Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz
f a music fan had to place a label on day three of the Newport Folk Festival, one would have to place the moniker "Year of the Woman." That was made clear by the number of women on the bill throughout the day along with the closing headline effort of Allison Russell's Once and Future Sound, which ended up primarily comprised of artists who had previously performed on the weekend play one more song.
Yet to focus solely on the Year of the Woman idea would ignore who were arguably the two top acts of the day at what is being called Folk On this year – Billy Strings and Yola.
Strings has been and remains an absolute musical tour de force when it comes to the bluegrass world. Yola, a British transplant living in Nashville, is about unleash her second album, "Stand for Myself," another fine collection of country soul.
It's easy to see why Strings is a darling especially by those whose idea of bluegrass may not necessarily start with Bill Monroe. Strings has musical depth and perhaps ass importantly knows his musical history.
As the Michigan native told the crowd during his between-song patter, he learned well from his father, who played himself. As a result, during the set, Strings paid homage to the late Doc Watson, a bluegrass mainstay, who also played Newport Folk Festival.
Not only that, but Strings recalled how he had the opportunity see Watson live in concert in Newark, Ohio when he was all of 11 years old. This guy learned his lessons young, and he learned them well.
Strings also offered worthy covers of "Shady Grove" and Flatt & Scruggs' "Don't Let Your Deal Go Down."
Strings was no one man band as he had an ace backing band when it came to instruments and vocals from a mandolinist, banjo player and upright bassist. This was one talented bunch.
Yola is no newbie at Newport, demonstrating her ample talents yet again. Yola has a huge, elastic soulful voice, which breathes a lot of life into the material.
It helps that Yola has an excellent set of songs on her upcoming second disc and highlighted them during her hour-long set.
Yola uncorked a few great covers at the end of the set as well, Elton John's "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," which she belted out, and an Aretha Franklin-inspired version of "Spanish Harlem," which she described after late mother's favorite song.
Yola also has a warm personality and a ton of charisma. And those sneakers were about as huge as her voice. This is an artist who knows how to seal the deal.
Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats were slated to headline on Friday night, but alas prospects of lightning derailed that. No matter. The band was able to play on Sunday afternoon. Rateliff was in vocal form with a good band behind him in a very solid set.
The Dimmer Twins – Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley of Drive-By Truckers – have a little side project going. Both were seated on stools playing acoustic guitars. They were not afraid to opine their viewpoints, making it clear they had no affection for former President Trump. Hood and Cooley tended to trade off lead vocals on well-crafted songs delivered well.
Tre Burt had a Dylan thing going on. Playing acoustic guitar and harmonica, he delivered and made you think is someone to keep an eye on.
Other standout performers included Ohio band Caamp, singer Kevin Morby and trio Middle Brother. The latter – Matthew Vasquez of Delta Spirit, John McCauley of Deer Tick and Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes – played a half hour busking set with each having chances to shine. Goldsmith only seems to get better with age in his delivery. Middle Brother will be back on Monday.
Caamp is a trio from Athens, Ohio that turned in well-written material and some sharp playing. Morby's voice was front and center in a band that only featured a drummer and sax/flue (the latter was a nice element). His commanding vocal delivery made you want to stand up and listen.
Erin Rae and Russell had similar sets in calling up friends to the stage to play songs. A Nashville singer/songwriter type, Rae decided she was going to play her favorite songs. Some of them were a bit too familiar perhaps (Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth"), but in these times playing a spirited, high octane version of The Youngbloods' "Come Together" was welcome. Another standout was her stint with Aiofe O'Donovan, who plays the festival on Monday. O'Donovan said afterwards that had a few days to learn the song as a duet with Rae. You would not have known it from the performance.
Russell closed out the night. While Russell has received much support for an autobiographical disc with a lot of difficult songs, "Outside Child," she played the role of curator except for one song. Female artists, who had played during the weekend or who were playing the festival part II on Monday through Wednesday. Among them were Nigerian via Los Angeles singer Joy Oladokun, who has a lot of spunk and confidence.
While it was nice to hear the artists again, it also didn't feel particularly special as this is something that the festival has done in the past.
Nevertheless, Adia Victoria offered one of the best choices of her song "South Gotta Change" with the opening lines "You've been running from the ghost/You keep it hidden in your past/The veil before your face is falling, and it's falling fast.". Ditto for singer Amythyst Kiah, who wrote " a song that was a good decade in the making due to undisclosed trauma she had gone through. In Kiah's case, in particular, it made you want to hear a lot more of her.
Brandi Carlile played for the second time as a guest during the day and continues on her seeming role as a key face of the festival.
As a surprise, Chaka Khan played a few songs to close out the night. She sounded good, and the entire stage mainly of female singers (Rateliff was up there) was clearly buoyed by her presence, but what she had to do with bulk of the festival's musical offerings was unclear.
Nevertheless, Newport Folk Festival clearly is making a statement, and in this day and age in various of music where opportunities for women are not where they should be, highlighting their accomplishments was commendable. But that was not the only story on this day.