Brandi Carlile welcomes Joni Mitchell to the stage at the Newport Folk Festival on July 24, 2022, her first time back at Fort Adams since 1969. (Photo by Casey Vock)
When musicians themselves hold a place and event so close to their hearts that it becomes sacred, the experience for fans is that much more lasting and remarkable.
The Newport Folk Festival, long considered one of the country’s most influential gatherings of songwriters, artists, and performers, proved to be that and so much more this year — three full days of celebrating music as a communal power and a change agent at a time when the nation feels fragmented by political turmoil and the lingering struggles of the pandemic.
In a return to the event’s full capacity, thousands of music lovers made their way to storied Fort Adams State Park for this year’s festival, which unfolded under bright skies on July 22, 23, and 24 and made news worldwide with storylines coming out of the beloved celebration all weekend long, including high-profile guest appearances by the likes of the great Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, and more.
Sailboats and yachts were already glimmering in the hot sun, afloat in the waters of Newport Harbor and further to the west in Narragansett Bay as fans lined up to make their way into the grounds Friday morning. A tall posterboard, in the same painted script seen on all the event signage over the years, reminded guests: “We’re still stronger when we sing together,” a pandemic-era twist on the slogan that has for decades spiritualized the event as a mecca for fans of the expanding folk genre.
The inspiring mantra was repeated right above the entry gates, with credit to Pete Seeger, considered a co-founder of the event, a legend of the folk family and one of the festival’s most important proponents.
And sing together they would, both fans and artists alike, in a display that no doubt would have made Seeger as well as the late George Wein, the founder of the Newport Jazz Festival, proud.
Tickets for this year’s fest sold out within minutes of their release last fall, months before any lineup announcements, an annual reaffirmation of the experience festival goers have simply come to expect. Even with the fest regenerating to its pre-pandemic capacity, tickets seemed more in-demand than ever before, and so those lucky enough to grab any at all were treated to one of the best and most diverse lineups ever presented for this event — one of two operated by the Newport Festivals Foundation, with the second being the wildly popular and elder Newport Jazz Festival.
Watch artists forming a Joni Jam with Joni Mitchell perform “Big Yellow Taxi” live at Newport Folk Festival 2022 on YouTube:
For anyone who’d gotten into town early, Thursday night offered early chance to celebrate the life and legacy of Seeger, who passed away in 2014. Honored by the US Postal Service with his own postage stamp as part of a Music Icons series, the Newport Folk Foundations threw a first day-of-issue party at the Jane Pickens Theater, featuring some of the most respected names on the Newport Folk Festival lineup.
Kicking off the event in earnest Friday morning on the Quad Stage, one of three arenas erected within the fort, the Foundation’s Executive Director Jay Sweet thanked the audience for giving him confidence in one of his main duties — annually bringing outstanding musicians to the grounds.
“I get to tell bands that they’ll always play to a full house for the first time,” Sweet told the crowd that was already cheering back at him and cooking, too, in the 90-plus-degree heat. And off behind him, in the middle of the fort, was the artists’ backstage area, including what’s been named the Anchor Tent, the hub for artist collaboration all weekend long.
Some of the best and brightest songwriters dropped in throughout the event, meeting with their friends to arrange sit-ins or make plans for tours later in the year; they’d munch snacks or salad from the spread, enjoy the oyster bar or cocktail station, or just pull a cold sparkling water from the many well stocked coolers positioned within the tent.
Artists would head to the media tent for interviews with the music outlets on site, and they’d meet with photographers and disappear into the various rooms of the fort, which was constructed in the late 1700s, for portraits to commemorate the milestone.
Two additional smaller stages featured acts all weekend long, including the Foundation Stage just to the right of the main stage and overlooking the water. The other, known as the “Bike Stage” and managed by Richmond indie rock duo Illiterate Light, was a noteworthy experiment in itself — the ground-level platform in the Quad pulled power from stationary bikes pedaled by fans, a self-sufficient energy supply for the speakers and other equipment.
While all the stages drew crowds at points throughout the weekend, the largest, known as the Fort Stage, was consistently abuzz for three straight days, with Friday presenting an unbelievable slew of options, starting with Lee Fields, Faye Webster, and Béla Fleck’s My Bluegrass Heart performing to growing crowds throughout the day.
By the time Taj Mahal and his band made themselves comfortable and took in the view of the Claiborne Pell/Newport Bridge late in the afternoon Friday, the crowd extended all the way to the lookout point, where people lined the rocks enjoying beverages with their feet dangling over the water — as picturesque a setting as one might find at an American music festival.
