Mark it down: 2017 is the year Newport Folk Festival fully embraced its reputation as a music event whose glory is due as much to who isn’t on the lineup as who is. The Rhode Island institution has a long history of surprising attendees with unannounced performances, from Johnny Cash introducing the world to Kris Kristofferson to 2015’s surprise appearances by My Morning Jacket and James Taylor. Kristofferson returned last year for a few secret sit-ins, but 2016 didn’t have the spark of the unexpected that had burned so hot just one iteration prior.
This year, however, the Folk Fest’s greatness practically hinged on what wasn’t revealed during the slowly unfurling lineup announcement. At first glance, the bill didn’t feel quite as strong as recent years — a problem we’re all just going to have to get used to following 2015’s flawless program. There were a lot of curious standouts, like a solo set from Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, Nancy And Beth featuring Megan Mullally and Stephanie Hunt with Nick Offerman, and Suzanne Vega. Even so, it lacked the immediate punch fans wait for with such anticipation throughout the year.
It all came into focus once the schedule was revealed, though. The conflicts on Friday and Sunday appeared outrageous, which only went to prove that the bill was actually as strong as ever. What’s more, it became clear how important collaborations were going to be this year. Many of the sets were explicitly pairings, like J.P. Harris and Old Crow Medicine Show’s Chance McCoy; Billy Bragg and Joe Henry; American Acoustic with The Punch Brothers and I’m With Her; or Alone & Together featuring Kevin Morby, Sam Cohen, Fruit Bats’ Eric Johnson, Joe Russo, and Josh Kaufman. And then there were the mysteries: the Chuck Berry tribute, the protest celebration called Speak Out, and the enigmatic Bill Withers tribute Grandma’s Hands Band. And there was, of course, one completely unannounced set scheduled for Sunday afternoon (which turned out to be Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats).
All of this felt extremely “Newport” and exciting, and it all just got even more thrilling as the weekend progressed and it became clear who not on the lineup was present. Margo Price, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, Shakey Graves, Deer Tick, MMJ drummer Patrick Hallahan, Sharon Van Etten, Lucius, Rayland Baxter, Kam Franklin of The Suffers, and Roger Waters — read that again: Roger Waters — all made appearances at some point. Many dropped in on multiple sets, as did people already on the bill like Jim James, who showed up to rip guitar solos with Angel Olsen or bang a cowbell with Preservation Hall Jazz Band. If you still felt uninspired by the bill as presented, you quickly realized that what was listed on the website was not going to be the complete story of Newport Folk Festival 2017.
Just as the lineup got better as the days rolled on, so did so many other things about the event. After threats of thunderstorms caused the festival to issue a warning statement days in advance, there was nary a drop of rain to fall on Fort Adams State Park during the actual performance hours. Sure, things got wickedly windy on Saturday, to the point where the harbor around the Fort Stage was more vacant of boats than I’ve seen in eight years at the festival. But if a few gusts is the most you can complain about, that’s not really a major problem.
There was also a sense of tension release that came from these three days of music. Just as NFF has been home to collaborative experiences, it’s also a place where political statements ring out from generations of guitars and voices. Considering the public discourse of the last year, one could have expected a whole bunch of enraged rants and calls to arms from performers. Save for a few offhand quips, however, there really wasn’t much talk of 45. Even the showstopping Speak Out performance was more about solace than anger, a welcome reprieve in this strained political atmosphere.
Besides, Newport Folk doesn’t hang on the politics — it’s about the music, first and foremost. Although the 2017 incarnation may have been slow to start in that regard, it was a steady build over the weekend, leading to a string of performances that will once again go down in the festival’s ever-growing legend. There were dozens of special sets this year, so read on to find out which were the 10 best.
Click through to read about our Top 10 sets of the weekend and peep our exclusive photo gallery.
10. Ben Gibbard
If it was surprising to see Ben Gibbard’s name on the lineup this year, the set he delivered was a complete shock — and an immensely pleasurable one, at that. The Death Cab for Cutie frontman morphed himself into an affable and engaging folk artist for the warm early evening performance. Gibbard doesn’t have a folk voice and was barely playing folk music by turning DCFC tracks (“I Will Follow You into the Dark”, “Title and Registration”) into slower acoustic songs, yet it somehow was all still entirely appropriate, a beautiful show from which it was hard to walk away. His banter was solid as always, as when he restarted “When the Sun Goes Down on Your Street” saying, “I only play it five times a year, so I wanna make sure I play it in tune.” The opener of “Such Great Heights” may have slipped a bit, but he opened with “Such Great Heights” at Newport Folk Fest, for Christ’s sake. Gibbard caught you off guard right from the start, gently beckoning you to release expectations and simply enjoy.
09. Dr. Dog
You can always count on Dr. Dog to bring the ruckus, and even at a folk festival they delivered. Despite being the second-to-last band to hold down the Quad Stage, they were the first ones I caught there who brought the entire crowd to their feet right from the beginning. The Philly outfit have a huge discography and not everything is a smash, but with a set list built on winners like “Broken Heart”, “Bring My Baby Back”, and “Nellie”, it’s hard to fail. Theirs was a no-nonsense set light on banter and heavy on jams, which fit the theme of Sunday being the best day of music and vibes the whole weekend. It’s almost surprising they’d never played the fest before, but they certainly made themselves at home in front of the eager crowd.
08. Jim James
Jim James has been one of the Newport Folk Festival’s most prominent voices as it’s redefined itself and the genre over the last few years. He’s rocked out with My Morning Jacket, solo, with New Multitudes, and as a special guest dozens of times, always bringing the massive presence to which his fans are accustomed. So seeing him walk out in front of a packed Quad Stage with just an acoustic guitar was an unexpected turn. The crowd thinned as they realized he wasn’t going to deliver a ripper of a set, but watching James present a series of songs about social awareness (New Multitudes’ “Changing World”), self-care (Johnnie Frierson’s “Have You Been Good to Yourself”), and chasing dreams (MMJ’s “Bermuda Highway”) was a reminder of why this man has been so central to this generation’s NFF. He presented himself as a modern folk champion of spiritual soundness — like his story about finding your spirit animal and accepting the whims of fate — as well as master musician. While some of his solo material didn’t soar in the stripped-down setting (“Same Old Lie”), other bits reached new heights (“We Ain’t Getting Any Younger Pt. 2”). There were also rarities like MMJ’s unrecorded “Throwback (When We Were Young)”, and James stayed quirky with playful vocal fluctuations throughout the performance. It all came together for a uniquely Newport set from an artist’s whose importance to the fest can’t be overstated.
07. The Wild Reeds
Young guns really get their shot at NFF thanks to its patient and attentive audiences, and Los Angeles’ The Wild Reeds were gifted two such shots. They played early Friday, but I caught them Saturday evening at the second night of Deer Tick’s infamous Newport Blues Cafe afterparties. There’s any number of harmonizing, female-fronted indie folk bands these days, but the women of Wild Reeds separated themselves by also being true beasts behind their instruments. Sharon Silva, the slightest of the three, proved the most ferocious, admitting herself she was feeling a bit “agro” that night. She captivated right from opener “Capable” while her sisters-in-arms, Kinsey Lee and Mackenzie Howe, traded off the spotlight for most of the set. The true highlights were when they worked off each other, of course, as when Howe bounced back and forth between the others on the outro of “Fall to Sleep” or when they tagged some of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” to closer “Only Songs”. It’s tasty edges like that that made the Reeds my favorite discovery of the fest.
06. Fleet Foxes
As one of the most anticipated comeback acts of 2017, Fleet Foxes have a lot of expectations to meet. If their Friday headlining set — just their second North American date since returning — was any indication, Robin Pecknold and his outfit aren’t wholly phased by fans’ and the press’ baited breath. They are a well-oiled machine of gorgeous pastoral folk, and they will deliver it thusly, from opener “I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar” to closer “Helplessness Blues”.
That said, the pretty melodies lacked the spectacular elements they hold when sequenced on a proper record. The best moments were when Pecknold really tore in, as he did on “Grown Ocean”, or when The Westerlies’ horns joined in for “Mearcstapa” — in other words when they were willing to break their own mold, which they unfortunately didn’t do often enough. Which isn’t to short change their massive talents and spotless sound. I never saw them when Josh “Father John Misty” Tillman was the drummer, but The Walkmen’s Matt Barrick makes for a ridiculously strong touring percussionist. The band’s secret weapon, though, is undoubtedly multi-instrumentalist Morgan Henderson, as he can shift from keys to flute to sax without you even noticing.
