Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz and Marc Cantor
llison Russell may have headlined the closing day on Sunday at Newport Folk Festival's Folk On, but her mid-afternoon performance was a showstopper and easily the highlight of the day.
Russell released a solo album, "Outside Child," in May , detailing her troubled upbringing in Montreal at the hands of an abusive stepfather, running away from home and sexual relationships.
Such weighty and difficult subject matter translated well in concert. Russell opined about the difficulties, speaking out on behalf of children as well during her show along with the plight of Indigenous Canadian children with hundreds of bodies found.
Starting with an on-target vocal delivery from torch singing to ballads to spirituals to country. Russell was a charismatic singer with numerous gesticulations accenting the material.
Russell was backed by a superb nine-person band, including two drummers, two cellists doubling as backing singers, and a guitarist with a lot of tremolo in her delivery. Russell herself played clarinet and banjo. Russell, who is better known for being one-half of Birds of Chicago, brought out her husband J.T. Nero (the other half of Birds of Chicago) for "Joyful Motherfuckers" with Russell sometimes singing lines in French.
Russell has received a good amount of press for "Outside Child." Her poised, elegant performance certainly made it clear why.
As serious as Russell's set was, many of the performances were on the light side.
The best of them may have been Langhorne Slim. A well-beloved Newport Festival fixture, he began the set by promising not to yap as much as he typically does. Promise broken.
Before he even played one note, Slim opined about how glad he was to be back at the Festival. Decked out in a white suit and hat, he referenced a substance abuse relapse and pushing off family and friends before using the pandemic to get to a better place.
And then he finally got to playing some rootsy Americana tunes. The fans were familiar with much of his material and joyfully sang along. He was more than capably backed by pedal steel/fiddle player Brother Twain and upright bassist Paul DeFiglia , who Langhorne said was his closest friend (although Langhonre jokingly wondered if the feeling was mutual).
The highlight was actually the conclusion where he left the stage to go out into the middle of the audience to sing "You're My Sunshine," with the crowd fully singing along. Langhorne was triumphantly carried off on the shoulders of singer JP Harris.
In contrast to the outward lightness of other performers, Sharon Van Etten's set was somber and serious for which she apologized to the fans. Nonetheless, Van Etten's was serious, meaningful and appreciated by the fans.
Van Etten appeared solo, playing both solo and electric guitar plus piano, while sometimes using a recorded drum part. The latter did not serve her well because the thump thump of the percussive beat sometimes overwhelmed her live performance.
Singer/songwriter Steve Gunn performed a solo set of acoustic and electric guitar. A story teller, Gunn punctuated soft musical phrases with guitar and a feedback pedal. The highlight was the light and delicate "Morning is Mended," an impressionistic description of morning.
Bleachers, a pop project of Jack Antonoff, was fun. The onstage hi-jinx, side talk and false starts only served to entertain the crowd and support the strong and creative songwriting of Antonoff and gang, which included a two-piece sax section. Like many artists playing on this day, Bleachers had a long touring layoff before hitting the stage (Beck and Sharon Van Etten would appear later in their first shows of the year).
Comedian Fred Armisen presented a set that was a parody of musicians. He poked fun at performers from around the world. While not catching his entire set (such is the nature of trying to see a lot of acts at the festival), Armisen was a surprising addition, brought in for comedic effect.
Not particularly perceived to be the folk festival type, Beck headlined. He performed solo acoustic for a large portion of his 75 minutes and as he told the crowd, the festival hired a folk artist. That meant he wasn't rocking.
Beck was witty in his comments, engaging with the crowd.. He did not have his mind solely on performing music as he talked extensively during his set about everything from therapy to wealthy people.
While turning in a good version of "Lost Cause," his stint took a nosedive with the appearance of Fred Armisen on drums. Armisen made like he was doing a soundcheck, interrupting the song in what was obviously a. planned gimmick. They fooled around for awhile, playing a few songs before closing with Beck's first hit "Loser." If only Beck had stuck to the music more and shtick less.
Cameroonian-American artist Vagabon gained momentum as her sometimes punk-like set wore on, seeming tentative at the outset of her time on stage.
Newcomer S.G. Goodman acquitted herself well. Her songs are very good, and she may be an even better storyteller. Goodman told one humorous story after another in introducing the songs. Goodman said that when not a working musician, she would work on farms in her native Kentucky. Goodman helped the farmer pick a blanket to be buried in. Not exactly your normal stage patter.
The Festival introduced a busking area for musicians, some of whom already have performed regular sets, to have a more intimate setting. Courtney Marie Andrews, who had an excellent outing on Monday, was back for a half-hour solo acoustic set. Her personal warmth and musical style was well-suited for the intimacy of the busking stage Andrews repeated many songs from her Monday set with her wonderful vocals, of course, predominating.