Elsewhere, couples, families, and big groups of friends relaxed together on beach blankets, while other ticket holders hustled to get good angles on the likes of The Felice Brothers, Goose, Dinosaur Jr., and one of the day’s major highlights, Rhiannon Giddens with Silk Road Ensemble, a breathtaking delivery of vivid, illusory world sounds.
Meanwhile, Courtney Barnett swept up the Fort Stage crowd before the night’s headlining act, The National, made its Newport debut. In continuing the collaborative spirit of the day, numerous guests joined the band throughout the set. And in an unforgettable Newport moment, Matt Berninger, the intriguing leader of this moody and widely adored indie rock outfit, wandered his way through the crowd, resting on the ground as he inflected and onlookers cheered over him.
Artists made statements with their songs and their stagecraft, but some were deliberate and clear-cut as voices of opposition to the recent Supreme Court decisions that have left many outraged. Several were moved to tears as they expressed their dismay to a crowd that was receptive, supportive and largely in agreement with the sentiment of numerous artists who shared their views.
Saturday brought another incredible schedule of performers, highlighted by Adia Victoria, Lucy Dacus, Clairo, and Bleachers on the Fort Stage. Meanwhile, Low Cut Connie, along with the help of Jack Brennan of the Disgraceland Podcast, entertained at the Foundation Stage with a riveting look at the life of Skip James, another musical legend of the fort. Over on the Harbor Stage, the Black Opry Revue featured some of the weekend’s most anticipated artists joining forces for an emotional, triumphant set that celebrated the Black music that provides a foundation to so much of what we listen to in America today.
Over on the Quad, a timeslot that had been impacted by COVID-related adjustments saw Anaïs Mitchell, a pioneering artist in music and theater, kick off a rotating cast of musical guests, culminating with an appearance by Natalie Merchant, who turned in a timeless performance of “Carnival” alongside her longtime guitar player, Erik Della Penna.
Quad goers would be dazzled later in the day by Lucius, the captivating pop duet of Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig, and later, Psychic Hotline, a mind-blowing set featuring Nick Sanborn and Amelia Meath of Sylvan Esso along a with host of their labelmates.
Taking the stage to an electrified audience Saturday, Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats — a band whose popularity has soared in recent years — dove right into what was billed as the American Tune Revue, covering three consecutive songs by Paul Simon as the set title might have hinted.
Rumors had swirled all weekend long about star guest appearances, and when Rateliff began to describe his deep appreciation for the man and his impressive catalogue of music — arguably one of the greatest songwriters alive — it was clear where the night was headed. The anticipation boiled over, and upon the first few notes of Simon’s masterpiece “Graceland,” Rateliff’s voice rose as he welcomed Paul, a role model for so many in attendance, to the stage.
Watch Paul Simon’s performance of “Graceland” with Nathaniel Rateliff and The Night Sweats at the 2022 Newport Folk Festival via the event’s official YouTube channel:
Following the full-band performance of the 1986 album title track, Simon, still in performance shape, was joined by Rhiannon Giddens for a new take on “American Tune,” and then by Jerry Douglas, CJ Camerieri and additional artists for a beautiful, moving performance of “The Boxer,” with the entire crowd joining in. With the mass still cheering, Rateliff invited Simon back out for a stark, chilling solo rendition of “The Sound of Silence” to end the 13-song tribute set and close out an unthinkable second day of music.
Watch Paul Simon’s performance of The Boxer with Nathaniel Rateliff and The Night Sweats at the 2022 Newport Folk Festival via the Relix YouTube channel:
While Newport certainly serves as a reunion of sorts for the many seasoned vets who make their way through the event each year, it’s also a chance for prolific musicians to push themselves and show what they can do on such hallowed turf with their peers and maybe even some of their influences watching on.
Joe Westerlund, a respected drummer from Wisconsin, was on stage with three different acts throughout the weekend, not an easy task for any musician. Joe’s a touring member of The Dead Tongues, the initial band to play on the Quad Stage Friday, the drummer for The A’s, a group that played for its first time ever on Saturday, and then on Sunday was part of the Psychic Hotline performance. Not only did it require tremendous preparation in terms of rehearsal and coordination, but Westerlund said it also took time for him to piece together the right drum and percussion setups.
“Each of them require totally different stuff,” Joe said. “The Dead Tongues (kit) I had done already, but the other two I hadn’t. So I had to make like two new sculptures basically, which I love doing. It’s a big part of it for me.”