Still, a sense of reserve held this set back from taking a higher spot on the list, perhaps because Pecknold could use a bit more time to re-acclimate to the stage (he seemed particularly unnerved when the band slipped up going into “Mykonos” and they had to restart). Some more trust in their sound and talents could open up future performances and move it from beautiful to stunning.
05. Angel Olsen
The wind was whipping hard on Saturday afternoon, so much so that sandbags were placed on mic stands to keep them down, and the screen adjacent the Fort Stage was lowered as a precaution. “Well, I tell ya what, it sure is windy up here,” Angel Olsen said before the final refrain of “Give It Up”. But even as her drummer removed his cymbals so they’d stop blowing over, she never did give up, turning in a powerful set of trouble-loaded indie folk. She was aided by Jim James’ guitar fire on “Sister” and “Those Were the Days”, though even without the MMJ frontman’s guest appearance, her performance still would have been more than enough to force the clouds away. That’s actually exactly what happened when she wailed on “Not Gonna Kill You”, as if the sun itself was shining its approval on Olsen’s rollicking set. As she brought in the warmth, she set the pace for the weekend’s progression into the rockier side of folk with a defiantly solid performance.
04. Margaret Glaspy
The Quad Stage has become the place to find rising singer-songwriters grabbing hold of an expanding audience, and it was Margaret Glaspy’s chance to do so this year. It didn’t take her long to win over the crowd; you could hear them whooping their approval during the final vocal refrain on “No Matter Who” or the dozen reiterations of “times I” during closer “Memory Street”. There were also plenty of familiar fans who showed their love before Glaspy even sang a word of “Situation” or “You & I”. Watching an artist captivate unfamiliar listeners is one of the joys of a good festival set, though, and that’s what you got with Glaspy’s distinct voice. It contains the slightest country cracks alongside sweet singer-songwriter allure, all with a subtle spike of ’90s venom that adds just the right hint of angst to her poetry. It all rang out clean and beautiful on early Sunday afternoon, earning a standing ovation that seemed to take the musician by surprise. She should get used to that sort of response soon enough.
03. Grandma’s Hands Band
There’s a rule that should be followed at any music fest, but holds doubly true at Newport: Never miss a mystery set. All we really knew for sure going into Grandma’s Hands Band was that it was a Bill Withers tribute set, something hinted at in the NFF app and the group’s name. Who could’ve guessed it would mark Justin Vernon’s first appearance at the festival? Bon Iver has seemed a White Whale inevitability for years, but here was the mastermind showing up unannounced at an unexplained tribute set.
Vernon joined Hiss Golden Messenger, Megafaun’s Phil Cook, Natalie Prass and special guests Hurray for the Riff Raff’s Alynda Segarra (“Grandma’s Hands”) and Patterson Hood of Drive-By Truckers (“I Can’t Write Left Handed”) to make people say, “I didn’t realize how many Bill Withers songs I knew.” (I overheard a guy actually say this as he left the set.) It was a turning point of the entire weekend, as it didn’t feel like Newport Folk until I noticed people walking through the grounds simply singing along to “Lean on Me” as they headed towards their destinations. From openers “Use Me Up” (HGM) and “Ain’t No Sunshine” (Vernon), it was clear this set was far more rehearsed than the Chuck! tribute the following day, and it will stick in memories far longer as a result.
“This is one of those Newport moments that started with just a bunch of people sitting around shooting the you-know-what,” festival producer Jay Sweet said to intro the one-off collaboration. That’s the kind of magic that makes Newport what it is, and Grandma’s Hands Band is one of its best tricks yet.
