Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz and Marc Cantor
o many options on opening day of the Newport Folk Festival, and decisions have to be made. Do you see Margo Price or Tyler Childers (or can you see both)? Courtney Marie Andrew or Sidi Toure or Amanda Shires with overlapping sets?
The choices may not be particularly welcome for the music aficionado, but the music most certainly was with lots of well put together stints.
Prime among them was Price. As the mainly traditional country singer told the crowd, this was her fourth time playing Newport, but the first time she was on the main stage. Based on this set, that's where she ought to stay.
Price was introduced by John Prine, who headlined last year's closing day at Newport. Price has a great voice and song material to easily make for a winning set. While hewing mainly to a traditional country sound, Price also got a bit soulful at times.
Price shined on "All American Made," lamenting problems that the country has faced. Playing solo on keyboards, Price was eventually joined by her husband, Jeremy Ivey, on harp. Price included the lines, "I wonder if the president sleeps at night/ and I wonder if the people at the border are sleeping alright?" Following the stirring version of the song, Price said, "This is one of the few places I can play that at a festival."
One of the highlights was when Prine came back with acoustic guitar in hand to duet with Price on "In Spite of Ourselves," which the two actually sang last year as well. With a voice on the craggy side, Price is a far better singer than Prine, but this was one of those Newport moments that creates great memories.
The main problem with Price's stint was that like most all of the artists, the set was truncated. She is far more deserving than a 55-minute set. But that was most certainly better than nothing.
Sturgill Simpson may have been playing a folk festival, but you wouldn't know it from the music he played during his main stage segment. The Kentucky native turned in a very strong show, but his music is eons away from his initial musical foray of traditional country.
Simpson, who played a chunk of material from his last release, "A Sailor's Guide to Earth," a message to his son. Simpson offered one song of the country variety with the rest being a very rocking set.
The show was a vast improvement from last summer's stop in Boston. There was a lot of bark and bite to Simpson's playing along with his backing trio. Simpson seemingly sported a snarl before he started playing as if to say "game on."
At times, it was a bit heard to hear Simpson's vocals above the musical fray, but he ably filled the rock bill.
The country leanings of the day continued with a few performers in the intimate museum stage with Texas veteran country singer Jack Ingram and newcomer Paul Cauthen.
Ingram turned in a short set of just half an hour, way short for someone used to 1 ½-2-hour sets, he said. But he made the most of it, starting with "Tin Man," the hit he wrote (with others) for Miranda Lambert. It was a touching song, well sung by Ingram.
Ingram went back in time with "Wherever You Are," a number one hit for him a few decades ago. A good storyteller, Ingram told about how he found out that the song hit the top while listening on the tour bus to the Bob Kingsley syndicated radio show.
Catching only a few songs, Cauthen acquitted himself quite well with "Have Mercy on You," the title of his just released EP. Cauthen channeled both Johnny Cash and Elvis on the song. Cauthen mines an old school country vibe, a la Waylon Jennings as well. This is the exact beauty of Newport. You may only catch a little bit of an act, but it makes want to see a lot more.
Ditto for Tyler Childers, a Kentucky native, who has already been making a name for himself with his sophomore album, "Purgatory," which was co-produced by Simpson. Childers infused his singing with a lot of twang with a set where pedal steel was a key element along with fiddle.
Childers has a very full sounding voice with songs to match. With a set like this, it was easy to see why his career is on the upswing.
Andrews underscored yet again that she is blessed with one gorgeous, engaging, heartfelt voice. Playing solo acoustic (she usually is with a band), Andrews recalls Dolly Parton vocally, a huge compliment.
She was on the folky side with her song "Irene" and played a brand new song, "Someone Else's Fault," which she belted out. Andrews closed with the lovely title track of her excellent debut "May Your Kindness Remain." This singer is hugely talented.
Even before Amanda Shires introduced the guitarist who joined her mid-set as the "man from Alabama" "some people know as Mr. Shires," she and her five-piece backing band were making it clear to the first-day Newport audience that they were a force on their own. Shire's voice ranged from plaintive to clarion, as she introduced the Quad stage audience to many of the edgy and electric-based tunes from her new album, "To the Sunset," scheduled for formal release Aug. 3. Shires also contributed with guitar and fiddle. When Shire's husband, Jason Isbell (he would headline at night), walked on and plugged in to support her with the identifiable and talented tone of his guitar (also on the album), the energy of the crowd and music noticeably lifted, making the set a treat for early listeners.
