Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz and Marc Cantor
n this day and age where being female doesn't seem to bring any rewards in the music business, Newport Folk Festival day one was most pointedly highlight by the presence of numerous high level female performers.
Perhaps none more so than the brand new quartet The Highwomen, who were making their debut. It was simply a tremendously electric, high-powered set from the quartet of Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris, Amanda Shires and Natalie Hemby.
The air was electric when the group took the stage with a massive crowd ringing the area and a thunderous standing o before they even had played one note.
A few songs into the set (deadline resulted in having to miss several songs), Carlile opined before playing "Crowded Table," "This is our first show, and we are fucken terrified."
If they were, they didn't show it, especially Carlile, out in a nudie-styled suit with her name written on the back of her jacket.
Their sound is certainly could be classified as country, and in some cases, quite traditional, such as the gay country song, "If She Ever Leaves Me," penned by Shires, her husband, Jason Isbell, who played guitar live, and Nashville writer Chris Tompkins. It was a winner. They wrote the song specifically with Carlile, who is gay, in mind with Isbell telling a funny story about how the song came about.
Put another way, The Highwomen were far more country than anything Morris has done.
When it came to singing, everyone took leads, sometimes trading stanzas within the same song as well as helping out on backing harmonies. Who knows how much time they spent rehearsing because there were certainly no obvious missteps at all, save when Carlile said they weren't sure who was going to talk between songs.
The quartet has made it clear that their goal is to increase the presence of women in country music, apparently starting with them but with the intent of breaking down the barrier musically ad otherwise for others.
If this is indication, they were off to a great start.
The Highwomen were not the only highlight. Others included Yola and I'm With Her in a day that also included Sheryl Crow and Kacey Musgraves.
British soul singer Yola turned in a great set. She's a wonderful singer, sometimes deep and dirty soul and sometimes a lighter touch. Yola also contributed a winning cover of Elton John ("my hero") with "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road." Playing with a guitarist and bassist, but no drummer, Yola certainly made a positive impression.
Nashville native Adia Victoria focused on the blues, paying tribute to early female blues artists and writers. Victoria offered a real range of styles from Memphis blues to soul to early R&B. Victoria even referenced James Brown with her voice getting louder and stronger within a song. Playing guitar as well, Victoria demonstrated time and again the strength of her voice.
Victoria's band was adept at the blues, but then could also rock it out.
I'm With Her, consisting of three dynamic and talented female singers and musicians, drew from each member's strength. That meant the violin of Sara Watkins (best known for being one third of Nickel Creek), the mandolin of Sarah Jarosz and the acoustic guitar of Aoife O'Donovan.
The absolutely exquisite harmonies of the three were almost ethereal at times. When they started their bluegrass portion of the set, the crowd showed its obvious excitement, apparently surprising the band in an endearing fashion. I'm With Her not only connected with each other, but the audience as well in a very sincere presentation.
Musgraves has had quite the career upswing, especially with last year's very fine "Golden Hour." The disc is a paean of love and optimism, especially to her husband, singer Ruston Kelly who is playing Newport on Saturday.
Musgraves, making her Newport debut, showed herself to be an exquisite singer. No surprise there, especially with songs like "Butterflies" and "Rainbow."
Perhaps confined to an hour set, certainly less than her regular shows, Musgraves tended to be on the mid-tempo side too often. Changing it up far more would have served her better. She did a bit as the hour wore on.
Musgrave has veered far from her traditional country roots, though she did play "Family is Family," about her own self-described family of weirdoes.
And then she closed with the discoey "High Horse," not one of her best songs.
Crow was her usual bright and sunny self with a mixture of old and new. The new material, which comes out in August in what she said would be her last regular album, stood up to her older material.
She received help from half of The Highwomen with Carlile and Morris coming on in consecutive songs to lend their voices. Morris sang "Prove You Wrong" on the CD and backed up Crow very well as well.
Isbell came out to play guitar with Crow on an excellent take on Dylan's "Everything Is Broken."
Crow's colorful outfit consisted of blue and red striped pants and a tank top with the glittery word "Shine." And she did.
The day wasn't devoid of male performers.
Oklahoma native Parker Millsap has gotten away from roots for a more rocking outing with a soulful bent. He has a slightly sandpapery voice with sturdy songs, but perhaps a bit less interesting than the material from earlier in his career.
Newport is such that attendees can catch snippets of sets. The three songs from Warren Haynes were all of high quality especially his take on Dylan's "Masters of War" with help from Isbell, Jonathan Taylor and Lukas Nelson. Each took stanzas in a good reading of the seemingly always relevant song.
Nelson, the son of Willie, is certainly stepping out beyond his father's ultra long shadow. He's a good singer, perhaps not especially inventive at this stage in his career, but he has something to say as well.
Cooks in the Kitchen is ostensibly the Cook brothers from Wisconsin. Real good musicians on their own, they had a few guests that really added to their show including Anais Mitchell, The Tallest Man on Earth and Amy Ray of Indigo Girls fame. Mitchell, who brought up home eight Tonys this year, showed she is an animated singer. Great outing from the Cooks.
But this was a day where the females ruled in a wonderful day one of Newport Folk Festival.