Few festivals can claim to be so open to creativity and progressive ideas that the gathering space becomes a sanctuary for some of the most influential artists and musicians on the planet.
But the Newport Folk Festival has achieved such status. First held in 1959 as an extension of the Newport Jazz Festival, the Rhode Island event is one of the quickest to sell out year after year as organizers successfully load the lineup with adored artists from the U.S. and beyond, rounding it out with up-and-coming acts not limited to folk but just about any form of music.
Under sunny skies, with hundreds of sailboats out in Narragansett Bay and the Claiborne Pell/Newport Bridge just beyond to the north, the grounds of historic Fort Adams were filled with concert goers from July 28 to 30 for three straight days of music and leisure all in the name of a variety of good causes established by festival architects or selected by the entertainers themselves.
Four stages offered a dizzying array of options beginning Friday morning and the well-managed Newport Folk Festival app became an essential tool over the course of the three days as attendees executed their plans or made decisions on the fly to take in as much music as possible.
Artists mingled, munched and refreshed backstage in the Anchor area or met with media members in the tent near the Quad Stage, but many musicians moseyed right into the crowd, taking photos alongside fans wearing warm smiles and relaxed in the refuge of the Newport Folk community.
While the Newport lineup each year is something to behold, this year’s slate presented a particularly impressive collection of some of the biggest names in music. Friday night brought the likes of My Morning Jacket to the Fort Stage, Saturday featured Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit and later Jon Batiste and Friends, and Sunday culminated with sets by Lana Del Ray and Billy Strings.
Even when one artist must cancel, another fills in — Noah Kahan had to miss his Friday afternoon set. His replacement? James Taylor, who hopped on a boat from across the water to make a special, casual appearance in the Quad, much to the delight of thousands of onlookers.
“It’s becoming a common occurrence that a lot of artists can’t come for variety of reasons because this world is a very tough place,” said Jay Sweet, the face of the event and key to managing relationships with a long list of artists.
“And so, when we are here it gives me a moment of hope, because I know when we’re here, we’re in a safe space and that means the world to me. And that’s because of you guys, people like you, so thank you so much.”
With so many revered songwriters and instrumentalists on hand, the custom of collaboration exponentially enhances what can happen on stage in any given year at the fort — artists sit in with friends old and new all weekend long, marrying styles and offering a unique chance to see world-class musicians celebrating songs in genuine fashion in a festive environment.
“We’re stronger when we sing together,” is the timeless quote by co-founder Pete Seeger displayed over the entry gates that still seems to set the tone each year, every morning at Newport. And with so much to attend to, the more contemporary Newport Folk directive of “Be Present Be Kind Be Open Be Together” registered as sage advice for anyone fortunate enough to be there this year.
Newport Folk Festival 2023 attendees celebrate in the sun with Narragansett Bay providing a one-of-a-kind view for artists on the Fort Stage. (Photo by Casey Ryan Vock)
Some of the DC area’s own musicians turned in monumental performances, including Maggie Rogers on the Fort Stage Friday and Bartees Strange in the Quad on Saturday. And Illiterate Light, the two-man rock crew featuring drummer Jake Cochran and Baltimore native songwriter/guitarist Jeff Gorman, again operated the Bike Stage, using pedaled bicycles to power a stage and host terrific open-air sets all weekend.
Numerous performances throughout the three days featured rotating casts of guests or special drop-ins, highlighted by Tyler Childers joining Turnpike Troubadours on an eventful Sunday afternoon.
Venturing a couple sets into the realm of performance art, iconic Muppet characters Animal and Floyd Pepper — drummer and bassist, respectively, in the legendary outfit The Electric Mayhem — showed up, blowing the minds of attendees. Animal helped Goose pound on the Fort Stage Saturday afternoon, while Pepper was part of the wildly entertaining Folk Family Revue in the Quad early Sunday evening led by Robert Ellis, Phil Cook, and Beau Bedford.
For the Newport Folk audience to enjoy such a diverse assortment of skilled creators every year requires a trust in the event itself, a faith that the space is secure for people of all origins, races, colors, belief sets and sexual orientations. Sweet, who would appear on any of the three stages to introduce performers, shared what he called an updated, more appropriate mission statement for the Newport Festivals Foundation.
“The foundation’s mission is to create moments of hope through the power of music and community — that’s it,” he declared Sunday afternoon, met by boisterous cheers in the Quad.
Throughout the three days, the busy Sweet was impassioned, and no set might have epitomized his emotions more than the Sunday afternoon performance by the rotating collective known as Black Opry Revue. Operated by founder Holly G and her co-director Tanner Davenport, the project aims to create equity and opportunities for Black artists in country, Americana, folk and roots music.
The effort started as a blog and has rapidly gained national attention for its impact and the inspiration it’s giving to Black artists. After an unforgettable appearance last year, Black Opry Revue returned this summer to introduce the eclectic Newport crowd to a cast of musicians entirely different from those in the outfit last year, with the goal of providing exposure to as many artists as possible.
Aaron Vance, Ally Free, Jett Holden, Julie Williams, Nikki Morgan, Roberta Lea, Tylar Bryant and Whitney Mongé teamed up as Black Opry Revue Sunday afternoon on the Fort stage to deliver one of this year’s most rewarding sets.
Upon the recommendation of Newport Folk family member Allison Russell, Holly G and her team began coordinating last year’s Black Opry Revue appearance at the festival. Now, Holly G said, Fort Adams feels like an ideal annual stop.
“If you look at the lineups this is one of the more diverse festivals that we do,” she said. “They actually put the effort in to try to make it so.”
“What we’re trying to figure out just across the board is how we get more Black people into these spaces. The first thing I think about with that is if it’s safe for Black people to be there. And I will tell you this is the only place where I feel 100 percent confident that I will advocate for more Black people to be here because it feels so, so, so safe. So, we try really hard to get the message out about how amazing it is for us. We’ve also had the opportunity to share that feedback with the organizers and they’re 100 percent on board.”
For those with enough stamina, late-night afterhours benefit concerts were — as they are each year — a lure into downtown Newport, where artists like Ian O’Neil, Riley Downing and Margo Price were just a few of those making appearances at various intimate venues.
But if all anyone did was simply bask in the sun and sound, enjoying the near perfect weather and wonderful music for three straight days, even with one set cut just a tad short, the 2023 edition was yet another incredible chapter added to the fairytale that has become the Newport Folk Festival.
Here are images of various artists performing at the Newport Folk Festival held at Fort Adams State Park in Newport, RI, from July 28 to 30, 2023. All photos copyright and courtesy of Casey Ryan Vock.
My Morning Jacket
Slaughter Beach, Dog
Del Water Gap
Jon Batiste and Friends (including Eastern Medicine Singers)
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
The Hold Steady
Indigo De Souza
The Backseat Lovers
Black Opry Revue
Neko Case with Los Lobos
Dawn Landes and Friends
Gregory Alan Isakov
Folk Family Revue featuring Robert Ellis, Phil Cook and Beau Bedford