Chillin’ at Folk On! in Newport 2021

The first time I went to the Newpor Folk Festival, I planned on buying a ticket at the gate and when I got to the box office there was someone there who had an extra and with some combination of kindness and convenience they “miracled” me the ticket for free without negotiation. It was the summer of 2007 and, you could say, I was more or less instantly a fan for life. Well, fan maybe doesn’t quite cover it, as over the ensuing 15 summers, 11 of which I’ve spent a weekend (or more) at Fort Adams seeing music, the Newport Folk Fest became one of my homes away from home, a place to gather with family, both by blood or by circumstance, a place where my love of livemusic was enshrined, elevated to something holy. The Folk Fest became my church and I one of many adherents and evangelizers. Barring some significant family matter, I was not and will not be missing a Newport Folk weekend and when they announced they’d be spreading this year’s “Folk On!” event over two separate 3-day sessions, there was little doubt in my mind that I would be there for all six days, a decision that I can now, sitting on a couch licking my proverbial wounds (ooh, these achin’ knees!) from nearly a week straight of fest’n, that I can now safely say, was the correct one.

If I’ve did the math correctly, doubling the length and more or less halving the attendance meant that each day would be essentially twice as chill. Indeed, chill was the operative word this week, but in retrospect I didn’t appreciate all the levels and layers inherent in that word “chill”and how so many of them would apply to the festival this year. So by way of reviewing the week of music, let’s thesaurusize that word a little…

Of course, we have to chill, primarily meaning to be relaxed and laze about. With two main stages instead of four and half as many people, things were definitely more relaxed at the Fort in 2021. After the last year, or really after the last 4+ years, who needs the stress, right? Newport seemed to know just what the doctor ordered and came ready to medicate the soul. And while there were, indeed, two main stages, perhaps no where exemplified the chill atmosphere at the Folk Fest quite like the Busking Stage, a small, out-of-the-way not-really-a-stage spot where artists both big (in the Folk Fest sense) and unknown (in any sense) got to play short sets during changeovers at the main Lawn Stage. The de rigeur position at this spot was criss-cross-applesauce (old school chill) or just straight up lazily splayed on the lawn. By the final day, Wednesday, almost all of my highlights were at the Busking Stage, which seemed to be something transported out of the early days of the festival. But really, the whole week of programming there was full of brand new discoveries — like the old timey goodness of Sierra Ferrell and her band or the starmaker set from Maggie Rose — and soulstirrer sets from old favorites like Andrew Bird (with Jimbo Mathus), Langhorne Slim, and the always-wows-me Christopher Paul Stelling. Other great super chill sets at the Busking Stage included some tasty bluegrass from Andrew Marlin and a mix of old school and new school folk from fest regular JP Harris. I know this “stage” was a stand-in for a combination of the usual Museum and Kids Tent spots, but I hope the magic of the Busking Stage is carried forward to Folk Fests of the future, it was something special.

Then, we have chill as in, hey man, just chill, alright? Like, take things down a level, ya know? For me, this definition of chill was represented by so many artists forgoing their usual full band thing and just going it alone. The direction from the Festival to many in the lineup was clearly to strip things down to the bare essentials, which often meant solo or duo performances. So, instead of a loud electric set from Drive-By Truckers, we had an all accoustic Dimmer Twins set that was no less powerful. In fact, Saturday was really the chill day in this respect, starting with Grace Potter (in a make-up set after her Friday slot got cancelled due to an impending storm (that never quite pended) going fully solo, taking requests, doing covers, shreadding the flying-V and taking things down a notch; Waxahatchee playing with just a drummer, and letting her songwriting, voice, and acoustic guitar do the work of a full band and not leaving anyone wanting in the least; Margot Price with song-centric duets with husband Jeremy Ivey; as well as main-stage slots from Phospherescent and Jason Isbell in uniquely stripped-bare formats. Actually, a bunch of those remind me of another more modern meaning of chill, the one that starts with “Netflix and….” as many of the artists picked their musical plus-one as their spouse or partner, keeping things “in the pod” so to speak: Potter employing her husband as tech and working him into her set, Price and Ivey already mentioned, Katie Waxahatchee Crutchfield and Kevin Morby both helping each other out in their sets wonderfully, and Isbell playing with Amanda Shires (who impressed me with her violin playing). Other stripped down sets over the six days included Sharon Van Etten going full melancholy on her own on the Lawn Stage Tuesday, Julien Baker playing both solo and in duet and nearly bringing me to tears as she did her best to get through her emotional set, Beck (friggin’ Beck) going mostly solo and feelign like he was winging it in his living room for a small crowd, deliciously so, and Chris Thile, who seems to easily flip from playing with his own bands to leading oversized ensembles, seeming right at home and going superesoteric totally solo as well (no one else in the universe would even attempt to cover Jack White and Bach within a few minutes of each other, let alone pull it off quite like the maestro).

