Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz and Marc Cantor
athaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats never got the headlining set at Folk On, this year's version of the Newport Folk Festival that they deserved. On Friday, Rateliff et al were slated to close out night one, but the night ended early before they hit the stage due to weather problems. The group had the chance to play the smaller stage on Sunday, turning in a good performance.
However, based on their exhilarating mainstage showing on Monday, they burned down the house from lead singer to the band itself.
Assuming they are not playing any more shows in the 2021 Festival (it was divided into two three-day festivals due to COVID precautions), their stint as a late fill-in was one of the best outings from any act. Rateliff and band got stronger and stronger as the set wore on.
The Night Sweats were tight, sharp and fun outfit. Keyboardist Mark Shusterman not only offered swirls and enthusiastic backing vocals, but he was a genuine cheerleader, exhorting the crowd and dancing across the front of the stage. The three-piece horn section provided a welcome wall of sound to support the range of songs.
The material was not particularly sophisticated, but it also don't need be. Rateliff's staccato phrasing and soulful voice were enough. At times, he almost came off like a preacher, and that's a compliment. Any doubters should have been converted.
Middle Brother was celebrating its 10th anniversary and consists Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes, Matt Vasquez of Delta Spirit and John McCauley of Deer Tick. Despite playing a mid-afternoon slot, Middle Brother may have been just what the musical doctor ordered in turning it up a notch.
Despite their individual talents, there was no ego on the stage. Each was more than willing to share the spotlight, both in terms of song choice and lead vocals. They aroused the crowd to dance and sing.
Middle Brother exhibited a great range of musical styles, including doo wop, Motown, '50s-style rock and more. This was one satisfying set where the joy the band felt was palpable and infectious. As McCauley joyfully proclaimed at the conclusion, "Middle Brother lives."
Courtney Marie Andrews is predictable. In her case, that means you will always hear an incredibly gorgeous, angelic, ethereal voice. She is authentic. There's no shtick. She is what she is – incredibly talented, professional.
Performing barefoot, Andrews played with an easy-going country lilt to her music. The subject matters of her songs were not uniformly pretty as when she examined problematic relationships. Delivered clearly, almost mournfully, Andrews has the delivery that made listeners stand up and listen. Predictability has its merits in the case of Andrews.
Billy Strings' outing was a bit unusual. He was playing for the second time in two days, in effect, playing both three-day festivals. And things seemed to going well – he is a first-rate acoustic guitarist with mainly hyper-paced bluegrass songs. His three compadres in his band – Billy Failing on banjo; Jarrod Walker on mandolin and Royal Masat on bass – are always top shelf.
Then while tuning before launching into the next song, Strings apparently wasn't happy with the quietude of the crowd. Now, it wasn't altogether clear what reasonable expectations given that not much was doing onstage.
But Strings wanted none of it. In an uncharacteristic Newport moment, Strings questioned the crowd if it were on drugs and being tame in Newport. "We got to play these guys with some aggressive energy," Strings said to his mates.
Strings may have turned aggressive, and much to his liking, so did the crowd with fans dancing in the aisles and then very soon in the front by the stage.
Strings and band went into overdrive with Strings apparently liking what he saw. And the enthusiastic response of the audience resulted in a rarity – an encore for a non-headliner. With that, the high octane Strings ended with "Slow Train." Yet another strong effort from Strings.
The Fruit Bats are an indie rock outfit with a bit of an indie folk bent led by lead singer Eric D. Johnson. It would be inappropriate to label the group as musically unique, but they used the talents of the staple of Newport performers to their advantage.
Chief among them was Josh Kauffman, who, time and again, seemed to have just the right touch on guitar. Anais Mitchell was out for one song to provide vocal help. (Kauffman, Mitchell and Johnson comprise Bonny Light Horseman, who are playing the Festival on Tuesday). Kaufman's wife, Annie Nero, supplied backing vocals.
The Fruit Bats also veered towards pop on a few songs, including the very ear friendly "XXXX." This was a fun set. Case in point, Johnson knew he could not remember the words before starting "The Ruminant Band" and asked if anyone could help. With a few words shouted out by a devoted, longstanding fan ("always have smokes"), Johnson was back in stride (and grateful).
This Fruit Bats' outing grew warmer and more engaging as the set continued.
Aiofe O'Donovan is a Newport Folk regular in various incarnations (I'm With Her and her solo material). O'Donovan has always been a warm performer whose stints are enhanced with the presence of other performers.
She did a few songs with Taylor Ashton who had been slated to open for her tour until Covid ended that. They sang Townes Van Zandt's "Loretta" and played off of each other well. Rachael Price of Lake Street Dive also came out for backing vocals. A little help from friends went a long way
Sunny War, a West Coast folk singer, who overcame a troubled past, displayed sophisticated songwriting and imagery. She has a voice that quickly recalls Joan Armadtrading. Despite the quality of her writing, she seemed uncomfortable, perhaps lacking confidence in speaking to the audience. Sunny War was certainly without attitude and clearly happy to be there. She clearly belonged on the Newport stage.
Erin Rae opened up on the lawn side with her band and turned in a set that highlighted her songwriting talents. Chief among them was "Bad Mind," which, in effect, was about loving another woman and growing up different in the South. Rae has turned up in various spots during this year's Newport Folk Fest edition and is proving herself to be something worth paying attention to.
The late named closing out of the day was Brothers of a Different Feather, who are Chris and Richie Robinson of The Black Crowes. During their 50-minute fully acoustic set courtesy of Richie's guitar playing, they highlighted the hits of their band, starting with the chestnut "Jealous Again."
Chris is an adept blues-based singer, blowing occasional harp and throwing himself into the songs. Richie, as always, a quality guitarist.
However, while certainly competent, the set never came close to a "wow" moment.