Folk On! – Newport Folk Festival 2021

Live music made a comeback this year in a very special way. A family reunion called FOLK ON!, which took place July 23-28th in Newport, RI.

After the past year and a half, there was nothing like seeing and hearing live music again, not to mention the human and emotional interaction between the artists and the fans. It was something I know many of us have been desperately craving and it finally happened, thanks to Jay Sweet, the Executive Producer/Director of Newport Folk & Jazz, and the entire “folk family”—the dedicated staff, the artists, and the fans.

“There’s so much to process about what happened over the last few weeks. I wish I could have personally hugged and high-fived every fan and every artist who put their trust in FOLK ON. The music was raw, real and much needed nourishment for the soul,” explained Sweet on Instagram, and I couldn’t agree more.

Sweet and the festival organizers took abundant precautionary measures this year, including a reduced attendance, fewer stages, and health protocols for Covid-19, to make it happen safely. And it was more than appreciated. It was a homecoming of sorts for all of us. Seeing old friends, smiling, dancing, singing and sometimes just a little bit of crying.   

Sweet teared up as he welcomed Tommy Prine on stage, accompanied by Nathaniel Rateliff and a large group of artists, to pay tribute to Tommy’s father, John Prine. “We lost a very special member of our ‘folk family’ last year to due to Covid,” explained Sweet, “and we couldn’t think of a better way to honor him than by inviting everyone that knew and loved him up on the stage right now to perform.” I’m tearing up again just thinking about it. Thinking about John Prine and everyone we lost last year and into this year. It really struck a chord for all of us. 

But the tears didn’t last long. Between the joyous and upbeat sounds of the Resistance Revival Chorus, the guitar slaying of Celisse Henderson, the funk and soul of Marcus King, the tremendous vocals of Grace Potter, the virtuoso talent of Andrew Bird along with southern swing revivalist Jimbo Mathus, and the seemingly effortless finger picking of Billy Strings channeling Doc Watson, euphoria was all around. There was so much incredible talent this year and so many highlights (the festival was spread out over six days, but I only saw half of it).

Some newer artists to keep an eye (and ear) out for from Day 1-3: Joy Oladokun, heartfelt singer/songwriter; Yasmin Williams, an acoustic guitarist with an unorthodox yet remarkable style of playing; Yola, a powerhouse Grammy-nominated Britpop singer with a second album coming out; Devon Gilfillian, a soul singer with some amazing renditions of Marvin Gaye’s classic “What’s Going On” record; and last but not least, the remarkable closing set on Sunday evening with Nashville based singer/songwriter/producer, Allison Russell.

Sunday’s closing set, called Allison Russell’s “Once and Future Sounds: Roots and Revolution” set, was dedicated to celebrating women and showcasing women of diversity in the spirit of inclusion, joy, and unity. As Russell introduced each performer before coming on stage, she invited them to come “into the circle” to perform and then remain on stage as part of the celebration. Each artist came out playing their chosen songs of hope, pain, determination, and strength and it was incredibly inspiring. Brandi Carlile was a surprise guest, returning to Newport again after 2019, and then Russell’s grand finale was the queen of disco/soul herself, the one and only Chaka Khan. She sang two songs, “Ain’t Nobody” followed by her 1978 hit, “I’m Every Woman” which became a joyous anthem for the performers and the audience as they sang along, and a perfect closer for Sunday night. I still can’t get that moment out of my head or my heart. It was truly epic all around.

My weekend sadly had to end but, the festival continued for another three days into the week and then Newport Jazz Fest the following weekend. It was a different format this year due to Covid, splitting the event into two parts to keep the attendance lower but, honestly, I think it made the whole experience feel a bit more intimate. Fresh sea air, delicious food, friendly faces, and incredible live music, it was the perfect long-awaited first-time back to live music and a festival.

Newport, RI, is the home of what many consider the oldest music festival in the US, called the First Annual American Jazz Festival back in 1954, and then Newport Folk in 1959 (even predating Woodstock) so it seemed fitting that Newport would also be the first festival to open back up again after such a long hiatus due to the pandemic. Keep your eyes and ears peeled for next year’s 2022 July dates at newportfolk.org.

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