7/24/15, Fort Adams, Newport, RI

Fifty years ago, Bob Dylan roamed the weathered stronghold of Fort Adams along the beaches of Newport. For the first time in the festival’s history he brought out an electric guitar, prompting an uproar of cheers and boos. Legends developed around folk bastion Pete Seeger chopping the power cables with an axe.

On the anniversary of the controversial concert, Seeger would have been overjoyed to see that the Newport Folk Festival has not become entirely dominated by rock stars with towering stacks of amplifiers. The festival’s lineup continues to sport some of the most talented folk musicians in the world, but more importantly, some of the greatest storytellers. And of those storytellers, here are those most deserving of our Sound of Boston superlatives.

The band who singlehandedly revived the washboard: Elephant Revival

The washboard has generally gone the way of the spoons: almost no one takes the instrument seriously anymore. So to see Bonnie Paine’s gloved fingers scraping away was a welcome return to the roots of folk percussion. Paine whistled eerie melodies while playing and even performed an acapella tune with a gorgeous yet haunting warble.

Main vocalist and guitarist Daniel Rodriguez led the southern-tinged folk collective through mesmerizing songs like “Birds and Stars” which featured a dizzying banjo line from Sage Cook. Fiddle player Bridget Law contributed playful Celtic flits to their repertoire, especially on the instrumental “The Pasture.”

Between dedicating songs to protesting privatized prisons and Joshua Slocum’s Sailing Alone Around the World, Elephant Revival preserved the ethos of the traditional folk community while still offering up modern, progressive takes on fiddle infused americana.

The man who transported the crowd back to the 50’s: Leon Bridges

Leon Bridges’s vintage soul/R&B sound is unlike any other up-and-coming artist on the charts. His first record Coming Home is anything but a novelty throwback or a cheap nostalgia trip. From his old-fashioned dance moves to his high-waisted trousers, Mr. Bridges looked like he traveled to Newport straight from the 1950’s.

Bridges played through most of his new release, which sounded even better live thanks to his supremely tight backing band, the members of which all sported cowboy hats. “Brown Skinned Girl” offered up some classic doo-wop flavors while “Flower” hinted at early blues roots, with Bridges’ silky smooth vocals shining through.

Smooth Sailing” had some catchy hooks and a shockingly fat horn sound coming from the lone sax player. The tune also highlighted backup singer and tambourine player Brittni Jessie’s ability to harmonize beautifully with Bridges’ vocal lines.

The crowd multiplied throughout the set and by the end it stretched far past the outskirts of the tented stage. Leon Bridges’s mere presence was simply captivating, concertgoers couldn’t stop smiling even long after he left the stage. Undoubtedly we were witnessing the birth of a future star.

The band with the all the cool friends: Calexico

Immediately following Leon Bridges was no small task, but Arizona-based Tex-Mex band Calexico had the crowd salsa dancing by the final song. With two explosive trumpet players, slide guitar, and some marimba mixed in, the band had something up their sleeve for all ages, from atmospheric indie to latin folk. Calexico’s powerful, multilingual vocals were delivered powerfully by frontman Joey Burns and trumpet player Jacob Valenzuela.

Turns out the group also has a few famous folk friends. “Today’s a serendipitous occasion,” Burns said as he called Sam Beam from Iron & Wine onstage. Beam explained through his bushy beard that the two collaborated on an EP In The Reins ten years ago, even though it “still feels like yesterday.” The group then played title track “He Lays in The Reins” as Beam’s delicate, tender voice glistened through the chorus.

Beam is also featured on Calexico’s newest album Edge of the Sun on a song entitled “Bullets and Rocks”, although for the live performance he added very little and mostly stared confusedly at the lyric sheet at his feet. Immediately following his departure, Burns invited Beam’s touring mate Ben Bridwell (of Band of Horses) to sing another track from Edge, “Falling From the Sky.” Bridwell belted out the triumphant, trumpet-fueled chorus with a giant grin across his face.

The band who successfully drove away the elderly: Strand of Oaks

A band with zero acoustic instruments at the folk festival? Seeger would have an aneurysm. After the first few power chords, heads of grey hair began swiveling in bewilderment, as traditionalists gathered their things and promptly left their seats.

After their first song, Strand of Oaks’ frontman Timothy Showalter was interrupted by the festival staff warning the crowd of incoming severe thunderstorms that had not been in the morning forecast. With his flowing locks and beard, Showalter joked about his Viking-like appearance, promising that he would “try to keep the thunder at bay.”

For a group that was at first so alienating, it didn’t take long for the remaining crowd to get on their feet and scream the lyrics. “HEAL” and “Shut In” displayed Showalter’s raw yet authoritative storytelling matched with airy, spellbinding lead guitar lines. If songs like “Goshen ‘97” indicate the direction folky indie rock is heading, then the future is indeed bright.

