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Alabama Shakes, Elvis celebrate music

Fort Adams State Park, Newport, R.I., July 24, 2016

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

Donald Trump was nowhere to be seen at the final day of the Newport Folk Festival, but that didn't mean he was ignored. Maybe it was the political roots of folk music. The Republican presidential candidate was mentioned at least three times - all by foreign musicians - during the finale. No one exactly endorsed his candidacy either.

A few others mentioned the need to come together during these difficult times around the world, including at the very end when a festival producer Jay Sweet said that despite the world's problems, he urged people to look around and see the crowd around them celebrating why they came.

That would be the music, of course, presumably not any anti-Trump comments. The closing day was no slouch either with a few straightforward folkies getting a chance to show their skills plus two Irish musicians and the headliner, Alabama Shakes bringing the festivities to a close.

Like others coming during the weekend, this was not the first time the Shakes played Newport, but this was their initial time headlining. Brittany Howard is the undisputed leader of the quintet, aided and abetted by a three-piece percussion and backing vocalist contingent.

Howard and band tore through 15 songs in just about an hour. Howard sure knows how to twist and meld a song going from hard soul to blues. Howard made clear from the get go from the deal was "This is how it's going to go. You give me a little bit, and I'll give you a little bit" before tackling "Future People."

Howard was high on the angst meter with her delivery, often holding notes for just the right effect. She wasn't the biggest of talkers, though appreciative of the support, but her voice sure did a lot of talking.

Alabama Shakes closed with an excellent reading Bob Seger's "Night Moves" with help from Dawes. Howard made it more of a soul song instead of Seger's more rocking efforts. And she surely outshone Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes, who was helping out with his band.

Curiously, there was no encore or closing song for the musicians still in the house as sometimes happens, but that did lessen the power of Howard and her mates.

Elvis Costello was a busy man on Sunday, not only doing his own musically eclectic set, but also sitting in with Glen Hansard for a bit.

Costello offered old and new during his 65 minutes, going back to such songs as "Blame It On Cain" (a very fine and punchy at that) and "Every Day I Write the Book."

Costello was backed by a variety of acts, including sisters Rebecca and Megan Lovell, aka Larkin Poe, on mandolin and lap steel, to provide more of a country/roots sound. Middle Brother, Hansard and especially Preservation Hall Jazz Band all enjoyed stints on stage with Costello.

Costello, who had a few words for Trump, also played the piano man for several songs on the grand piano. He went single mic with the closing "The Scarlet Tide" where he received help from a few more musicians and even his roadie taking stanzas.

This, of course, was Costello light in that he didn't put in a full set (for him), but he made the most of his time.

Ireland was well represented on the final day with sets from Hansard and Villages, a Dublin-based band.

Hansard turned in a strong set on various levels. First, he has a very full voice. He also has the stage presence to effortlessly joke around and connect with the crowd. Hansard performed solo with help from trombonist Curtis Folks, punctuating the songs to give a bit of a different sound.

Villages, an indie folk-styled band, has made a name of themselves in their native Ireland, but not so much here. Led by vocalist Conor O'Brien, they had the benefit of harpist Mali Llywelyn to dish out a bit of a different sound.

Middle Brother celebrated the fifth anniversary of their lone album. John McCauley of Deer Tick, Matt Vasquez of Delta Spirit and Goldsmith all took turns on leads, and they turned in a good comeback set.

Goldsmith joked that they band didn't have any more songs to play since they had gone through their album. Actually, he was correct. Maybe they didn't have more in the song tank, but this didn't sound like a light-hearted reunion either.

The Strumbellas proved to be one of the daylights not only of the day but the entire festival. The Canadian-based sextet was aided by a passel of well-constructed, anthemic songs ("We Don't Know" and "Sheriff") that come together over time.

Leader singer Simon Ward was a most able singer with charisma about him. At his mother's expense, he took a video of the crowd singing the chorus at one point to show his mother who disapproved of him going into music. Smart move by Ward, as he doubtlessly knew.

The Preservation Hall Jazz Band may not exactly be folk, but they were an island of one in the type of music they do. And their New Orleans music got the crowd easily jumping to their feet. There were lots of great sounds vibes in their ultra high-energy delivery. Sax man Charlie Gabriel, for example, may have just turned 84 a few weeks ago, but he sure didn't play like it.

Hayes Carll represented the country element while also veering more into singer/songwriter styles. Carll went harder core towards the end of his set with "Bad Liver And A Broken Heart" where he played harp (yes, there is a Dylan element to his music as well and not only because he plays harp) and "Stomp & Holler," making for a strong conclusion to his time.

One of the beauties of Newport is the chance to experience new bands. With their profile rising, The Strumbellas made the most of their opportunity and presumably a bunch of new fans.

With three stages and music sometimes going on simultaneously, one was forced to cherry pick. And even with that, it was clear that the short stints from bands such as The Oh Hellos made you want to see more of them. The Oh Hellos, a brother/sister act from Austin hit the main stage to winning applause, which seemed to surprise Tyler Heath, but he should not have been because these folks more than held their own.

River Whyless, from Asheville, N.C., was another of the bands making the most of their gig, closing with a one-two punch of "Pigeon Feathers" with help from Kam Franklin of The Suffers and "Airline to Heaven," a Billy Bragg and Wilco cover.

Julien Baker, a Memphis native playing solo electric quite intensely, was more than surprised. Given the hearty response at the end of her set, she had tears. A set delivered with a lot of heart will do that to you, especially with a response like that from the crowd.

Joan Shelley was one of the pure folk singers of the day, and the Louisville native showed while her ilk may be in short supply at the Fest, she had a superb voice and confidence in putting her songs across.

Ian Fitzgerald showed he was much more than a guy with big hair on top of his head and the bottom of his chin. Fitzgerald was an engaging, affable performer who got closing day started with a portend of good things to come.

At Newport, there was a little something for everyone - at least when it came to coming together on their musical interests.