The 9 Best Sets At Newport Folk Festival 2018


Words by: Jeffrey Greenblatt

Photos by: Kevin Felix

Newport Folk Festival 2018 :: 7.27-29.18
Fort Adams State Park :: Newport, RI

Check out a gallery of Kevin’s photos towards the bottom of the review.

As Langhorne Slim put it during his late-Sunday afternoon set, the Newport Folk Festival seems to come around at the right time every year just when you need it. It might have been the most succinct way of summing it up. It’s a chance to hit the pause button on the 24-hour news cycle that bombards us. To step back and renew, recharge and embrace the power of live music. That point was hammered home with the banner greeting everyone as they walked into the festival each day prominently featuring a quote from the late Pete Seeger that read: “We’re stronger when we sing together.”

For three days at the historic Fort Adams State Park in scenic Newport, Rhode Island music lovers come together not for VIP stage access, curated brand experiences, Instagramable festival fashion, celeb-sighting or, as the festival’s executive producer Jay Sweet often mentions, to ride a Ferris wheel. Newport Folk has none of that. People go simply because they know that they will be treated to a weekend full of music where people are present, engaged and not intimidated that they bought their tickets months before knowing who would play.

The 2018 edition of Newport will be remembered for a lot of things. First and foremost for a lineup that prominently featured women, something for which other fests have come under scrutiny. From Brandi Carlile to Margo Price to Courtney Barnett to Jenny Lewis, female voices made a statement. It was also the year that Nashville came to Newport. The fest boasted a lineup heavy on country-leaning acts, as well as one full of musicians that make Music City their home. That combination certainly helped in adding to the communal aspect that the fest is known for.

The weekend once again featured a number of unexpected, high-profile appearances from the likes of John Prine, David Crosby, Warren Haynes and James Mercer of The Shins who all showed up to just play a handful of a songs. The question now has become not will more people show up, but who will show up.

2018 was also the year that Sweet once again tested the waters on his not-so-secret plan to not reveal the lineup until people walk through the gates with an unannounced Saturday headlining slot. Rumors and speculation of that set being filled by Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young or Paul Simon may have unjustly set expectations too high. Mumford & Sons, making their Newport debut, shared the stage with a number of guests providing a special “anything can happen” headliner set.

With almost 80 sets of music spread across four stages, ranging from Sidi Toure’s groove-based songhaï blues to JD McPherson’s retro rock ‘n’ roll sounds to Tank & The Bangas hip-hop-infused dance party to The Lone Bellow’s earnest folk-stomp, here are the nine best sets that I saw:

Margo Price, Fort Stage

With an early afternoon slot on Friday, Margo Price set the bar high for rest of the weekend. Unexpectedly introduced by John Prine, Price rolled through a power-packed country-soul revue showing a crowd in New England just how they do things down in Nashville. Showcasing her many sides, Margo deftly moved from a singer-songwriter with “Don’t Say It” to hip-shaking, tambourine tapping Tina Turner acolyte with “Do Right By Me” to psychedelic country rocker with a jammed out version of “Cocaine Cowboys” that saw her get behind a second drum-kit as they took the track from All American Made on an extended excursion.

During her first appearance at Newport back in 2016, Price memorably teamed up with country legend Kris Kristofferson on a version of “Me & Bobby McGee.” This time around with Prine the pair dueted on his quirky, yet endearing love song “In Spite Of Ourselves.” Two songs later Price would welcome out her second guest as Brandi Carlile, who was hanging out for the entire weekend, emerged for a powerhouse singalong take on Dolly Parton’s empowering ode to working women “9 To 5.”

Ben Harper & Charlie Musselwhite, Quad Stage

Considering the fact that he comes from genuine West Coast folk royalty it was hard to believe that Ben Harper had never played Newport Folk. Harper was basking in the whole experience as he was casually hanging out and chatting with fans on the fest grounds prior to his set with harmonica legend Charlie Musselwhite. The duo’s hour-long performance was nothing short of a master class in the blues.

Pulling mostly from material from their latest studio album together No Mercy In This Land the pair’s mutual admiration society was evident throughout. Harper’s soulful vocals and prodigious lap steel playing blended perfectly with Musselwhite’s decades-long mastery of the harmonica. The culmination of the two came together in a set-closing burner of a take on the traditional blues tune “When The Levee Breaks.”

Sturgill Simpson, Fort Stage

Dressed in a t-shirt, jeans, sneakers and a bandana tied around his head Sturgill Simpson looked like Nashville’s version of Rambo. The comparison certainly was on point as he approached his main stage set with a take-no-prisoners attitude. This was country rock channeled through Nirvana, Booker T. & The MGs and Mountain. Simpson barely paused as he and his top-notch band worked their way through a selection of originals and deeper cut folk, soul and blues covers.

Simpson’s soulful whiskey-worn country growl and fiery guitar solos had the perfect foil with his turn on a dime touring band. As his blistering and seemingly all-too-quick set came to an end, Simpson shouted out to his impressive band after an aborted take on “All Around You” from 2016’s A Sailor’s Guide To Earth. After jettisoning his out of tune guitar for another saying he didn’t want to play that song anymore, he revealed that his band could handle the fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants change since they hadn’t used a setlist in five years.

Hiss Golden Messenger, Quad Stage

During their set Hiss Golden Messenger frontman MC Taylor declared “we’re running on a bag of Doritos and hope, but this is a special place to us.” Taylor has seemingly fallen under the spell of Newport while finding a spiritual home. He’s also found a kindred brother in Sweet, who has been game to let Taylor color outside the lines by helping to put together some collaborative sets. The North Carolina-based act hit Newport Folk in peak form after spending the majority of July on the road. Alongside the ever-enthusiastic multi-instrumentalist Phil Cook and longtime associate and sometime HGM member, guitarist Josh Kauffman, the band was loose and jammy, delivering a quintessential set of soulful roots-rock rooted in the American South, and filtered through the Grateful Dead and The Band.

