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Newport Folk Festival day 3: only the music was hot

Fort Adams State Park, Newport, R.I., July 30, 2023

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. and Judy Remz

The eclectic Newport Folk festival is the type of fest that typically has something for everyone. And now that was no different on third and final day of this year's edition ranging from bluegrass to country to singer/songwriter to angst-ridden pop to African music to gospel music.

That also meant to discover lots of new artists for the sold-out crowd.

Bluegrass start Billy Strings was no debutante at Newport, but this was his first headlining gig. One guarantee of a Strings show is that there is going to be jamming and an extremely high level of musicianship. Strings never fails to satisfy although he probably would have been better served to play a full concert. (In Boston on Tuesday, he delivered, 2 1/2hours of music. Here, he was limited to 75 minutes). Newport felt a bit compact – for a Strings show that is.

Strings was into it from the get go on "Bronzeback," an extended opening where each of the five members had ample opportunity to shine.

Strings was not only a visual treat with closing his eyes, making faces and hopping around some as the music moved him (by the way, this all seems like the real deal every time out instead of manufactured motions), while also entrusting the music to fiddle player Alex Hargreaves, banjo man Billy Failing, bassist Royal Massat, who continues to anchored the music, and mandolinist Jarrod Walker. Not to mention strings exquisite playing where what looks like an acoustic guitar sure sounds electric if you closed your eyes.

Strings combined his own songs, including a talking blues number "Catch & Release " about escaping arrest when stopped by a Tennessee cop with weed (he said it was a true story) and also paying homage to past bluegrass greats such as The Doc Watson Family, The Stanley Brothers and Jimmy Martin.

Lana Del Rey may not seem an obvious choice of someone to play at Newport Folk Festival, but her angst ridden, vocal-oriented material made sense in retrospect. Del Rey knowingly inserted the right sense of sadness into her vocal delivery.

A highlight were two songs – Joni Mitchell's "For Free" and "Mariners Apartment Complex" she performed with Jack Antonoff of bleachers fame, who played piano while she sat on the it. The country song "Breaking Up Slowly," performed with her friend Nikki Lane, also worked well.

On the other hand, Del Rey's presentation was not exactly typical for Newport. She placed two large mirrors on either side of the stage, but barely using either of them. And she had a group of six dancers clad in white outfits, who held objects such as candelabras and round red balls and more on a few numbers. This seemed more appropriate for an over the top presentation at an awards show than Newport.

Del Rey doesn't tour much and did not come off as the most comfortable performer given her sometimes awkward comments, but the crowd was clearly excited to see Del Rey.

Also different than the usual Newport fare was the Black Opry Revue. Created by Holly G. in Nashville, the Black Country Revenue is comprised of a rotating group of Black country singers who show the different facets of what constitutes country. In today's format, eight different artists scored the chance to sing lead on one song while a portion thereof supplied backing vocals.

There were lots of highlights. Opener Niki Morgan from North Carolina via Chicago sang, "I came to have a real good job." She made sure of that with a performance high on energy and engagement with a voice that recalled Dolly Parton.

Tylar Bryant from Texas was more a traditionalist, offering an upcoming single, "Per Her On My Tab." "If you link honky tonk music, I think you're going to like this one," Bryant told the crowd. There was truth in his advertising.

Aaron Vance, a Mississippi native who grew up on the farm singing in church, was uptempo with "Real Talk" with his effusive vocals carrying the song.

The ensemble closed out their house with Whiney Monge leading Tina Turner's "Proud," in tribute to the late Tina Turner. A fitting end to musical voices deserving to be heard.

Senora May got the final day underway with a warm, satisfying set. May started off with quieter material, but later offered variety during her 40-minute stint. Adding to the musical mix was a cellist, who doubled on bass and the Miles brothers on drums and guitar, adding texture. May have a far more familiar musical husband (Tyler Childers), but she stood on her own just fine.

Wild would describe The Harlem Gospel Travellers, who provide a modern edge to the gospel music tradition. They were the perfect additive to the Saturday night/Sunday morning music/religious dichotomy. With a trio of excellent, enthusiastic and charismatic lead singers – Thomas Gatling, George Marage and Dennis Bailey - they had the crowd ready to preach the gospel as well.

Even more wild define Jupiter & Okwess, a Congolese ensemble. The apparent leader of the band, Jupiter Bokondji, was captivating. Decked out in a red shirt, red-and-white pants, and red slippers, Bokondji jumped about the stage, doing squats at one point, gesticulating. The drummer, who took most of the lead vocals, was decked out in a Mexican /wrestling mask. The word colorful would be an understatement.

Perhaps the loudest band heard all day, Jupiter & Okwess combined rock and African beat, often characterized by the guitarist establishing a guitar line and sticking with it for a long time. The crowd responded surging to the front, which is atypical for the festival.

In addition to the three main stages there were also two sides stages. Bendigo Fletcher, who played the festival last year, was on the Bike Stage where the power was generated by about six bicyclists to the side of the stage, who seemed to having a good time while listening to the music as well.

As for Bendigo Fletcher, lead singer Ryan Andersen spearheaded the group's folk/Americana music. And in an ode to Gordon Lightfoot, they turned in a countrified take on "Sundown."

The Newport legend of John Prine loomed large on the Foundation stage because his son, Tommy Prine, held court for a 30-minute set. Prine, of course, has extra large shoes to fill. But it's also not fair to him to compare him to his father.

Tommy Prine, who just released his solo debut last month, had a number of well-written songs in the singer/songwriter mold. His singing was pleasant, although not particularly distinctive.

Celebrating their golden anniversary as a group, Los Lobos sounds really good 50 years later. They also looked like they were having a great time on stage as well as they should have., These guys can still rock mixing English and Spanish tunes.

There's also diversity with Cesar Rosas and David Hidalgo both taking lead vocals as well as having runs at lead guitar, though Hidalgo took the lion's share. Nor did they just simply run through hits or fan favorites. They closed with their left of center take on "La Bamba, "Stoned Bamba," a slowed-down version of the song with a "Like a Rolling Stone" riffs. Time went fast with Los Lobos on stage.

Strings wasn't the only bluegrass band on the bill. While they both go old school, The Earls of Leicester area a traditional bluegrass band paying homage to Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. In fact, Dobro player supreme Jerry Douglas said they were rep-l9icating Flagg & Scruggs 1967/8 set from Newport Folk Festival.

These guys can flat out play and sing. Decked out in suits, white shirts, string ties and matching cream-colored hats, lead singer Shawn Camp was one of the best singers heard all weekend. Fiddle player Johnny Warren and banjo man Charlie Cushman were particular standouts. The Earls would often gather around the mike going in and out while doing their part. Their dedication to the bluegrass music and legends of yesteryear it commendable.

For those attending the Folk Family Revue featuring Robert Ellis, Beau Bedford and Phil Cook, this was the perfect antidote to the heavy set of Del Rey. They may have played songs from decades ago (1973 releases to be exact) – Elton John's "Crocodile Rock," the Doobie Brothers' "Long Train Runnin'" and Gladys Knight and the Pips' "Midnight Train to Georgia" – but these songs have lasting power among various generations at the fest. A particular highlight was Deer Tick's John McCauley serving up his own excellent take on Jim Croce's "Bad Bad Leroy Brown."

Unlike Friday when the heat was challenging for artists and fans, this was a day to spread one's musical wings. Not so hard to accomplish when only the music was hot.

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