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Forever young, Newport Folk seeks brighter days

Fort Adams State Park, Newport, R.I., July 30, 2017

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

In these trying times, some say music as an (the?) antidote to solve the world's issues. And maybe that was the intent of a portion of day three of the Newport Folk Festival, especially with a late afternoon grab bag of performers hoisting the flag for freedom in the "Speak Out" labeled set.

Emceed by Chris Funk of The Decemberists, a bevy of performers had their say. Country singer Margo Price, who made a number of appearances as a surprise guest, sang an intense version of Jackson Browne's "I Am a Patriot" with Zach Williams of The Lone Bellow with the words "And I ain't no Communist/And I ain't no Socialist/And I ain't no capitalist/And I ain't no imperialist/And I ain't no Democrat/Sure ain't no Republican either/I only know one party/And that is freedom."

The optimistic streak went on with Lucius and the Berklee Choir singing "Ooh Child" looking ahead to "brighter days."

Shakey Graves continued making his presence felt over the course of the weekend, singing the light-hearted "I'm Better Than You" with comedian Nick Offerman, who turned in an unscheduled comedy set earlier in the day, joining him, decked out in a red, white and blue shirt.

Guest Nathaniel Rateliff delivered an energetic reading of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Fortunate Son" as the high octane closer.

Curiously, the artist who performed Sunday, who has been most outspoken in her views this year, Rhiannon Giddens, did not participate as part of this set, but she offered one of the day's highlights in her own set.

Giddens shone oh so brightly on the main Fort stage, demonstrating her multiple talents on violin and banjo. Yet, it was her voice that overshadowed all else, with her large vocal range and stylistic virtuosity leaning on gospel and blues-tinged traditional Piedmont music from the South. Her offerings were primarily from her newest post Carolina Chocolate Drops release, "Freedom Highway," a disc dealing with racial issues. Giddens co-wrote it primarily with instrumentalist Dirk Powell, who also appeared with her on stage.

Especially notable were her explanations of "At Purchaser's Option," based on a slave era listing in a New England periodical of a human for sale, in which the slave's child was listed as available at the buyer's option, and "He Could Fly, a song about passed-on history. The former reminded her of what would have happened to her own children. After the latter, she shared "I always like myself after singing that song. Makes me think about my grandmother." Both gave the audience insight into her personal passion for her music, in addition to her obvious vocal expertise.

"Speak Out" wasn't the only coming and going of players on the stage. So was an earlier set, "Chuck!," a tribute to Chuck Berry. Charlie Sexton anchored the set on guitar and also sang a few of Berry's songs. Some were on the reverential side, more like a covers band of extremely good players.

But some songs went beyond the tried and true, like "Memphis" with Sexton on lead vocals and the song having a bit of a reggae beat.

With such ensembles, not everything always runs smoothly. Son Little was introduced to sing one song, but he was nowhere to be found. Oh well.

With Berry having major influence on music for decades to come, his music ably lived on in this tribute.

John Prine headlined with a warm, embracing closing set. Prine's voice has been a question mark in recent years due to throat cancer, but while his voice has aged, Prine remains a potent force in his easy-going style.

Prine has always been considered a songwriter's songwriter, and that was in ample evidence here with songs like "Wish You All the Best" with My Morning Jacket's Jim James helping and "Chain of Sorrow" with Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. With a sharp sense of humor to boot, Prine had a crack quartet backing him.

He also employed such guests as country singer Margo Price and Roger Waters, who played a Prine song when he headlined Newport last year. Prine provided a most fitting, satisfying ending to a great weekend of music.

But until we reached that point on Sunday, there was a lot of other engaging, invigorating and entertaining music to be had.

Rateliff had a star turn in what had been listed as "Unannounced." He certainly deserved the large crowd with an upbeat, well-performed set. Lots of good singing and playing, closing with an appearance from the Preservation Hall Jazz Band circling the audience as the set closed.

It would be hard to accuse Toronto-based Choir Choir Choir of being overly musical in the stint seen as they spent the first eight minutes of their set spewing out funny line after funny line. The duo of Daveed Goldman and Nobu Adilman, who eventually played Neil Young's "Harvest Moon," engaged the audience to sing along with them. One suspected that the duo is all about providing a good time and not so worried about musical chops.

Joyful in a different way was the omnipresent Preservation Hall Jazz Band. The band is one might fine ambassador of the sounds of New Orleans, mixing it up with blues and more mainstream jazz sounds. Yet again, they are band of musical chops galore from sax to trombone.

British folk singer Olivia Chaney, who made the rounds on Saturday with Offa Rex, a band she is in with The Decemberists, was on her own on Sunday in a short solo set. Chaney, who has a truly love voice, was also one of about the only pure folk singers the entire day. Shifting between harmonium, keyboards and guitar, Chaney paid homage to her roots, while also starting off with a Jewish-themed psalm done a capella (Chaney said she was about "1/30th Jewish").

As is the case with Newport, it's hard to catch full sets if you want to check out the acts. Falling into that category was the Nashville instrumental duo of Steelism. Helped on some songs by Nicole Atkins and Ruby Amanfu, these guys can play whether doing instrumentals or backing the singers.

It's totally understandable why pedal steel player Spencer Cullman grimaced and smiled his way through songs. He was one sharp, precise player, who made the songs sing even when there was no singer. And Jeremy Fetzer added his sturdy guitar skills as well.

John Paul White told the crowd at one point that he was always scared about playing festivals. One could see why. His songs demand listening. They're not of the feel good (he said more than once how they were depressing) variety. The Alabama native, who rose to acclaim as one half of The Civil Wars, is an engaging performer and most heartfelt singer.

White benefitted from a crowd that was willing to be pin drop quiet, and he clearly appreciated that. The crowd got what it deserved in return.

UK-born Michael Kiwanuka's set consisted almost entirely of selections from his impressive second full-length release "Love and Hate," and began almost cerebrally - Kiwanuka, head down, eyes closed, meditating on his electric guitar, as if the audience was not present. He barely addressed the audience until after the third song.

Kiwanuka and his band were tight and in good form, but seemed restrained. It was not until his iterative "Black Man in a White World," delivered with strong solos, and a crowd pleasing dance groove, that he opened up. By the end of his set, the dancing crowd was his.

California singer/songwriter Margaret Glaspy fared less well with songs that didn't vary all that much and a performer not showing a ton of personality.

With lots of surprise guests and even better music, the closing day of Newport Folk Festival provided a chance to look ahead to brighter days while dealing with the world's challenges. With everyone from Choir Choir Choir to Chaney to Prine, at 57, Newport Folk seems forever young.

Editor's note: Marc Cantor contributed to this review.