Newport Folk Festival 2018: Peace, Love and Music are Alive and Well

By Erik Philbrook, Editor in Chief  •  August 2, 2018

Jon Batiste, Brandi Carlile, St. Vincent, Lucius, The Lone Bellow, Glen Hansard, The Autumn Defense, Nicole Atkins, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and numerous other ASCAP artists from across the musical spectrum elevate this year's revered festival.

The Newport Folk Festival has been sacred ground for singer-songwriters for 59 years. From its first inception at Fort Adams State Park in Newport, Rhode Island in July 1959 at the dawn of the folk revival to its annually sold-out musical extravaganza today, the event continues to embody the ideal that music has the power to change the world. For many artists and for the 10,000 music fans who pack the park for three days every year, the feeling that change is possible is incredibly palpable.
Brandi Carlile, who spent much of the weekend joining other artists such as Margo Price, Mumford & Sons, Lucius, Chris Thile, Maggie Rogers and more on stage for duets and backing vocals, sums it up best: “I’ve been here for three days, sitting in with folks, watching sets, having talks with people. This is the place where the activism begins. It wouldn’t surprise me if people leave here after this weekend and make a difference in the world, because this is the kind of place where that seems possible.”
Carlile, whose own headlining Sunday set on the Fort Stage was filled with songs from her powerful new album, By the Way I Forgive You (already garnering early Grammy nom buzz), and a few choice covers, including fellow ASCAP member Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You,” was just one of many women artists who seemed to be on a mission to change perceptions, attitudes and expectations while also generating the most excitement and crowds throughout the weekend.
Other top women artists included St. Vincent, who performed a stripped-down Cabaret-style set of songs that was exceptionally raw and edgy; Aussie singer-songwriter-guitarist Courtney Barnett, who showed she could shred like the best of them and delivered one of the best full-on rock performances of the festival; Lucius, the indie pop quartet fronted by Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig, who also joined other artists on stage several times while packing a punch with their own set, which included a moving tribute to recently deceased songwriter and musician Richard Swift; and Nicole Atkins, who brought her A-game and ace band of Nashville musicians and played a joyfully raucous set of rock and soul songs on the Harbor Stage.
While folk and early roots musical styles was well represented by ASCAP members such as Joe Purdy, Charlie Parr, Nels Cline and to another extent in the four-part vocal stylings of Darlingside, this year’s lineup featured performers from across the musical spectrum, from indie rock (Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam, Erika Wennerstrom of Heartless Bastards, The Weather Report) to country (Colter Wall) to jazz (Preservation Hall Jazz Band) to soul (Fantastic Negrito, JD Mcpherson) Americana (The Autumn Defense, Johnny  Irion, The Lone Bellow, Glorietta) and even electronic surf rock (Khruangbin).
Naturally, some of today’s greatest singer-songwriters were front and center carrying on the tradition of captivating their audiences with stories and songs. Writers such as Glen Hansard, John Fullbright and Bedouine all showed what was possible with nothing more than a guitar and a voice.
Nashville’s alt-country revival was a strong current running throughout this year’s festival. Colter Wall, originally hailing from Canada, is one of country music’s exciting young artists. His baritone voice and vivid and often haunting story songs were a stark contrast to much of the uplifting, feel-good music emanating other stages. But he riveted the Harbor Stage audience with songs from his powerful new self-titled debut album produced by Dave Cobb (the producer who has also worked with Chris Stapleton as well as both Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell, two other artists performing at this year’s fest).
Wall seemed please to reach audiences searching for depth in their music. He said, “I think music moves in cycles. If you put enough bullshit in peoples’ ears, some of them are eventually going to turn away and look for something a little less manufactured. It seems like the pendulum is starting to swing back the other way towards music with real meaning. At least I hope people are yearning for something more. Which is great.”
As is tradition at the Newport Folk Festival, the closing set is always a soul-stirring, consciousness-raising sing-along with numerous artists joining each on other stage for surprise collaborations. Jon Batiste and the Dap Kings were the house band for the grand finale. And as far as grandiosity goes, it did not disappoint. In addition to many of the artists who had performed earlier in the weekend, some surprise guests included 60s music icon Mavis Staples, mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile of The Punch Brothers, rising indie star Maggie Rogers and many others. Entitled “A Change is Gonna Come,” the closing set was a fitting end to a festival that still believes.

Now all ears turn to the Newport Jazz Festival, which kicks off today, Friday, August 3rd. The ASCAP Foundation, led by President Paul Williams, and Newport Festivals Foundation, led by Founder & Chairman George Wein, continue their joint effort to benefit emerging jazz talent at the jazz fest by featuring a performance by jazz vocalist/composer Estar Cohen, a recipient of the 2018 ASCAP Foundation Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Award. Cohenwill debut her collaboration with Grammy-nominated pianist and band member Fabian Almazan on Saturday, August 4th at 12:30 PM on the Festival’s Storyville Stage. You can read ASCAP Deputy Editor Etan Rosenbloom's interview with Estar Cohen here.

Photos by Erik Philbrook