Newport Folk 2021 Was A Warm, Quiet Welcome Back To Festival Season
It still feels surreal to say — or, that with the Delta variant going around, we’re jinxing it by even acknowledging it — but in the next few months, festivals are supposed to be back in a big way. It’s one thing to get back to your first show, but festivals are a whole different beast, the exact kind of collection of people from different, sometimes far-flung places that seemed furthest away during the height of the pandemic. Like most tours and gigs, festivals are mostly waiting to return in the early fall. But Newport Folk Festival still went down this past weekend. As far as I could tell, it was one of the earliest opportunities I had to get to a festival after the last year and a half.
Given all that, Newport was a little different than it was in past years. There were still COVID precautions in place: You had to either verify your vaccination ahead of time, or get COVID tests upon arrival each day, and it seemed some elements operated a little differently under the shadow of the pandemic. One major thing is that the fest divided itself up into two three-day chunks, each one at 50 percent capacity relative to past years and brought down to two main stages instead of four. Contrary to what you might expect, the festival wasn’t structured so that it had a big lineup for the weekend days and a quiet aftermath during the week. If anything, the weekdays might be more stacked — Courtney Marie Andrews, Hiss Golden Messenger, Ben Gibbard, Steve Gunn, Vagabon, Sharon Van Etten, Bonny Light Horseman, Beck, Julien Baker, and Deer Tick are all playing in the coming days. But before all that, there were a lot of special moments over the weekend, too.
Early on Friday, Lucy Dacus kicked off the first leg of her Home Video tour at the festival, marking the first time she and her band had played some of these songs to a crowd. Some of the new songs, like “VBS” and “Brando,” were already almost as intensely received as “Night Shift” was towards the end of the set. And the band sounded incredible performing “Triple Dog Dare” onstage for the first time. It was an exciting early set at the festival, and a funny thing about Newport is that it’s a context in which Lucy Dacus might be one of the heaviest, loudest sets of the whole weekend.
Given the long history and character of the festival, it’s apparently not uncommon for people to do a more stripped-down set. Perhaps because of pandemic complications, it seemed that more and more artists were opting to do solo or spare performances this year. Margo Price’s Friday set was primarily her and her partner Jeremy Ivey, with guest spots from Andrew Bird and the Resistance Revival Chorus. The next day, Waxahatchee’s set was also pared down, but still felt louder than much of the rest of Newport — save for one duet with Kevin Morby, Katie Crutchfield was backed by a drummer, making for an oddly alluring and emphatic set of just acoustic guitar and percussion. Jason Isbell’s Saturday headlining set also eschewed his usual full-band lineup. As he commented from the stage, he likes Newport because the music is serious and the fans are serious. And, in that way, it was a festival that allowed him to get up on the mainstage and let the songs breathe in a way they wouldn’t be able to at, say, Bonnaroo. Flanked just by Amanda Shires and 400 Unit member Sadler Vaden, it was the first time a lot of us got to see Isbell perform music from Reunions, and he sounded great as usual.
In the same way that Newport invites more intimate, unique sets, it’s also a place that has often fostered collaborations. This year was no different, with certain artists popping up onstage together again and again. You could catch Margo Price and Andrew Bird singing Bob Dylan’s “Oh Sister” or Tré Burt and Tommy Prine paying tribute to John Prine with Nathaniel Rateliff. Throughout the festival, you got a sense of people tapping into the long history associated with Newport, digging back and covering classic songs or exploring one folk tradition or another. Margo Price, too, paid tribute to Prine; in Yola’s fiery, ebullient Sunday set, she covered both Elton John and Aretha Franklin; Devon Gilfillian arranged and led a big What’s Going On Marvin Gaye tribute. Some of these moments already existed in certain artists’ repertoires, but altogether it winds up leaving you with a weekend where you’re never quite sure who’s going to show up and what’s going to happen. That’s never truer than at the weekend’s conclusion, when Allison Russell curated a final set that gave an opportunity for many of the weekend’s artists to return to stage and sing together.
If you don’t know about Newport Folk Festival, the setting is almost cartoonishly ideal. The fest sits right on the edge of Fort Adams State Park, meaning you are on the edge of an island and literally watching a festival at an old fort. You’re right on the water the whole time, and by the end of the day a bunch of rich people pull their boats up to watch the music from the other side of the festival gates. You can get good seafood all day. It’s a far cry from the rougher, swampier iterations of summer festivalgoing in America. All that being said, Newport 2021 did get hit by some of those summer festival season problems. On Friday, there was a break in the day when lightning was spotted nearby, and then eventually, after briefly resuming, the festival was called off early and evacuated. I almost had to laugh to myself about this — first festival day back since 2019 and of course we’re evacuated because of thunderstorm warnings. It’s good to be back.
All in all, though, Newport was able to provide a warm, chill welcome back to festival life — especially by the time Yola’s vocal performance was blowing everyone’s minds on Sunday, or by the time the evening ended with the big collaborative get together. By nature quieter but even more so this year, it was almost like Newport was giving everyone a little curtain rise on what it would be like to be able to gather in these kinds of spaces again, not to see just one club gig on one night but to sink back into the alternate reality that can develop with going to a festival for three or four or five days. It was a gorgeous weekend as is — now I’m just jealous of the people who get to stay for the next three days.