Westerlund spent as much as 13 hours in a single day rehearsing for the three different acts he played with over the course of the weekend, with some of the preparation happening in impromptu fashion as bandmates could find time.
“It’s been like a good mix of lots of work and exhausting work, but it’s all been fun.”
For some bands finding their stride, the chance to play the Newport stages is a golden opportunity to put their music in front of a crowd that would seem like a natural fit. Bendigo Fletcher, a folk-rock band from Kentucky, came to the fort with the goal of meeting people and learning as much as possible.
“To just soak in as much of the environment and the performances — seeing how it’s done so to speak,” said lead vocalist, guitarist and banjoist Ryan Anderson. “You’ve gotta commit to being a student wherever you go, I think. That’s just something that I think we try to embrace. Learning from who we’re touring with and who we get to meet.”
At the fort all weekend, Anderson and his bandmates took in the performance by Rhiannon Giddens and the Silk Road Ensemble.
“I think that kind of represents what it’s all about here,” Ryan said. “Creating together, and that’s why we’re here: to enjoy it and be a part of it.”
And so while the event is no doubt a feast for the eyes and ears of the ticketholders in attendance, it’s also an important time for the musicians themselves to take in momentous performances by their colleagues or even some of their inspirations. Members of bands would leave the stage, put down their gear, and before even collecting themselves, would make their way to a different stage to watch someone else. At just about every performance, another artist could be seen looking on from backstage, off to the side or simply as a member of the crowd.
But all artists seemed to agree that there’s just something different about the Newport audience — a completely different vibe than what many are used to on the festival circuit.
“Just the warmth of the crowds and the attention and the investment people have in music in general here is refreshing,” said Neal Francis, a Chicago-based who served up one of the weekend’s funkiest and most stimulating sets Sunday afternoon on the Harbor Stage.
Francis and his bandmates have listened to and even laud some of the many Newport Folk and Jazz performances recorded over the decades. As a musician who is excelling in a sober lifestyle, he said he could feel a difference in the crowd at Newport.
“A lot of times, we’ll play somewhere, and it’s about a scene and music is a side show to what’s going on,” Francis said. “And I used to go to those festivals as a kid. It’s a fun place to go trip or whatever. But Newport is about the music, and you can feel it.”
That reputation extends to artists outside of the country as well. Hermanos Gutiérrez, comprised of brothers Alejandro and Stephan, is an instrumental guitar duo that was recently signed to Dan Auerbach’s Easy Eye Sound. Auerbach told the brothers — whose mother is Ecuador, their father from Switzerland — that the Newport Folk Festival was a fit for their cinematic, transportive sound.
“He said, ‘oh, you’re going to love it,” said Alejandro Gutiérrez, who plays the lap steel in the duo. “And we said, ‘let’s see.’ But we know now why this is the case. It’s so beautiful. It’s about music. It’s peaceful. And the audience, the crowd, is just so respectful and so present.”
Closing their Sunday afternoon set on the Quad Stage, the duo said the audience helped bring out the most in the synergy they’ve discovered as sibling musicians.
“We had this moment where we had the connection, we had the energy and we could pass it to the audience,” Stephan said. “To have these feelings is just unique and I’m just grateful to make music with my brother.”
“I’ve never experienced that before in my whole life. I think that’s the perfect festival for our music,” Alejandro added.
Sunday represented yet another delightful day of performances on the collection of stages, highlighted in the afternoon by fulfilling sets from The Linda Lindas, Ukrainian artist Dakhabrakha and Taylor Goldsmith, who literally invited members of the crowd — and even the photo pit — onto the stage to help him make music. Fans were further pampered with sets by the likes of Blake Mills on the Harbor Stage, The Roots on the Fort Stage and, over on the Quad, Maren Morris followed by Japanese Breakfast.
And in one of the most historic nights in the fort’s colorful past, the set billed as Brandi Carlile and Friends would manifest into a performance for the ages. After her own four-song solo set, Carlile left the stage, which was then transformed into what looked like a living room of sorts. And after the overhaul, complete with end tables and house plants, a host of standout musicians made themselves comfortable on mix of decorative chairs and loveseats.
Backed by the likes of Marcus Mumford, Allison Russell, Taylor Goldsmith, Blake Mills, Wynonna Judd, Celisse Henderson and more, Carlile was visibly impassioned as she began to welcome perhaps one of the most unexpected guests of all time back to the fort.
“If we love one another, we might defend one another,” Brandi said, fans reacting to every word. “To power structures, folk music has always been utterly fucking destructive. It’s a truth teller and a power kill.”
