Concert Review: Newport Folk Festival 2023 — Honoring the Past But Looking Toward the Future
By Paul Robicheau
The real magic of the 2023 Newport Folk Festival didn’t arrive via high-wattage cameos but by way of the quality and quantity of collaborations from its homegrown community of musicians — as well as the cultural diversity of its lineup.
Anyone who approached the Newport Folk Festival with expectations for surprise guests as seismic as Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon were last year could have been disappointed over the weekend. Yeah, James Taylor filled in on an hour’s notice after upstart Noah Kahan canceled for doctor-ordered vocal rest, providing what he called “emergency folk music” in his ’70s balm of “Fire and Rain” and “You’ve Got a Friend.” And scheduled pop goddess Lana Del Rey drew a level of worship among young followers that evoked the awe given Mitchell’s appearance — and, during a piano cameo by producer Jack Antonoff, Del Rey sang Mitchell’s “For Free,” as she did on her 2021 album Chemtrails Over the Country Club.
But the real magic of the 2023 Newport Folk Festival arrived not via high-wattage cameos but by way of the quality and quantity of collaborations from its homegrown community of musicians — as well as the diversity of a lineup embracing African acts, jam bands, indie punks, and soul singers within its broad bucketful of “folk.”
A sense of community loyalty was embodied in Sunday’s main-stage bookends. Maine troubadour Dan Blakeslee spent the past decade as Newport’s resident busker, getting to know people coming through the gates. But on Sunday, he took center stage with his octopus-overlaid guitar and acquitted himself beautifully with well-honed craft and gratitude, closing with “What a Wonderful World.”
In turn, flatpicking supernova Billy Strings, who graced the small Harbor stage with fellow bluegrass prodigy Molly Tuttle only two years ago, graduated to festival closer with his crack band. While his guest-free 75 minutes didn’t permit the exploratory heights of his recent tour, Strings’s nimble mix of pure bluegrass standards and jam-shot originals (with Beatles quotes thrown into “Pyramid Country”) suggested he has the jaw-dropping chops to do for bluegrass what Stevie Ray Vaughan did for the blues.
The fest’s family-like aesthetic ran strong even among Newport Folk alumni who weren’t billed to perform yet and turned up for cameos, including Tyler Childers, Neko Case, Margo Price, Valerie June, Erin Rae, SG Goodman, and members of Deer Tick. Some fit into a Folk Family Revue of radio hits from 1973, highlighted by Robert Ellis’s feisty lead on “Crocodile Rock,” Deer Tick’s John McCauley’s conducted sing-along of “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” Madison Cunningham’s sublime take on George Harrison’s “Give Me Love,” and Phil Cook’s harmonica solo on “Heart of Gold,” bailing out Caamp’s Taylor Meier when he forgot the lyrics. Valerie June sang “Midnight Train to Georgia,” accompanied by Floyd Pepper of the Muppets. Newport Folk has an odd association with those puppets. The character Animal also popped up to “play” drums with Goose (for the song “Animal,” natch) and My Morning Jacket.
My Morning Jacket topped Friday’s lineup, opening with a jam-extended “Steam Engine” and hosting Maggie Rogers for Fleetwood Mac’s “Say You Love Me,” then Margo Price and John Oates for a beefy version of Carole King’s “I Feel the Earth Move.” Alas, a loudly muddy drum mix marred the set even before Animal joined for “One Big Holiday.” In her own set, Rogers displayed more poise and confidence than she did at the festival in 2019. She brought out violin/cello duo Sista Strings for “Want Want” and Del Water Gap (who flashed a cocky sense of showmanship in his earlier set, whether wielding a guitar or a handheld mic) for “New Song.”
Friday’s most unusual, invigorating collaboration came from the Eastern Medicine Singers. The Rhode Island-based Algonquin group, dressed in ceremonial outfits, formed a circle to pound a communal drum and chant accompanied by an experimental noise-rock band sporting guitarists Lee Ranaldo (of Sonic Youth fame) and Yonatan Gat as well as Swans bassist Christopher Pravdica. It was a glorious clash of genres that must have left mixed reactions in the pre-Lana crowd. Another interesting (but underattended) set came on the smallest stage for Heavy MakeUp, where Edie Brickell — Paul Simon’s wife, known for fronting ’80s group the New Bohemians — improvised vocals to CJ Camerieri and Trever Hagen’s trumpets and electronics.
Other Friday standouts included the old-school soul group Thee Sacred Souls (whose singer Josh Lane eluded persistent security to run the aisles), punchy British retro-rockers the Heavy Heavy and chiming New Zealand pop-rock band the Beths, whose singer Liz Stokes paused to collect herself in the heat. (See Arts Fuse interview with Stokes.) The day began strong with Ron Gallo, who played indie-punk with tinges of jazz and surf music plus a song about addiction, “I Love Someone Buried Deep Inside of You.”
