Highlights From Newport Folk Festival, 2014

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This year’s Newport Folk Festival marked another thrilling year at Fort Adams State Park. Once again, 2014’s festival was filled with too much good music to see at once, so we spent a good portion of the weekend hopping around trying to catch as many acts as possible. 

By just walking around and briefly dropping in on sets throughout the weekend, we saw Lucero deliver a gut-punch take on “The War” and Jimmy Cliff deliver the sharpest, old-fashioned protest music of the weekend with his “Afghanistan,” an updated, re-written version of his song “Vietnam.” We witnessed Reignwolf and J. Roddy Walston & The Business proving that, forty-nine years after Dylan went electric, garage rock has become one of the most tried-and-true genres at Newport Folk. We were able to catch Jenny Lewis premiering gorgeous new songs off her upcoming album The Voyageur, and Hurray for the Riff Raff lead a packed crowd through a victory lap of highlights from its breakthrough Small Town Heroes. And for those looking for more straightforward folk music, acts like The Devil Makes Three and John Reilly & Friends delivered just a couple of the many traditionally-minded sets of old-fashioned music we’ve come to expect at Newport.

Between Ryan Adams’ triumphant return to playing with a full band, Jack White’s full-on blues bombardment, and Mavis Staples’ joyous 75th birthday celebration, 2014’s headlining sets were all tremendous in their own way, but many of our favorite sets at American Songwriter this weekend came earlier in the day, often times at smaller side stages, where upstart bands and eager young artists delivered unforgettable sets each and every day. Here are ten of our favorite sets from the weekend:

Ryan Adams

Perhaps the most anticipated performance of the whole weekend was the one from Ryan Adams, who is set to release his self-titled album in September. The 39-year-old’s Friday show featured a few fan favorites from his solo debut Heartbreaker, wacky stage banter that imagined Doobie Brother Michael McDonald on a sailboat in the distance, a cover of Danzig’s “Mother,” as well as tunes from his forthcoming album, including “My Wrecking Ball” (which you can watch above), a tune he introduced as a “protest song protesting the death of my grandmother.”

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Willie Watson

One of the most well-received sets of the whole festival was Willie Watson’s Saturday morning performance. The Old Crow Medicine Show co-founder-turned-folk-troubadour recently released his solo debut, produced by Dave Rawlings, and he treated the audience to a variety of folk standards, gospel chants, and blues traditionals from his debut. Watson is a magnetic performer and an exuberant vocalist, and his renderings of songs like “Midnight Special” and “Rock, Salt, and Nails” left the packed crowd enraptured. “I’m a folk singer these days,” Watson announced midway through his set, “so this is a good fit.” He was exactly right.

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Sun Kil Moon

Sun Kil Moon played a stunning set on Friday afternoon. Focusing most heavily on his two most recent records, Benji and Among the Leaves, Mark Kozelek ran through a no-nonsense, semi-confrontational set of dark, aching songs, leaving the small but devoted crowd spellbound. There was plenty of self-consciousness (“there are so many white people here, I’m feeling nervous,” Kozelek announced at one point), and plenty of dark humor (“my dick wants to do all these things, but my body can’t follow,” he said between songs when commenting on his middle-age). In the midst of so many acts that rely on pleasing, cheery Americana sing-along at a festival like Newport, it was refreshing and inspiring to witness Sun Kil Moon’s uncompromising set delivered to the casual, daytime festival crowd. It may not have been incredibly easy to hear the intricacies of all the pain and beauty in songs like “I Know It’s Pathetic But That Was The Greatest Night of My Life” and “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love” through Kozelek’s reverb-heavy vocals, but it was well worth trying.

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Dawes

Dawes returned yet again to Newport for a straightforward career-spanning set that spanned their first three albums, complete with requisite sing-alongs to “When My Times Comes” and “A Little Bit of Everything” that never get old. But it was most exciting to hear the band premiere a few new tunes: “Things Happen” and “I Can’t Think About It Now,” which were received as well as many of their tried-and-true classics. Goldsmith, who has become one of the festival’s most vocal supporters over the last few years, even joined Mavis Staples on stage a few hours later to sing the “Crazy Chester” verse on “The Weight.”

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Lucius

Led by Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig, Lucius proved without a doubt to be one of the biggest breakout stars of the weekend. The five-piece group, whose sound heavily prioritizes percussion, provided the biggest injection of electro-pop at this year’s Newport. Showcasing tunes from the band’s 2013 debut Wildewoman, Lucius sang a bit of Whitney Houston, invited Mavis Staples on stage during “Go Home,” and hushed the crowd when the whole group gathered around one mic for an acoustic, jaw-dropping take on “Two of Us On the Run.” Jess and Holly were also some of the most in-demand backup vocalists throughout the weekend, joining both Jeff Tweedy and Mavis Staples for some high-profile special guest appearances the following day.