And sometimes you just want to invite over a friend to just chill, you know, like hang out and chillax. Here I’m talking about special guests and sit ins, which are a Folk Fest staple, almost an expectation that sets will feature them. The 2021 incarnation definitely had plenty of in-the-moment collaborations, but the flavor was definitely of the chillin’ with your buddies variety, less super surprise style and more like visiting friends who already know they don’t have to ask before going to the fridge and grabbing a cold beer. There were so many of these, it’s impossible to remember or recount them all, but know that the Festival had a strong family reunion vibe, a badly needed one after the ordeal we’ve all been with, and that these sit-ins were like chill hangs with old friends that we all got to witness unfold on stage. What was so cool was seeing musicians sit in with their friends and then return the favor when it was their turn: Aoife O’Donovan joining Hiss Golden Messenger for a ridiculously touching, best ever? version of the Grateful Dead’s “Bertha” after the roles were reversed a few hours earlier; both Josh Kaufman and Anais Mitchell sitting in over the course of a fest-highlight Fruit Bats set and then, of course, all playing together again with Eric Johnson for the Bonny Light Horseman set, that powerful, wowza!, Folk-fest perfection Bonny Light Horseman set. There were so many other sit-ins, all with that same we-just-chillin’ ‘energy, Tre Burt was here and there, as was Adia Victoria, Natalie Hemby joining Yola, and Nathaniel Raitliff seemed to be just about everywhere over the weekend making the most of that soul in his throat, and don’t think for a second that Brandi Carlile didn’t make an appearance or two. When they say “folk family,” they mean it and who better to just chill with than your family?

Now we’re cooking, yeah? And occasionally when you’re preparing food, you might find the direction to chill something. Like, you’re making jello and you’ve got to put it in the fridge so it gets all wobbly and tasty. Or, perhaps more apt for this review is when you’re marinating meat and you’ve got to chill. In this metaphor, the meat is the listener, the folks in the crowd, specifically that part of their mind that takes the music straight from the ear and turns it directly into food for the soul. And the marinade was the words being sung into the pristine Newport air. Naturally, it’s a folk festival and every year it’s about the songs and the words in the songs. But this year, due to the fact that, as already mentioned, so many artists were solo or barely-more-than-solo, the lyrics seemed to play an outsized role in the magic of Newport. Yes, there were guitar solos and fiddle solos and more, but really the poetry of the songwriting were it. Because it was so chill there, the crowds were, yes, smaller, but also they were quieter, more attentive, more ready to soak up the marinade… and soak they did. So many times over the course of the six days, a word or a phrase or a verse seemed to just hang in the late July air, a seasoned liquid, carrying so much more flavor than its individual syllables, and the audience just got to sit there and chill in these words. So many great songwriters, so many great thoughts, such profoundity to just chill in. I mean, Lucy fucking Dacus making the personal universal like few can, Kevin Morby making his lyrics, his masterful use of repetition, making these words into a unique musical instrument, Joy Oladokun reshaping the political into sheer melodic power, and Sunny War turning folk into jazz through the sheer force of the turn of a phrase. And so much more to soak our souls in, so much more.

