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With Staples, Newport Folk Festival overcomes

Fort Adams State Park, Newport, R.I., July 27, 2014

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

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The sun finally broke through, appropriately enough, on what had been an off-and-on rainy day at the third and final day of the Newport Folk Festival towards the end of long day with Mavis Staples headlining.

And while there were a few dour-type performances (Conor Oberst most prominently), the joy and palpable energy exuded by Staples, the scion of the soul and gospel musical family, who filled the grounds through song, guests and sheer vocal prowess was only fitting.

It should have come as no surprise that Staples was in fine spirits. She was around the entire weekend, sitting in with Lake Street Dive on Friday and with Jeff Tweedy, whose set preceded hers, and seemed to feed off of that.

It also happened to be her 75th birthday two weeks ago with the Festival making a splash for her.

On paper, Staples may have seemed like the least exciting headliner of the three days (Ryan Adams Friday and Jack White on Sunday), but she had no problem holding up her end of the Fest stint.

Staples knows the ins and outs of being a soul singer. Doubtlessly, it's in her blood, but Staples had enough bite, vim and vigor on a variety of songs ranging from "Slippery People" by the Talking Heads to "For What It's Worth" from Buffalo Springfield to "You Are Not Alone" with Jeff Tweedy, who produced several of her albums.

Staples also had a great sense of humor that came across as very natural. She chided big sister Yvonne Staples, one of her three back-up singers, for sitting down. "Sit down, and rest your weary bones. Don't worry. Sit down. I'll finish up for you," said Mavis, younger by three years.

With that, Staples turned in an extended version of the Staples' classic "I'll Take You There" with keyboards from the great and low-key Spencer Oldham, who was playing elsewhere on the bill earlier in the day.

Tweedy's set gathered a lot of steam as it progressed, something that tended to happen with his regular band, Wilco. He has a new album coming out in September on his label, "Sukierae," which he recorded with his son, Spencer, 18, who happened to be the drummer and did a credible job.

"Diamond Lightning" started the set, a bit of a dense, guitar-driven affair that stretched out.

But after that, Tweedy was more subtle during his 65-minutes, which featured a chunk of songs from the upcoming release. Playing a batch acoustic, including a few solo, Tweedy let the songs breath. He brought out the New York duo Lucius, who played Saturday at Newport, for a bit of undermiked backing vocals on a few tracks, including "Summer Noon" on which Staples helped.

Tweedy also was in good spirits, joking with photographers to take a pic of Lucius in their matching fancy outfits. He also was quite excited to join forces with the "woman I love the most except for my wife," Staples, he said with obvious reverence.

Tweedy returned to his Wilco (and Billy Bragg) base for the closing, bright sounding "California Stars" by Woody Guthrie.

Irish singer Hozier was back as promised on Friday for a full band effort. The lanky singer once again did not disappoint and made one think that he could certainly break big based on his talent. Playing a larger venue that Friday's intimate performance, Hozier's voice is huge as he could be heard from far away, and that wasn't a case of cranking up the volume to 11.

Hozier drew a massive crowd, earning big applause and seeming a bit surprised about all the fuss. A likeable sort, Hozier had better get used to it because in his bluesy songs (he recalls the more tender side of Robert Plant at times), he packs a wallop.

Valerie June, a cross-pollinated singer from Tennessee who mixes country, blues, soul and old time sounds, literally took awhile to get going. Due to sound issues, she started 10 minutes late, a rarity for Newport.

But once she righted the sound ship, her unique performance was worth the wait. She also deserved fashion statement kudos with a shiny, silver metallic dress, turquoise boots and high turquoise socks. Ultimately, of course, she had to rely on her musical abilities with songs such as the country beat of "Tennessee Time."

June has plenty of room to grow as an artist, but she is also different enough from most of what is out there to maintain interest.

Hurray for the Riff Raff mixed a Cajun and sort of country sound. Lead singer Alynda Lee Segarra is a stellar singer and performer with tremendous vocal command and presence. Segarra, once again, was one very strong lead singer.

Fellow New Orleans band The Deslondes opened the Harbor Stage (there were four stages at the compact Festival) with a very fine country/New Orleans styled musical set. Four of the band's five members took a turn at lead with cowboy hatted Sam Doores holding down the country side. And they started off very coolly with "Got Found," a song that would have fit right in on the "O Brother" soundtrack, a slow blues burner with Cameron Snyder literally using a hammer to strike a metal bar.

Pegi Young will always be confronted with the professional problem that she is Neil Young's wife. If not for her husband, would she get where she is? While not particularly unique compared many of the other performers, Young was more of a country-based singer. Not a bad voice, but not a great one either. It also helped to have an ace, veteran back-up band, which included Oldham.

Caitlin Rose, a Nashville-based singer, turned in a good set, mixing rock and country-inflected songs. But she has not particularly carved out a sound for herself, although songs like "Sinful Wishing Well" and "Dallas" served her well.

While not seeing his whole set, Oberst seemed out of place in the festival setting. He did no talking, and his material bordered on the dense side, better fit for a more intimate room. Whereas a festival seems to be about having a good time, Oberst did not share much of that sentiment.

Interestingly, Oberst employed Dawes as his backing band. The Californians had their own set as well, and there music is definitely on the more triumphant side.

As for the idea of being upbeat, how about Ages & Ages? The Portland, Ore. collective scored well with their closing number "Divisionary (Do The Right Thing)," aided by the Berklee Gospel Choir. The song may be simple with the idea of making the appropriate choices, but the message can cut deep, especially with its superb, but simple musical treatment.

As usual, the Newport Folk Festival closed with an ensemble featuring Staples and a bunch of musicians who were still in the house from the weekend. For Staples, "We Shall Overcome," was of particular meaning. She told the crowd that her family band, The Staples Singers, often sang the song before the late Rev. Martin Luther King spoke at civil rights events. And she pointed out that the late Pete Seeger, who was forever associated with Newport, usually closed the fest with the song. "I want to keep the tradition," said Staples. Nice move.

On a small fry scale, the thousands in force at the Newport Folk Festival had to endure at times difficult weather. On the big picture, not only was "We Shall Overcome" an ode to Seeger, but a resounding song of triumph and perseverance, much like the Festival itself has in recent years to the point that it has regained its former sparkle. With musical bonanzas like this, the tradition continues most strong.