Nine Top Sets From Newport Folk Festival 2015

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For those of us that have been attending the Newport Folk Festival for the last half-decade or so, it had earned the reputation of the little festival that could, heralded for truly being the “music fans’ music festival.” This is exemplified by the sublime setting at an old Civil War-era fort just off Newport Bay, the attentive audiences and the artists who truly projected a sense of both enthusiasm and community. Last year Newport Folk producer Jay Sweet wanted to show the rest of the world what they’ve been missing each year at the tiniest state in the union by dropping a lineup of heavy hitters (Jack White, Ryan Adams, Jeff Tweedy) and Newport favorites (Deer Tick, Dawes, Colin Meloy) that justly got the festival some well-deserved major media attention from everyone from Rolling Stone to the New York Times and beyond.

If last year was about the Newport Folk Festival staking its rightful claim as one of the premier music festivals going, than the 2015 edition was about why people continually make the pilgrimage there each and every summer. Yes, the big names were there (did anyone truly expect to see the name “Roger Waters” on this lineup?), but we also got surprise sets from My Morning Jacket and James Taylor (who was introduced as getting the chance to finish his 1969 set that was cut short by the moon landing, though he did play the fest in the late 1990s), as well as everything in between from the rising stars of the music world (Courtney Barnett, Leon Bridges) to old fest favorites who were showing up with new projects (Watkins Family Hour, Iron & Wine and Ben Bridwell). This was all capped with a set honoring the 50th anniversary of one of the most important sets of music ever played not only at Newport Folk, but quite possibly at any music festival ever, with the tribute to Bob Dylan going electric.

Over the course of the weekend I caught bits and pieces of roughly 28 sets of music – some passing through for a few songs, while others seeing the majority of the performance – so without further ado, here are my nine favorite sets from the weekend…

FRIDAY

Iron & Wine and Ben Bridwell – Friday, Quad Stage, 4:10 p.m. – 5:10 p.m.

This is the kind of collaboration that Jay Sweet loves having at Newport, and frankly who could blame him? This is the kind of pairing that usually is dreamt up by friends after several rounds of drinks in bar. The fact is, the mastermind behind Iron & Wine, Sam Beam, and Ben Bridwell of Band of Horses are childhood friends and have been looking to work together for quite some time. The pair’s recently released debut album Sing Into My Mouth is a jukebox collection of deep cut covers inspired by the mix tapes they would exchange with each other.

On Friday afternoon Beam and Bridwell brought the folk and country-tinged album’s songs to life. While much of the source material may have been unfamiliar to most, it was the counterpoint of Beam’s inviting honey-smooth vocals to Bridwell’s ghostly howls and a top-notch backing band that kept you from moving to another stage. Their cover of the Talking Heads “This Must Be The Place” encapsulates just how good these two sound together. The mutual admiration between the two even bled over into their setlist with the duo dutifully handling vocals on each other’s songs, blurring the lines even further.

Roger Waters & My Morning Jacket – Friday, Fort Stage – 6:30 p.m. – 7:30 p.m.

At this point we’ve come to expect the unexpected at Newport. Every time you think you figured out Jay Sweet’s secret formula for booking the fest he goes ahead and drops a name like Roger Waters on you and then you realize, yes, this makes absolute sense and why hadn’t I thought of this before! For his first full set performance since 2013 the former Pink Floyd bassist came with the promise of a special one-off set that was being put together exclusively for this appearance. While news spread that My Morning Jacket would not only play a surprise set prior to Waters, but also serve as his backing band much earlier that Sweet might have liked, it hardly took away from the mega-star power that was on stage on Friday evening.

Waters’ smartly planned out 10-song set featured something for everyone, with MMJ showing why they are one of the best live bands going right now. Those expecting Pink Floyd classics got that with stellar takes on “Mother,” “Wish You Were Here” and “Brain Damage” > “Eclipse” with the crowd exploding as he belted out the lyric “”I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon.” Those who maybe wanted something on the folkie side were rewarded with covers of tunes by John Prine, Buddy Miller (which was dedicated to Levon Helm) and Bob Dylan, as well as tunes from his solo catalog and even the debut of a brand new song. This was the kind of “only at Newport Folk” set that keeps people coming back each and every summer.

