fter the appearance of Paul Simon on day two, Newport Folk Festival attendees would have been justified in leaving well satisfied. Special guests are a well-known and expected occurrence. Still, today's events likely went well beyond the expectations of even the most optimistic. Like days one and two, the sun beamed; the heat was oppressive and the crowds filled all stages beyond capacity.
Sunday is Church Day for many, and today's opener, Phil Cook's Love Will Go All the Way: A Spiritual Helpline Gospel Revue provided just the right venue. The crowd clapped, swayed and called out to traditionals, such as "Freedom Highway" and "This Little Light of Mine."
At the same time, Louisville, Ky. based pop-folk band Bendigo Fletcher provided a different kind of wake up for their parishioners. Charismatic frontman Ryan Anderson wanted to "give the audience a little kick in the ass," and he succeeded, with addictive guitar work and harmonica. This band is worth a listen on any day of the week.
Those asking John Craigie to fill a vacant slot suggested that he add "& Friends" to the set name and ask others to help him cover some Beatles tunes. In his typical deadpan way, Craigie announced that because he was new to Newport, he had no friends here. This was obviously a prevarication and deflection, as he was later joined by luminaries such as Langhorne Slim, The Ballroom Thieves, Sara Lee Guthrie and the Black Opry Revue to admirably cover The Beatles "Let it Be" album.
Buffalo Nichols is about the blues - real songs about real people and the gritty survival in real life. With nimble finger picking of his steel body and husky throaty vocals, this man is modern living testimony to the early roots of the genre.
Memphis-rooted multi-instrumentalist Valerie June continues to believe in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s message that one should be judged by the quality of her character. "Call Me A Fool," called in her nasal twang, reinforced with a high pitched holla. Backed by a large band, including horns and strings, she twirled and cajoled, prayed and preached to an appreciative reception. She continued the optimistic message with a cover of Louis Armstrong's "What A Wonderful World."
Poor Taylor Goldsmith. Absent Dawes, his band, and Mandy Moore, his wife, he needed support. Calling for volunteers from the audience, then Goose, he covered a number of Dawes songs, and one from Moore. Don't feel sorry for him, though, as the crowd had no concerns and joyfully sang along.
Sylvan Esso, the Durham, N.C. collaboration of singer Amelia Meath and producer Nick Sanborn, brought its catchy brand of electro-pop to the Fort stage. Clad in a black bra and long gray pants, Meath strutted and writhed, Britney-style, awakening an afternoon crowd, which was dragging in the oppressive heat. The songs are short, catchy and movement inspiring. The group also announced its upcoming album, featuring live the tune "Didn't Care" from the release.
People continue to proclaim that Joy Oladokun is the real deal and for good reason. Refreshingly honest, almost to the point of embarrassment, endearing enough for listeners to hang on to each word and note as if it were air and water, Oladokun reminds one of a hybrid of Joan Armatrading and Tracy Chapman, but, of course, with her own flair. "These are songs about me," she explained. With pointed passion, she fearlessly sings about the reality of being a Black queer woman in a world which has turned its back to her. Her music is filled with stark, weighty lyrics and wonderful hooks.
At Newport, one can always tell which artists have buzz, special chops, or just plain charisma, by the crowd of artists hanging in the off-stage galleries to listen. By that measure, Blake Mills, LA songwriter, guitarist and session musician, clearly more than piqued the interest of many other performers in his first time playing at the Festival since 2019. All enjoyed his jazz-infused songs containing Little Feat-like licks and his introduction of previously unreleased material, such as "Press My Luck."
Maren Morris, the diminutive country-pop powerhouse, bolstered her role as spokesperson for women's rights and empowerment in country music, as well as in this country. She wowed the crowd with numbers such as "Tall Guys" about her husband, country singer Ryan Hurd, and "I Could Use a Love Song."
Earnest and engaging Anais Mitchell continues to enthrall with her high breathy voice and lyrics, which pack an emotional punch. She was joined by a full band, adding a lushness to her sound and sang fan favorites, including material from her musical "Hadestown."
An unfortunate choice in scheduling forced fans to choose between Michelle Zauner's synth-pop phenom Japanese Breakfast and Brandi Carlile and Friends, both set to begin simultaneously at different stages. The Carlile set was later truncated on the large schedule board, with a set entitled "Coyote Jam" added at the end.
Choosing Carlile, an icon both at Newport and in the music world, provided a special and unforgettable treat for music lovers. Carlile began her short set early, singing four songs - one with Lucius - concluding with a gorgeous rendition of "Over the Rainbow." Curiously, she then asked the packed Fort Stage audience for its forbearance, as they would need 20 minutes for a special event. During this break, the stage was transformed into a large living room, replete with ornate sofas and chairs, candles and orchids. To accommodate all of the seating, chairs were arranged in a large semi-circle, with the most comfortable looking seating at the back of the stage.
Fans, well aware of the rumors of the identity of a unique and very special guest, watched with rapt attention as stage hands completed the transformation. To no one's surprise, Carlile returned with a soliloquy about legend Joni Mitchell, explaining that while Mitchell was recovering from a 2015 brain aneurysm rupture, she hosted a regular event at her home dubbed the "Joni Jam," in which musicians of all strata came to Mitchell's living room to socialize, try out material and receive her blessing or constructive criticism.
To Carlile, this was an open space, free of egos and full of music, in which friendships were formed, while "Joni fed us hot dogs and humility." Guests included Paul McCartney, Elton John and Bonnie Raitt. Carlile finally explained that the set change was meant to recreate the Joni Jam and asked the audience to close its eyes and visualize orchids everywhere.
To thunderous applause, crowd cheers and not a few tears, Carlile invited Folk Festival artists Marcus Mumford, Lucius and others to come out, culminating with the entry of the legendary guest of honor, Joni Mitchell, herself. Assisted by Carlile, the 78-year-old Mitchell, wearing dark glasses and a large smile, was escorted to the seat of honor, and the magic began.
With the aid of Carlile and others, including Mumford, Goldsmith, Celisse Henderson, Lucius, and Wynona Judd, Mitchell engaged in a conversation/performance, which caused attendees to mark this moment - Mitchel''s first concert in 20 years - in their memories as unique, unforgettable and something to be gleefully shared with friends, children and grandchildren for years to come.
Mitchell and her cohort shared more than 12 songs, ranging from iconic "Big Yellow Taxi" to a cover of Gershwin's "Summertime" to a finish of "The Circle Game." Even though most fans were unable to see the great Mitchell, except on the large screen adjacent to the stage, many additional tears were shed, primarily of joy and honor to be present.
Considering her years and recovery from such a catastrophic physical event, Mitchell was remarkable with her guitar work and singing. And even though she was not able to reach the notes she was known for in her youth, very few present minded, well aware that whatever Mitchell could give was a gift to be treasured. And the skies, which had not shown a cloud for three days, acknowledged that the magic had ended, by going gray.