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At Newport Folk Festival, discovery rules

Fort Adams State Park, Newport, R.I., July 30, 2018

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

One of the enduring highlights of the Newport Folk Festival is the chance of discovery. This is not a festival filled with superstars. Far from it. Yes, there are veterans, who already have made a name for themselves (Brandi Carlile would fill the bill), and there are others who don't even know themselves how they landed in Newport.

When it came to discovery on closing day, right at the top was The War and Treaty. Having only released an EP, the husband-and-wife duo of Tanya and Michael Trotter Jr. ably showed they were quite ready for prime time.

They are one soulful duo with each showing their vocal process time and again during an incredibly well-received set with the crowd often giving a standing O.

Not only did they have the vocal chops, but the stage presence to boot with Tanya jokingly telling her husband that his brief shtick at announcing they had items for sale was not welcome (interestingly, unlike just about every concert you go to, artists were not self-promoters about ka-ching).

With shows like this, The War and Treaty ought to be discovered by even more people.

The Lone Bellow are no rookies and have played the festival several times. On this day, they were on fire from the get go on the main Fort stage.

While Zach Williams handled most of the lead vocals with his soulfully intensive style, band mates Brian Elmquist and Kanene Pipkin were not far behind either. Elmquist took lead vocals on a recent song he just wrote, "My Mind's Made About," dedicated to the late White Rabbits' singer Scott Hutchison, who committed suicide. Heartfelt and sad, Elmquist's delivery was a highlight.

It didn't take long at all for The Lone Bellow to ramp it up musically, and they stayed right there in another strong outing for the trio.

Kiki Cavazos is an artist that perhaps only the organizers of the festival heard of in advance. In fact, if someone claimed they knew of her, raise the eyebrows.

Cavazos doubtlessly was the least professional schooled artist on the bill. So, it was understandable when she told the crowd from the intimate Museum stage, "I'm really, really, really nervous." Montana-based, Cavazos only started playing out in her home state (she doesn't tour) about a year ago to support herself after having a kid. No website either for this singer.

While she used lyric cheat seats, there was something most pleasing about Cavazos. Her writing was strong as were her choice of covers, in which she really went for songs with emotion and a point of view. She was a plainspoken, honest type delivering songs with an acoustic guitar in hand.

As for even lesser knowns, there was the open mic hour opening each day. While some were not more worthy than a single song, a D.C. duo, Handsome Hound In reality the duo were two-fifths of the band), most certainly were in the vivid lyrics of "October."

Passenger may not have been an unknown, but he (Passenger these days is actually Michael Rosenthal) turned in one of the great sets of the weekend.

The British folk singer has a tremendous sense of humor filled with oodles of charisma. That helps, of course, in bonding with the crowd, which he did easily, but what about the music?

The former busker (he actually did busk later on in the day for 20 minutes for a few hundred people at the festival) left the humor behind in singing the brand new "To Be Free."

Quite simply, that was the best song heard over the festival. Rosenthal informed the crowd that the song on his forthcoming CD told the story of his parents and future generations. They survived the Holocaust and left behind Europe to eventually be chicken farmers in Vineland, N.J. "I never thought I'd write a song about because was pretty close to the bone," he said. Writing it a few months ago on vacation, Rosenthal said when he was finished, he cried for a good 10 to 15 minutes.

Echoing a sentiment heard a number of times at the festival, Rosenthal said, "This country and many others are built on immigrants."

The song was so vivid in its description of his family with an obvious heartfelt delivery. Rosenthal may be a funny guy, but he showed a width and breadth of talent.

Bluesman Gary Clark Jr. and Carlisle turned in satisfying sets. Clark is one of the leading bluesman out there today with a set built on a lot of meaty licks emanating from his axe and a vocal touch to match.

Clark, who has a good sense of humor as well, pretty much settled into a good groove and did not deviate from it. There was a lot to like about his playing and that of his band.

On "Bright Lights," Clark sang, "You gonna know my name by the end of the night." It may have been afternoon when he played, but for the uninitiated, that would have proven true.

Carlile remains a very reliable and steady performer. She sings well, has a very strong band, of course, led by twins Phil and Tim Hanseroth and has material beyond her best-known song "The Story."

Carlile closed out well with "Hold Out Your Hand" with help from The Lone Bellow, The War and Treaty and the Watson Twins.

Bermuda Triangle made its debut, but at least one third of the group - Brittany Howard - knows a thing of two about Newport as her band Alabama Shakes has played here. Teaming up with Becca Mancari (she had her own set earlier) and Jesse Lafser, Bermuda Triangle is a far cry from the Shakes musically.

Bermuda Triangle is characterized by a lot of pleasant harmonies with no one dominating the sort of folkie-based sound. It is nice to see Howard stretching herself out musically.

Catching only a few songs of Glen Hansard, who seems to be a Newport regular, the Irish singer is most entertaining in story and song. Hansard has such a commanding voice, which he put to good use on "Way Back in the Way Back When." A running theme of the weekend, Hansard dedicated the song to immigrants, changing the lines to "No border's gonna break my stride."

Hansard then can quickly turn humorous as he did in between song patter about going on a boat trip for six weeks, which didn't quite sound like his idea of fun. A little fill of Hansard sure was on this afternoon.

Usually, the finale turns into a real high point with great music not only from the headliner, but a series of guest appearances. There was nothing wrong per se with Jon Batiste, the bandleader on the Colbert Report, and his group Stay Human.

Batiste is certainly an adept pianist and has a quality band, who were aided by The Dap Tones. No problem there.

Batiste, a bit of a self promoter in urging more applause from the crowd early on, turned in an idiosyncratic take on "This Land Is Your Land. The song was not a sing-along his hands.

Like some other years, the end turned into a celebration of freedom and civil rights. Guests ranged from Chris Thile to a bunch of folks who had sets earlier in the day to Mavis Staples, who seemingly is at Newport every year. Nor did it feel particularly exciting or inventive, including the predictable song selection.

Since the event was called "A Change Is Gonna Come," of course, the song was going to be played. Rachael Price of Lake Street Dive fame turned into a soulful, somewhat jazzy reading with her fine voice. The Staples' civil rights song, "Freedom Highway" closed out the fest. Again nothing wrong with it, but one would be hard pressed to call this any sort of surprise.

So, the art of discovery may not have come during the end, but there was enough of that elsewhere during the final day to make for yet another entertaining day of music from known quantities to total unknowns.

©Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •
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