SATURDAY

Jason Isbell – Saturday, Fort Stage – 2:35 p.m. – 3:30 p.m.

Let’s get this out of the way up front, Jason Isbell is arguably one of the best songwriters going and on the verge of becoming a huge star. The singer-songwriter may also have been having the best weekend of any other performer on the bill as his recently released album Something More Than Free debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Country chart, and at No. 5 on the Billboard 200 Albums chart. Oh, and he also was bestowed the honor of getting to play Bob Dylan’s famed Fender Stratocaster that was used when he went electric at Newport in 1965, which hadn’t been played in public since that famous weekend 50 years ago. Isbell is part of a new breed of Southern songwriters that are redefining what it means to be from that part of the country. His songs are full of Southern gothic charm and character studies that paint a vivid picture of tragedy, love, redemption and everything in between.

Isbell captivated the masses at the Fort Stage, deftly moving between country, rock and folk tunes with his band the 400 Unit, declaring “it’s all folk music when it’s done right.” You couldn’t help but instantly be sucked into his career-spanning set, especially when Isbell turned on the Southern charm between songs. Older tunes like “Alabama Pines” and “Stockholm” sat comfortably next to new album cuts “24 Frames” and “Palmetto Rose” all punctuating that this isn’t your parents Southern rock, this is the 21st century version.

Sturgill Simpson – Quad Stage – 4:20 p.m. – 5:15 p.m.

If 2014 was the year that the blues made its comeback at Newport, than 2015 was the year that country music got its turn to shine, and there was no better person to punctuate that point than Sturgill Simpson. The 37-year-old singer-songwriter has become something of a posterchild for the new wave of country acts that are the antithesis to much of what gets labeled country music today. Simpson is helping to redefine the genre by bringing it back to the outlaw days of Willie, Waylon and Kris thanks in part to Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, his critically-acclaimed sophomore album of psychedelic-tinged country tunes and his take-no-prisoners live shows.

Surrounded by a four-piece backing band of top-notch players, Simpson tore through this Quad Stage set like a man possessed. Simpson’s honky-tonk baritone vocals were punctuated by guitarist Laur Joamets’ slide guitar playing that would make even the most seasoned Nashville session man green with envy. Tunes like “Long White Lines” and “Life of Sin” where played with raucous vigor working the packed tent into a frenzy. Simpson joked that “60 years ago he would have gotten booed off the stage,” despite being a little off with his reference, Newport audiences of any decade would have been hanging onto every one of his songs like they did this past weekend.

Deer Tick & Friends – Newport Blues Café – 11:30 p.m. – 1:00 AM

If you could point to one thing missing at this year’s festival it was the fact Deer Tick was nowhere to be found on the bill. After making their triumphant main stage debut last summer – donning tuxedos for the occasion – John McCauley & Co. were mostly just observers this year, being spotted taking in sets throughout the weekend. While they may not have performed at the festival proper, the ramshackle bar-band once again made the tiny Newport Blues Café their home base for a four-night guest- filled stand which has become an essential part of the Newport Folk experience.

Saturday night’s instant-classic show was a prime example of why these gigs sell-out within minutes. After opening with a string of their own material, the parade of guests and barrage of cover tunes began to show up at a fast and furious pace. Tommy Stinson was up first leading the charge with garage-rock versions of The Who’s “The Kids Are Alright” and The Beatles “I Wanna Be Your Man.” Robert Ellis and Heartless Bastards’ front woman Erika Wennerstrom teamed up for a take on the country karaoke classic “Islands in the Stream,” while Lucius’ Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig (who seemed to be everywhere this weekend) offered up a beautiful version of The Kinks’ “Strangers.” A spirited take on Bob Seger’s “Hollywood Nights” and Elvis Costello’s “Welcome to My Working Week” followed. The night came to a close with easily the most unexpected cover tune of the night: a spot-on version of the Grateful Dead’s “Touch of Grey.” Dedicated by McCauley to his daughter, who stated it was her favorite song and made her smile every time it came on the radio, the band had the entire bar singing the song’s famous chorus at the top of their collective lungs.

SUNDAY

John Batiste & Stay Human – Fort Stage 12:40 p.m. – 1:30 p.m.

