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Newport Folk Fest offers something for everyone, but especially Our Native Daughters, Ondara

Fort Adams State Park, Newport, R.I., July 28, 2019

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

The venerated Newport Folk Festival usually offers the element of surprise - artists who take their minutes in the sun and come out shining even more.

In the final of three days of the Rhode Island-based festival, the two best sets were by Minnesota singer/songwriter by way of Kenya J.S. Ondara and the quartet of Our Native Daughters.

Ondara came out in a cool looking, light flesh colored suit, shades and a hat. But it wasn't only his look despite the hot weather that worked. The guy has the musical chops with lots of great lyrics, melodies and a pleasant personality.

Ondara, whose inspiration from Dylan was a bit less apparent than in a recent Boston show, made for a tale of two sets. For the first stretch, he was solo acoustic with his warm voice carrying the well-constructed songs.

That changed with the presence of Dawes coming onstage to back him up, resulting in a far bigger sound. While offering a big contrast with the solo stretch, everything worked for Ondara, an endearing personality as well.

It all came together in one of those majestic Newport Folk moments with the closing "Saying Goodbye." By the end of the elongated take, Ondara had the crowd on its feet singing the chorus. Drawing a large crowd from the get go, Ondara certainly gained a plethora of new-found fans from this outing.

The chance to see Our Native Daughters was a rarity. The quartet of Rhiannon Giddens, Allison Russell, Amythyst Kiah and Leyla McCalla are only doing about a half dozen shows supporting a disc that came out earlier this year.

The show started a few minutes late due to sound issues, but once they got going, let's just say the slight wait was far more than worth it in the most emotional show seen this weekend.

So much so that after Giddens led the group on the call-and-response "Mama's Cryin' Long," she started crying, putting her hand to her eyes due to the emotion of the song dealing with domestic abuse, murder and the hanging of the woman.

The songs dealt with the black female experience. One dealt with a Ugandan woman who was a slave. McCalla sang a song she wrote in Creole Haitian about those experiences.

All four members took turns on lead vocals, and all had the vocal chops with Kiah commanding on the soulful "Black Myself."

Our Native Daughters turned in one powerful set, certainly wishing that they would find a way to get their talents and messages out to a wider audience Both deserve it.

Another outfit, who rarely play together, Bonnie Light Horsemen, scored with a worthy set. The trio consisting of Anais Mitchell, The Fruit Bats' lead singer Eric D. Johnson and guitarist Josh Kaufman, did not have a lot of band experience together, playing somewhere between their fourth and sixth concert together, according to Johnson.

This was not a case where the songs hit you over the head with big commercial gestures. With Mitchell and Johnson taking lead vocals - sometimes both within the same song - it was sum total that did the trick. Both are solid vocalists with Mitchell particularly a warm singer.

Billed as "If I Had a Song," the closing all-star tribute to Pete Seeger, who would have turned 100 this year and a cornerstone of Newport Folk, was a bit of a hit and miss affair. The general theme was inclusion with Kermit the Frog, later joined my Jim James of My Morning Jacket and a regular at Newport, singing "Rainbow Connection." Corny, different, but entertaining.

Some of the closing stint felt like a way to give a final lap to those who had performed over the weekend including Brandi Carlile, who made a lot of appearances, Dawes, Lake Street Dive, especially Rachael Price, who was all over the place, and others.

That resulted in such standards as "We Shall Overcome," "If I Had a Hammer" and "Turn Turn Turn." There was not a problem with the rendering of the songs even if it feels like they have a stranglehold on the Newport song book. More so, these were not unforgettable moments. More like been there, done that.

And it's not quite clear what "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" was doing in the set either. Yes, it's about Judy Collins, who appeared in this segment and was influenced by Seeger, but that seemed tangential.

On the other hand, Our Native Daughters scored big time once again with Seeger's "If You Miss Me at the Back of the Bus" as did Hozier and Mavis Staples with "Eyes on the Prize." Staples is one of those artists who seem to be at every Newport Folk. This was a welcome choice.

So was Colin Meloy of The Decemberists and The Milk Carton Kids doing Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land." It may be a folk song staple that people remember learning in elementary school (at least those of a certain generation did), but this is one highly political song in today's world. Well done.

The Festival closed with the standard "Good Night Irene" with an ensemble cast singing it country style led by Cowboy Jack Elliott, who turns 88 on Aug. 1. That was not the song to close out the set, even if identified with Seeger as a member of The Weavers.

Newport, as usual, offers the chance to catch a lot of artists, which also meant sometimes seeing a few songs of many artists.

Lake Street Dive's career continues on a roll with Price just superb. Catching only a few songs, their stint also included keyboardist Akie Bermiss getting soulful with Shania Twain's "Looks Like We Made It." This is not a new song for LSD (and far different than Twain's), but it further showed their depth as a band.

Courtney Marie Andrews was at Newport for the second year running and her career, too, is deservedly on the rise. She showed once again what a superbly fine singer she is, although seemingly with a bit of a harder musical edge.

The Oh My's are a soulful duo from Chicago (they had a third musician with them) that were much more engaging live than on recorded version with an invigorated and inspired vocal turn from Maceo Haymes.

Molly Tuttle and Billy Strings may have their own careers going well these days in the acoustic and bluegrass genres, but the two combined forces to good effect on a few songs heard. Tuttle's vocals could have been mixed a bit higher, however.

Veteran band The Infamous Stringdusters seemed inspired particularly on a musical jam towards the end of their set with Dobro ace Andy Hall supplying the muscle.

Trey Anastasio performed solo acoustic, offering a mix of songs from his own repertoire and Phish ("Sand"). Seated the entire time, Anastasio apparently performed without a set list, just like Phish. While not a commanding vocalist by any stretch, Anastasio and his material were easy on the ears.

Hozier turned in a satisfying set that showcased his vocal talents, although he was not as powerful as his debut at Newport in 2014. His vocal talents were his strong suit with soulful-leaning songs that tended to be in the good, but not great, category.

Newport Folks provides attendees the chance to experience new artists or go back in time and be satisfied with what was. In other words, there's pretty much something for everyone, but none more so than Our Native Daughters and Ondara.