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Black Pumas go from "To Be Determined" to determined at Newport Folk

Fort Adams State Park, Newport, R.I., July 27, 2021

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz and Marc Cantor

The Newport Folk Festival schedule listed the mid-afternoon slot as "To Be Determined."

Whoever made the decision to put the Austin-based band Black Pumas on the line-up on closing day deserves a big raise.

Black Pumas pretty much walked away with the festival with their main stage gig of high energy funk, soul and psychedelic-tinged blues. Lead singer Eric Burton easily overcame early microphone issues with confident swagger quickly connecting with the enthusiastic fandom.

He was a powerhouse, jumping into the crowd microphone in hand twice. His presence both on stage and in the crowd was electrifying. He bounded about the stage, dancing, gesticulating, tossing the mic from one to the other. He performed with his entire being. Burton didn't talk much, but his actions spoke volumes.

Burton's vocals were a clarion call to a very receptive audience. He was able to alter his delivery no matter what the music.

Black Pumas were far more than just Burton. Guitarist Adrian Quesada, who founded the band with Burton three years ago, often propelled the songs with his sharp, often steely guitar playing. While backing singers can serve as window dressing, not here. Angela Miller and Lauren Cervantes not only provided good visuals with their dance moves, but they took prominent roles in singing as well.

Black Pumas absolutely made the most of their "To Be Determined" status.

Rhode Island's finest, Deer Tick, closed up the festival with a crowd-pleasing set covering the gamut from Irish ballads (including a jig at the end) to power rock to roots rock.

Clearly a crowd favorite – the fans seemed to know the words to every song, danced and heartily sang along - Deer Tick did not disappoint. Lead singer John McCauley played to the locals, first asking if anyone was from Providence before moving into "Smith Hill," which was "my old stomping grounds."

Deer Tick was clearly excited for the moment. Guitarist Ian O'Neill often leapt into the air, bouncing about the stage, letting it rip musically. Drummer Dennis Ryan took lead vocals on a few songs, while setting the beat.

McCauley's wife, singer Vanessa Carlton, came out for a beautiful "In Our Time," hugging and kissing before going off stage.

For the finale of the festival as is typical, McCauley summoned other artists to come on stage (as did some staffers) for a rousing version of "Goodnight Irene." Shutting off the PA system, the a capella ending made for a great conclusion to a successful fest in a most difficult year.

Another area band, Lake Street Dive closed up the music at the Quad stage. Truth be told, LSD could have easily been slotted to the lawn stage as the finale since they are clearly deserving.

That's much to their credit because LSD made history on this night as the show marked the debut of guitarist James Cornelison. After a few glitches with plugs at the outset, all was straightened out, and Cornelison was on his way.

LSD is a musically engaging group covering soul, funk, rock and pop. Put any musical genre in the hands of lead singer Rachael Price, and there would be no worries. She sounded gorgeous in song after song, just about the perfect singer. Price aided the LSD cause with her stage presence as well, clearly into the music and feeding off the crowd.

The opposite apparently was true too because at one point, the crowd – uncharacteristic for Newport – rushed towards the front and let loose.

LSD went beyond its own material with a few choice covers, nothing new for the group. Among them was their take on Steely Dan's "Dirty Work" courtesy of keyboardist Akie Bermiss, whose soulful vocals carried the song.

Following the one-two closing punch of "You Go Down Smooth" and "Good Kisser," LSD continue with a three-song closing coup de grace. Price referenced late WFUV radio Program Director Rita Houston, a fixture at Newport Folk Festival, who passed away in December 2020 at 59. As a result, LSD played three songs that were favorites of Houston: a superb take on David Bowie's "Starman" with Chris Thile guesting on mandolin and vocals; Mavis Staples' "You're Not Alone" with singer Allison Russell (though her voice was outshone at least volume-wise by Price) and an excellent reading of John Lennon's "Instant Karma" with Jonathan Russell of The Head & the Heart on lead.

LSD continues being a fun, creative band.

Julien Baker, a darling of the indie folk crowd, offered an acoustic guitar performance that was filled with emotional and introspective songs, which covered a very narrow musical path.

Baker, who has performed with Lucy Dacus and Phoebe Bridgers, clearly was not comfortable taking center stage and said so herself. "This is going to be weird," she said. "Everything's weird." Early on, she said she was nervous and forgot the words to a song, resulting in her doing a cover instead.

Baker, who with her humorous asides showed she was not all emo, gained her footing more so when accompanied by Mariah Schneider, also on acoustic guitar. Schneider provided a good balance with harmonies and allowed Baker to play the banjo as well.

Katie Pruitt's stint only got better as her time on stage progressed. The Georgia native is one sharp songwriter, creating stories and images in her material, such as "Blood Related" about her family and "It's Always Been You" about a relationship in Nashville with a woman. Not to mention a great line: "Let's have a swordfight with these French baguettes."

Pruitt turned to social commentary on "Look the Other Way," written in response to the murder of George Floyd, and "Southern Roots" on her hopes for her native region.

There was a lot to like about Pruitt with her lyrics creating vivid imagery.

Thile's talents were immense during his own set. He's a master of the mandolin and has been for decades. But sometimes he's a bit over the top with his playing, extending the song for minutes too long.

Thile turned in an excellent reading of "Don't Think Twice It's Alright," not to mention a funny story of how had his first glass of wine when he was 19 in Amiens, France.

And he may well have been referring to COVID on his closing cut, "Hard Times," from the canon of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.

Many artists did have COVID on their minds during the festival, divided into two three-day festivals this year with capacity cut in half to 5,000 due to COVID. For some, it was their first gig back, and many talked about the toll of COVID and how grateful they were to perform before a live audience again.

On the busking stage, traditional country singer Sierra Ferrell, the most country set of the festival. The West Virginian has a voice well-suited to the genre, drawl and all. And she had quality songs as well.

Jonathan Russell typically spends most of his nights as lead singer for The Head and the Heart. Here, he appeared solo with his acoustic guitar. While the group was missed, Russell did cover some of his band's material. Not particularly talkative, Russell simply played his music – including reflective songs on youth.

Alabama native Early James acquitted himself well on his main stage steeped in a more traditional country sound. With solid singing, James' guitar playing also gave depth to the material.

Jake Blount started the final day of the festival off with a pleasing set of acoustic music. Blount was adept on fiddle, although his vocals were not particularly strong.

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