Newport Folk Festival 2019: Best Of The Rest
Images by: Kevin Felix
For three days this past weekend the Newport Folk Festival at Fort Adams State Park in Newport, Rhode Island rivaled the Magic Kingdom as the happiest place on Earth. In fact, there was even an appearance by Kermit The Frog that really hammered that point home. With the event celebrating its 60th anniversary, executive producer Jay Sweet and his staff curated a lineup that honored the storied festival’s past, present and future.
Newport Folk has become the model for what modern music festivals should strive for. A diverse bill that this year leaned in on showcasing that there are plenty of amazing and talented female acts that deserve to be headlining more festivals, a communal atmosphere that lends itself to collaborations and a place where attendees are energized by the power of live music and leave with a sense that they are ready to take on the world.
The 2019 edition was so loaded with powerhouse sets and unexpected moments that JamBase has spent much of this past week sharing the news what went down from Dolly Parton’s Newport coronation during “♀♀♀♀: The Collaboration,” to James Taylor’s surprise pop from a boat during Sheryl Crow’s set to Brandi Carlile, Jason Isbell, Benmont Tench and Preservation Hall Jazz Band playing with just about anyone that would have them.
To round out our coverage here is the nine best sets I caught outside of the headline makers:
Liz Cooper & The Stampede, Quad Stage (Friday, 12:05 p.m.)
A slow roar began to build as Liz Cooper & the Stampede were in the midst of an extended psychedelic jam early in the afternoon on Friday. The wave of sound moved from the front to the back of the tent as many attendees got up on their feet to enthusiastically cheer on Cooper and company who were turning an old Civil War era fort into the Fillmore, circa the late-1960s. The plethora of long-stemmed white flowers that were also being waved helped complete the Woodstock era peace and love vibe that was being emitted.
The Nashville-based act showcased material from their 2018 debut LP Window Flowers, with stand out versions of “Hey Man,” “Dalai Lama” and “Mountain Man” as Cooper and her band bounced around the stage and the act’s lead singer contorted her body with a backbend that would make a Cirque Du Soleil performer jealous. They even embraced the collaborative spirit of the weekend by inviting out Erin Rae to assist on vocals for “Motions.” While it wasn’t even 1 p.m. when their set ended, Cooper & The Stampede had me thinking it was going to be tough to top what they had just accomplished the rest of the weekend.
Charley Crockett, Harbor Stage (Friday, 1:50 p.m.)
“The Valley” captured by Sherri D
It was nothing short of a miracle that Charley Crockett played a set at Newport. The Texas native underwent a pair of life-saving, open-heart surgeries earlier this year for a congenital heart condition. That certainly didn’t seem to slow him down one bit as he was beaming throughout his set of what he’s coined “Gulf Coast Boogie Woogie.” Crockett, who cut his teeth busking on subway cars in New York City, was decked out in a decorative fire truck red Nudie-style suit and sounded something like a modern-day Bobby Charles. With a four-piece backing band, Crockett served up heaping helpings of an Americana stew that blended traditional sounds of Texas border Tejano music with honky-tonk, classic country and the blues as funneled through the swamps of Lousiana.
Crockett has become a curator of those sounds, releasing a series of cover albums alongside his own work. A take on George Jones’ “The Race Is On,” “How Long Will I Last” from his 2018 LP Lonesome As A Shadow along with a cover of Tanya Tucker’s 1972 hit “Jamestown Ferry” showed off the range of musical influences. Crockett and company concluded their set by gathering around a single mic for a string of bluegrass tunes that included Ralph Stanley’s “Single Girl.”
Cooks In The Kitchen, Quad Stage (Friday, 1:15 p.m.)
Phil Cook has become such a staple at Newport Folk that it seems impossible to have the festival without him being there in some capacity. Jay Sweet seemed to whole-heartedly agree as he echoed those sentiments in his introduction of the Cooks In The Kitchen set. The multi-instrumentalist, who was beaming with a perma-grin, was backed by his brother Brad on bass, along with a drummer and fiddle player. The loosely constructed set featured music from Phil Cook’s solo catalog along with a handful of guest turns.