Yeah, chill can also be like as in chilly. I wouldn’t say it was cool this year at Newport, but it wasn’t all that hot either, compared to years past. That being said, I don’t want you to think everything was totally laid back. The festival started off with a rhythm-and-blues bang! on Friday with scintillating sets from Black Joe Lewis (whoa!), Celisse (whoa!!!), and the Marcus King Band (whoa!!!!!!). There were plenty of holy-shit sets from full bands letting it all out, sets that were anything but chill, from those Friday afternoon burners right up to the Deer Tick close out Sunday night. Perhaps none of them were as fiery as the absolute heater thrown down by Billy Strings and band Monday. Strings was one of the artists who got two slots over the 6 days, but was the only one perfectly straddling the Sunday/Monday divide of the two three-day sessions. In retrospect, those two days were likely the strongest (for my money) days of the festival and Strings’s two sets may have defined the two sides of the peak. Sunday’s set was a pitch-perfect tribute set to Doc Watson, a set that was both reverent to the past and future-of-the-genre awe-inspiring. I love Doc Watson and Strings and his ridiculous quartet did him justice with great song selection, excellent playing and vocals that evoked Doc quite well. It was great as a standalone, but it was also a great set-up for Monday, which was uncontrollable, nothing-chill-about-it, bonfire’s-ablaze Billy Strings of the highest order. Insane extended jams for losing your brain to that you don’t usually hear at the Newport Folk Festival. One way to chase the chill away is to burn the whole fucking place to the ground and that’s exactly what these guys did, on a Monday no less. Dang!

Finally, there are the chills. Straight up goosebumps all over your body. Only the best music can literally raise the hairs on your arms. The music that goes straight to your soul either because the person playing or singing it is doing it at such a high level that your body knows no other way to react, or because that music is so beautiful it actually redefines the word “beautiful” for you, or because that music or the words touches a place so deeply personal for you that you cannot help but react physically. The chills. The fucking chills man. Sometimes you say that something gives you the chills, but you know you’re being hyperbolic. But sometimes you get ’em and there’s no denying that your skin, your goddamn skin is reacting to music going into your ears, and holy shit, what an amazing thing that is. I got the chills at Newport this summer. I got them a lot actually. It was the music, of course. It was the music, but it was also the music and the people, the people I was there with, the ones I knew, but also the ones I didn’t know, the ones I was just chilling with or chillaxing with or chilling in the marinade with, all of them. It was the music, it was the people, it was this last year and a half and it was the next year and a half and all of it. It all gave me the chills. Yasmin Williams gave me the chills like few have, her music and the reaction to the music from the audience, and her stories about how she came upon this magical way of playing the guitar and somehow making music that just gives you the fucking chills. Absolutely phenomenal, one of the best sets I’ve seen at the Fest in all my years. Just… chills. In a different way Fruit Bats gave me the chills, and Kevin Morby did, singing “Beautiful Strangers” with Cochemea Gastelum on flute and sax and Katie taking a verse and how does that song not give you the chills, it does to me every damn time. Devon Gilfillian, have I mentioned him yet? His set covering Marvin Gaye’s 50-years-old-this-year What’s Going On? album in full was a revelation of planning and execution, of breathing life into decades-old material and bringing soul to the Fort like few others, with guests and so much awesome that it just gave me the damn chills, it did. Damn, that was amazing. Langhorne Slim hopping into the crowd to lead a sing-along of “You Are My Sunshine,” that gave me the chills, too. Julien Baker gave me the chills when she had to stop playing because she couldn’t remember the lyrics and just seemed as open and honest and raw as any musician I’ve ever seen and Early James gave me the chills just by reminding me that there’s a place for a kick ass rock and roll band at this festival and Jake Blount gave me chills when he proclaimed that he was there to remind us of the black roots of so much folk music and Celisse gave me the chills when her electrifying guitar solo on her cover of “Use Me” somehow started in a happy Garcia territory and ended in a nastier Buddy Guy space and the Resistance Revival Chorus gave me the chills way back at noon on Friday when they opened the entire festival singing “what the world needs now is love sweet love…” and Allison Russell and a stage full of women, mostly women of color, gave me and likely every person standing on the lawn the chills in their sheer empowered jubiliance as they sang “I’m Every Women” along with Chaka Khan (!?) to close out the day and weekend on Sunday.

It was a finale that, in this mixed up inside-out world, occured at the halfway point of the festival, an event, a festival, a happening that starts and ends at the middle and works out from there. A pretzel of music and people and emotion and soul, twisted and perfect even in these most strange of times, which is, if you think about it, pretty chill actually.

Until next year…