DAY TWO: The Best of Past and Present Collide in Newport

All photos by Richard Kluver/grass clippings blog

Saturday at the 2015 Newport Folk Fest was a day so packed with great sets and memorable moments that it was a constant battle to decide where to spend your time.

Nothing was buzzed about more than James Taylor’s unannounced appearance at the Festival, finishing a set that was cut short in 1969 as Apollo 11 touched down on the moon. Taylor remembered that he had just finished playing “Fire and Rain” before Newport Founder George Wein pulled him off stage to show the broadcast. Taylor’s set of major hits and a new song or two wasn’t without a few sound issues, but packed out the Fort stage as many fans had heard rumors of a Taylor appearance on Friday.

But the day began long before anyone spotted Taylor as The Suffers, Houston’s ten-piece soul act led by the stunning Kam Franklin, played the first note of the day with an set that was stronger than your morning coffee and had festivarians dancing before Noon. Meanwhile on the Quad, Spirit Family Reunion also got fans going early with its third Newport appearance – a setting that has been instrumental in raising the band’s awareness and growing its fan base. With even the folkers in chairs on their feet, SFR rocked through songs old and new with fans chanting the words and many visibly connecting with songs like “To All My Friends and Relations.”

Meanwhile, the Harbor stage proved to be a place for the punctual, yet hungover, as Andy Shaf performed a set of his gentle and poetic folk songs, followed by the gorgeous Newport debut of Aussie folk duo Luluc.

Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn, a couple that married his three-finger banjo style with her claw hammer style on their recent self-titled album, performed my favorite set of the day. While I was hopeful for guests, the two didn’t bring on any others. Even still, they filled the massive Fort stage with just as much presence as a ten-piece band – mostly through Washburn’s gorgeous voice and Fleck’s mind-blowing solos. The set mostly consisted of Appalachian-style tunes, but also celebrated the duo’s global influences as Fleck played a song off of his African explorations (see Throw Down Your Heart) and Washburn sang one of her Mandarin songs inspired by her stint in China. For me, Washburn’s performance of “Ride To U” was the most moving moment of the day.

On the more intimate Museum Stage, Decemberist and Newport Board Member Chris Funk led a showcase of pure folk tunes in memory of Pete Seeger, featuring a performance by Funk himself and even some clogging from Kristin Andreaasen accompanied by Stephanie Jenkins on banjo and Stephanie Coleman on fiddle.

Sounds of The New South also made a strong showing in Newport with Jason Isbell performing songs off his new album, Something More Than Free – possibly my favorite release of the summer so far. Nikki Lane showed up in full on Nikki Lane style, easily taking home the fashion award, yet showing that she’s much more than that with a strong performance blending new and old Nashville. Even though he overlapped with James Taylor’s set time, Sturgill Simpson drew a massive and lively crowd with one of the very best performances of the entire festival. The power of his voice in his 80s cover of “The Promise” and his perfect backing band through tunes like “Little Light” were stand out.

Sufjan Steven’s called his highly anticipated Newport debut “a dream come true.” In his set that followed Taylor’s, he interspersed his stripped down banjo and acoustic guitar numbers with his more playful highly modern tunes – complete with a laptop. We’ll look the other way on that one.

With roots in both Montreal and Providence, as The Barr Brothers played “Even the Darkness Has Arms” on the Fort Stage it was clear to me that they are probably the strongest and most interesting band in the realm of orchestral folk (though they call it “sci folk”).

And late in the day, Brandi Carlisle performed as a trio (the full band sadly encountered some travel issues), but the crowd was beyond ecstatic throughout the set – with some baby-boomer aged women literally jumping up and down like children. I’ve never seen a folk artist connect with fans quite like Brandi. Even Hozier, the chart-topping headliner who performs at the Festival on Sunday, couldn’t stay away – watching most of the set from backstage.