Newport Folk Festival Day 3: Kermit the Frog, Bonny Light Horseman, J.S. Ondara, Phosphorescent Make For A Grand Sunday (FESTIVAL RECAP/PHOTOS)

For so many who attend Newport Folk Festival, the surprise Sunday evening set that closes things out is the reason to go. It’s what they’ll leave still talking about and what they’ll still be thinking about a week later. But the true reason to stick around all the way through till Sunday is the change in pace that comes with the third day of the fest. There’s a calmness that sets in, likely brought on by the comfort we all now have with the physical space of Fort Adams, having spent a weekend trekking from stage to stage, over and under the cool, cavernous stone formations. The stillness of Sunday comes through in the day’s sets, too, so that we care less about how many performers they can squeeze onto the main stage for the almost karaoke-like finale. Instead, we move a bit more slowly, maybe staying for the entire length of a performance rather than rushing to see as many as we can. And when we do, we’re rewarded—not just with needed shade from the heat, but with some of the weekend’s best music.

The standout of Sunday came from Bonny Light Horseman, a newish supergroup made up of Eric D. Johnson (Fruit Bats), Anais Mitchell and guitarist Josh Kaufman. The trio and their band took the stage early in the day, when you could still feel a sweet breeze blow through the tent. Their atmospheric set included the song that no doubt inspired their band name, Irish folk group Plantxy’s “Bonny Light Horseman.” Their version showcased the vocal beauty of Mitchell and Johnson, harmonizing perfectly with the lush instrumental arrangements behind them. You couldn’t tear your eyes and ears away from this group, and it was heartbreaking to leave knowing there is not yet a record for us to buy.

Another memorable set of the day came from Kenyan-born, Minnesota-based J.S. Ondara, a young songwriter with a dreamy, arresting falsetto. Playing songs off his debut record Tales of America (released in February), Ondara attracted one of the day’s largest crowds, spilling out from the small tent into the blazing hot sun. But it was worth it to hear him sing so authentically and purely about new experiences, first love and coming of age. It was an intimate, deeply human performance, even when Dawes joined Ondara to finish out his set with the full instrumentation of “Torch Song” and “Saying Goodbye,” both made singalongs by the enthusiastic audience. 

Later in the day, we were treated to a stunning set from Phosphorescent, touring for the first time in years with the recently released record C’est La Vie. Unpredictable antics aside, Matthew Houck seemed genuinely humbled to sing his songs for the packed tent and delivered beautifully earnest performances of “Christmas Down Under,” “My Beautiful Boy,” and “C’est La Vie No. 2.” There wasn’t a butt in a seat for songs like “Around the Horn,” “New Birth in New England” and “Song for Zula,” the latter of which brought Houck down from the stage and eye to eye with the crowd. It wasn’t just one of the best sets of Sunday, but of the entire weekend.

By the time we’d all flocked to the main stage for the weekend’s last set, this year titled “If I Had a Song,” we were already so satisfied, they could have just sent us home before sundown. But with singalong booklets in hand, we joined guests like Kermit the Frog (yes, really), Jim James, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Judy Collins, Robin Pecknold (Fleet Foxes), James Mercer (The Shins), Trey Anastasio, Alynda Segarra (Hurray for the Riff Raff), Preservation Hall Jazz Band, the Berkeley Strings, Mavis Staples, Jason Isbell, Dawes, and many, many others for an improvised set of classic covers including “The Rainbow Connection,” “If I Had a Hammer,” “Everyday People,” “God Only Knows,” “Instant Karma!,” “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” While some felt a little hodgepodge and awkward, the standouts came from a Staples and Rihannon Giddens-led version of “Keep Your Eyes On the Prize,” and an epic rendition of “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” from Robin Pecknold, James Mercer, Eric D. Johnson and Ms. Judy Collins herself. Like many of the unannounced collaborations at Newport Folk Festival, it was hit or miss. But it gave us what we came for: those Newport moments.

Photos by Andrew Benedict

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