The bar was set pretty high on Saturday, but the final day of the Newport Folk Festival was just as impressive.
On Sunday, our team spent much more time at the Fort stage than we did on Saturday. New Jersey pre-teen/teen trio, Sleepy Man Banjo Boys, backed up by a bassist and their uncle on mandolin, kicked off a day of Fort performances with a jaw-dropping set of traditional bluegrass tunes. Then Sara Watkins jumped on stage with brother Sean and her band, who were joined by multiple special guests, but not fellow former Nickel Creeker Chris Thile. Later, Minnesota rapidgrass band Trampled by Turtles rocked the Fort with a diverse and impressive set, which included a moving performance of “Widower’s Heart” and rocking performance of “Walt Whitman.” And then there was “The Screaming Eagle of Soul” Charles Bradley, who began his career at 62 and has more soul and better moves than any artist I’ve ever seen, anywhere. Bradley, a teenage runaway who lived on the streets and in subway cars for two years, seemed to be watched by more festival performers than any other. The Head and the Heart and Conor Oberst followed, each delivering intense performances to massive crowds. THATH even performed a few impressive new songs, showing that they will hopefully outlive their hugely popular first album. Folk legend Jackson Browne has still got it and closed the show with many guests, but before a crowd that diminished as the rain increasingly fell.
Like Saturday, the Harbor Stage housed most of the memorable acts on Sunday. Canada’s Deep Dark Woods delivered a beautiful and well-attended set that ranked high on my list of favorite performances. A nice festival moment happened when frontman Ryan Boldt broke a string and then finished out the show with a beautiful Gibson guitar offered up by James Maple of GraveRobbers. Members of Blind Pilot and The Low Anthem gathered to listen back stage. But it was The Tallest Man on Earth that impressed me the most out of any performance on Saturday or Sunday this year. A packed out crowd watched and chanted song after song as this tiny man sang, played and danced, filling the stage better than a small orchestra.
Over on the Quad stage, Joe Fletcher closed his impressive Newport debut set surrounded by fellow Rhode Island folkers, including several members of The Low Anthem. Jay Farrar (Son Volt, Gob Iron, Uncle Tupelo), Will Johnson (Centro-matic, South San Gabriel), Anders Parker (Varnaline, Gob Iron) and Jim James (My Morning Jacket, Monsters of Folk) performed their interpretation of Woody Guthrie’s previously unrecorded lyrics. The performance, though a bit more electric than I would have liked, was one of the most polished and memorable of the day, as the Guthrie family watched from backstage. Later, Gary Clarke Jr. delivered some solid blues, but it was Iceland’s folk pop band Of Monsters and Men that drew one of the largest (and certainly the youngest) crowds of the festival. Yes, the more poppy you get, the bigger the crowds get, but there were tons of baby boom folkers hitting the “hey choruses” during “Little Talks.” The band brought a much needed energy to the festival, strategically timed to perform at the point where the crowd is starting to tire.
But there was plenty that happened off the stage as well. A crowd gathered as Jonah Tolchin wandered the grounds, playing without shoes and singing traditional folk songs. Also, slightly offstage and as the rain began to pour down, Punch Brothers rewarded those that braved the storm for their main set, with a mini unplugged set in the crowd as the stage hands began to tear down. It was catching moments like those that makes this festival the unique, communal gathering that it is.
Here are a few photos…stay tuned for our closing thoughts, more photos and some other fun stuff.