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Day one: Newport Folk gets underway

Fort Adams State Park, Newport, R.I., July 22, 2022

Reviewed by Marc Cantor

The 2022 Newport Folk Festival got underway, and based upon day one, it promised to be a very hot take. This was not only because of the eclectic talent occupying the three plus stages, but because the weekend forecasts called for clear sunny skies accompanied by unusually high temperatures, hovering around 90. Thankfully, the music and festive atmosphere dominated.

Highlights from opening day included:

Sweet sounding songs by opener Leith Ross, a singer-songwriter from Ottawa, Canada revealed important introspection of identity and personal growth.

The Dead Tongues, the musical alter ego of Asheville, N.C.'s Ryan Gustafson, extended a polished, melodic, sometimes hypnotic set. His guitar and harmonica, accompanied by a backing bass and rhythm guitar, created a lush sound, and his songs, such as "Where I Began," were almost confessional explorations.

Lee Fields is energy - in his words, the "Energy of Soul." The experienced soul and funk singer fronted a talented and tight band, including a small horn section, which dared the audience to try not to dance and move.

Mountain Men alums Amelia Meath (also of Sylvan Esso) and Alexandra Sauser-Monnig, collaborating as The A's, dressed in matching pink and white gingham and sporting dark glasses and carmine head-scarves (also worn by all band members), joyfully intrigued the crowd with exquisite harmonies and yodeling, reminiscent of Hill Country. Meath demonstrated her proficiency with a new percussion mainstay: white sneakers on gravel.

Faye Webster, an Athens,Ga.-based singer-songwriter with a lush sound and a newcomer to Newport, honestly explained that one of her songs was for "the shitty landlords out there."

Another Festival virgin was guitarist-singer-harmonicist-songwriter John Craigie, who, based on crowd size and popularity, clearly needed a larger stage. His self-deprecating deadpan humor was infused throughout his sometimes personal and existential songs, some of which were more like compelling stories needing to be heard. He commented on his relative anonymity by telling a story about a stranger who asked him if he knew John Craigie.

Arooj Aftab, from Brooklyn via Pakistan, captivated the crowd with her mystical and ethereal songs, bringing listeners to another world, as her voice soared and dipped. The backup harp, violin, and guitar perfectly complemented the mood.

Progressive banjo magician Bela Fleck is no stranger to the Newport stage, and accordingly exuded an attitude of having been there before. Opening with his fine travel band, he was joined by banjoist Noam Pikelny, in addition to alums from My Bluegrass Heart, his collaboration with Jerry Douglas on Dobro and lap steel guitar and Sam Bush on mandolin. His music was driven and creative, yet retained enough traditional elements to satisfy the tastes of any audience member. Douglas and Bush took the opportunity to reminisce about the early days.

Brooklyn singer-songwriter Cassandra Jenkins wove disparate images like pieces of a tapestry into her beautiful self-reflective set.

Alternative rockers Dinosaur Jr. brought their free flowing feedback-enhanced guitar licks, which are a signature part of their sound, and clearly rewarded many avid listeners who packed the Harbor tent.

One surprise treat of the day was the poised and very talented Nora Brown at the Foundation stage. In her nearly 17 years of life, the banjoist and accordionist has already reached heights many would only dream of, including stints on NPR's Tiny Desk Concert and the TED stage. It is beautiful that one so young could conjure the spirit of the masters of traditional Appalachian bluegrass.

At the opposite end of the age spectrum, octogenarian blues legend Taj Mahal opened his classic-filled set by reminding listeners that he was first on the Newport stage 60 years earlier as a 20 year old. In his words, his methods were "Blues, rather than Bluegrass." While Mahal regaled long-time fans with classic favorites, "Fishing Blues," "Corrina" and "Honey Bee," the magic of the moment was revealed through the swirling and swaying of listeners one quarter of his age.

Tulsa, Okla. singer-songwriter John Moreland is an eloquent genre blending storyteller, mixing wistful "what-if" love stories with thoughtful retrospection.

If one could invent the perfect house band for all moods, it would be Goose. Originating Norwalk, Conn., the talented group exuded joy with its catchy hook-laden riffs, first acoustically, then with an electric flair. They showcased some of their tunes from their upcoming release, "Dripfield."

Crowd favorite, and now Newport regular Courtney Barnett mesmerized with her honest energetic spoken-sung lyrics floating to her infectious catchy beat. She clearly seemed to enjoy herself, as did the audience, especially when she rocked out.

The often raucous and dance-inducing Felice Brothers are always a joy to behold.

Put this in the Shouldn't Miss category: Golden voiced and multi-instrumentalist Rhiannon Giddens, who fronted the Silk Road Ensemble, an ensemble of world-class musicians playing traditional ethnic instruments from throughout the world. Giddens was clearly tickled by the collaboration of peoples, instruments and music, exclaiming "If you find a common language (music), you'll never meet a stranger." To the delight of the tabla percussionist (and the overflowing crowd), she even sang a song in his native Bengal.

It is difficult not to be overwhelmed by the sheer influence of the headliner, The National. The scope of their vast discography and personal musical guidance to other performers by members Matt Berninger and the Dessner twins, Aaron and Bryce, is well-known, and was well evident on stage. Closing out the day, they broadly selected songs from their collection - from as new as "Space Invader (Threaded Gold)" and as well-known and loved as "Mr. November" and much in-between.

Guests joining them included Jenkins ("I Need My Girl"), Anais Mitchell ("Rylan"), Hannah Georgas ("I Am Easy to Find") and Adia Victoria ("Fake Empire"), with all returning to the stage on "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks." Judging from the myriad of fans singing along with the band, this was a perfect way to end a very successful day.

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