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Newport Folk Festival 2017

Newport 2017

There's something special about Newport Folk Festival. I would know, I've been going for over 20 years.

This year was full of magic, in the form of on-stage collaborations, artists who weren't even on the bill coming to enjoy the fest, and most importantly, the appreciative audience. The music fans at Newport are just the best. I am proud to call myself one of them. We shared three solid days of peak performances, music discovery and ocean breezes.

A wonderful thread that ran through the performances this year was the bevy of inspired covers. (Isn't that a big part of what folk music is all about?) It started with a band called Grandma's Hands, gathered to pay tribute to Bill Withers. Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), members of Hiss Golden Messenger, Natalie Prass and Phil Cook performed gems including "Ain't No Sunshine," "Lean on Me" and "Lovely Day," adding guest vocalists along the way.

Robert Ellis ended his rocking, cosmic set with "A Case of You," more inspired by the Prince version than Joni's original, which he turned into his own with a sweeping guitar solo.

Nikki Lane brought forth Dylan's "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere"; Joshua Hedley​ ​dazzled us with his take on "When You Wish Upon a Star"; Hurray for the Riff Raff broke into "Fortunate Son"; and Rhiannon Giddens rocked​The Staple Singers' "Freedom Highway." Then came the set billed as Chuck! — a Chuck Berry tribute anchored by​The Texas Gentlemen with Charlie Sexton on guitar — which featured Shakey Graves on vocals for "Brown Eyed Handsome Man" and Dennis Ryan of Deer Tick doing a spot on "Run Rudolph Run."

In keeping with the covers thread, social consciousness took center stage with a set billed as Speak Out. Members of The Decemberists, My Morning Jacket and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band served as the backing band for various artists, including Billy Bragg doing Anais Mitchell's "Why We Build The Wall"; Jim James and Nick Offerman with "Masters of War"; Margo Price with "Working Class Hero"; Sharon Van Etten doing Sinead O'Connor’s "Black Boys on Mopeds"; and Lucius with the Five Stairsteps' "O-o-h Child," backed by the Berklee Gospel choir.

Other highlights for me included the young Chicago band Whitney, with drummer Julien Ehrlich up front sporting a Levon Helm T-shirt; Michael Kiwanuka making a rare return appearance for a mesmerizing set in the blazing sun; and Ben Gibbard solo, laying bare undeniable tunes like "Such Great Heights" and "Black Sun." Also bringing the joy were full sets by The Head and The Heart, Pinegrove, Wilco, Big Thief, Billy Bragg and Joe Henry, and Preservation Hall Jazz Band!

The magic all came together in John Prine's Sunday closing set with the biggest surprise of all: An unannounced appearance by Roger Waters, who joined Prine on the most tender version of "Hello in There" (which Waters had performed in his headlining Newport set at Newport)! What a fitting end to a great weekend and the perfect display of the power of the connectedness of music.


More! We've got photos of the scene in the gallery below and on, and NPR photographer Adam Kissick captured amazing shots here.
Plus NPR music is posting on-demand recordings: