NEWPORT, R.I. — Considering the number of schedules, apps, articles, and artist interviews available to music festivalgoers these days, it’s possible to plan out an entire journey before stepping through the gate. But the loveliest thing about the Newport Folk Festival on Sunday might have been how easily you could stray from your intended path without any feelings of disappointment. All it took was a few steps in the right direction to find your new favorite band.
With that in mind, I rode a musical merry-go-round between three of the four stages at Fort Adams State Park (the tiny, indoor Museum Stage was full to capacity whenever I walked by), resulting in sore feet and a full heart. The large Fort Stage faced the waters of Narragansett Bay, and the surrounding blue was crowded with a flotilla of sun-streaked boaters aboard yachts, motorboats, and kayaks, catching some sound for free. Earlier in the afternoon, it hosted friendly indie-folk stompers Passenger and the Lone Bellow before Gary Clark Jr. barraged the beach blankets with a blues-rock firestorm, drawing dancers to their feet despite the baking sun. Brandi Carlile pogoed around the stage with energy that the heat couldn’t leach, and went for the jugular with raw renditions of “Sugartooth,” “The Joke,” and “Mother.”
But the most memorable sounds belonged to the smaller stages. At noon at the Harbor Stage tent, Australian rocker Jen Cloher delivered a wonderful, blistering set in her throaty, Patti Smith-esque snarl. A small crowd clustered close to hear Canada’s the Weather Station, whose typically acoustic musings on the poignancy of everyday things went electric with mixed results in its live set. Later, Duluth’s fast-talking and even faster-picking hobo poet Charlie Parr and a dynamic washboard player ripped through a set of irreverent and strangely touching rambles.
At the Quad stage, the pastel surf-funk of Khruangbin proved more irresistible in person than on their recordings. Next, at Wilco guitarist Nels Cline’s “Curtis Rogers Memorial Resonator Excursion,” banjo maverick Brandon Seabrook and Allman Brothers Band guitarist Warren Haynes joined Cline for some muscular blues. Toots and the Maytals kept the crowd on its feet and shaking with a string of reggae bops and the kind of banter that could have been insufferable but was delightful coming from Toots Hibbert. “Never Grow Old,” a highlight of the set, really could be his theme song.
Speaking of theme songs, new Americana vocal trio Bermuda Triangle (featuring Alabama Shakes’s Brittany Howard, and Nashvilleans Becca Mancari and Jesse Lafser) included one they’d written for their own girl gang in a sweetly harmonized set of mostly unreleased material. Glen Hansard’s set of piano- and guitar-driven originals was solid to begin with, but he pulled out an ace when he teamed up with Irish button accordionist Brendan Begley and Cape Breton fiddler Rosie MacKenzie for two sets of traditional tunes, which sent the audience roaring to its feet.
The finale brought bandleader supreme Jon Batiste and the Dap-Kings to the Fort for a revue of classic protest songs and a few curveballs. With Gary Clark Jr. and Leon Bridges, “Ohio” got a haunting, reverent treatment, and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band blasted a joyful “I’ll Fly Away.” Despite the political tinge, the show felt safe, and the words of “A Change Is Gonna Come” rang slightly hollow despite an impressive vocal by Lake Street Dive’s Rachael Price. Recently, our most daring and resonant songs of protest have belonged to hip-hop more than folk. Nonetheless, when reigning queen of gospel and Newport stalwart Mavis Staples made her entrance to lead the masses in a final “Freedom Highway,” all the walls came tumbling down.
NEWPORT FOLK FESTIVAL
At Fort Adams State Park, Newport, R.I., SundayZoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten.