NEWPORT, R.I. — “The Newport Folk Festival has been on the right side of history for all of its 60 years,” Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile said from the stage Saturday on Day 2 of this iconic celebration of music, peace, love and community.
Carlile cited the 1963 civil rights freedom march through the streets of this waterfront city, Bob Dylan “going electric” to a mixed reception in 1965, and Judy Collins introducing Joni Mitchell to Leonard Cohen in 1967 as milestones.
Carlile’s fingerprints were all over this year’s three-day fest. With the blessing of Essex resident Jay Sweet, who’s succeeded 93-year-old Lynn native George Wein as executive director of this and the Newport Jazz Festival, she curated Saturday’s day-ending set, the first all-female collaboration in its history. Every song played was written by a woman. It featured established stars Sheryl Crow, Indigo Girls’ Amy Ray, 4 Non Blondes’ Linda Perry, Lake Street Dive’s Rachael Price and Bridget Kearney, and Collins. It also introduced lesser-known talented performers like next-big-thing Maggie Rogers, Yola, Jade Bird, Lucy Dacus, Courtney Marie Andrews and others.
Oh, yeah. And Dolly Parton! Miraculously, her appearance was kept secret and the crowd went bananas when she walked on stage. Dolly and Carlile sang Parton’s “I Will Always Love You,” a Whitney Houston hit from “The Bodyguard” movie. For “Jolene,” the two were joined by Carlile’s partners in the new The Highwomen supergroup: Maren Morris, Amanda Shires and Natalie Hemby. For the set-closing “9 to 5,” the audience and some two dozen women on stage roared the empowerment ballad.
The day before, The Highwomen gave their first-ever performance before a huge rapturous crowd at the smaller Quad stage inside Fort Adams, delivering what Carlile called “the first country gay love song,” a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” and tunes from their debut album, which comes out Sept. 6. Crow, Yola and guitarist Jason Isbell (Mr. Amanda Shires!) joined in the fun.
Yola, the queen of country soul, was the first performer on Day 1. She’s a revelation, with her big voice and strong songs commanding attention and earning an extended standing ovation. Yola, as did Isbell, Benmont Tench of the late Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, and others, joined many other performers’ sets, a Newport tradition.
Crow’s hits-laden Friday show was a highlight. A duet with Carlile on George Harrison’s “Beware of Darkness” was a standout, as was a cover of Dylan’s “Everything’s Broken,” punctuated by Isbell’s superb, biting guitar and Crow’s harmonica breaks. “Soak Up the Sun” was an appropriate tune for the glorious, hot weekend. In “Strong Enough,” Crow, Maggie Rogers and Yola brought goosebumps asking “Are you man enough to be my man?”
Oh, yeah. I almost forgot. She brought out surprise guest James Taylor to sing harmony on “Everyday is a Winding Road,” his sole appearance of the weekend. Taylor shared a story that he was on stage 50 years ago, when festival founder Wein interrupted his set to announce that man had just walked on the moon.
Country star Kacey Musgraves, whose “Golden Hour” won the 2019 Grammy for best album, and her all-male band wowed during a polished, hour-long set of Nashville pop. Roller disco elements of Bee Gees and Barry White even sneaked their way into a song or two.
Maggie Rogers has come a long way since her hesitant 2018 Boston Calling performance. She’s a bona fide pop star now, a tsunami of energy, racing around the stage, singing and dancing up a storm. Audience members young and old adored her, even diehard folkies seemed to enjoy her dance mix version of John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery.”
Of course, there were sensational sets by men, too. Gregory Alan Isakov, whose band includes violin, cello and string bass, proved to be an engaging performer and a remarkably gifted songwriter (“The horseflies were biting but the fish never do/And your heart’s a thousand colors but they’re all shades of blue”: my fave lyric). Alt-rocker Kevin Morby, with a sax player and Sam Cohen of Boston’s Apollo Sunshine in his band, was ferocious; the tuneful “City Music” brought to mind Lou Reed’s more melodious tunes and the band got a serious groove going in “Harlem River.” Parker Milsap, with his gritty Memphis-style songs, was terrific. Devin Gilfillian’s early Saturday set of sweet, funky southern soul was superb. Phil Lesh thrilled both Deadheads and casual fans with stellar versions of “Friend of the Devil” and “Samson and Delilah,” with its Bo Diddley beat.
A rotating cast of both sexes contributed to the winning “Songs For Beginners” set that featured every song in order from Graham Nash’s beloved 1971 album. Parts of it were a gloriously ramshackle mess, all of it was fun. Colin Meloy of the Decemberists and Anais Mitchell, whose “Hadestown” musical won eight 2019 Tony Awards, collaborated on a lovely “Simple Man.” The Tallest Man on Earth (Kristian Matsson) sang the heck out of “Chicago” and “We Can Change the World” became a cathartic sing-along for the audience and those on stage. It was a hippie-era love-in.
The weekend concluded Sunday with “If I Had a Song,” a 100th-birthday tribute to the late Pete Seeger who co-founded Newport Folk with Wein 60 years ago. Nearly every performer joined in — including Kermit the Frog on “The Rainbow Connection” — delivering one classic song after another. “We Shall Overcome” and “Goodnight Irene” sent all home on a happy, optimistic note given the state of the world today.
There is so much music at Newport, attendees are going to miss something great. There’s no way around it. With three main stages, shows inside the museum and at a family tent, there’s a lot going on. This year, impromptu performances by headliners given atop picnic tables, inside vendors’ tents and throughout the state park also competed for attendees’ attention.
Newport Folk Festival 2019 might just have been the best I’ve enjoyed here in a dozen-plus visits. It’s easy to see why this fest sells out months before a single act is announced. “In Jay (Sweet) We Trust” has become the fans’ rallying cry, and he has yet to disappoint in his 11 years as producer.
Can’t wait for Newport 2020! More history is bound to happen.