The Tallest Man On Earth‘s Kristian Matsson made his first unannounced appearance of the weekend as he honored the queen of contemporary folk, Gillian Welch, by offering up “Rock Of Ages” from her sophomore album Hell Among The Yearlings and the Soul Journey cut “Back In Time.” Cook’s admiration for Amy Ray, who delivered an Alice Gerrard tune, had him proclaiming that he didn’t want to cry on the first day of the festival as he welcomed her out. The mutual-admiration society also included a turn from Anais Mitchell, who Cook heaped tons of praise on for her recent multiple Tony wins for Hadestown.
Steal Your Folk, Jane Pickens Theater (Friday, After-Show)
Prior to the start of the Steal Your Folk after-show, Jay Sweet took to the stage to share a story about telling Phil Lesh earlier in the day that he wouldn’t be doing what he is now if it wasn’t for seeing his first Grateful Dead show at age 12. Hosted by Phil Cook with a backing band from his Cooks In The Kitchen set, the after-show was a celebration of arguably the quintessential American band – the Grateful Dead.
Cook and company began the night with a tribute to Dr. John and Art “Poppa Funk” Neville by covering The Meters classic “Hey Pocky A-Way.” After an appearance from folk legend Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, who delivered a pair of tunes, a string of guests would dig in on the Dead’s repertoire. The Decemberists‘ Colin Meloy turned “Row Jimmy” into a true sea shanty while Nicole Atkins delivered a stunning and soulful turn on “Stella Blue.” When Jonathan Wilson finally emerged, the night switched from an affair akin to a first set to the second set as the songs began to get stretched out.
Prior to a take on “Bertha,” which also featured Atkins, the singer-guitarist shared a great story about touring as a duo with Bob Weir and his commitment to ever-changing setlists. Wilson wanted to play the rocker for the second night in a row but Bobby put the kibosh on it saying, “we won’t be playing that song again, in fact, we won’t be playing any song (we previously played) again.” A poignant “New Speedway Boogie,” an emotional “Days Between” that featured some of the best jamming of the night from Wilson and a take on “Fire On The Mountain” that featured Cedric Burnside on drums helped highlight the rest of the evening.
Songs For Beginners, Harbor Stage (Saturday, 12:05 p.m.)
If it wasn’t for Noname dropping out of the festival due to health issues, we never would have gotten this set. Sweet introduced this full rendering of Graham Nash’s 1971 solo debut by admitting that it was inspired after drinking some tequila and sending out a Tweet asking what band could cover his favorite track from the LP – “Used To Be A King.”
Hosted by Kyle Craft, a rotating cast of Newport All-Stars worked their way through the Nash record starting with Jonathan Wilson tackling the album’s opening track “Miltary Madness” with the help of the members of Mountain Man on backing vocals. Nicole Atkins and Deer Tick‘s Ian O’Neil teamed up for “Wounded Bird,” while Hiss Golden Messenger frontman MC Taylor got the nod for “Used To Be A King.” Gorgeous harmony-filled takes on “Be Yourself” that featured The Ballroom Thieves and Mountain Man and “Simple Man” that saw Colin Meloy, Anais Mitchell and The Milk Carton Kids share vocals. Later, Tallest Man On Earth’s Kristian Matsson tackled the LP’s still-relevant political anthems “Chicago” while the stage filled for the final sing-a-long on “We Can Change The World.”
Jupiter & Okwess, Quad Stage (Saturday, 1:25 p.m.)
Video captured by dpludd
It didn’t matter that Jupiter and Okwess barely uttered a word in English during their 50-minute set. The sextet, who hails from the Democratic Republic of Congo in Africa, had no problem conveying everything they wanted to say through their music. This was a non-stop, high-energy dance party that radiated positivity. Wearing bright Day-Glo outfits and backed by a drummer that was wearing a Mexican luchador mask, the band locked in on a number of hypnotic grooves rooted in Congolese Rumba that was reminiscent of Santana’s “Soul Sacrifice” fused with Funkadelic’s psychedelic thump and boundless energy that was turned all the way up to 11. The crowd was up and moving for the majority of the celebratory excursion with arms waving, hands clappings and enthusiastic cheering throughout. J&O teamed with Preservation Hall Jazz Band to close out their appearance for a full-on NOLA funk meets Fela Kuti Afrobeat throwdown leaving everyone sweaty and wanting more.
Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Fort Stage (Sunday, July 28)
“Mardi Gras Mambo” captured by Amy Karibian
Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s Sunday Groove sets are usually celebratory affairs. The legendary New Orleans act knows how to get a crowd moving at any time of the day. These sets have provided a much-needed jolt of energy on day three that even multiple cups of coffee can’t. For the 2019 edition of their permanent residency at Newport, the famed group used a portion of their set to celebrate a pair of the Crescent City’s recently departed icons with the help of some friends.
Nicole Atkins was up first as the Neptune, New Jersey-native dropped some gris-gris on the crowd with a slow-burn take on Dr. John’s “I Walk On Guilded Splinters.” Pres Hall then had rising Americana singer-songwriter J.S. Ondara join them to pay their respects to Art ‘Papa Funk” Neville by tackling “Mardi Gras Mambo,” a tune that Neville recorded as a member of the Hawketts in 1954.
Courtney Marie Andrews, Harbor Stage (Sunday, 2:25 p.m.)
Over the last handful of years, the Harbor Stage has hosted some of my favorite “can’t walk away from” sets. This year that award went to Courtney Marie Andrews. One year removed from playing solo acoustic at the Museum Stage, the singer-songwriter brought along her touring band for her 2019 slot. The booming-voiced Andrews delivered a slow-build set that was filled with her confessional gospel-soaked torch songs.
Road warrior tale “Two Cold Nights In Buffalo,” the heart-tugging “This House,” which Andrews dedicated to her dog Tucker and “Rough Around The Edges” provided emotional catharsis. It was “May Your Kindness Remain” and “Kindness Of Strangers,” which featured a guest spot from the ubiquitous Brandi Carlile that justly earned CMA multiple standing ovations.
Deer Tick & Friends, Newport Blues Cafe (Sunday, After-Show)
“Lawyers Guns & Money” captured by Chad
For the last nine years, the Newport Folk Festival hasn’t officially been over until Deer Tick and a stage full of their friends join in a rousing version of Lead Belly’s “Goodnight Irene” at the Newport Blues Cafe. The Providence-birthed band once again took up residence at the tiny club for a three-night, guest-filled run that came to a cathartic conclusion on Sunday night with a concert that ranks high on my list of the 30+ times I’ve seen them play.
The quartet began the night with “Bluesboy” from their recent odds and sods collection Mayonaisse along with raucous rockers “The Bump” and “Easy.” The evening’s first guest spot belonged to Courtney Marie Andrews, who teamed with John McCauley on a trio of duets. The recent tourmates brought down the house with a sing-along version of “You’re The One That I Want” from the Grease soundtrack. Bonny Light Horseman took over the stage for a cover of “Return Of The Grievous Angel” with Eric D. Johnson and Anais Mitchell playing the roles of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. Later, Sharon Van Etten emphatically belted out a punk-rock take on Pat Benatar’s “Heartbreaker.”
Taylor and Griffin Goldsmith of Dawes were the final two guests of the night. The augmented ensemble looked to a pair Warren Zevon cuts. “Lawyers, Guns & Money” came ahead of a must-hear version take on “Keep Me In Your Heart.” You could almost hear a pin drop during the completely unamplified take on the tune from Zevon’s final album, which was an impressive feat given the fact that these shows often lead to very rowdy crowds.
Not to be outdone by their guests, a scorching version of “Mange” helped close out the night. Prior to “Goodnight Irene,” McCauley announced that 2020 would be the final year of their after-shows, much to the dismay of most there. Sweet then used to opportunity dropped the news that as a celebration of their annual shows there would be a Deer Tick & Friends set at the Fort next summer, marking the festival’s first official lineup announcement just hours after the 2019 edition had ended.