Newport Folk Welcomes Unexpected Collaborations and Surprise Guests

August 3, 2017

Newport Folk Festival 2017 was a weekend of surprises. From unexpected collaborations to unannounced guests (Roger Waters), it’s hard to think of an event in the modern musical landscape that has as much heft, and heart, as this annual get together in Fort Adams State Park.

Alynda Segarra and Hurray for the Riff Raff kicked things off Friday with a politically charged set, pulling material from their newest album The Navigator and expressing themes of protest that would reappear at different sets throughout the weekend. They ended their set with an impassioned performance of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” and left the crowd feeling energized for the weekend ahead.

On Saturday afternoon, music fans were treated to a Bill Withers Tribute, led by a one-time lineup of the “Grandma’s Hands Band.” The dream team of musicians included members of Hiss Golden Messenger and Drive-By Truckers, Natalie Prass, Phil Cook, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and more. The set was comprised entirely of Withers’ material, and hits like “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Lovely Day” sent the Newport audience into a state of total bliss.

Later that day, on the Fort Stage, My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James surprised fans when he joined Angel Olsen’s set for a few songs. As the wind blew gently through overcast skies, James shredded guitar solos on two tracks from Olsen’s 2016 record My Woman. On “Sister” and “Those Were The Days” the two artists were completely simpatico, as James’ guitar intertwined with Olsen’s stellar songwriting and and emotive vocals.

That night, Wilco took the stage with a career-spanning, 17-song set that included selections from their classic albums Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (“Heavy Metal Drummer,” “I’m The Man Who Loves You,” “Reservations”) and Summerteeth (“Via Chicago,” “I’m Always in Love”) as well as a few tracks from their newest release Shmilco (“If I Ever Was a Child,” “Cry All Day,” “Someone to Lose”). The band was in top form all evening, but the real highlight came when Wilco reunited with former, estranged collaborator Billy Bragg, who performed a set on the Harbor Stage just prior. Bragg joined Jeff Tweedy and company early on for the song “One By One,” from their collaborative, Woody Guthrie inspired album Mermaid Avenue and sat in again for an encore of “Christ For President” and “California Stars.”

By the time Sunday’s Chuck Berry Tribute came around, artists from all over the festival were ready to collaborate and to pay tribute to the fallen legend. Guitarist Charlie Sexton and the Texas Gentlemen led the festivities as guests rotated through the Chuck Berry catalogue. Jim James performed a version of “Promised Land,” and Nathaniel Rateliff performed his version of “You Never Can Tell.” Later, Dennis Ryan of Deer Tick fired off a high-energy “Run Rudolph Run,” and Shakey Graves played “Brown Eyed Handsome Man.”

Newport reached its political apex at the “Speak Out!” set Sunday afternoon. The review of protest songs featured musical support by members of Preservation Hall Jazz Band and the Decemberists, and sit-ins by Nathaniel Rateliff, Kyle Craft and more. Notable moments included Billy Bragg performing Anais Mitchell’s “Why We Build the Wall,” Margo Price singing John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero,” and Jim James teaming up with comedian Nick Offerman to sing Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War.”

Whoever left the festival early must be kicking themselves because John Prine’s Sunday evening set proved to be the most memorable of the weekend. Jim James continued his string of sit-ins by duetting “All The Best” with Prine, and Justin Vernon jumped on stage for a version of “Bruised Orange (Chain of Sorrow).” However, the weekend’s biggest moment came when Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, along with his current supporting vocalists Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig of Lucius, shocked the entire festival by showing up unannounced. Waters joined Prine for a brief, acoustic performance of “Hello In There,” before the stage was filled with musicians and singers for one last sing-along of Prine’s “Paradise” to close the festival.

With another Newport Folk Festival in the history books it’s safe to say that this particular iteration will remain in the memories of fans and musicians for years to come.

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