The man who’s the best possible stand-in for Dylan: The Tallest Man On Earth

Kristian Matsson looked non-descript as he hit the Fort stage in a plain black t-shirt and matching skinny jeans. Yet his presence onstage was anything but as he appeared playful, energetic, and dramatic. As people were fearfully eyeing the darkening thunder clouds, he comforted them by proclaiming, “The thunder is not here, we are here!” His charisma was infectious and the weather held off for his entire set.

“1904” was an early highlight as The Tallest Man On Earth crooned, and even at times growled theatrically through the lyrics. His seamless transition between talking and singing certainly evoked Bob Dylan, along with his transitions from full band folk-rock anthems to intimate acoustic tales alone on stage. “Love Is All” was a prime example of the latter, and it featured some impressive finger plucking on the guitar.

If there was any doubt that this generation was without a veritable folk hero, Matsson provided there is plenty of promise.

The band that added a much-needed female voice: Heartless Bastards

There weren’t enough women or female-fronted bands at the festival this year – at least not on Friday – so it was incredibly refreshing to hear Erika Wennerstrom serenade the crowd at the smaller Port stage. Even with the “secret” act My Morning Jacket about to go on the main stage, Heartless Bastards from Austin, Texas drew a sizeable crowd.

“Gates of Dawn” from their new album Restless Ones was a memorable start to the set, with Wennerstrom’s unique vocal style that is equal parts sweet country and gritty alternative rock. She donned a flowing, fringed leather vest dotted with sky blue beads, telling tales of triumphant self-affirmation and tragic lost love. Songs such as “Got to Have Rock and Roll” had all the right amount of bluesy riffs and catchy garage rock hooks.

Wennerstrom was definitely the star of the show, but drummer Dave Colvin also stood out by adding tons of original, high-energy fills.

The worst kept secret of the festival: My Morning Jacket

About halfway through the day, rumor began traveling by word of mouth that My Morning Jacket would not only be the surprise “unannounced” act before Roger Waters, but that they would also be the backing band for his headlining set. By the time My Morning Jacket hit the stage to an eruption of cheers, no one was too surprised.

Even in the midst of thunderclouds, frontman Jim James wore shades as the band kicked into “Believe (Nobody Knows)”, the opening track off of this year’s The Waterfall. What’s more of a sunny, piano-driven pop-rock song on the album was morphed into a grandiose, epic stadium rock anthem a la Bruce Springsteen. They were opening for Roger Waters after all.

Most of the performance focused on their seventh album, The Waterfall, as “In Its infancy (The Waterfall)” showed off the band’s tendencies to write beautiful, psychedelic indie songs that had most concertgoers bobbing their heads under the clouds. For “Wonderful (The Way I Feel)” James brought Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig of the band Lucius to sing backup vocals on the chilled-out ballad. James’ trademark falsetto wolf howl was haunting and left audience members with slackened jaws.

The Man Who Performed All the Right Tributes: Roger Waters

Without any break after the My Morning Jacket set, Roger Waters marched onstage with a kind smile, dressed in his usual all black. As soon as he hit center stage it was goodbye blue sky as it began pouring on fans lounging in lawn chairs. In addition to My Morning Jacket, he was joined by lead guitarist of Hall & Oates, GE Smith, along with Jess and Holly of Lucius who provided stunning backing vocals for every song in the short set. Yet Waters opened with a song all by himself on piano, a live debut of a brand new song entitled “Crystal Clear Brooks”, which was wistful and nostalgic.

But Pink Floyd fans had nothing to fear as Waters then stated, “That will be the only new song we play tonight.” Sure enough the band then went into “Mother” from the famous album The Wall. Despite being soaked, everyone chanted along to “Mother do you think they’ll drop the bomb,” and no one was worried about the thunder or lightning anymore. More importantly, no one was worried about My Morning Jacket posing as Pink Floyd anymore – they could clearly handle themselves.

Waters also highlighted his solo career throughout the set, playing “Amused to Death” and “The Bravery of Being Out of Range” for the first time since 2002. He also broke out several Floyd songs that had not been played since 2008, including the memorable medley of “Brain Damage” and “Eclipse”. Hearing the hook of “I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon,” with Lucius on backup vocals and the whole crowd singing along was spine-tingling and unforgettable. For Pink Floyd’s greatest hit  “Wish You Were Here”, Waters invited Sara Watkins from Nickel Creek onstage to play the fiddle and solo away.

In terms of covers and paying tribute to past Newport Folk Festival artists, Waters picked them perfectly. First, he covered often underrated yet legendary folk singer-songwriter John Prine with the song “Hello In There.” Next up was “Wide River to Cross,” a Buddy Miller cover dedicated to Levon Helm of The Band. To make it even more special, he called up Levon’s daughter Amy to sing along in tearful harmony.

Of course for his final cover, Roger Waters honored the one and only Bob Dylan with “Forever Young” featuring Helm and Watkins again. By the time the final chord rang out, the skies were blue again.

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