Newport Folk Festival returned to the blissful shores of Rhode Island along the Narragansett Bay this past week. Billed as “Newport Folk Festival presents Folk On!,” the usual three-day schedule was stretched to six, with attendance capped at 5,000 for each session (50 percent of the usual total) to help mitigate the threat of COVID-19. The result was a stripped-down and relaxed setting that looked to lead the way for the safe return of live music.
The festival added to its rich history with a tribute set to Black female folk singers—helmed by Allison Russell and billed as “Once and Future Sounds”—which saw a lineup of guests such as Yola, Adia Victoria, Joy Oladokun, and Amythyst Kiah take to the stage, along with surprise appearances by Brandi Carlile and a shock finale with Chaka Khan singing her classics “Ain’t Nobody” and “I’m Every Woman” joined by all the guest artists. Following 2018’s Jon Batiste–led “A Change Is Gonna Come” protest song tribute set that featured Mavis Staples, the fest has planted a flag for uplifting marginalized voices. Which is really folk at its best—the voice of the people.
Folk is also at its best at its most freewheeling, which was best embodied by the force of nature known as Langhorne Slim, who has become a fixture at folk weekends, barnstorming through the festival and swinging on stage with any artist he can. Embodying the spirit of the festival, he ended his own set on a chair in the middle of the crowd with a full-throated sing-along to “You Are My Sunshine” that felt like a cathartic release after an extended period away from live music.
With attendance capped at 5,000 each for the dual sessions, much of the lineup was left to speculation as the festival elected to let artists choose whether or not to announce their performances in advance themselves. Even the day of, some sets were listed as “TBD,” leaving fans to debate throughout the day. Some surprises included Jack Antonoff’s Bleachers’ first visit to Fort Adams—which, of course, set off countless rumors across the fest of Taylor Swift dropping by. But the Folklore singer, alas, did not make an appearance, though Antonoff would drop in for another surprise later in the week.
After the threat of storms forced the first night of the festival to close early, interrupting Grace Potter’s set after just a couple songs and cancelling Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats altogether, both stuck around—Grace opening up the festival the next morning and Rateliff sticking with his band for the weekday session after playing his own solo set over the weekend.
Two-thirds of boygenius were in attendance, with Lucy Dacus performing a set during the opening session and Julien Baker on the mainstage the final day of the festival. Phosphorescent played their first-ever acoustic show, while Sunday Morning’s Marvin Gaye tribute set from Devon Gillfillian proved to be one of the true highlights of the weekend, bringing a much needed gospel-inspired celebration to the Fort that brought the rest of the festival to life.
Satirical songwriting legend Randy Newman blurted out expletives as he at one point seemed to forget the lyrics to his beloved “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” from Toy Story, but it didn’t seem to dampen the spirits of the kids dancing around in the front row. After performing her own set on the Main Stage Saturday, Waxhatchee’s Katie Crutchfield joined partner Kevin Morby during his set the following day, opening the set with a touching cover of Bob Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me Babe,” pressed against a shared mic.
Returning to Newport Folk after a headlining set in 2013, and to the stage for the first time since the pandemic, as was the case with many performers, Beck brought a stripped-down set to the Fort that didn’t hold back. After firing off covers of Prince’s “Raspberry Beret” and a snippet of Joni Mitchell, Sharon Van Etten guested for "Asshole," Jack Antonoff for "Everybody's Got to Learn Sometime," and while in the middle of the sentimental “Lost Cause,” Fred Armisen "interrupted" the set, pulled out a drum kit to soundcheck for his supposed 1 a.m. rave set. The set ended with Fred, Jack, and Beck jamming "Where It's At."
With the air of uncertainty surrounding the current state of the ongoing pandemic, Newport Folk Festival’s Folk On! stood as a long-awaited relief for many artists who were joyed to be playing to live audiences for the first time in many months and crowds that couldn’t help but flock together.
See more highlights from the fest in the gallery below.