Carlile, who’s built a relationship with Joni over the years, said introducing the legendary Canadian singer-songwriter was “the greatest honor of my career, maybe of my entire life.”
“This scene shall be known forever hence forth as the Joni Jam!”
And with that, thousands of fans watched in total awe as Mitchell, who suffered an aneurysm about seven years ago, was helped to the stage. The 78-year-old smiled, even burst into laughter, as she carefully made her way and greeted the host of stars who were there to help present her music.
Locking hands with Carlile, her emotions revealed, it was a victorious moment for Mitchell, her friends on the stage and the fans on hand — and an extraordinary achievement for the festival and its ambitions, too.
Each musician on stage essentially took a turn in helping deliver a Joni favorites or a one of the covers she herself selected when spending time with Carlile, who was gracious and charismatic in guiding the veteran musician through her first performance at the fort since 1969, and her first of any kind in more than 20 years.
Watch the performance of “Both Sides, Now” from Joni Mitchell’s Joni Jam at the 2022 Newport Folk Festival via the event’s official YouTube channel:
The relaxed, unconventional presentation was natural to a Newport audience that has seen it all. The crowd was treated to “Come in From the Cold,” assisted by Taylor Goldsmith, and “A Case of You,” helped by Marcus Mumford, before Joni shocked the entire fort by standing to her feet to deliver a gorgeous electric guitar solo as part of “Just Like This Train.”
There were terrific stories too, as Joni was quick to share memories of her early days as an artist, including a tale of driving across the states to return a Mercedes Benz — with no driver’s license. Like a very best friend, Carlile howled at every one of Joni’s jokes, at one point even kicking her feet in the air.
And the tears were still flowing as the audience made its way out of the fort. Whether it was in reverence to the touching performance by Joni Mitchell and her friends, or maybe thinking back on all that was during the marvelous weekend, one thing was for certain: music will always matter to those who gather at Fort Adams.
The National Setlist 7/22/22
Space Invader (Threaded Gold)
This Isn’t Helping
The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness
The Need My Girl (with Cassandra Jenkins)
Rylane (with Anais Mitchell)
Tropic Morning News (Haversham)
I Am Easy to Find (with Hannah Georgas)
Fake Empire (with Adia Victoria)
Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks (with Cassandra Jenkins, Anais Mitchell, Hannah Georgas and Adia Victoria)
Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats American Tune Revue Setlist 7/23/22
Mother and Child Reunion (with Lucius)
Me and Julio Down by the School Yard
50 Ways to Leave Your Lover (with Lee Fields)
Slip Sliding Away (with Courtney Maria Andrews)
St. Judy’s Comet (with Midlake)
El cóndor pasa (Orquesta del Zoológico cover, with Natalie Merchant)
Homeward Bound (with Lukas Nelson)
Cecilia (with Marcus Mumford)
You Can Call Me Al (with Lucius)
Graceland (with Paul Simon)
American Tune (with Paul Simon and Rhiannon Giddens)
The Boxer (with Paul Simon, more guests)
The Sound of Silence (Paul Simon solo acoustic)
Brandi Carlisle & Friends Setlist 7/24/22
Brandi Carlile solo
You and Me on The Rock (with Lucius)
Stay Gentle / Over the Rainbow
Joni Jam featuring Joni Mitchell and many more
Come In from The Cold
A Case of You
Big Yellow Taxi
Just Like This Train (Joni electric guitar solo)
Why Do Fools Fall in Love (Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers cover)
Love Potion No. 9 (The Clovers cover)
Summertime (George Gershwin cover)
Both Sides, Now
The Circle Game
Here are images of this year’s Newport Folk Festival, including some shots of the many performances Parklife DC took in over the course of three days in Rhode Island. All images copyright and courtesy of Casey Vock.
Rhiannon Giddens and Silk Road Ensemble
The Felice Brothers
Bela Fleck’s My Bluegrass Heart featuring Jerry Douglas, Michael Cleveland, Noam Pikelny, More
Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats with Paul Simon and more
Robert Ellis, Texas Pianoman
Black Opry Revue featuring Buffalo Nichols and many more
Clusterfolk featuring Anais Mitchell, Cochemea, Natalie Merchant, and more
Hurray For The Riff Raff
Low Cut Connie with Jack Brennan of the Disgraceland Podcast
Joni Mitchell and Brandi Carlile Meet To Begin the Joni Jam
Taylor Goldsmith and Blake Mills
The Joni Jam
The Linda Lindas
John Craigie and Langhorne Slim
A Spiritual Helpline Gospel Revue
Front-Row Artist, all weekend long