Newport Folk Fest 2023

Maggie Rogers at Newport Folk Festival 2023
by Laura Fedele | 02/07/2024 | 2:18pm

Maggie Rogers at Newport Folk Festival 2023 (photo by Neil Swanson)

-> Newport 2023 Photo Album via Flickr

The Newport Folk Festival sets high expectations. Music fans who've been paying attention know that surprise guests tend to pop up there, and that the storied history of the fest means top (and emerging) artists really want to play there. Plus, the fervor over last year's performances from Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon reached every corner of the world on social media.

It was already pretty tough to get a ticket before all that.

A shift to electronic tickets made for an online scramble in 2023. Even the ongoing Newport Foundation supporters, who get first dibs on early sales, were nervous. And the music industry people who've earned their way over the years into backstage access were no exception, putting the promotions and marketing folks into an unenviable squeeze, I'm sure.

Maybe that dynamic makes it all feel even more special to experience. Whether you're a Newport veteran who hasn't missed a fest in 20 years or a newbie who's finally been convinced to hop on board, by the time you jump through the hoops — get tickets and a (doubtlessly expensive) place to stay, then figure out a ferry schedule or rent a bike, and pack up the gear you need to weather the mix of heat and lightning storms and potential dust and mud and sunburn — you walk-don't-run with a bit of a prideful strut into our shared musical fairyland.

So, hey, maybe old-school Newporters like me feel a little entitled, a little smug for discovering the secret so long ago. But we're nice about it; we excel at giving friendly advice to newcomers.

I talked to some folks this year, new and old (who're you calling old?), about what makes the Newport Folk Festival unique.

One fellow attendee, a music professional who goes to see live music all the time, says that one of the best things about Newport is that it's "easy." At a tenth the size of a Bonnaroo or Coachella, you can get from one band to another without making your FitBit fight to catch up. The music ends at a reasonable hour, leaving the evenings to shower, eat, and talk through the highlights with friends. The festival is programmed in a way that builds artist relationships over time, supporting younger folks and having them back on bigger stages as their careers grow; this year those bands included Goose, Black Opry Revue, and The Backseat Lovers.

There's also the balance of new artist discovery and proven favorites. The atmosphere of collaboration leads to emerging voices teaming up with pros, and the kind of team spirit that turns one band's touring snafu into another's surprise opportunity. Just like how it feels in the fields and tents, they're all in it together backstage, too.

Another longtime local Newporter counts on the Folk Fest for her annual dose of music discovery. This year she connected with Abraham Alexander, Laden Valley, and Thee Sacred Souls, between repeat visits with Jason Isbell and Nickel Creek. Her wish list for future fests would be to have fewer simultaneous sets; there isn't enough time to run from one stage to another and catch both. Maybe fewer acts, with longer sets?

A first-time Newport visitor came up from New Jersey after hearing so many friends talk about how unique the atmosphere was, and says his high hopes were all fulfilled. He knew Jon Batiste would put on a great show, but was pleasantly surprised by artists he might not have seen otherwise, like Lana Del Rey and Gregory Alan Isakov. And the Newport fairy dust that falls over Fort Adams smoothed the way for a Phish fan to renounce any bias against Gooseguest Muppet drummer Animal might have helped out a bit on that too.

Another first-timer was impressed with how relaxed everything felt. She saw artists walking from stage to stage to see other folks play, and made contact with other friendly fans. One nice stranger took video for her when she couldn't get the right angle — "where does that happen?" — and another fan heard tons of music discovery advice and folks' favorite memories. Plus no one made fun of the fact that this particular fan had a personal Lana Del Rey encounter without knowing it at the time.

All that camaraderie comes through from inside the fort, too. For a new artist to join the folk family, it's got to feel a little like going to summer camp. Abraham Alexander — who schooled himself on guitar watching videos of Dylan's lead guitarist Mike Bloomfield, when Bob went electric — had his own set planned, but ended up playing all day with bands he wouldn't have met otherwise, stretching genres along the way. (The Monday after Newport, Alexander also played an FUV Live concert at The Bitter End, a stage where Dylan once played too.)

All that said, while the spirit continues from a kind and folky past, Newport evolves. We adjusted to that whole electric guitar thing. We adjusted to bigger crowds and more stages. We adjusted when Ani DiFranco fans stepped all over our blankets with their Doc Martens. We adjusted to adding Friday night sets, and then Friday days. We adjusted to gaining, and losing, Ben & Jerry's ice cream. We adjusted to getting tickets before the lineup was announced.

We even adjusted to losing Pete Seeger and George Wein.

Nothing sits still. Every year things are a little different — they adjust the stages and flow of walking traffic, the location of food and drinks, vendors and bathrooms. Try going to another sold-out festival and buying lunch in 10 minutes.

Those are the small things next to the ever-evolving history of expanding musical tastes and genres, of putting female, Black, and LGBTQIA+ artists up front.

What happens next? And how can we all help?

Weekdays at Noon

Ticket Giveaways from WFUV