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Newport Folk Festival 2018

Each year the Newport Folk Festival arrives with the promise of something special. And astonishingly, each year it delivers.

This year’s annual gathering of like-minded music lovers - now in its 59th year - again leaned on the alchemy of music, community, and optimism to forge one of America’s premier music festivals. The blend of notable newcomers (Tank and the Bangas, Khruangbin, War and the Treaty) woven with established legends (like Mavis Staples, John Prine, Toots and the Maytals) ensured a fabric of continuity that already has us looking forward to #60.

Friday brought sunshine and smiling faces, particularly as Margo Price’s smooth pop-country stylings got the capacity crowd to their feet, especially when she and Brandi Carlile belted out Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5”. Elsewhere, the gonzo tiki bar vibe of Glorietta, helmed by Matthew Logan Vasquez, kept the party vibe alive.

Saturday’s highlights included Hamilton Leithauser and Rostam Batmanglij teaming with a string quartet to give life to absolute gems like “Blackout”, “1000 Times”, and “Gwan”. Later, Tank and the Bangas bumped up the energy level up another notch in the Quad with inescapable enthusiasm. At the end of the day, the unannounced headliner of Mumford & Sons only disappointed the most jaded of afficianadoes. From this writer’s perspective, the group deserves loads of credit for pioneering and popularizing today’s ubiquitous folk-pop sound - and they delivered with a smashing set. Marcus Mumford and crew transitioned effortlessly from stomping numbers like “I Will Wait” and “Little Lion Man” to favorites like Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Boxer”. They also expertly continued the Newport tradition of collaboration, inviting out Maggie Rogers for the amazingly chill groove of “Alaska”, as well as the indomitable Mavis Staples for an outstanding “The Weight”. To hear Mumford, Staples, Rogers, Phoebe Bridgers and Carlile take on the classic number is the stuff Folk Festival dreams are made of.

After an evening of sizzling local music at Jimmy’s Saloon (listen local, y’all) from The Silks and the Z-Boys, the low-key grooves of Khruangbin hit the spot. The 60s/70s-indebted sounds were refreshing, and when the trio leaned into a hip-hop medley featuring “The Next Episode”, “It Was A Good Day”, “Regulators”, it was unexpected and borderline enlightening.

After guest-starring across stages all weekend, Brandi Carlile finally took to the Fort stage on Sunday. Her voice swung between searing, soaring (“The Story”), tender (“The Mother”), and ultimately triumphant (“Hold Out Your Hand” - featuring the Lone Bellow, the Watson Twins, and the War & Treaty). Carlile was everywhere this weekend and gets the MVP vote for this year's festival.

The affair came to its inevitable end with “A Change Is Gonna Come”, a star-studded stage featuring Jon Baptiste, Leon Bridges, Gary Clark Jr., Chris Thile, with help from the Dap Kings and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Lake Street Dive’s Rachael Price stuck the landing on the set’s title track as the sun was setting, giving the moment the appropriate gravity. But Mavis Staples again stole the show as she led the stage and the crowd with a stirring rendition of “Freedom’s Highway”. It served as a fitting reminder that as long as this country has existed, there have been civil rights issues to reckon with. And as long as these issues continue to fester and perpetuate, there are going to be huge crowds of folks prepared to fight for every inch of justice and fairness.

The Newport Folk Festival may not solve all the world’s problems, but for at least one weekend, thousands of music lovers in attendance had a vision of what a better world could look like - and were given a wake-up call we all desperately need.


Words by Brian Hodge

Photos by Bethany Hodge

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