Day one Newport Folk Fest attendees could not have predicted all of the surprises in store as they made their way by car, bus, bicycle and foot across the harbor to Fort Adams on such a magnificent sunny day. Around every corner, someone unexpected appeared and gave a killer performance as part of collaborations we could only begin to dream up. If the first day was any indication, the whole weekend will be filled with secrets that have major payoff. Here’s the rundown of some of the day’s best, by stage:
The quiet, chair-filled Harbor Stage ruled the day, with an incredible block of artists. No matter where you were on the Fort, chances were you continuously found yourself returning to Harbor for acts like Joe Pug, Angel Olsen, Hiss Golden Messenger, Strand of Oaks and Heartless Bastards. Pug opened the day with a smooth set of country-tinged folk and his strong, masculine voice. Olsen did a hypnotic solo set without any backing band, making fart jokes and strumming ever so gently on her electric guitar through songs like “Unfuck the World” and “May As Well”. M. C. Taylor of Hiss Golden Messenger led his dynamite band through a danceable set that included “Southern Grammar”, “Lucia” and “Saturday’s Song”. Strand of Oaks and Heartless Bastards finished off the day with energetic rock and roll sets that attracted hearty crowds.
The conclusion of the day at Quad Stage was likely a memorable Folk Fest moment for many in the tightly packed tent. Watkins Family Hour blasted through bluegrassy tunes starring Sara Watkins and her gorgeous vocals and fiddle playing, and a somewhat manic, but powerhouse Fiona Apple contributing intense rhythm and vocals. Songs like “You and Me” and “We’ll Cry Together” had the audience on their feet, dancing and begging for more.
Earlier on, Leon Bridges poured his heart out to a completely full tent singing warm, soulful tunes off his debut record Coming Home. And Calexico powered through their set of songs mainly off their new record Edge of the Sun, with the standout being the epic “Falling from the Sky”.
The hidden gem of the day, the Museum Stage is easy to walk right past if you’re not looking for it. But thanks to the thoughtfully crafted lineup that included Margo Price (a female country artist whose name you won’t soon forget), JP Harris and the Tough Choices, Joe Fletcher and the Wrong Reasons, and John Moreland, to name a few, it was the place to be. The short sets packed a serious punch, attracted many festival-goers to remain in there for more than half the day.
New Breed Brass Band opened the day here, setting the energy and tone for the day with their high-spirited and inclusive sing-alongs and foot stompers.
But later, with a mysterious unannounced set smack in the middle of the early evening, it was unclear who might grace the stage at such a coveted time. Rumors flew all day (with Eric Clapton becoming quite popular as the day went on), but when it came time, no one could have anticipated the grand and beautiful set from My Morning Jacket. With the release of the trippy, fluid The Waterfall this year, their sound had continued to evolve and grow. Songs like “In its Infancy”, “Believe (Nobody Knows)”, “Wonderful (The Way I Feel)” (a collaboration with eclectic duo Lucius), and “Circuital”, front man Jim James sounded as dynamic as ever.
And nothing could compare to MMJ joining the legendary headliner Roger Waters as his backing band for the final show of the night. Covers from John Prine to Buddy Miller to Bob Dylan were included, with Waters and James sharing vocal duties, and with help from Lucius and Sara Watkins. The crowd went into full-on worship mode as the skies opened up on them through the first part of the set, before clearing into a breathtaking sunset during the classic Pink Floyd tune “Wish You Were Here”. The band played other Pink Floyd favorites, too, like “Mother” and “Brain Damage/Eclipse”, plus a few Waters originals like “Crystal Clear” and “Amused to Death” from the 1992 album of the same name that was just re-mastered. And the unforgettable finale of Dylan’s “Forever Young” felt like the perfect start to a weekend of tribute to the folk legend who brought rock and roll to the fort so many years ago. MMJ were a welcome surprise and an ideal fit for Waters’ psychedelic, folky sensibilities, and the addition of Waters’ band-mate G. E. Smith made the set electrifying.
Another unannounced block lurks on Saturday, and many are saying it may be James Taylor. Only time will tell, but Friday was a tour de force start to a weekend that has already proved to be game-changing.