02. John Prine
It’s become increasingly rare for the legacy headliner to run away with Newport Folk, but John Prine is an American treasure for a reason — well, a number of reasons. One is his incredible songbook, something the 70-year-old double cancer survivor still performs with utter beauty and grace. I’ve heard “Angel from Montgomery” a number of times over my years at this fest, but never handled with the gentle grace its originator brought to his rendition. There’s also the man’s wit, sharp as ever as he joked about writing “Fish and Whistle” as an intentionally shitty song. “After singing it about 300 times, I kinda started to like it,” he said with his crooked smile. Even when he got political, he did so with humor, like when he dedicated “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You into Heaven Anymore” to “our current fuhrer … Adolfo Mussolini Trumpo.”
For the young guns unimpressed with a legend simply being a legend, however, Prine brought along a score of friends to impress any generation. Justin Vernon came out for “Bruised Orange (Chain of Sorrow)”, Jim James gazed lovingly at Prine during “All the Best”, Margo Price appeared to sing the classically raunchy duet “In Spite of Ourselves”, and Nathaniel Rateliff played off Prine’s own voice perfectly on “Sam Stone”. The biggest surprise appearance of the year came for “Hello in There” when Prine welcomed 2015’s headliner Roger Waters and his new backup singers, Lucius. Waters is currently on the Midwest leg of his Us + Them tour, but flew into Rhode Island to perform one song as a guest. Where else does that happen except Newport, and who else could make it happen except Prine? “I think Santa Claus is coming out next,” Prine joked as Waters departed and his own band returned. It certainly felt like Christmas (even to this Jew) when Waters, James, Vernon, Price, Rateliff, and everyone else at the festival returned to close out 2017 with an all-hands-on-deck version of “Paradise”.
01. Speak Out
Remember what I said earlier about not missing mystery sets? Speak Out is the prime example why. Billed simply as “a very special set to celebrate an artist’s freedom to write songs that reflect the times in which he/she lives,” there was the sense that this set was appropriate given 2017’s political milieu, yet its vagueness seemed to somehow temper excitement. That all changed when you got to the Fort Stage and saw members of The Decemberists/Offa Rex, My Morning Jacket, and Preservation Hall Jazz Band getting into place.
As wonderfully unexpected as Grandma’s Hands Band was, it’s Speak Out that’s going to go down as legend. It opened with a dirge version of “When the Saints Go Marching In” with Pres Hall at the helm, followed by a soaring rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” with MMJ’s Carl Broemel handling the guitar solo. Things went next level when Kyle Craft came out and straight murdered David Bowie’s “Heroes”. As far as I could tell, not a single person knew who Craft was when he took the stage; now, no one will ever forget him after what was undoubtedly the single best individual song of Newport Folk Festival 2017.
If the rest of the set couldn’t match the pure force of that one song, it certainly more than made up for it in star power. Shakey Graves and Rayland Baxter came out with members of The Texas Gentlemen and Nancy And Beth’s Stephanie Hunt to deliver a playful new song “about what our President tries to remind us every day,” “I’m Better Than You”. Even though it had never been performed before, the crowd was singing along with smiles on their faces by the final chorus. After all was said and done, the stage had been graced by Billy Bragg (Anaïs Mitchell’s “Why We Build the Wall”), Sharon Van Etten and Olivia Chaney (Sinéad O’Connor’s “Black Boys on Mopeds”), Jim James and Nick Offerman (Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War”), Margo Price (John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero”), The Lone Bellow‘s Zach Williams (an impassioned rendition of Jackson Browne’s “I Am a Patriot”), Lucius and the Berklee Gospel & Roots Choir (Stairsteps’ “O-o-h Child”), and Nathaniel Rateliff (Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son”, a perfect fit). Not one performer fell short of their task, and solos by Broemel and Pres Hall trombonist Ronell Johnson consistently wowed.
Still, the ringmaster of the entire affair, The Decemberists’ Chris Funk, reminded everyone this once-in-a-lifetime set was about more than just the music. “We’re playing all these songs so hopefully you can all go out there and do something about it,” he said at the midway point. It’s hard to say if the call to action was overshadowed by the incredible lineup of performers, but in an era of such utter political fatigue, perhaps that’s not the worst thing. Protest songs like these can be as much about comfort in the expression of shared experience as concrete rallying cries, both things 2017 desperately needs. Early Sunday evening, we received a dream helping of each during one unforgettable hour at Newport Folk Festival.
Click ahead for an exclusive gallery from Newport Folk Festival 2017.
Photographer: Ben Kaye