Fridays are for the ladies! The first day of the Newport Folk Festival delivered on this year’s underlying theme of female empowerment with a day full of performances from a diverse array of women. Sixty years in, the landmark festival continues to be a platform for promoting positivity and community-building, good causes and change-making. In just the first day, the festival gave this platform to women from all backgrounds, amplifying our cultural climate, our hunger for more female voices from Washington D.C. to a stage in Newport, Rhode Island.
Early in the day, the festival’s Harbor Stage (its smallest, but often its mightiest) was packed to the brim for one of the first sets. People came from far and wide to hear Yola sing, either because they were enchanted by her excellent release from earlier this year Walk Through Fire, or because word of mouth had reached them that this was not to be missed. And it truly was one of the absolute best performances of the day. In between beauties like “Shady Grove,” “Ride Out in the Country” and a splendid cover of Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” Yola shared personal anecdotes both funny and moving, about coming of age and leaving behind the foolishness of her twenties.
Elsewhere, Katherine Paul, known as Black Belt Eagle Scout, led her band in an ambient rock and roll set that showed off the gorgeous subtleties of her vocal tones and likely intrigued many listeners about her forthcoming record At the Party With My Brown Friends (out August 30). Kacey Musgraves brought her perfectly choreographed set to the main stage, reminding us all how much her 2018 record Golden Hour has meant to us over the past year and a half. A rapt audience sang (and cried) along to almost every word of songs like “Oh What a World,” “Slow Burn,” “Love is a Wild Thing” and “Rainbow.” Simply put, we were not worthy.
Other highlights in the day came from the soft harmonies of I’m With Her and the insane shredding of Liz Cooper and the Stampede (which brought out Erin Rae as a guest). Even the performances by male artists seemed to put the spotlight on women, particularly Cooks in the Kitchen, a curated set of special guests hosted by Phil Cook and his brother Brad Cook. Hot off winning a jaw-dropping eight Tony awards, Anais Mitchell joined them onstage and ripped through a show-stopping cover of Rickie Lee Jones’ “We Belong Together” with Amy Ray lending support. During Lukas Nelson’s spectacular singalong “Find Yourself,” he gave the ladies in the audience a little special attention, having them join in on the chorus. He ended his set with Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World,” inspiring everyone to get on their feet and dance.
Perhaps the most highly anticipated set of the whole weekend came at the end of the day when Amanda Shires, Maren Morris, Natalie Hemby and Brandi Carlile made their first appearance as the new supergroup, The Highwomen. Their own excitement at playing for a crowd came through in everything from their custom bedazzled suits to their frequent hugging and embracing of each other after each song, and their very tight performances of this fresh batch of songs (due in full this September). In addition to a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain,” the women gave us the “first gay country song” and a lot more Yola—something we were all craving since her first set. In these troubled socio-political times, these amazing women offered a kind of healing balm to temporarily soothe us and restore our faith in humanity.
Photos by Andrew Benedict