Fifty Years after Dylan went electric within the Newport Folk Festival grounds, a plethora of talent gathered to celebrate the iconic moments, as well as carve out their own new ones. From Boston to Sweden, the best of folk made us dance barefoot, sing along with strangers, and surreptitiously wipe what definitely-wasn’t-tears from our eyes. Discover what you missed and satisfy your curiosity about the Bob Dylan rumors below.
The Ones Who Stole Our Hearts: Ballroom Thieves
Sunday mornings can be a slow and sleepy time for even the earliest of birds, but the Ballroom Thieves’ set was a better jolt than a cup of iced joe from the aptly named “Coffee Guy” stands scattered around.
Bringing their setlist onstage in a leather-bound journal, the Boston-based trio began with a husky, three-part harmony under grey skies. Sweet yet haunting, it was a deceitfully peaceful start. The next half hour was a flurry of foot-tapping melodies and roguish banter that charmed the Birkenstocks off everyone in the vicinity. “It’s a little crazy to think we used to sneak booze into this festival in sunscreen bottles,” frontman Martin Earley laughed. “And now they’re giving it away for free backstage!”
A healthy variety of folk rock songs from their first EP were featured alongside newer albums’ tracks like “Archers” and “Wild Woman,” the latter of which was belted out impressively by Earley. Even their more melancholic tracks never lost power; cellist Calin Peters not only delivered a stunning string performance all-around, but also awed the crowd with her raspy-sweet solo on “Bury Me Smiling.” Bringing it back up from the lull, “this next one is called ‘Here I Stand,’” Earley mentioned before motioning to the seated drummer, “which is why we don’t often let Devin introduce it,” he deadpanned.
The Ballroom Thieves aren’t robbers, but true performers with mesmerizing melodies, energy to spare, and a captivating instrumental and vocal mix.
The One Who Sang Us His Poetry: Brian Fallon
Seeming abnormally small without the rest of his band, Brian Fallon perched atop his stool like an adorably awkward bird. The Gaslight Anthem lead singer dove into his set without any fanfare or flair, playing with extreme focus as he hunched over his acoustic guitar. It was an odd experience for any Gaslight Anthem fan to hear his powerful vocals so isolated, but it let his lyrical genius shine: “We’re all gonna miss you/your perfume like cigarettes and the sea/My name that you always wore like grief.”
Emerging from his first song, he seemed to shrug off his nervousness as he greeted the crowd. “I don’t know why they let me on in,” he joked, “I guess somebody messed up and they didn’t check my background… but I got a wristband and now I’m in!” Shortly after, three others trooped on stage to support him on keyboard, bass, and guitar. The motley crew (“We’ve never played together in person before!”) almost blended into the background thereafter adding another layer of sound, yet never overwhelming Brian and his guitar.
He was simply spellbinding; pure, rough vocals weaving enigmatic poems of loss, love, and friendship to the soundtrack of his acoustic rhythms and the Newport breeze.
The Ones Who Were Vanilla: Lord Huron
Folk and pop might not seem to go together, but if there was anyone who could lay claim to the genre it would be Lord Huron. The four-person outfit wore formal dress, but the music was anything but stuffy as they swayed around the stage in routes that seemed perfectly choreographed for just the right amount of intermingling.
Their upbeat melodies and catchy sing-along choruses were perfect for mid-afternoon dancing in front of the main stage, but they were still as plain as white bread compared to the variety of music and characters that came before them.
The Refreshingly Female Act: First Aid Kit
What First Aid Kit lacks in on-stage banter (“Um, hi, we’re going to play you some songs today so . . . yeah.”) they make up for in strong female vocals and energy. Sweet and carrying pleasantly across the spacious outdoor venue, their voices swung elegantly through the melodies while providing an excellent late-afternoon backdrop. They were talented, and the music was enjoyable, if not captivating. “Master Pretender” was the standout song of their set, and tracks from their most recent album Stay Gold offered a plethora of woodsy summer jams.
Although Johanna had lost her voice before the concert, Klara led the duo, fearless as long as she didn’t have to address the crowd (“This one’s about a depressed middle aged woman who hates her life… Whooo!”). Awkward chatter aside, the crowd seemed to enjoy the sisters’ serenading as they sprawled out on sarape rugs and lawn chairs. It was entertaining but not engrossing; suited nicely to the midafternoon lull.
The One Who Stole The Show: Hozier
Bumped up from playing midday last year, rising singer-songwriter Hozier has a special place for Newport Folk Festival; “I played here last year at the Harbor stage and it was one of my first shows in the US.” Not only that, but if it weren’t for the NFF and its documentation on film, he “may never have become a musician.”
He ran through his entire repertoire with the poise of someone who truly knows they make amazing music, and will never fail in delivering it live. There was a distinct lack of bravado or self-conciousness that accompanies a lot of performances, particularly at such a large and renowned venue. From his slinky, sexy “To Be Alone” to the clean and pure “Cherry Wine,” the breadth of both his lyrics, songwriting, and instrumental skills were on full display while he remained fully in control. Throughout his set, the faithful swayed en-mass, feverishly singing along, particularly during the heavier, amped-up version of “Take Me To Church.” His cohort of ladies,who acted as backup singers and provided additional instrumentation, flung their voices high to provide a hypnotizing gospel-cult sensation.
If at all possible, Hozier sounds even better live than on record; his vocals are strong and imbibed with the kind of honest emotion you only get from a live performance.
The Ones Who Tried to Be, But Were Still Not Bob Dylan: ‘65 Revisited Tribute
Rumors had been circling all day as to whom the special guest at the end of the night would be. Prime suspect? Newport Folk Festival legend himself, Bob Dylan. It was in an air of barely-concealed impatience that the laundry-list of guest stars made their appearance. Singer-songwriter Gillian Welch made an appearance, as did David Rawlings, Taylor Goldsmith, and his band Dawes. Hozier and the rest came back for a chance to play the infamous Fender Stratocaster that Dylan played exactly 50 years ago, as well as celebrate his music.
A parade of artists from bygone eras and today payed tribute to Dylan through covers of songs like “Tambourine Man” and “It’s All Over, Baby Blue.” It was odd hearing his songs sung in an eerily Dylan-esque manner, by people who were not Bob Dylan. Still, it was a fresh take on a lot of folk classicss that had everyone up and singing triumphantly. For the final number, “Rainy Day Woman # 12 & 35,” Deer Tick, Willie Watson, and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band all clambered onstage for a final, heroic jamboree. Gillian Welch came back with the jazz band’s bass drum strapped to her chest, and the whole crew led the crowd in a joyfully cacophonous sing-along finale.
While the absence of one of folk’s favorites was certainly a disappointment, Newport knew how to end on a high note. A circus of performers, young and old, trumpeted out the final lyrics: “Everybody must get stoned!”