Before John Batiste settles into his role as Stephen Colbert’s band leader this fall, he used part of his summer vacation to become one of the rare artists that have played both the Folk and the Jazz Newport festivals. Batiste and his supremely talented band Stay Human put on a master class on how to get a tired crowd on day three of a festival on its feet with his exuberant early-afternoon set. The animated Batiste was all smiles bringing the New Orleans spirit to the Northeast, using his time to offer up his unique interpretations everything to the “Star Spangled Banner” to “St. James Infirmary” to a must-hear gorgeous and moving solo piano version of The Beatles’ “Blackbird.”

Like all great New Orleans’ acts, Batiste & Stay Human weren’t afraid to get up close and personal with the crowd, ending their Fort Stage appearance by first sitting on the lip of the stage with an instrumental ‘sing-a-long’ take on “Killing Me Softly” and then getting in the mix by leading a second-line parade to put a punctuation mark on the proceedings.

Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats – Sunday, Quad Stage – 1:25 p.m. – 2:20 p.m.

I’m just going to go ahead and say it: Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats played my favorite set at Newport this year. The meaty seven-piece band, who will release their full-length album later this year via Stax Records, played one of those sets that people will be talking about for years to come. The charismatic Rateliff, who came off as some combination between John Belushi and Joe Cocker, led his band through roughly one hour of vintage grease-band garage-soul that touched on everything from gospel to doo-wop to blues and rock ‘n’ roll.

As Rateliff & Co. were taking everyone to church on stage, those collected under the tent clapped and hollered, eating up every song by the spoonful, while those just outside enthusiastically grooved together in an impromptu dance party straight out of American Bandstand. The true show-stopper came toward the end their set with a well paired one-two combo of the confessional “S.O.B.” and a spot-on cover of The Band’s “The Shape I’m In” that saw Dinosaur Jr. frontman J Mascis lend a hand.

Laura Marling – Quad Stage, 4:05 p.m. – 5:05 p.m.

When I penned my Newport Folk Wishlist back in February, Laura Marling’s name was among the acts I was hoping would make their festival debut this year. It’s almost certain that Jay Sweet had already booked the British singer-songwriter long before I suggested, but it sure made me smile when I saw she would finally make her long- awaited debut. Despite being a band member down due to immigration issues and having to play on borrowed equipment taboot, Marling soldiered on delivering a captivating set.

You could have heard a pin drop as the reigning Queen of Folk Music held the rapt attention of her audience, showcasing her winding emotionally charged story-songs and her dexterous guitar playing. Marling is redefining modern folk music and her career- spanning set put all of her styles on display, touching on everything from the bluegrass stomp of “Devil’s Spoke” to the galloping “Sophia” to the angsty “Master Hunter” to even what could be considered a straight ahead rocker in “Short Movie.”

’65 Revisited – Fort Stage, 6:15 p.m. – 7:30 p.m.

While there have been tons of memorable sets played at Newport over the years, there truly is only one that looms larger than any of the others and that’s Bob Dylan’s much discussed, debated and dissected 1965 performance where he seemingly shocked the folk world by plugging in an electric guitar to play a set three-song set of raucous and rowdy rock ‘n’ roll. There was a palpable buzz over the three days leading up to this fest closing celebration, as little was revealed other than the fact that it would include many performers that were not on the announced lineup. Rumors swirled of Bono showing up, while others were convinced that Dylan himself would make an appearance.

In the end what we got was an expertly curated set that honored that moment in time where Dylan looked to put his topical songwriting days behind him, as he forged ahead to what would become one of his most prolific and influential periods of his career. Anchored by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, with Dawes serving as the house band and augmented by Al Kooper (who played with Dylan on that fateful night) on organ, artists rotated on and off stage as they tackled some of the most iconic tunes of Dylan’s career.

Top to bottom there was little to not love about this set. Welch and Rawlings delivered a sublimely tender “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue,” while Willie Watson filled the folk troubadour role on “All I Really Want To Do.” Robyn Hitchcock prefaced his take on “Visions of Johanna” by declaring it as possibly the greatest songs ever written. It was Deer Tick’s John McCauley and Ian O’Neill’s take on “Outlaw Blues” though that stole the show. Thanks in part to some blistering harmonica work from McCauley and fiery guitar work from both Taylor Goldsmith and O’Neill, the ragged and boisterous rendition captured the very spirit of what seemed to divide Dylan fans 50 years ago.