Beneath The Sacred Mountain, Quad Stage

With last year’s Grandma’s Hands Band tribute to Bill Withers, a precedent was set that a mysteriously named act could be programmed and people would enthusiastically show up out of sheer curiosity. This year that distinction went to Beneath The Sacred Mountain, which was billed as a “cosmic American revue” with Fruit Bats’ Eric D. Johnson as the defacto musical supervisor supported by The Spacebomb House Band, along with Cook on keyboards, Taylor and Kaufman on guitar and a rotating array of guests. What unfolded over roughly the next hour was arguably one of my favorite sets of the weekend.

Opening with The Byrds’ “Wasn’t Born To Follow,” which features lyrics that the program took its name from, the collective served up a selection of country-rock tunes that were mostly recorded in the late-1960s and early-1970s. Bedouine offered up Emmylou Harris’ “Easy From Now On,” while The Watson Twins assisted on a take on The Flying Burrito Brothers’ “Sin City.” Jerry Garcia’s “Deal” followed, which may have been the first time a Grateful Dead song had been played at the fest since Robert Hunter’s set in 2014. The biggest surprise of the performance came when James Mercer emerged to sing lead on a trio of songs that included The Louvin Brothers’ “The Christian Life,” The Everly Brothers’ “Cathy’s Clown” and CSNY’s “Helpless.” The stage filled for the final song of the set as Link Wray’s “Le De Da” was lovingly dedicated to Richard Swift, who recently passed away. The tune from Wray’s 1971 self-titled cult classic, which Johnson noted was one of Swift’s favorites, provided a cathartic release to many of the musicians collected on stage that knew and worked with him.

Jenny Lewis, Quad Stage

It was hard to predict just what Jenny Lewis was going to do with her Newport appearance. The last time she played the festival was back in 2014 in support of her third full-length effort. In the four years since, she celebrated the 10th anniversary of her solo debut with a tour, helped write some songs for Jimmy Buffett’s Broadway musical Escape To Margaritaville and released an album of electro-tinged indie-pop under the moniker Nice As Fuck. The indie-rock veteran smartly choose to deliver a career-spanning set that leaned on her introspective, soulful, Laurel Canyon-influenced material.

Dressed like a psychedelic hipster rodeo queen and assisted by The Watson Twins throughout, Lewis had the Quad Stage audience up and on its feet from the start. “The Big Guns,” “Rise Up With Fists!” and the coordinated booty-shaking dance moves on “See Fernando” highlighted Jenny and The Twins portion. The reflective anthemic “With Arms Outstretched” from Lewis’ days in Rilo Kiley was a much-welcomed treat. The set-closing campfire sing-along on “Acid Tongue” saw Lewis call out the artists that were watching side-stage to join her as Lukas Nelson, Lucius and The Watson Twins formed the backing band for the gospel-tinged folk tune.

Passenger, Fort Stage

With a music video that has over 1.9 billion views on YouTube (yes, billion), it could be argued that Passenger was the biggest act that played Newport this year. Armed with a just an acoustic guitar the British singer-songwriter, who has 10 albums to his credit, disarmed the main stage crowd with his affable personality and instantly likable, breezy folk songs that were perfect for an early Sunday afternoon slot.

Passenger mixed material from throughout his catalog, which included the aforementioned mega-hit “Let Her Go,” which he joked was written before the similarly named song from Frozen, a reworked cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Sound Of Silence” and “I Hate,” which could be described as “Alice’s Restaurant” for the 21st century. The 34-year-old also played a bonus pop-up busking set later in the afternoon behind the Quad Stage, which opened with a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing In The Dark,” quite possibly as a cheeky nod to rumors of The Boss being the unannounced headliner.

Nicole Atkins, Harbor Stage

Nicole Atkins proper Newport debut was one of those stop in your tracks performances that immediately pulls you in. The Neptune, New Jersey native had a “star is born” set for those who were unfamiliar with her booming voice. For those who have followed her career, it seemed like Atkins was finally having her breakthrough moment. Atkins, who has had career-defining moments before which included a pair of memorable appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman and dueting with My Morning Jacket’s Jim James on New Year’s Eve at Madison Square Garden, has finally figured out all the right ingredients for her musical strew.

Backed by a meaty band that included a horn section and backing vocals from The Watson Twins, Atkins showcased material from 2017’s Goodnight Rhonda Lee. Using self-deprecating humor to introduce some of her songs about her drinking days, Atkins commanded the stage, pouring all of her emotions into her songs and fusing her love of Brill Building pop through Springsteen’s Jersey Shore grease band rock and soul.

Here’s photos from Newport Folk ’18 thanks to Kevin Felix followed the rest of Jeff’s review:

Langhorne Slim & The Lost At Last Band, Harbor Stage

If there was one performance that embodied the spirit of the Newport Folk Festival this year it was the one from Langhorne Slim. His late in the fest set was a celebration of the soul-healing power of music. The Philadelphia-native brought a infectious joyous energy and unbridled enthusiasm to a giant crowd at the Harbor Stage. While there were plenty of highlights during his set, which saw takes on “The Way We Move,” “The Spirit Moves” and “Cinderella,” they all seemed to take a back seat to when Langhorne invited his mom out on stage.

The self-proclaimed “mama’s boy” proceeded to talk about all the love and support she provided him when he was growing up and learning to play music. There was hardly a dry eye to be found, especially on stage, when he spoke about demoing songs for her. The pair then sang “Diamonds & Gold” together, one of Langhorne’s early songs that when he first played it for his mom she called it the most beautiful thing she had ever heard.