Fifty years ago at this same festival, Bob Dylan went electric and shook up the crowd. Some things haven’t changed– this year’s lineup had us all shook up too. No longer does the Newport Folk Festival solely remain in the folk bracket, nor has it for quite some time. In the past couple of years, festival organizer Jay Sweet has ushered in an entire new demographic of music lovers by appealing to their interests, carefully choosing performers like Deer Tick and Dawes in the festival’s lineup. A decade ago, George Wein had trouble selling tickets. Now the damn festival sells out in days. What else are a bunch of twenty-something-year-olds going to spend their money on?
There are two reasons why I love Nikki Lane: her legs, and because she’s a fuckin’ BOSS. A strong woman with even stronger songwriting skills, Nashville’s outlaw sweetheart stole the audience with her wit and charm. “This one’s about my ex-husband,” she told the crowd, joking that if she heard the lyrics sooner she could have saved her “mama from having to pay for a wedding.”
Under the Harbor Tent, Tommy Stinson tore up a rug with Luther Dickinson and bassist Catherine Popper, who was still flying high from opening up for Neil Young with her band Puss ‘N Boots just days before the festival.
JP Harris left his big electric band behind and got soft on acoustic, crooning Doc Watson tunes under the Family Tent as all the little kids danced in front of their adulating parents. Another highlight under this tent were The Suffers, a fusion of gulf coast soul as big as the state they call home. These ten Houston musicians, who have been on the road for three straight months, bring a colorful blend of influences from each other’s various backgrounds – full of big brass and thumping bass – creating an ebullient sight that’s as much fun to watch as it is to listen to. No wonder they were invited to perform at Deer Tick’s renowned After-Party at the Newport Blues Café the night before. Drawing comparisons to Cheryl Lynn and Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard, front lady Kam Franklin is a perfect blend of then and now.
Under the Harbor Tent, hearts were aflame for J. Mascis’s poignant delivery of “Fade Into You.” Passers-by on their way to Hozier and Shakey Graves at the festival’s two larger stages would stop in their tracks, completely in awe. Comparisons exist not when it comes to J. Mascis, the kind of performer who is able to integrate all externalities: emotion, choice, strategy, knowledge of the environment and the mood of the crowd, in such a way that allows him to change himself and in turn changes us.
An equally inspiring performance came from Brooklyn troubadour Christopher Paul Stelling, who closed his set with a marriage proposal to long-time girlfriend and singing partner, Julia Christgau. A year ago, Stelling was playing his heart out at the festival’s open mic tent. Little did he know that festival organizers were taking notes for next year’s lineup.
For the finale, dubbed ’65 Revisited, plenty of surprise guests made this year one for the books. Honoring the 50th Anniversary of Bob Dylan’s bold move to go electric, Gillian Welch, David Rawlings, Dawes, Al Kooper, Preservation Hall Jazz Band and many more took turns singing tracks like “Maggie’s Farm,” “Visions of Johanna” and “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.”
Deer Tick’s John McCauley and Ian O’Neil joined their friends for a rollicking take on “Outlaw Blues,” McCauley wailing out that signature rasp of his, “Well, I might look like Robert Ford/But I feel like Jesse James.” Also on stage was Bob Dylan’s 1964 Fender Stratocaster, the very same one that shook up the Newport crowd when he went electric fifty years prior. The guitar, which sold for just shy of a million dollars to NFL’s Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay, was lent to Newport Folk Festival to commemorate half a century of bold moves as intrepid as Dylan’s. O’Neil played the HELL out of that guitar, giving off his best Dylan demeanor, and making musicians everywhere jealous they weren’t given an opportunity as incredible as his. But the real cherry on top came in the form of a woman, “Rainy Day Woman #12 & 35” to be exact. Musicians hanging out in the wings hopped on stage and sang along as Deer Tick, Willie Watson and Preservation Hall Jazz Band led a chorus of, “Everybody must get stoned!”
And because the party must go on, Deer Tick and friends returned to the Newport Blues Café, topping the night off with a final After-Party of epic proportions. A friend of mine said it best, “When Dinosaur Jr. playing a Stooges cover set isn’t the single best thing that happened in a weekend, you had a pretty good weekend.”