn-out white shirt, cowboy hat, and blue jeans. Little opened his set with a stripped down version of his song “Toes,” played in a John Lee Hooker thumping blues style. A backing band joined him for the rest of the performance playing a spirited version of his single, “Lay Down.”
With songs like “Funeral Pyre,” Julien Baker will inevitably make you sad. Yet, as Father John Misty put it Saturday, sometimes you find yourself at a “time to be profoundly sad.” In her 20 years, Baker has explored emotion and identity through her music, with roots in Christianity, queer identity, and — being a Memphis native — the south. Backed by Matthew Gilliam on drums, Baker’s dusky melodies bring sweet relief as the melancholy brought on by her music is a freeing, beautiful sadness: a sadness that manages to feel personal.
Perhaps the best vocal performance of the entire festival came from Ireland native Glen Hansard, who was the only musician to play the Newport’s main stage by himself for the majority of his set. He began by playing his Oscar-winning hit “Falling Slowly” from the movie musical Once, and returned to the film’s soundtrack with “When Your Mind’s Made Up,” the third song in his set. Hansard’s face turned dark red as he belted out the song and stomped his feet. The crowd could only awe at the power of his voice and ability to fill the stage despite only being one man with a guitar. Elvis Costello joined Hansard on stage to play tambourine for “Lowly Deserter,” and ended the set with a rousing cover of Woody Guthrie’s “Vigilante Man,” complete with additional lyrics aimed at Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump.
Preservation Hall Jazz Band brought a slice of New Orleans to east coast Newport. In the midst of predominantly acoustic guitar music, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s classic New Orleans jazz style was a welcome change. The audience danced from the opening notes of the band’s first song, “Shallow Waters,” to their resplendent closing mashup of the Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back,” and Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke.” 84-year-old saxophone player Charlie Gabriel got the crowd cheering as he walked across the stage playing the saxophone with one hand behind his back.
After waiting five long years for the Dawes/Delta Spirit/Deer Tick supergroup to get back together, Middle Brother did not disappoint the Newport crowd. Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes, John McCauley of Deer Tick, and Matthew Logan Vasquez of Delta Spirit balanced McCauley’s rowdy, defiant spirit, Goldsmith’s endearing sense of melancholy, and Vasquez’s gritty, energizing vocals and sense of true showmanship. The band’s limited discography guaranteed a set list full of hits, including “Blue Eyes,” “Middle Brother,” “Wilderness,” and “Me, Me, Me.” With Dawes band members Griffin Goldsmith on the drums and Lee Pardini on keys, the group roared through their entire self-titled album from 2011, in exact order, joined by Kam Franklin of The Suffers and husband and wife duo Shovels and Rope.
The Americana roots inspired music of Phil Cook‘s Southland Revue is the type of music that despite being brand new, feels like you’ve always known the songs. Their music is warm and inviting. Cook’s slide guitar beckons the listener to come closer, offering insights into Appalachian history and folksy truths. Among the highlights were “Great Tide” and “Ain’t It Sweet.”
Elvis Costello’s “solo act” was anything but. Accompanied on mandolin and steel guitar by Rebecca and Megan Lovell of The Lovell Sisters acoustic folk trio, Costello played “Pads, Paws & Claws,” “Blame It On Cain,” and “Clown Strike.” The Preservation Hall Jazz Band jumped on stage for “Sulfur To Sugarcane” and a Costello classic, “Side by Side,” with Middle Brother finally joining the party for “Every Day I Write The Book” and Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love and Understanding.” Costello played a new tune from his upcoming 17-song musical adaptation of the Budd Schulberg story, A Face In The Crowd. “It’s an all-tap-dancing, all-singing, all-everything-you-want musical,” Costello said, before launching into the title track. “If you feel put-upon, I’ll be your champion, because you’re angry, and I feel that too,” he crooned. “You’re more than a face in the crowd.” In the as-yet unreleased “American Mirror,” Costello sang, “There’s a smear, and there’s a crack, and there’s words you can’t take back… we’re all in this American mirror.”
Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros made up for lost time in a late set with a wild and freewheeling show, with Alex Ebert dancing into the crowd during “Man On Fire,” alternating behind the stage and the audience, crawling over chairs and flailing through the aisles throughout the rest of the show. The ten-member band carried Ebert’s antics beautifully, as he floated along through “Up From Below” and “Janglin.” When ten members just weren’t enough, the band invited The Preservation Hall Jazz Band on stage. When that still wasn’t quite enough musicians, Ebert brought an audience member up on stage to sing a verse of “I Don’t Wanna Pray.” Though the show delighted and dazzled, the absence of vocalist (and only female member of the now all-male band) Jade Castrinos was palpable, following her departure last year. The void was felt most strongly during a begrudged version of “Home,” sang mostly by the crowd, and peppered with sweet moments: confessions from one audience member that the band’s music had helped with anxiety disorder, and the proclamation from another that “everyone is my soul mate!”
Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard commands attention when she is on stage. Her facial contortions and wild strumming on her bright aqua blue guitar look like they could bring even the rowdiest crowd to a silent hush. The band was late coming on to the stage, but they were worth the wait, giving one of the stand out performances of the weekend, and earning their position as the final act of the Newport Festival. Howard’s soulful squeal on songs like “I don’t Want To Fight No More” and “Heartbreaker” were enough to give you chills. The set was perfectly paced as well, with a mix of slow and uptempo songs including a beautiful rendition of “Gospel Song.” Alabama Shakes ended their set with a cover Bob Seger’s “Night Moves,” and sent the audience into the night excited for next year.