North African guitar firebrand Mdou Moctar was the first of daily African acts that lifted the central Quad stage, his honed Tuareg/rock fusion groove inevitably building in intensity. Oakland’s stripped-down Orchestra Gold levitated psychedelic rock in a Malian way, while Jupiter & Okwess repped the Congo, respectively benefiting from animated singers in Mariam Diakite and the long-limbed Jupiter Bokondji. Both bands conveyed joy, but Okwess had the edge in its rhythmic weave of dancing guitarists and a drummer in a wrestling mask.
Saturday showed more loyalty in having local singer MorganEve Swain, who played Newport with husband Dave Lamb in Brown Bird before his 2014 death, open Saturday’s main stage with strings-laden outfit the Huntress and Holder of Hands. Likewise, the Backstreet Lovers moved from the Quad stage to the main Fort stage, sharing grungy droning as well as rocking abandon from megawatt-smiling frontman Josh Harmon. And a year after making one of those unbilled cameos at Newport, Craig Finn returned for a reunion of his rock outfit the Hold Steady, turning the Quad into a party pit with surging Springsteen-ian energy.
Other highlights on Saturday ranged from the country twang of Jaime Wyatt to the introspective indie-folk of Indigo de Souza. But R&B/soul singer Danielle Ponder likely turned the most heads on Saturday with a balance of power and emotion that rang across the Fort Adams State Park peninsula. An attorney who quit her job to tackle music at age 40, Ponder paid tribute to Tina Turner with a slow “River Deep, Mountain High” and torched Radiohead’s “Creep.” But her best moments came in personal songs of redemption like “The Only Way Out” and “So Long.”
Saturday rounded out with the melancholy calm of both Angel Olsen and Aimee Mann, the country of Turnpike Troubadours (joined by Tyler Childers for John Prine’s “Paradise”) and the tender/snarling songcraft of Jason Isbell and his 400 Unit, with an apt cameo from the Troubadours’ Evan Felker on “King of Oklahoma.” Isbell mined 2023’s great Weathervanes after opening with a devastating “Cover Me Up,” which drew cheers from fans for its lyric professing sobriety “forever this time.”
But with thunderstorm alerts pending, Saturday’s closing set from Jon Batiste & Friends proved anticlimactic. The former late-night bandleader went from an extended “rain dance” (isn’t that opposite the point?) with Native American singers to a meandering tour-de-force where Batiste played piano, guitar, and saxophone, backed by a band including drummer Steve Jordan, guitarist Brandon “Taz” Niederauer, and guest singer Lauren Daigle, singing “Down by the Riverside” and a “When the Saints Coming Marching In” procession before they ended early, with the rain arriving more than an hour later.
Sunday’s lineup included fine performances on the smaller stages, including the lively Harlem Gospel Travelers and cheeky pop singer Remi Wolf, who stormed the stage in a gray T-shirt and baggy shorts like she just hopped out of the crowd. And Dawn Landes offered a timely tribute to Sinead O’Connor by singing “Black Boys on Mopeds.” But the main stage was where the action was on Sunday, from the Flatt and Scruggs bluegrass of the Earls of Leicester (with Jerry Douglas on dobro but no sign of Billy Strings, who’d sat in with those masters before) to the Black Opry Revue, an impressive line of country artists of color, sharing lead and background vocals, from Nikki Morgan’s effusive “Real Good Time” to Tylar Bryant’s honky-tonk “Put Her on My Tab.” Los Lobos toasted its 50th anniversary with cameos by (a surprisingly hard-to-hear) Neko Case, Deer Tick’s McCauley (whose first concert was Los Lobos at Newport in 1988), and Wilco guitarist Nels Cline, who skittered leads across Grateful Dead chestnuts “Not Fade Away” and “Bertha” before the group trudged through a grungy twist on “La Bamba.”
Then it was Lana time. Screams greeted Del Ray’s arrival on a stage decorated with floral bouquets and flanking mirrors. Her vocals were as airy and unchanging as the sunny bayside weather. Still, her performative presentation was strange for Newport Folk, with six lithe dancers waving cloth streamers and red balls in a choreographed routine where the singer sat for a hairdresser in “Bartender.” But Del Ray saluted Rhode Island for her family connections, and she coincidentally tapped Newport Folk alums in Nikki Lane for a duet of “ Breaking Up Slowly” and Antonoff, who urged Del Ray to sing a sweet snippet of “Mariners Apartment Complex.”
On Saturday, folk singer Willi Carlisle noted the kind of tradition that’s largely lost in now-modern festivals like Newport before a poetic reading of Steve Goodman’s heartbreaking Vietnam protest song “The Ballad of Penny Evans.” Likewise, Billy Strings, while he ripped his acoustic guitar through phase-shifting effects and hair-whipping headbangs in “Turmoil & Tinfoil,” made just as resonant an impression when he stood alone sans guitar to sing the Doc Watson-popularized hymn “And I Am Born To Die.” Strings may be keeping bluegrass alive for the future, but he just as firmly keeps his hand on the pulse of its past.
Paul Robicheau served more than 20 years as contributing editor for music at the Improper Bostonian in addition to writing and photography for the Boston Globe, Rolling Stone, and many other publications. He was also the founding arts editor of Boston Metro.