Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz and Marc Cantor
ewport Folk Festival Executive Director Jay Sweet got the ball rolling right at high noon with the words "Happy New Year." It may not have been Jan. 1, of course, but Sweet obviously was referring to the chance for the Newport Folk faithful to gather as a community once again following last year's cancellation due to COVID-19.
The festival - called Folk On this year - is not exactly the same as previous years as capacity was cut to about 5,000, half the normal capacity. Instead of the usual four stages, only the main stage and one other stage are hosting artists this year. And instead of simply a three-day festival, Newport this year is two three-day festivals with some overlapping musicians.
Despite the good cheer, however, the festival was cut short at a few minutes after 6 p.m. because of pending thunderstorms. This was the second time of the day that there was a delay, but this one marked the end of the night.
Yet what remains is the opportunity to explore previously unfamiliar artists as well as some who may be more tried and true. That, in fact, is one of the high points of Newport every year.
On day one of the sold-out event, the highlights proved to be at either end of the spectrum. On the unknown (well, little known side) was the British duo Ida Mae. As for the familiar, that honor would go Margo Price.
Ida Mae is the husband-and-wife team of Stephanie Jean Ward and Chris Turpin. It was obvious that they have a personal connection given their harmonies and vocal interplay, not to mention their (often silent) communication onstage between them. And they both dressed in black.
Turpin was a tour de force on guitar, especially on steel guitar that he often played with a bottle slide. His playing was full-sounding with a metallic element to it that truly resonates. Turpin's style is perfect for the type of music that they play.
Turpin pointed to Chuck Berry, Mississippi John Hurt and Fred McDowell as influences, clearing connecting with the roots forebearers of the blues.
Ward provided the harmonizing vocals, while also adding keyboards and tambourine on a number of the songs during their 45-minute set.
Ida Mae proved more engaging live than on their recordings. This is a group definitely worth watching and a true treat.
Price has played Newport a number of times, often with her band. This time, it was a stripped-down affair mainly of her on acoustic guitar or keyboards, husband Jeremy Ivey on guitar, Andrew Bird on fiddle and a cellist. "I was going to bring my band up, but it didn't work out," said Price.
No matter. It put a different twist to her songs.
Price has the true country chops in her music with drinking songs ("Hurtin' on the Bottle") and jilted lover songs, but she is far more than that. Price didn't rely on her best-known material. In fact, she put out "That's How Rumors Get Started," but didn't even get to tour behind it due to COVID. She did a wonderful reading of the title track, which would have sounded meatier with a band, but her toned-down version was just fine.
Price also delved into Dylan with her take "Oh Sister," a song from his 1976 "Desire" album. Dylan's take on it was haunting and plaintiff. In Price's hands, it had a different tone to it – it didn't pack the emotional resonance, but was still was effective.
One slight distraction was the numerous white flowers adorning her microphone. While pretty and matching a few flowers in her hair and her off-white full-length dress, fans also couldn't always see her whole face.
Price trotted out at least four new songs that are not on any recording, including the humorously titled "It Ain't Drunk Drivin' If You're Ridin' a Horse."
The highlight was the closing number "Fight to Make It," another new song, which Price said "hopefully will be out in some form soon. It's about Amelia Earhart, Rosa Parks and anybody else out there who has to fight to make it."
As the song progressed, the Revolutionary Revival Chorus, an all-female a capella group that started the day off, came out dressed in white to add their voices. So did Allison Russell, who headlines Sunday, Adia Victoria, who has played the fest before, and Kam Franklin of The Sufferers.
Price was clearly engaged and in the moment, retreating to be with her new backing chorus in a powerful performance. She handed everyone a white rose as they left the stage.
Price turned in one classy set.
Lucy Dacus, who is gaining much acclaim as of the leading singer/songwriters around, tells her stories of a relationships in her songs from going to "VBS" (vacation bible school) to a song about a "very bad" presumably ex-friend ("Brando"). Her songwriting stands out for sure.
As for the music, Dacus proved more satisfying on the songs on which she played electric guitar. Her songs almost have an emo quality, and then all of a sudden, she would rock out.
Dacus suffered from sound issues at the beginning starting late and taking a few songs to get the mix better. At times, her voice was muddy, and the bass and drums were overemphasized. This was certainly not a perfect outing for Dacus, who at least on paper should have been one of the highlights of the day.
Due to the nature of Newport Folk, it's easy to catch parts of sets, getting the chance to get acquainted with more performers.
Actress/singer Celisse Henderson, who went by her first name, was a pleasant surprise. Probably an unknown to many, she came out with one huge voice, screaming guitar playing and personality. Her colorful dress underscored the magnetism of her personality on the bluesy and soulful songs.
Marcus King Band continued to show its blues musical metal with great guitar laying from King and his with somewhat of a nod to the Allmans. King's enthusiasm for the music amply came through. The guy's musical abilities are stellar.
The Revolutionary Revival Chorus – about 30 strong in concert - had a bunch of strong singers, with Abena Koomsan-Davis the clear leader. They made it clear they have a social agenda to the group, sometimes hitting listeners over the head a bit. But they did what they do very well.
Black Joe Lewis was a solid blues guitar player, although he took a while to diversify his sound. He had a talented two-piece horn section (mainly on sax), but should have contributed much more to balance his set. The song where they were utilized most effectively was the best song of his set, "Booty City," from 2011.
At the end of the day, well-known singer Grace Potter didn't have too much of a chance to shine as she only sang two songs before the night was ended. But playing a Flying-V, she came out on fire in a solo effort. Potter played some wonderful guitar, was superb in her vocal chops and brought an energy from the get go. Well, a little bit of Potter was better than nothing.
As a result of the pending storms, Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats' headlining set was off. He will return on Sunday.
There's always a lot of great music to enjoy at the Newport Folk Festival, and this year was no different in that respect. Hey, we were just fortunate to celebrate the rebirth of live music again even if Mother Nature didn't cooperate.