Lucius, the four-piece band fronted by lead vocalists and harmonists-extrordinaire Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig, padded their extensive Newport resume by delighting a sun-baked Fort Stage audience with exquisite harmonies and crowd pleasing R&B. Donning identical ice-blond wigs, black capes accented with large gold feather-like designs and exaggerated gold and black false eyelashes, Wolfe and Laessig serenaded their enthusiastic followers with their familiar tunes such as "Go Home" and the oh-so-catchy "Turn it Around" as well as the Gerry Rafferty cover "Right Down the Line." They were joined by Brandi Carlile for "Dusty Trails" and "Most of What I Know," causing the crowd to roar enthusiastically. Adding to the excitement were art-deco capped black cladded dancers who gracefully and rhythmically moved in unison around and across the stage, at times surrounding the singers. Lucius, which has supported many other performers in Newport over recent years, earned its place at centerstage.
The Woods Brothers, a trio consisting of former Medeski and Martin stand-up bassist Chris Woods, his brother guitarist Oliver, and multi-instrumentalist Jano Rix, continued to entrance their Americana-folk following with a typically understated, but entertaining set in the overfilled Harbor stage tent venue.
Combining the classical and jazz based musicianship of Chris, with the country and blues-based, thought-provoking and inspirational, song-writing of Oliver, the band regaled the crowd with favorites perfect for a hot muggy summer day. Oliver's voice is not extraordinary; on the contrary, it is his quaver and emotion that attracts, enhanced by the pleasing harmonies from Chris and Rix.
Notable were "Postcards from Hell," a paean to blues legend Mississippi John Hurt, as well as "Mary Anna," a love song containing the memorable image of "fumbling with the light switch to your heart." The band also excelled with covers such as Elizabeth Cotten's classic "Freight Train." Chris added to his musicianship with his footloose dance steps, busting a move or two while dragging his heavy bass like a reluctant partner.
Rachael Price, best known as lead singer of Lake Street Dive, but also playing the festival as part of Rachael & Vilray, joined the band for a less than perfect, but nonetheless crowd-pleasing, four-way gospel harmony, introduced by Oliver's appreciative and wry commentary. He noted that one of the great things about playing in the festival is the opportunity for impromptu collaboration with other artists, deadpanning, "it doesn't matter how much we practice...or don't practice." For the Woods Brothers, the art is in the feeling, which needs no rehearsal.
Band of Heathens also turned in a strong outing on the museum stage, sporting two worthy lead singers in Ed Jurdi and Gordy Quist. The Austin-based band is more roots rock oriented with the songs on the accessible side.
Glorietta is a new band that made its Newport debut. The band, formulated out of overlapping friendships, is a conglomeration of folks like Matthew Vasquez of Delta Spirit fame, Noah Gunderson and half a dozen others.
There was a lot to like about the spirit of the band and the singing particularly of Kelsey Wilson. She also sported a mean fiddle.
The band may be finding its musical identity, but indicated the makings of a worthy side project for its members, especially with a debut dropping in late August.
Fantastic Negrito, who incorporates soul, spoken word, blues and more, offered a few comments about today's politics, particularly in support of immigrants. Born Xavier Amin Dphrepaulezz, Fantastic Negrito was an ingratiating performer whose sheer (positive) force of personality and charisma carried his show.
Blues singer J.D. McPherson was another in a long line of worthy performers. He played sharp guitar and benefitted from a strong backing band as well. Shakey Graves, who was everywhere last year, came out to sing a cover of The Sonics' "Strychnine," not exactly the blues, but nicely done.
Darlingside, an indie folk band from Boston, launched the day with an outing based on four-part harmonies around a single mic. Displaying a sense of humor, they did well in kicking the day off.
Moses Sumney, a West Coast singer, was spare musically in a solo set with his guitar setting the mood. He also benefitted from humorous patter and a good stage presence.
There was lots of music to consider at Newport day one and fact of the matter was that there was quite a lot to like.