Mavis Staples’ birthday celebration set in Newport, which culminated Sunday and included appearances by legendary Wilco leader Jeff Tweedy, indie pop group Lucius and loads of others, was just as unforgettable as everyone expected. It was a phenomenal event that any music fan would remember. However, for me, some of the most remarkable moments of the day on Sunday came outside of that set.
The excitement around lesser known folk songwriter performances from the likes of Leif Vollebekk and Gregrory Alan Isakov amid a host of big distracting acts is what makes this Festival so great. In listening to the albums of each of these guys before the festival, I didn’t really get what set them apart from the massive singer-songwriter pool until I saw them live. Each had great backing bands and a huge stage presence that kept crowds lingering despite lots of competition on other stages. Also of note was the performance by Irish soulful bluesman Hozier, who has exploded in the last few months without a full-length album to his name. Hozier had the full Berklee Gospel & Roots Choir join him for “Work Song,” which was absolutely stunning and a top performance of the entire festival (So, so quality YouTube vid of that performance here. Note that an unamplified practice session of the song was recorded at the Festival that we’ll hopefully see soon.).
Hurray for the Riff Raff and The Deslondes, two soulful New Orleans roots bands, also performed on Sunday. HFTRR (a.k.a. Alynda Lee Segarra) made her Newport debut last year and returned this year with a much higher status following the success of Small Town Heroes, her latest album. Her friends, The Deslondes, have joined HFTRR and Spirit Family Reunion on tour and called their Newport debut a “dream come true.” The band still has yet to release their first album, but their set of country-soul cowboy songs were much buzzed about and noted as something different. Nashville Americana artist Caitlin Rose also made a shining Newport debut, effortlessly belting out songs from her 2013 album, The Stand-In, and maintaining a crowd even as the rain began to fall.
Ed Helms and The Bluegrass Situation hosted their first Newport stage on Sunday, a move the Situation has made at numerous festivals this summer as they plan a festival of their own in October. The stage featured short sets from festival first timers Shakey Graves, who was joined by guests Chris Funk and Langhorne Slim, Mandolin Orange with guests of Helms’ own Lonesome Trio, and Aoife O’Donovan and Willie Watson, who were each joined by Sara Watkins.
Rain occurred throughout the day, but just as Jeff Tweedy wrapped up his set with “California Stars” the sky cleared and the sun came out. It was a pretty amazing moment that won loads of cheers from the crowd gearing up for Mavis’ historic set.
A few photos from the day below shot by grass clippings photographer Vi Luong. More to come.