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Houndmouth

Though it was only their second ever appearance at the festival, Houndmouth was received as Newport royalty, taking the stage to a standing ovation before opening with a spirited cover of Funkadelic’s “Can You Get To That.” The band’s Saturday afternoon set was a clear crowd favorite. Performing a mix of new material (they’ll begin recording their second album next month), covers, and highlights from their breakthrough debut From The Hills Below The City, Houndmouth proved they’re a band quickly on the rise with their high-energy set. Singing a new song called “Greg,” lead singer Matt Myers sang “If you want to live a good life, better stay away from the limelight.” For a band that stands poised to break it big, that line sounded like a precautionary warning for themselves.

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Robert Hunter

You may not know him, but as the co-writer to the vast majority of the Grateful Dead’s body of work, Robert Hunter is responsible for some of the most enduring Americana standards of the last half-century. Performing by himself for a packed crowd at one of the side stages Friday afternoon, Hunter delivered fragile, haunting versions of Dead standards “Bertha,” “Touch of Grey,” “Brown Eyed Women,” and “Sugaree.” The California songwriter even alluded to the most famous event ever to take place at Newport when introducing “Silvio,” one of his several co-writes with a certain Dylan. “There are certain things you think about when you think of Newport. The protagonist [Pete Seeger] passed away not too long ago. The other one is still going.”

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The Deslondes

The Deslondes played to what must have been one of their largest crowds first thing on Sunday morning. Between the high harmonies on “Throw Another Cap In the Fire,” the mournful contemplation of “Blues in Heaven,” and the straightforward country blues of “Low Down Soul,” the New Orleans-based group’s blend of country-soul shined bright on the Newport stage. Closing the set with a killer one-two punch of “Depression Blues” (their remake of bluesman Abner Jay’s “I’m So Depressed”) and a Woody Guthrie lyric put to music called “This Mornin’ I Was Born Again,” the quintet proved that they’re quickly becoming some of the finest young interpreters of traditional Southern American music.

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Jeff Tweedy

The first half of Jeff Tweedy’s set was comprised of material from his upcoming debut solo record, recorded with his son Spencer. The new songs are introspective, occasionally brooding folk-pop songs, or as Tweedy described them on-stage, “sad songs written in the dead of winter,” and “Summer Noon” and “Low Key” were just a few of the highlights. Tweedy then took the stage alone, treating the crowd to a smattering of Uncle Tupelo, Golden Smog, and Wilco tunes. He even invited Mavis Staples on stage right before her main set, and she dueted with Tweedy on their arrangements of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Wrote a Song For Everyone” and “Only the Lord Knows” from 2010’s Tweedy-produced You Are Not Alone. By the time the sun came out during the closing full-band take on “California Stars,” it was clear that despite the “sad songs,” Tweedy had delivered one of the most feel-good sets of the weekend.

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Caitlin Rose

Backed by Nashville’s Los Colognes, Caitlin Rose delivered slightly sped-up, fresh takes from her first two albums. Rose’s set was (surprisingly) one of the few doses of  Nashville at this weekend’s fest, and the singer-songwriter showed off her range, covering Karen Dalton’s “Something on Your Mind,” singing a lovely solo-acoustic version of “Sinful Wishing Well,” and delivering a tough, show-stopping take on “Waitin.’” She introduced “No One To Call” as a song about “the death of regional radio” and “Spare Me” as a song “about being a cover girl, actually, it’s about being a pack rat.” But the highlight of her hour-long set came when she brought out songwriter Pete Lindberg for a duet on the Lindberg/Rose-penned ballad “If I Say Something.” It made us even more excited for whatever she does next.

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Conor Oberst

Conor Oberst’s main-stage set on Sunday afternoon was a mix of the old and the new. Alternating between brand-new tunes from Upside Down Mountain and Bright Eyes classics, Oberst delivered a workman-like, no nonsense set that served as a stark contrast to the dominant tone of folksy humility from so many of the other acts at the festival. Without saying a word to the audience, Oberst, with his nine-piece backing band (including all four members of Dawes), delivered inspired takes on songs like “Danny Callahan,” “Double Life,” and “We Are Nowhere, and It’s Now.” It’s hard to believe Oberst’s breakthrough I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning was released almost ten years ago, but apart from his new songs, the album served as the singer’s main source material for his set at Newport, and the songs sounded as good as ever.

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Bonus: Deer Tick After Party

Deer Tick’s after-parties at the Newport Blues Cafe have become a yearly tradition at the festival. This year, we were able to catch Saturday night’s show, which featured Ages and Ages, Joe Pug, and T. Hardy Morris as the opening acts. Deer Tick played a loose, typically raucous set, covering Chuck Berry, the Replacements, NRBQ, and Warren Zevon amidst playing highlights from Born on Flag Day and War Elephant. Kurt Vile joined the band on guitar for a rousing take on Nirvana’s “Sliver,” and John McCauley played a new song called “Shitty Music Festival,” which he assured the crowd wasn’t about Newport. We didn’t think so.

— additional reporting by Caine O’Rear