NEWPORT, R.I. — There was an air of mystery at the Newport Folk Festival this year. Saturday’s headliner had not been disclosed, and rumors swirled that everyone from Neil Young, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, and even a David Crosby/Stephen Stills/Neil Young/Judy Collins collaboration would be the surprise guest.
It turned out to be Britain’s Mumford and Sons, who somehow kept their appearance under wraps until they walked on stage. This was likely a disappointment to many of the 10,000 fans on hand praying for a set by any of the aforementioned artists. Nevertheless, Marcus Mumford and his mates are a fine band, and they tailored their performance to folk fans with a closing runthrough of The Band’s “The Weight,” with guests Mavis Staples, Jerry Douglas, Brandi Carlile, Phoebe Bridges, Maggie Rogers and others joining in to lead a loud singalong. The Mumford boys even covered a Radiohead song, probably pleasing the Thom Yorke-led band’s fans who chose the folk fest over Radiohead’s Saturday show at the Garden in Boston.
Such intermingling of musicians has been a Newport trademark since the iconic music showcase was founded in 1959 by Lynn native George Wein, who at age 92, was sitting in his Wein Machine golf cart backstage and chatting with performers and friends. Essex resident Jay Sweet is now executive producer of both the Newport folk and jazz (this coming weekend) festivals.
Special guests appeared in nearly every set during all three days of the festival, which sells out months before a single act is announced.
Friday’s headliner Jason Isbell and his 400 Unit welcomed David Crosby onstage, thrilling the crowd with CS&N’s “Wooden Ships” and Young’s protest anthem “Ohio.”
Nashville cowgirl Margo Price, who was a Friday standout, was joined by John Prine for an oh-boy! version of Prine’s witty “In Spite of Ourselves.” Price, during a fine reading of her “All American Made” added the line “How can our president even sleep at night?”, drawing cheers from the crowd. (Anti-Trump sentiments were pervasive over the weekend, with many performers blasting the president from all four stages. Ben Harper even wrote a song for the occasion, “I Don’t Believe a Word You Say,” which he dedicated to “the soon to be ex-president of the United States”).
Carlile, who performed her own set Sunday, also joined Lucius, Price, and others. The Watson Sisters introduced two songs from their upcoming album during a Nicole Atkins-led showcase inside the museum, and then wowed with a version of the Flying Burrito Brothers’ “This Old Earthquake Leaves Me in the Poorhouse” in the splendid Beneath This Sacred Mountain set, which was led by Eric D. Johnson, Phil Cook and other sterling musicians and was packed with Byrds-affiliated songs and curiosities. James Mercer of the Shins stood out with covers of “Cathy’s Clown” (Everly Brothers) and “Helpless” (CSN&Y). One expected Byrds founder Crosby to join them during Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” but it didn’t happen.
“I love Newport,” said Atkins. “Musicians jam with each other here. There’s none of that ‘This is my band, hands off’ stuff you see at many festivals.”
And Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig, the Berklee-educated frontwomen of Lucius, seemed to add their lovely vocal harmonies to nearly every performance.
The best show I saw was Saturday’s intimate acoustic set inside the museum by Matt the Electrician and veteran blues guitarist/singer-songwriter Chris Smither. The two sat side-by-side, each telling stories, trading off performing their own songs and combining for the sparkling set-closer, Smither’s “Leave the Light On.”
Other Saturday highlights I caught running from stage to stage: the rollicking Philly rockers Low Cut Connie and charismatic frontman Adam Weiner, aided by powerhouse vocalist Saundra Williams; Hiss Golden Messenger, led by MC Taylor, who guided the great Bill Withers tribute here last year; buzz-artist Phoebe Bridgers whose folk-oriented story songs, especially “Funeral,” earned loud ovations; fiery, electric funk/soul/rap ensemble Tank and the Bangas; and the always fine Shakey Graves, whose change of direction on his latest album turned off some fans but he remains a compelling performer.
Friday highlights: Fantastic Negrito (A hellfire-ish Crazy World of Arthur Brown-like dynamo who sings and raps with conviction while his band kicks up a mighty fury); Americana superstar singer-songwriter-guitarist Sturgill Simpson; the first-ever performance by Glorietta (a folk supergroup led by Delta Spirit’s Matthew Logan Vasquez with Noah Gundersen, Kelsey Wilson, Jason Robert Blum, Adrian Quesada and the remarkable David Ramirez; at Brighton Music Hall Oct. 17); Harper and 74-year-old Musselwhite (a guitar/harmonica-fueled blues showcase); and Moses Sumney (alone on stage, he sings and wails like a man possessed while looped instrumental music get a serious groove going).
There were numerous tributes to Tom Petty and Richard Swift, a singer-songwriter who worked with the Black Keys, The Shins and numerous other bands, who both died earlier this year.
The 2018 lineup was packed with country-influenced artists: Isbell, Simpson, Price, JD McPherson, Amanda Shires, Tyler Childers, This is the Kit, Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, Shakey Graves, Colter Wall, et al.
Americana, it seems, is the new folk.