Tank tops and t-shirts were dotted with sweat. Water droplets dripped from paper cups of Del’s Lemonade. The smell of candied nuts wafted through the muggy air. With white sailboats floating in the bay behind the Fort Stage, onlookers sat in beach chairs and tipped back bottles of water. It was 98 degrees—everyone was boiling, but happy.
Newport Folk Festival is unlike other major American music festivals today. Very few people are obnoxiously drunk or loud. Fans focus on the music, and nearly every performance is packed, which is one reason why musicians hope to secure a set at one of the four stages nestled within Fort Adams. People, for the most part, put away their phones and watch, listen, converse, and enjoy great music in a beautiful, 19th century fort. It’s the kind of place where if you accidentally spill water on someone’s shoe at the water refill station, they smile and say, “Can you do that again?’
With listeners young and old, and a swarm of media equipped with cameras so big they could detail the dust on Mars, Newport came alive. Here are our top takeaways from Saturday’s action.
Ruby Amanfu: A Voice Like Melting Shaved Ice
You know you’ve “made it” when your credits in collaboration include Beyoncé and Jack White. Watching Amanfu, the Ghanaian-born singer and songwriter who is based out of Nashville, it was easy to see why these superstars have tapped her talent. Her voice —somehow husky and smooth in one breath — melted over her band’s country-folk sound like shaved ice on the sidewalk. Her covers of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, “I Put a Spell on You” and Woodie Guthrie’s “One By One” showed off her dynamic vocal range.
Amanfu also took the time to thank the sound engineer, Josh, asking the crowd if it sounded as good “out there” as it did on stage. Josh tipped his hat to the crowd as they cheered like he was part of the family.
Amy Helm and the Handsome Strangers: Living Up to Levon
Daughter of musical icon Levon Helm (lead singer and drummer for The Band), Amy Helm has undoubtedly felt the pressure to live up to her father’s name throughout her career. Although Levon passed away in 2012, his spirit clearly lives on in Amy. As she writes of him on her website, “He wasn’t interested in overthinking anything; all he cared about was playing music.”
This was certainly the case for Amy on Saturday as she took the Fort Stage. Helm belted out songs from her debut album, Didn’t It Rain (though she’s been making music basically all her life), dancing with pointed fingers to the walking bass and clapping crowd.
Helm thanked her musical heroes, including her father, whose drum set was being used by her drummer. Someone in the crowd yelled “Levon!”
For more than an hour, Helm cranked out funky country rock-inspired tunes with plenty of harmonies, culminating in a cover of The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”
While it carried the same melody of the version her father sang, the instrumentation gave it a modern feel: a subdued, fizzy synth drone and electric guitar carrying most of the weight.
Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats: May As Well Have Been Day Sweats
Rateliff came out dancing with his band already on stage, as his organ player unraveled a tasty solo sweeter than a Fruit Roll-Up.
“Newport, we have the whole night left to lose you!” Rateliff said, and transitioned into “We’ve Got The Whole Night Left To Lose,” shaking his tambourine and tipping his black fedora. It was the biggest crowd of the day so far, and despite the heat, they were dancing along with Rateliff and his horn players two-stepping at the back of the stage. On stage were the Night Sweats, in the crowd, the day sweats.
Rateliff has a voice that cracks at all the right times, halfway between folk and blues-rock — a voice to gather storm clouds. It’s the perfect compliment to a tight, soul backing band, led by trumpet, sax, distorted electric piano, and drums that pinged and popped in steady rhythm. The crowd was happy to hear the hits from their 2015 eponymous album, with the band playing songs like “Wasting Time” and “Shake.”
“I didn’t know this, but I guess we’re broadcasting live,” Rateliff said during his set. “Jesus, I guess I’ll try and keep my swearing down.” He paused. “C’mon, freedom of speech. Shit!”
Lady Lamb: The Pedal Stomper
As the MC of the Harbor Stage introduced her, he gave a brief history of Lady Lamb, including how she first started writing songs in high school in her hometown of Brunswick, Maine. The crowd cheered, revealing a small Brunswick contingent.
After Lady Lamb (Aly Spaltro) took the stage and ripped through a few high-energy indie rock songs, she told the crowd that during her time at Bart & Greg’s DVD Explosion in Brunswick, the place where her music career began, she would frequently listen to the Pixies’ live album at Newport Folk Festival. “It’s surreal to be here,” she said.
Spaltro’s set was accented with cymbal crashes that echoed throughout the tent. Her sound, a hybrid of folk and punk, relies on layers of light distortion, which Spaltro manipulates through her pedal board. Leaning back with her electric guitar in her arms, she stomped and strummed to the Harbor Stage crowd.
Frightened Rabbit: The Band that Made Jesus Wait
“If you want to skip and find a spot in the shade, I don’t blame you. I’d do the same,” said Frightened Rabbit lead singer Scott Hutchison. It was mid-afternoon and the fort quad had reached peak heat, even under the massive tent covering most of the crowd.
The Scottish band played a variety of songs from their discography, including tracks from their 2016 release, Painting of a Panic Attack. One of the most genuine moments came when Hutchison announced that the next song was about Jesus but had skipped a song in the set list.
One of his bandmates reminded him of the song order: “It’s not meant to be.”
After realizing his mistake, Hutchinson admitted, “This one is definitely not about Jesus. You’re just going to have to wait with baited breath.” The crowd laughed.
With plenty of guitar tremolo and electric haze, Frightened Rabbit added appropriately damp tunes to the atmosphere.
Norah Jones: “I’m on a Boat.”
Norah Jones kicked off cocktail hour by the bay, her soft piano ballads lifting over the crowd as the sun began to dip. Jones satisfied the crowd’s nostalgia by playing her hits: “Black,” a song she recorded with Danger Mouse and Daniele Luppi, and “Don’t Know Why.” Then, she switched to guitar for a sultry Grateful Dead cover, “It Must Have Been The Roses.”
At one point, Jones let out a sigh of delight, looking out past the crowd to the water.
“This next song I did a video on a fake boat,” she said. “It’s kinda fitting. It’s my yacht song.” Then she and her band broke into the song “Chasing Pirates.”
The crowd, many of whom were between the ages of 25 and 35, swayed with the cool music and bobbed their heads in their beach chairs. “Sing Happy birthday to me, Norah Jones!” a crowd member yelled. “Happy birthday to Jamie,” Jones echoed, before transitioning into “Come Away with Me.”
Not a bad alternative.
At one point between verses Jones noticed a baby in the arms of someone in the crowd, and pointed and smiled at the friend or family member. Later in the set, Jones waved to another person in the crowd, as did her guitarist. Whether or not they were related, everyone felt like family.
Father John Misty: The Guy Who Scared the Newport Folk Festival Promoters
The previous day at WXPN’s XPoNential Music Festival in New Jersey, singer-songwriter Father John Misty (Joshua Tillman) walked off stage after fifteen minutes of mostly ranting. He had lamented the world falling apart, saying things like “stupidity just fucking runs the world because entertainment is stupid.”
When Tillman took the stage alone Saturday afternoon at Newport Folk Fest, he grabbed the microphone and yelled, “And another thing!” The crowd laughed, knowing well what had happened the day before.
It’s the eccentric unpredictability of Tillman that fuels most of his appeal, and while he dialed it back a notch for the folk crowd on Saturday, his unfiltered irreverence was still on display. “I stole this shirt,” he said, looking down at the white robe-like shirt he wore. “From a rich person. Watching Ryan Adams.”
Tillman filled his set with acoustic renditions of tunes from his two solo albums, like “I’m Writing a Novel” and “I Love You Honeybear,” before taking time to explain his rant. “I think we need sadness more than outrage right now,” he said. “Outrage is sexy, but we should all take a moment to be profoundly sad.”
While there may be truth to that statement when it comes to current events, Saturday’s Newport Folk Festival was all about soaking in the best folk music of today while paying homage to the past.
Check out more great music from Boston locals in our Local Spotlight column.