Alabama Shakes, Middle Brother, Phil Cook And More Close Newport Folk Festival 2016 On High Note (REVIEW/PHOTOS)

Peace flowed freely out of Fort Adams for the final day of Newport Folk Festival, which began traditionally, with gospel music pouring off the Fort stage and out into the crowd. The Berkelee Gospel Choir eased festival-goers into the day after a long weekend, and the soothing sounds of folk singer Ian Fitzgerald (with Smith and Weeden) wafted off the Harbor Stage, welcoming the crowd warmly.

Once again, love was the name of the game – love your neighbor, love yourself, love your fellow festies. Nearly every artist expressed an overwhelming feeling of gratitude to be playing at Newport, and so many of them commented on the complicated state of our world. And though the election year may have inspired a lot of these sentiments, here’s hoping that the theme will carry into future Folk Fests.

The collaborative nature of Sunday’s performances brought unexpected artists together, as Dawes, Glen Hansard and Preservation Hall Jazz Band joined Elvis Costello, and The Suffers’ Kam Franklin made appearances on multiple stages.

And as the sun began to go down on the fort while the final band played, you could make out a sign floating high above the revelers. Plucked from the ground, it read “Keep Left”, intended to remind walkers where to traverse within the sometimes-chaotic stage area. But on this weekend, it served as a cheeky political reminder, and was the perfect image to have etched in your memory as you danced your last steps on the fort’s dusty ground until next year.

Here are the highlights:

Kam Franklin

Though not an official performer at this year’s festival, The Suffers’ frontwoman seemed to be popping up all over the place as a guest on this day. The band played Deer Tick’s famous after parties, but Kam also brought her signature charisma and show-stopping vocals to acts like River Whyless and Middle Brother. She sang Billy Brag and Wilco’s Woody Guthrie tune “Airline to Heaven” with River Whyless, and joined the Middle Brother reunion on “Theatre” and “Someday”.

Joan Shelley

The Louisville, Kentucky folk singer brought serious Joni Mitchell vibes to the Harbor stage and was the perfect anecdote to the strong, blazing sun outside the tent. Her quiet melodies sent a hush over the audience and made you want to sit still and listen.


Son Little

Maybe the sexiest performance of the entire weekend, Son Little and his band brought fiery blues-rock to the small Harbor stage. The tent was overflowing more for his set than for any other performance in that tent, as the magnetic singer gave a soulful, sultry show with songs like “Toes”, “Joy” and “All Wet”.

Julien Baker

Tiny Julien Baker is a force of nature, and she proved it on the Quad Stage with nothing but her voice and her guitar. Her powerful lyrics and larger than life voice floated through the tent along with one of the day’s only cool breezes, and it became impossible to look away.  Singing songs off her new record Sprained Ankle, Baker was joined by her longtime friend Matthew Gillam, who provided spare percussion that gave her already heart-wrenching songs a kind of heartbeat.


Preservation Hall Jazz Band

Contrary to what many festival-goers thought, you don’t sit down during PHJB’s sets – you dance your ass off! Opening the show with the sing-a-long “Shallow Waters”, the stellar band hardly came up for air.


Middle Brother

One of the most popular sets of the weekend brought every single young person at the fort to the tight crowd in front of the Fort stage when the sun was at its peak. But no one cared about baking in the heat as long as Matthew Logan Vasquez (Delta Spirit), John McCauley (Deer Tick) and Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes) were on stage belting out their entire self-titled record from 2011. Middle Brother hasn’t played the stage as a band since (save for a smaller scale throwback in 2012), and it felt like nothing had changed. Except this time, every single audience member knew every single word to every single song, making the set more of a sing-a-long party. Everyone had fun, Vasquez and McCauley shared a kiss, and we all left happy and with full hearts. And of course, Johnny Fritz made a goofy, much-loved appearance.

Blind Boys of Alabama
Blind Boys of Alabama w/ Phill Cook

Phil Cook Presents “Southland Revue”

Phil Cook has an infectious spirit, with an aura of love and positivity seemingly floating around him at all times. He’s no moody artist – he’s a great person with big talent and an even bigger heart. In fact, he spoke about his own important history with the historic Newport Folk Festival – his son took his first steps just outside the Quad stage years before. Joined on stage by longtime cohorts The Guitarheels (his band), The Blind Boys of Alabama and Amelia Meath (Sylvan Esso), Cook sang tunes off his new record Southland Mission. And his mission is clear – to bring more peace to the world and specifically, to the south. He donated proceeds from his poster sales to an LGBTQ group, and spoke out against injustices within his own state. Cook was the perfect addition to the Newport Folk Fest lineup, and we can only hope he’ll be back again soon to make more history.


Alabama Shakes

The Alabama Shakes showed no mercy, giving Newport an electrifying set of songs (many off last year’s phenomenal Sound and Color). Brittany Howard is unlike any other singer, and her talent is unmatched. The fort was captivated by her fearless, uninhibited performance of “Over My Head”, “Gimme All Your Love” and “You Ain’t Alone”. And as if the day couldn’t get any better, she closed things out by inviting Dawes to join her for a cover of Bob Seger’s summertime anthem “Night Moves”.

Check out more coverage from the 2016 Newport Folk Festival:



All photos by Andrew Benedict.  

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